Freedom in the Mediterranean…More Barcelona!

For our last full day in Barcelona, I had scheduled two tours through Viator.  First a guided tour of Sagrada Familia in the morning, then a Flamenco Show at Tablao Cordobes in the evening.  Believe it or not, this was my first time scheduling through Viator, I usually book directly through the tour company.  Here is why I didn’t this time…Paying in US Dollars as opposed to Euros.  Booking directly through a tour company usually  means you pay in cash on the day of the tour, in Euro’s.  I am not opposed to doing that usually, but with five people on the trip, that’s a lot of cash to haul around every day.  So booking on Viator means both that I could pay ahead of time and that I could pay in US dollars.  Then, I just have to remember my vouchers…this is never been a certainly so I really like that I can just show them on my phone!  So first up? A guided tour of Sagrada Familia through Viator.

Our only hiccup of the morning came when I was asked to read a map to get us to the Julia Travel office to begin the tour.  I’m not sure if I have mentioned this but I am TERRIBLE with maps.  I am good at following directions, but if I have to navigate via map?  Well, lets just say it’s lucky I like to wander!

Fortunately, I am aware of this adorable trait so I always leave super early to  account for the fact that I am most certainly going to get lost so we were not late for our check-in.  We met our tour guide, and after a bit of confusion (one party thought that they had signed up for the tour in a different language) we were on our way to the famous church.  This is one of the most important tourist sites in Barcelona, perhaps in Spain, so there are a lot of people there.  Always.  All around.  And vendors.  Everywhere.

But thanks to our “Skip the Line” tickets, we breezed right in, got our tour guise boxes and headphones and headed in the gate.  We began our tour at the Passion Façade on the west side of the church.  Meant to symbolize the Passion of Christ, this façade is very severe and angular.

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We learned where Gaudi even managed to get himself into the scene (He’s the old man beside the knights on the first level!).

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We then moved inside.  I have no words for how awesome the inside of this church is when you first walk in.  Gaudi wanted to use light as well as architecture in his design.  I’d say he succeeded pretty spectacularly (also, kudos to my son for snapping this picture with his iPhone!!).

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The interior is meant to mimic nature so the columns look like trees that branch out at the top; the stained glass is colored so that as the sun moves around the church, different colors shine through; there really are no flat surfaces anywhere in the interior (except the floor of course!).

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Then we moved back outside to the other side, called the Nativity Façade.  This façade is meant to celebrate the birth of Christ.  It is typically Gaudi though, his naturalistic style can be seen throughout with animals and trees interspersed liberally in the design.  This facade is the complete opposite of the stark west side, Passion Façade.

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The Glory Façade, which will, by all accounts, be the largest and most striking façade  is still under construction and covered by scaffolding and tarps.  This will be the primary entrance to the church and is meant to represent the Path to God.

The church is scheduled to open in 2026…exactly 100 years after Antonio Gaudi’s death and I, for one, can’t wait to see it!

Our tour ended in a small building next to the west façade that Gaudi used as an office, and was also used as a school house for local children.  Pro Tip:  This is the ONLY air-conditioning on the grounds…since temps were in the upper 90’s our entire trip you can imagine how popular this little two room building was!

That night, we also had tickets to a Flamenco show at Tablao Flamenco Cordobes.  With Viator, I had the option of just buying tickets for the show, buying tickets for the show + a drink, or the show + a drink + dinner.  Since we all know I am a firm believer in prepaying for my alcohol, I chose the show+drink ticket.  I really vacillated about adding dinner, but ultimately I did not…and boy am I glad (but we’ll get to that later!).

We were ushered into the seating area, and I immediately realized that one benefit to eating dinner there was procuring front row seats to the show as they were all already taken and we were only the second family seated.  We were all handed our drinks…Sangria obviously, and the show began.

These people are crazy talented.  The dancers and singers alike.  The energy they put out, night after night, several times a night is unbelievable.

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The above shot is a good view of what the room looked like.  A Tablao is the wooden stage where the singers and dancers perform.  Overall I think we all really liked the show, but now we were hungry!!

We decided to just walk along La Rambla since we were already there.  We knew that the restaurants there are more touristy, but we were hungry so we were just really looking for someplace with no wait.  We made it approximately one block to a place called Ultramarinos.

So from a street view perspective, it looked fun and the menu had enough variety to ensure that no one would go hungry.  Plus, they could seat a party of five immediately, which was when we wanted to be seated!

