Freedom in the Med…Amazing Amalfi

Wow…Our last port.  Tomorrow we have a sea day and then back to Barcelona to fly home.  This was the port I had done the least amount of research on.  I mean, Pompeii was obviously on the list but really what else is there?  Turns out…Plenty!

Now, ask anyone about the Amalfi Coast and instantly they will gush over the beauty, the seascapes, the amazing views.  Almost all the same things people say about Santorini.  And if you remember last year when I visited Santorini, I likened it to a Supermodel…Beautiful, but not a lot of substance.

I had once again booked with Italy Tour Sharing and since we had had two previous good tours, I anticipated nothing less for this one.  And after a TINY bit of confusion at the start, it was just as good.

The website advertises starting at Pompeii then hitting Sorrento and Positano.  Our driver asked if we minded doing it in reverse, Positano, Sorrento then Pompeii last.  That would mean that the long part of the drive was in the beginning to Positano and we would work our way back to Pompeii which is closest to the port.  We agreed which had its ups and downs…I’ll get to them.

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Driving along the Amalfi coast is nothing short of incredible.  Although if you ask my mom, she might say it was more terrifying than amazing!  She doesn’t like roads on the edge of a cliff for some reason…weird, right?

And while we all agreed that we would happily live here, none of us actually wanted to drive around.

We stopped a couple of times for pictures but eventually made it to Positano.  And if the roads were bad along the way, they were nothing compared to what was actually in Positano.  Fortunately, after a bit they no longer allow cars in town so all the roads are pedestrian.  And beautiful!

The town is, for fairly obvious reasons, dedicated to the sea.  I mean, its clearly easier to get here by boat than by car so everything revolves around the ocean.

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The artwork on the streets pay tribute to the sea as well.

 

And I’m sure you are aware of how much I love the ocean!  Its as if this town was made for me!! Oh! Wait!

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They are already holding a spot for me!!!

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So after making it down to the docks, we now had to get back up to the van to move on to Sorrento.  No easy task, that.

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The car park is up by that orange building…the one WAY UP THERE!!  I mean, its paved and more a series of cutback ramps rather than stairs, but still!  At any rate, we made it, piled back into the van and headed to Sorrento.

We really did not do much in Sorrento, a little shopping and lunch.  Now if you know us at all, you know how we feel about food.  And our driver had mentioned that Sorrento was famous for two things: gnocchi and limoncello.   Well, it was a bit hot for me to indulge in the famously rich pasta puffs, but hey!  Limoncello is served icy cold, right?  Well, I still don’t know for sure because I didn’t order any, but I didn’t order any gnocchi either so I was a miss on all Sorrentean specialties.

I did buy a beautiful bottle of limoncello to bring back with me, and I can confirm that it is fantastic chilled.  It is also fantastic made into a limoncello granita and served after a Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes…but that might have to be another post!

We also realized that Sorrento has a soccer team!  With jersey’s and everything!!!  And since it was our goal to purchase a jersey in every port, we were thrilled!  We still got a Napoli jersey too, but the small teams are so cool to represent, we had to buy one of those too.

That church is called Chiesa di San Francesco.  And check out the streets…see any resemblance??

Overall, we enjoyed Sorrento very much.  Up next, Pompeii.  I have probably 200 pictures of Pompeii alone, you know I have a thing for ruins.  I will try to pick a just a few to give you the impression.  Here is where doing Pompeii late in the day, on the way back to port becomes an issue.  You see, while we did avoid the traffic coming back from Positano, we could not avoid the afternoon sun.

And it was HOT!  So hot I kept checking the volcano just to make sure we were not about to meet our own ashy end.   And while those trees are beautiful and green and shady, they are behind the fences and inaccessible to us poor, blistering tourists.

But there is no doubt the sheer awesomeness of this town, and to think it was gone in a day.  The treasures that remain, from artwork to fast food stands to complete corpses, are genius and beautiful and a tragedy.

 

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And soon enough it was time to meet mom (who decided a/c and a cool beverage beat wandering around active volcano sites in July) and the driver back at the entrance.  Yep, time for me to read a map!  Can anyone guess what happened next?  Yep.  We got lost. And while I usually love getting lost in a new town, Pompeii isn’t really new.  We did finally find our way out, by way of a water vendor, and we were all relived to finally see the spot we were to meet the van and mom.

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Ah Bliss!  Or air conditioning and refrigeration if you’re being technical but they’re basically the same thing, right?  We made it back to the ship in plenty of time, even after stopping to get our Napoli jerseys and headed on board.

Up next, our final sea day.  And Chef’s Table!!!  You know how much I love Chef’s Table!!  And this one has a new menu and wines and presentation, and location.  Stay Tuned!

