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Tarragona – New for Cruisers

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The Catalan port city of Tarragona is a large shipping port which has been occupied since before the time that Romans settled (perhaps 5th Century BCE). The Azamara Quest docked at the end of a massive breakwater-pier-jetty that was well over a mile long. Taking the free shuttle bus into the center of the city (we usually walk), we passed the industrial port including mountains of coal, presumably stored there prior to shipping. It was an oddly beautiful sight. After passing the security gate of the port we traveled north along the Mediterranean before we got to the entrance to the walled city.

Between the old city and the sea are the ruins of the Roman Amphitheater. As in many other places much of the stone used in the arena was hauled away centuries ago to be used in other buildings. So much of what remains is a reconstruction. Interestingly within the amphitheater are the remains of two early Christian churches.

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Roman Amphitheater (photo by Donna)

The old city itself has two sets of walls – the Roman originals and more recent walls built by the British. Within the old city are narrow winding alleys with old foundations and much newer structures built on top. I suspect during the peak of the Summer tourist season, these alleys are packed with visitors, but our early November visit was busy enough so that the stores were open, but cool and quiet enough to make the visit very relaxing. We did not visit the archaeological museum just inside the walls, near the amphitheater, but it gets excellent reviews.

The Tarragona Cathedral is the largest in all Catalonia. Begun in the late 12th century, the major architecture is transitional between Romanesque and Gothic, but the interior is much more mixed with stunning chapels in many style including over-the-top Baroque. Perhaps the highlight of the visit was the cloister with orange trees and fountains.

We walked past the Placa de la Font near City Hall past the old Ramblas to the new Ramblas, where we walked a few blocks. It was a nice with interesting shopping and attractive restaurants, but definitely did not compare to the Ramblas in Barcelona.

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Shrine of the Barefoot Carmelite – Neogothic

Since Tarragona was a replacement port due to congestion in Barcelona, the ship tours mainly took passengers up to Barcelona where the ship was scheduled to arrive at 7pm. And if you haven’t been to Barcelona, you should definitely take a Barcelona tour. But Tarragona is definitely worth a nice walking tour in the old city.

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Ajaccio – Not so proud of Napoleon

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Sailing into the Gulf of Ajaccio the sun rose over impressive rows of mountains, like the rows of shark teeth. Dolphins were happy about our arrival. Large ships stir up the local fish giving predators such as dolphins a nice meal.

Ajaccio is the capital of the French ruled island and about one in four Corsicans live in the area near Ajaccio. Corsica is a large island with a sparse population of only one-third of a million, almost half of whom are not native to Corsica. The island has the highest mountains of any Mediterranean island and the rugged interior has the old medieval hilltop villages where the historic population lived, avoiding the dangerous and pirate-ridden coasts. Genoa ruled the island for much of the 500 years before 1755 when Pascal Paoli declared independence. Corsica was nominally a nation until the Genoese signed a treaty turning over the island they did not rule to France in 1768. By 1780, the French Army had turned back the rebels. In 1769 Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio. Among his other accomplishments, Napoleon ensured that Corsica did not regain its independence. That explains the local’s ambivalence to their most famous native son.

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As the birthplace of Napoleon, Ajaccio has more than its share of Napoleon statues, museums and historic markers which are popular with tourists. We took the Ajaccio city tour that included walking in the city and near the Iles Sanguinaires, three small scenic islands that provide a wonderful view with several of the Genoese towers that were constructed to protect the island from pirates. The entire island coast is dotted with these stone monuments. At the view point for the three island the water is calm and stunningly clear, allowing Donna to notice a small pink jellyfish floating below a pier. It was a bit cool, but if we ever stay there in the Summer the beaches would be wonderful, since pirates are no longer an issue.

After the islands and several monuments to Napolean in scenic parks and squares, we visited the Ajaccio cathedral where Napoleon was baptized. It is a small church that featured trompe l’oeil walls (3D painting used especially during the Baroque period) were meant to look like marble and other more expensive ornaments. The island has never been rich, even in the capital. The end of our tour was at Place Foch where there was a small but attractive farmer’s market.

The other popular tours offered from Ajaccio included a trip to the verdant Prunelli Gorges with long blue lakes and dramatic cliffs or the Vizzavona Pass with views of the Monte d’Or and rustic town of Bocognano. The setting of the Gulf of Ajaccio is wonderful, but the natural wonders of Corsica are even more dramatic as you explore the central mountains. Oh, well. Next time!

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Place DeGaulle (photo by Donna)

Palamos: Costa Brava

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Barcelona is one of the most popular cruise ports in the world with good reason. But the entire region of Catalonia has much to offer. Costa Brava (Wild Coast) north of Barcelona offers dramatic coastal views and cultural attractions. Palamos and Roses have recently attracted the cruise lines who want to spend a little more time in Catalonia.

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View of Palamos and Azamara Quest from Cap Gros

(See Comment about Catalonia unrest below.)

Palamos is situated on one of the longest stretches of beach in the area and it had that post-Summer resort feel. Many store and restaurants were closed and the beaches were sparsely populated. There were several excellent para-sailing athletes providing entertainment when we stopped for a drink after our long day.

The cruise lines offered tours focusing on Dali (the Dali Museum in Figueres or the Dali Castle plus some other hilltop towns and castles), food (Fish Museum in Palamos, a local farm tour, rice farms in Pais and a winery) and Girona, the historic regional capital of the area. We decided to do our own private tour and stayed in town. North of the beach is the old town built on a finger peninsula with narrow streets and a lovely church – Santa Maria del Mar. Traffic was light and sadly nearly all the stores were closed. I love traveling to places when they are quiet, but the downside is that stores and restaurants are often closed.