I chose my dinner exclusively from the Tapas section.  I have decided that tapas is the greatest way to eat ever.  Period.  Picking five or six “little plates” allows me to taste a bunch of different items and since I have issues making decisions at restaurants, this is genius.  Jarod and Carly both got Paella (different kinds), Tyler got a burger (I know, I know.) and Mom got  (I think) a chicken sandwich…maybe?  At that point I was so in love with my food she could have gotten Krabbie Patties and I wouldn’t have noticed.  But everyone enjoyed their food immensely no matter what they got.   So if you find yourself hungry on La Rambla, head to Ultramarinos.  Is it kitchy?  Yep.  But it is good food and fun so I would definitely head there again.

Next up, we FINALLY board the ship and head off on to France!!  Plus dinner at Chops!

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Conquest in the Caribbean…4

Ah, Sea Days.  For some people, it is the best part of the cruise; some people would be happy to have none.  I like them just fine.  Sailing along in the middle of the ocean with nothing to do but relax, have some cocktails, soak up the sun.  If you love them or if you don’t, it still beats a day at work!

First up, Sea Day Brunch.  Among Carnival regulars, there are some pretty famous staples on this menu: the Funnest French Toast for one, and of course the Bloody Mary Bar!  However, I chose the Steak & Eggs…I mean, Bearnaise!  My general rule is if something comes with Bearnaise, I order it.  This rule has never let me down, and it didn’t today either!  The filet was perfectly cooked, the eggs were okay and the Bearnaise was awesome!!!  I really don’t even remember what everyone else had, mine was that good.  Thusly fortified, we were ready to begin the serious business of relaxing.

Even though it was January, we were in the Caribbean so the sun seekers were out in full force.  Chairs around the pool were at a premium…BUT!! Chairs around the bar were plentiful and it was nice and quiet in the adults only aft pool.  Extra bonus: my bartender from the Steakhouse last night works days at the aft pool bar…Yay! Javorka!!

Mom eventually found me although she popped in and out in between trivia, but for the bulk of the day, I sat and read my Kindle and really just relaxed.  As a single mom, that doesn’t happen often!

Eventually, I headed back to my cabin to get ready for dinner.  I had a very important mission this evening…discover the Alchemy Bar.

The Alchemy Bar is a specialized bar on some Carnival ships.  No beer, no wine, no frozen drinks.  But the bartenders are the best in the business and their specialty is matching a cocktail to your taste.  They are VERY good at their jobs!  It was here I met my other favorite bartender (its not weird that my favorite people are all bartenders, is it?).  Kat from Belarus.

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She won my heart when she made me this amazing Espresso Martini.  Yep, those are chocolate covered espresso beans on top!! It was love at first sip!  Needless to say, I spent a good deal of time here and in fact took the mixologist class which I will talk about later because tonight is CHEF’S TABLE!

I have loved Chef’s Table on every other ship that I’ve tried it on , so I was really excited to try it on the Conquest!  First up was a kitchen tour.  Since this a working kitchen during dinner service, the tour was quite interesting…and busy!  We finished by having champagne and small bites before making our way to the private dining room set up for us.

Once we got to our table, everyone had an assigned seat with a personalized menu.

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See those bread things at the top?  Those are blue cheese popovers…Those are amazing and if you ever get to a Carnival Chef’s Table, you should immediately sneeze on them or something so you get the whole tray!

We then worked our way down the menu.  At each course, the Chef would talk a bit about what we were eating.  The servers kept the wine glasses full, although there were only two choices, a white or a red.  On previous cruises, the Chef’s Table is also a wine tasting so there is a different wine with each course, but not on Carnival.  That’s okay, the food was pretty darn interesting on its own.

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Crab Stack
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Duck Textures
Crazy molecular gastronomy going on here!
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First time trying sweetbreads.
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As if there’s room for dessert!!

Needless to say, we barely rolled back to our cabin.  Overall, while I would have liked to have a wine pairing with each course, the food was amazing and I will certainly be doing the Chef’s Table dinner on Carnival again!

So next…I promise we did go places…really cool places I’d never been before!  I’ll tell you about them next!

 

Conquest in the Caribbean…3

The first night of the cruise we had made reservations at the Steakhouse restaurant, the Point.  We have had varying degrees of success with the same style restaurant at Royal Caribbean’s Chops steakhouse so I was interested to see how this compared.  Of course, Carnival sweetens the deal by offering a free bottle of wine if you book the first night…I know what you’re thinking: I have the drink package, I  don’t need a free bottle of wine.  Well you would be wrong.  Totally wrong!  That is, until I saw what wine they were offering as the free bottle…blech!  The other option Carnival offers is that you can purchase any bottle of wine on their list at 50% off…see!!  I still get my bottle of wine!!