 

 

 

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Freedom in the Med…All Roads Lead to Rome

Our next stop is Rome.  I had booked a private tour with Italy Tour Sharing again.  And just as in Florence, they were right on time ready to go when we got off the ship.  And of course, as the saying goes, “All roads lead to Rome.”  What they don’t mention, is that all of those roads are packed with other people trying to get to Rome, also Rome is about an hour and fifteen minutes from the port area, so be prepared for that as well.

Once in Rome, we first stopped at the Januculum Terrace for some amazing views of Rome laid out before us.

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This is also the site of Il Fontanone (the Big Fountain) built in 1612 and continuously in use ever since.  The most interesting part of this fountain (to me) is its ability to turn wine into water…yep you read that right.  The opposite of the great miracle.  You see, Pope Paul V, who built this fountain, raised the funds by imposing a tax on wine.  Needless to say, this caused a bit of consternation to everyone that didn’t actually need the clean water provided by this fountain.  Still, it is pretty.

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And just in case you were wondering, yes it was still hot.  See that amazing blue cloudless sky…HOT!

We next moved on to the remains of the Roman Forum.  If you’ve read any of my previous reports, especially Athens or Ephesus, you know how much I love this stuff!

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This is actually the first real example of Urban Sprawl as this area was developed piecemeal over several centuries.  Some of the excavated buildings date back over 2000 years!

Our next stop was Capitoline Hill.  One of the seven hills of Rome.  This one has some really old stuff but it is most famous for its designer, Michelangelo.  He had a plan for an Urban design that showcased palaces surrounding a piazza meant to impress the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  There are many famous statues around the piazza, including one of Romulus and Remus with their “foster mom,” but my personal favorite was this one:

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I loved how the base was made to look like patchwork, almost as if they had to scrap together the materials to finish.

Our next stop was the Alter of the Fatherland.  Basically their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as it is meant as a tribute to fallen soldiers.  It is a MASSIVE tribute too!

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It is imposing and beautiful and solemn and all of the things a war memorial should be.  Considering that this is in the middle of the city, I was amazed at how quiet this area felt.

After marveling at this incredible monument, it was back in the van for a short trip to another old, crumbling monument…you may have heard of this one.

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Yep.  The Colosseum.  The largest amphitheater ever built. And of course you cannot be in Rome and not stop here for a look.  We did not have a tour of the interior scheduled for this trip.  Fortunately, we paid our pennies at Trevi Fountain so we will catch the inside on a future return trip.  In addition, there is currently restoration plans going on for the floor and underground areas…that might be worth waiting for!

One thing you will certainly see if you are anywhere near this area, is people. Lots and lots of people.  And Gladiators.  There are hundreds of gladiators wandering around just waiting for you to take a picture with them.

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And as this is the parade route taken by triumphant Roman emperors, it seems appropriate that you can have a photo with your very own gladiator.  Just like they did in Ancient Rome!  This arch was build in 312 AD to celebrate Constantine, but the engravings on the arch actually celebrate the victories of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius as well as Constantine.

We wandered this area of Rome for a while but then it was off to ensure our return visit to Rome…the Trevi Fountain!

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And boy if you thought the Colosseum area was crowded…just wait until you try to jam 7 bazillion people in front of this fountain.  I mean, its pretty big as fountains go, but holy sardines, its crowded.  It is also one of the most profitable fountains in the world, thanks to that quaint little urban legend about throwing coins over your left shoulder ensuring your return to the city.  Thanks to Frank Sinatra, this little water feature pulls in nearly $1.5M a year.

Our next stop was the Spanish Steps.  These are…well…steps.  One Hundred and Thirty Five of them to be exact.

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Just as an FYI – Its still hot.  And I’m not climbing 135 steps in this heat.  About the most exciting thing that happened here was Jarod getting accosted by a gypsy for standing too near her stuff…really, we were just trying to find shade!

Moving on…(Rome has way more to see than you can do in a day, so you gotta move quickly!)…we headed for another really old building, the Pantheon.  This building has been continuously in use since 126 BC after the previous one, built 150 years earlier by Marcus Agrippa, burnt down.

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The inside is a large domed chamber that was unique in Roman architecture at the time.  Now simply everyone is doing them!

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It is beautiful, and since it is now a church, pretty quiet.  There are some pretty famous folks buried there, Raphael the painter for one.  Neat little trivia fact about that, Raphael was engaged to the niece of a powerful cardinal but he did not want to marry her as he was in love with the daughter of a local baker so he kept postponing the wedding. He postponed his nuptials so long, the girl died and was buried in the cella.  When Raphael died not long after, the Cardinal ordered him buried there so he would spend all of eternity with his niece.  Downright Scandalous!