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Once we got to the north side of the peninsula we had a striking view of a large marina and Cap Gros, the next peninsula which looked like a challenging climb from a distance. At this point Donna and I discussed the difference between a walk and a hike. I had worn my hiking boots, so I was ready. Donna said she was only interested in a walk, not a hike. We continued. The area was residential with coastal apartments facing the water and large houses high on the rocks with paths down to tiny beaches. There was a large fancy campground on the slope of Cap Gros. The end of the peninsula was a park with striking views of Palamos to the south and more of Costa Brava to the north. This was when the hike started so Donna didn’t climb the last part of the hill and I got to see one of the area’s most popular beaches, Platja Fosca as well as Castell de la Fosca in the far distance. We had done the first part of a three hour hike along the rocky coast north of the city. If you are a hiker, this is a beautiful walk (or hike).

We walked back and had our drink on the beach and watched the para-sailing.

When we got back I heard from others that the Fish Museum tour was fascinating. They got to see the fish auction, here about the local catch and each some of the super-fresh product. For those who enjoy fish, sounds like a fun tour.

Away from the hustle of Barcelona, Palamos is a nice daytime stop for a cruise.

(Political turmoil in Catalonia: We visited Catalonia about 10 days after the elected leadership of the Community of Catalonia declared independence and the government of Spain responded by removing that leadership. It was not certain we would go there with the political uncertainty. Despite the dramatic events, there were no acts of violence by the rebels or the government, so our cruise made three stops in Catalonia – in Palamos, Tarragona and Barcelona. The only evidence we saw of the revolt were many flags waiving from windows and locals handing out leaflets at the ports. We did not see increased security anywhere. We did not spend much time in Barcelona, so we may have missed some stronger evidence of the troubles. Nonetheless, the Catalans seem to be maintaining a vocal, but peaceful stance. It is unclear from all that I have read if the rebels have the support of the majority in the region. Hopefully Catalonia will continue to remain peaceful.)

Cote d’Azur – Eze, Nice and Monaco

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What we call the French Riviera is called the Cote d’Azur in France. Near the eastern end of the region is the Principality of Monaco, which is about one square mile and ruled by Prince Albert II. The harbors along this area of France are small, so cruise ships have a challenge docking. Monaco has a small terminal where we docked. Our tour ran from 9am to 6pm first visiting the eagle’s nest village of Eze, and the regional capital of Nice before returning to Monaco.

One of the attractions of the area is the dramatic geography with the Southern Alps which rising precipitously from the Mediterranean coast and with rocky peninsulas jutting out protecting small bays.

Going along the middle corniche (road parallel to the coast) you arrive at the entrance to Eze. This is similar to town of Les Baux des Provence which we visited in May during our Rhone cruise. Only Eze overlooks the sea. It is a tiny medieval stone village topped with the ruins of a fortress. There are two five-star hotels along with shops and cafés along the steep and narrow pedestrian. We were lucky to have cool weather! The highest point is an arid cactus garden that has a 6 Euro admittance. I think it was worth it because of the incredible views of the coast and the garden. Our guide did not mention that Walt Disney was a big fan of Eze. The pictures will tell you why.

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Driving to Nice still on the middle corniche, you pass above the port of Villefranche-sur-Mer, which is where the larger ships dock in the area. Passengers tender in because they have not built a dock. There are two more small peninsulas before reaching Nice and between those is the tiny Nice harbor were only a few of the smallest cruise ships dock. The last peninsula is called Castle Hill (Colline du Chateau) where the city was first established and where Elton John owns a house. Unlike the rest of the area Nice sits on a large coastal plane. The old city is in the morning shadow of Castle Hill up to an old riverbed which has recently been converted to a series of parks. Beyond the parks is the new city where rich English started to vacation starting in the 18th Century. Here you will find the English Promenade and classic Nice hotels, such as the ornate Negresco Hotel. Across the promenade is the rocky beach. (Security has been added with strong posts preventing vehicles from driving down the promenade and French military patrolling regularly.} After driving along this area we headed back to the old town to Massena Square which served as our meeting point after free time exploring the old town, the flower market and the beach along United States Quay (in honor of American efforts during World War II). The flower market was beautiful. I had a lovely Baguette, Brie and Ham sandwich in the Old Town.

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Driving back we traveling along the coast and got a closer look at Villefranche-sur-Mer and Beaulieu-sur-Mer, where Bono has a beach home.  Between the two beach towns is the exclusive Cap Ferrat (peninsula) where the Rolling Stones recorded Exile on Main Street and took a lot of drugs. The only mansion that is open to the public is Villa which houses a Rothschild art collection.

In the afternoon we returned to Monaco. I confess that I am not particularly interested in the tax haven principality. But I admit it’s a personal issue. There are interesting things to see there. We parked in a garage below The Rock (Old Monaco) where the Monaco Palace and Cathedral are located. Taking two escalators and an elevator, we found ourselves next to the famous Monaco Oceanographic Museum (once managed by Jacques Cousteau). Walking to the top of the Rock, we passed the houses of Princess Caroline and Stephanie before reaching a small square with the also small cathedral and the Monaco court. Between the court and the palace square is a network of narrow lanes with nice shopping and restaurants. The large palace square offers stunning views of the city.

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Then we walked back to the bus and rode to Monte Carlo part of the way along the Grand Prix route. It was a bit surprising to see a kid’s carnival with fun houses and rides occupying the spot where the grandstands for the race will be. We parked in an underground garage and walked to the Casino along the hairpin turn that is part of the Grand Prix route. There was not much going on at the Casino at 5pm in the afternoon. I did not go in but wandered the area seeing designer boutiques and small urban parks. Monaco was about what I expected – densely populated and very clean.

This was our cruise line tour with all the plusses and minuses that go with that. It was nice to see such a wide variety of places and to have an expert guide.