The Point Steakhouse on the Conquest is on Deck 10.  I was there a bit earlier than our reservation or our dining companions so I sat down at the bar to wait.  This turned out to be a GREAT idea as this was where I met one of my favorite bartenders, Javorka (it only took me until day 3 to get her name right…sorry!!) from Serbia.  Javorka worked at the Steakhouse in the evening, but at the Serenity Pool Bar during the day so naturally I spent most of my days with her!!   But back to the Point…hehehe I mean the steakhouse.

We were seated promptly at a table by the window, since it was January, it was already dark outside by 7pm, but I am sure that the view would be spectacular at other times of the year.  My first thought after sitting down was…”Look at these plates!!!!”  I mean really…Look at them:

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They’re spectacular!  And everyone’s was different.  All of them pretty, but mine was the best!  For real, if I could have fit it in my purse, I would be eating dinner off this plate every night!

But now lets talk about what goes on the plate.  As an appetizer I chose the Escargots.  I love snails and cruise ships are the only place I know I can get them prepared well, and not crazy expensive!

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Escargot Two Ways

Moving on to the entrees, two of us had the Filet, one had lamb and one had the Tomahawk Ribeye.  All of the dishes were cooked perfectly, and served with three sauces for the table: Peppercorn, Wild Mushroom, and Bearnaise.   We also had an assortment of side dishes, served family style for all of us to share.

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9oz Filet Mignon
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Grilled Double Cut Lamb Chops
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18oz Rib Chop

If that didn’t fill you up, we still have dessert!!!  There is always room for dessert!!  I know one of us had the fresh fruit plate (well, its actually served in a martini glass but you get the idea), one of us had the cheesecake and I had the Chocolate Sampler.  I am not really a dessert person so I usually get samplers.

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Fresh Fruit Martini
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The Famous Cheesecake
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Chocolate Sampler

In addition, you can see my espresso and Frangelico in the background…I may not be a big dessert fan, but coffee and cordials are my jam!

Needless to say, after a meal like this, the best plan of action is to very carefully roll yourself into bed.  BUT!  See that little cup of caffeine?  Yep, I’m headed to the Casino!!!

Mom headed to bed like a normal human, but down to the casino I went where I managed to close the place down, then stumble back to my cabin and fall into my bed (sorry mom!).

Next, we were headed to Nassau.  I didn’t even get off the ship and spent most of the day chatting with Javorka at the Serenity Bar.  Pretty sure I was hoping some of that “Serenity” would seep into me after the night before!

Our next day was a sea day, so really more Serenity, but in my next post I will introduce you to my other favorite bartender and tell you all about the Chef’s Table experience.  Then, eventually, we do get to some ports!

Part 7 (Thessaloniki, Greece) – Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

Well, I am back from my Disney vacation and I will write more about that later, but let me tell you…I thought the Mediterranean in July was hot, it was NOTHING compared to Orlando in September!  But!  That’s a story for another day.  Onward and upward (or not) to Thessaloniki, Greece.

Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece.  Having just come from the largest city (Athens) I can tell you that it may indeed be the 2nd largest, but it is as different from Athens as night to day.

I had not planned anything in this port, and hindsight 20/20 I should have.  There are many cool things to see, just not super close to the port.

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Here is the Rhapsody docked at the port.  All those buildings on the dock area are shipping and industrial.  No shopping or eating.  I needed to find a pharmacy, which shouldn’t have been too difficult.  In Europe all of the pharmacies have big green plus signs out front so we walked along this front street for a while.  We could see the famous White Tower of Thessaloniki in the distance, but it was certainly not a walkable distance for us (maybe for me, but my family often accuses me of trying to walk them to death!).

Along the way, there were some cafes, most with outdoor seating which already had plenty of locals sitting with their coffee.  Also along the way, we were accosted by a man trying to get us to buy his bracelets by striking up a conversation with my son, then just putting the bracelet on his wrist.  This was the only time we encountered something like this on this trip.  I am used to it in the Caribbean, and in fact this man was Jamaican, but I had not come across it on this trip.  However, just like in the Caribbean, a very firm “NO!” sent him on his way.