Believe it or not, it was now only lunchtime!  I tell you, we were hustling!  I will also say, there would be no way to do this without a local guide.  We booked THIS tour and while we went in a different order, we saw everything on this list and made it back to the ship on time.  I would highly recommend Italy Tour Sharing for any private or small group tours in Italy.

But back to eating…We were next headed to Piazza Navona so we decided to grab a bite there.  Touristy? Yes.  But the pizza was really good too!  We ended up eating at Vacanze Romane.  It was actually the first one we came to so I don’t know that there was any great decision making going on…we were hungry and they had a big table outside ready and waiting.  I believe everyone got pizza and of course I got an Aperol Spritz…After all this heat in Italy, I totally understand why everyone drinks this!

The centerpiece of this square is the the three fountains that run the length of the square.  Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune Fountain) and Fontana del Moro (Moor Fountain) at either end and the main attraction, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers).

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The design of this fountain was originally awarded to Borromini, but was ultimately designed by his most hated rival Bernini.  Borromini did, however, design the Sant’Agnese in Agone – the church that lines one side of the Piazza.  Local legend has it that the two sculptors hated each other so much that the Nile figure on Bernini’s fountain was actually shielding his eyes from the ugliness of the facade of Borromini’s church.  And while in truth this is not the case, it does make for a fun story!

After lunch and a walk around the fountains we needed a little treat and as the saying goes “When in Rome…” We found a gelato shop and sampled until we decided on flavors to take out with us.  And we would need fortifying…we were headed for St. Peter’s Basilica.

In truth, for this I have no words.  It is awesome and there is no way any pictures I took can do any justice to the reality of standing in front of the largest church in the world.

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See how tiny the people are standing in line at the doors of the church?  The scale is immense.

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The obelisk at the center of St. Peter’s Square has certainly had its history.  Originally found in Heliopolis in Egypt, the Emperor Augustus  had it moved to Alexandria (also Egypt, not the one in Virginia) where it stood until 37 AD when Caligula transferred it to Rome.  It was placed along the Circus of Nero where it would preside over Nero’s brutal games and executions.  It was moved to its current location in 1586 and it is now the only Roman obelisk to never have been toppled.

We spent some time wandering around St. Peter’s square, but in truth, we were all so tired after the pace of the tour, that we were grateful for the hour long ride back to the ship.

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We have one more stop in Italy.  The one I had researched the least but the one that turned out to be my favorite in Italy.  Naples.

Freedom in the Med…Fabulous Florence

So now we are leaving France and heading around to Italy.  Our first stop is Florence, well Livorno…no, La Spezia.  Confusing, I know.  You see, when we originally booked this trip we were scheduled to port in Livorno.  I chose this sailing because it was the only one that listed Livorno as the port.  It is closer to Pisa and Florence and from what I had heard, just an easier port to deal with.  However, as we got closer, Royal Caribbean emailed me with the change to La Spezia.  Disappointed? Yep.  Especially since I had already booked my tours from Livorno, but what can you do?

Speaking of tours I had booked…I had made reservations for tours in all three Italian ports through the same tour company, Italy Tour Sharing.  Their website is super easy to navigate, and you can search for a group that has already been formed, or you can start your own group and make it available for others to join to bring down the price, which is what I did.

In Florence, I booked the full day Pisa & Florence tour.  We had 5 people in our group, and I opened it up to 8 people total.  Eventually, one other couple did join us and they were lovely!  Each party is a separate reservation though so you are not on the hook if these people that you don’t know are no shows.

We were met at the port by our driver who had a sign with my name on it.  We all loaded into his Air Conditioned minivan and started the trek towards Pisa.  Our driver kept up a running commentary about what we were seeing and answered any and all questions in excellent English.

A note about Pisa…there is no shade. None. And it was Hot. But…it is absolutely a must see at least once.

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See how pretty!!  And just look at that cloudless sky!  We were already toasty warm and it was only like 10am by this point!

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The one thing I will tell you about Pisa…if you have to go potty…use the restrooms here.  You have to pay like 2 Euros each, but they are clean and stocked!

Back into the van, we headed towards Florence…again, an hour away.   But once again our driver was chatty and informative.  He pointed out the hills where the famous white marble is mined.  The same mine that supplied the marble for possibly the most famous statue in all the world, David by Michelangelo.  Here is the mine:

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See?  At the top?  That is marble, not snow!  Our driver estimated that the marble would run out in just over 200 years if the current rate of mining was maintained so you better get your orders in now.

Our next stop was an amazing look out terrace that gave us the full view of Florence at our feet.  It was incredible.

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We had a great view of the Roman wall that withstood the siege of Henry 4 for 10 days in 1082!!!

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Next, we headed into the city to explore.  Here is where having people other than your family on the tour can be really cool…the awesome couple that I mentioned above?  They asked if we would mind stopping to see the Great Synagogue of Florence.  Of course we said yes…we had not even looked at it as someplace to see but hey, why not?

And boy, it is impressive!!

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We did not go inside, but it is apparently amazing.  This was something that was not even on our radar, but because of the new folks in our group we saw a truly impressive building.

Then, we split up to see different things with a set meeting time and place.  For us, well you know us…we went to eat!

Our driver recommended a place called Trattoria Le Antiche Carrozze. This place is a gem!  Good food, cold wine, really cute place!  I think we all got pizza and it was fantastic!  The prices were reasonable too!

After lunch we wandered around Florence, in the general direction of Ponte Vecchio.  We walked through Piazzale degli Uffizi:

Stopped to see the Santa Maria del Fiore:

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Stopped for a rest in Piazza della Signoria:

And finally made it to the most famous bridge in Florence.  While everyone should totally see this in person, its pretty crowded actually inside the bridge and as I may have mentioned before, it was hot so we were content to just see the bridge, then go find gelato!

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We headed back to our assigned meeting spot, found some yummy gelato and of course rubbed the nose of the Fontana del Porcellino to ensure our return to Florence.

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We all then gratefully piled back into the van, where our driver handed out water and blasted the air conditioning for the ride back to the ship.

I am always nervous when I use a new tour company, but Italy Tour Sharing was off to a good start!  If our tours in Rome and Naples were on par with this one, we would be good to go!

We made it back to the ship in plenty of time and enjoyed our dinner in the Main Dining Room then headed off to bed…Another long day of touring tomorrow…IN ROME!!

Freedom in the Mediterranean….Anchors Aweigh! Away? A-weigh? Well, We’re Off!

The one with the phone…

Yay!! Its time to board the Freedom of the Seas!!  I have loved, loved, loved my time in Barcelona and I will definitely be back but now its time to cruise!

I had worked with my AirBNB host to get a taxi that would fit us and all of our luggage to get us to the port.  I had no idea who he called (this is important later on!) but the taxi was right on time and we checked out of the apartment and headed to the port.

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I had all of our documents printed out and ready to go, had everyone’s passport, put luggage tags on everyone’s suitcases to ensure that they all made it to the correct cabin.  Should be smooth sailing right on to the ship and ready to sail!  Nope. That is not at all how it happened.  You see, one of my children left his phone in the taxi and didn’t realize it until the taxi had driven off and we were turning in our luggage.

Remember how I said I had no idea what taxi company our host had used??  This is where that little tidbit becomes pretty darn important.  Also important is the international roaming plan I had added to my cell phone before leaving…FOR JUST SUCH AN EMERGENCY!!  AT&T has a $10/day plan that you only pay for if you use.  Well, I used it.  I called our AirBNB host and tried to ask him what cab company he used but it quickly became apparent that his English is limited to email (via Google Translate…I do it too…don’t judge!) and my Spanish is limited to food.

Fortunately I was able to find a port employee that was willing to help.  She explained the situation, let me know that the host was going to call and find the driver, answered the call when the host called back to tell me the driver was on his way back, and negotiated with the driver when he wanted to charge me 30€ for bringing the phone back.  Now I get that he did give up his place in line for a new fare to come back, and I already had 10€ in my hand ready to give him for his trouble but 30€ seemed excessive to me.  Apparently to my translator as well because they got into an argument about it and I ended up paying him 20€ all said and done.

Now with age, comes wisdom (What? Don’t laugh!) plus the fact that I tend to be a go with the flow kind of person once I am actually on vacation (yes, I know I am an obsessive planner leading up to vacation, but that way I can relax once I’m there.) so I was able to laugh about it pretty quickly after we knew the phone was on its way back to us.  My child, however, is still kind of salty about it so that is why I waited three months to write about it! Moving on…

After a fairly easy check in, we stopped and bought six bottles of wine and headed on board.  I may be pretty laid back about this whole situation, but I was certainly ready for a drink!

Our cabin was ready right on time, which is good considering I had six bottles of wine that I was carrying around! Sail away was fun and we were off, headed to our first port of call, Marseille.  That night, we had dinner at Chops, the steakhouse.  It was awesome as always!

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I know this post has been mostly my ramblings but I promise that there are really good port pictures coming soon!! Which ports you ask?  Well I did forget to mention that.  We are hitting some big bucket list cities for me:

Marseille
Nice
Florence
Rome
Naples
One day at sea then back to Barcelona.  All in all an amazing trip!  Marseille is up next so stay tuned!

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!