We passed some very pretty areas:

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I loved this tree!  We still had not found a pharmacy though.  We finally cut through a square and low and behold we found what we were looking for…we also found that we had been passing the really cute shopping district nearly the whole time, we were just two blocks off it.  Huh…see why I should have done more research?  At any rate, after our quick stop, we decided to head back to the ship, but this time along the populated streets!

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See?? Cute stuff.  But, it was hot, really hot.  And, as you may have guessed from my frantic search for a pharmacy, I was not feeling my best so back to the ship and its glorious air conditioning we went.  Plus!  We have Chef’s Table dinner tonight!!!  My favorite! So I wanted to be well rested!

Here is a picture of the Port Authority building…pretty impressive but it could use some shops!!!

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Back on board and looking forward to my favorite meal of the whole trip!!  The Chef’s Table!

You may remember that I have done the Chef’s table before on other cruises and have LOVED it both times!  I knew from past cruisers that the menu was the same as my meal aboard the Enchantment, but that one was super yummy so I was happy to have it again!  Plus, the pairings were really good so I was not concerned at all…until I sat down and looked at the menu.

Yes, the menu was the same, but the wines were totally different.  And not in a good way.  I am all about trying new wines, in fact I have another blog I write that details my standard selection method of picking wine just by the cool looking label so I am all for trying new things.  And I will agree that dry rosès are all the rage right now.  But lets all agree that Berringer White Zinfandel is not one of these, can we? Please?

What was fantastic about this particular Chef’s Table was the company.  Some times you get a good crowd and some times you do not.  We dined with a family from Texas that was absolutely spectacular and I am so happy we got to meet them.  The food was still great, the Braised Short Rib Ravioli is still one of the best things I have ever eaten.  I will continue to attend Chef’s Table on every cruise I go on, hopefully these wines were a one off!

Up next?  Kusadasi, Turkey.  Another surprising port…in more ways than one!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

After missing one entire day in Venice, and with only my carry-on luggage available, I was still super excited for our Walking Tour of Venice scheduled for today.  This was a free walking tour and since OD and I had had such a great experience on our Free London Walking Tours, I was really looking forward to this one!

I used Venice Free Walking Tour.  It was a super easy sign up process, immediate email confirmation, and plenty of tour times to choose from.  One thing to remember…you will not tour St. Mark’s Square area at all.  These tours are designed to show you the non-touristy parts of Venice, which is why I take them.  I can find the big tourist attractions on my own.  I want to find cool places that aren’t totally packed, and we did as well as got some great pizza and learned about so much history along the way.

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Our tour guide was Giada (pronounced just like the Food Network star) and she has lived her whole life in Venice.  Our tour group was fairly diverse, young couples, old couples, families…a pretty good mix.  I would say that the youngest was maybe 9 years old and I wouldn’t even venture a guess at the oldest.  I will say this: Venice is not the city to visit if you have mobility issues.  The cobblestone “streets,” bridges, stairs, etc. do not make for easy walking.  The fact that there are no cars allowed on the island makes it seem like it might be pedestrian friendly…and it is, it is just not mobility friendly.  But if you are able to take a walking tour of Venice, you absolutely should!

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We learned quite a lot about the history and legends of Venice: Marco Polo, Casanova, the Lions, the origin of Carnival and the masks and many other cool tidbits!

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We visited a cute little bookstore that had this staircase made out of books!

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We found “interesting” restaurants and shops.

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We learned that you can tell the age of the buildings by the shape of the windows.

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We learned about the Gondolas and the meaning of the ferro (it represents the six neighborhoods in Venice and is in the shape of the Doge’s hat).  How long it takes to build a gondola (about three months), and how many gondoliers there are (424 men, 1 woman).

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And we learned that Venice has its own “Leaning Tower.” in fact there are several of them around the island.  I guess that is one of the dangers of building on such little islands.

In addition, Giada gave us some tips on choosing restaurants in Venice and, in one life changing moment, introduced me to a Venice staple:  Aperol Spritz.  Look it up, really.  Or, swing by my place around 5pm…I’m sure I will be pouring one (or two…alright three!).

After the tour, I wasted several hours going back and forth to the airport to see if our baggage had arrived (no!) and we then set out to find some dinner and Gelato.

We ended up at Ristorante Terrazza Del Casin Dei Nobili.  This restaurant is right along the Bay of Venice and has an amazing view.  I ordered Sea Bass and my first ever Aperol Spritz and both were amazing!  All in all, a great day…maybe luggage tomorrow??

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