No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Cruise 2009, part II

July 27
Ah Naples, the armpit of Italy. We had a lousy time there on our land trip of Italy (though nearby Pompeii is amazing), and a moderately pleasant time on the previous cruise. This was the tiebreak and Naples lost. Coming in to the city is quite pretty, as you pass the islands of Ischia and Procida. It’s relaxing to watch them slowly slide by as Vesuvius grows on the horizon.

Once in town, we tried to head for the Capella Sansevero. We had a Google Map I printed out before leaving LA, a map provided by the ship, and a map from the cruise terminal in Naples. They all only vaguely resembled each other, and mostly showed completely different points of interest, so calibrating one against the other was difficult. We chose to follow the one with the best detail. It got us in the right vicinity, but it was a strategic error to follow it. In hell, the Italians are the cartographers and run cruise lines.

However, in our lostness, we stumbled onto the Scavi San Lorenzo Maggiore. It’s a large church complex and they have done extensive excavations beneath it. The church now holds a museum that displays the artifacts dug up from under the building… items going back to the Greek city of Neapolis of the 6th century BC, through the Roman period and into the medieval era. There were several medieval tombs of knights, each topped with a carved image of the deceased resting his feet on his favorite hunting dogs. Perhaps the strangest display was the Walnut Bible. There were three huge display cases holding hundreds of walnut shells, and inside each shell was a little artwork depicting a scene or character from the Bible.

Once done with the museum, you can enter the archeological areas beneath the building, sort of an underground Pompeii with a few mosaic floors and painted plaster walls here and there. It’s quite a maze down there, enough old stone streets to get lost in. And there was nobody down there but us and a small film crew. On the plus side, it was delightfully cool down there. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but the temperatures have been extremely hot the whole time.

After reemerging to the surface, we looked at the evil map, which showed the Chapel Sansevero being one block north east of San Lorenzo Maggiore, so we figured this would be a snap. We went back, forth, over and around. No soap. Asked a local: she didn’t know it, nor did the shopowner she pulled into the discussion. All of this took place in narrow alleys in the old part of Naples, with Vespas and cars whizzing by. I went back to square one and switched to the Google Map. Google would never lead us astray! After identifying a few of the streets marked on the map, I determined that the Chapel was about 4 blocks away on the other side of San Lorenzo Maggiore. Argh! That allowed us to find it, though it still wasn’t easy. I swear there was one street that changed names four times in the space of two blocks. Another interesting thing we saw in one of the alleys was a tiny little construction crane on wheels that was remote controlled by an operator walking in front of it, making sure it cleared the buildings.

The Chapel Sansevero is definitely the kind of thing only an authentic wacko would build… in this case, Prince Raimondo di Sangro of Sansevero, a wealthy noble who skirted the line between alchemist and scientist. The main chapel has a couple doze white marble statues, many with somewhat unusual themes: a veiled woman (a not very modest Modesty) tearing apart a stone tablet marked with Eternal Peace. A man fighting out of a net (Release from Deception) – just imagine carving a net from marble! The central piece is a veiled Christ, which portrays a very lifelike lifeless (!) body under a thin veil, and the whole rests on a carpet of carved granite that also is very realistic. But the crème de la weird is in the side alcove down a small flight of steps: a pair of male & female anatomical figures, allegedly made by some alchemical process similar to plastination, so that you can see all the veins and arteries, as well as the bones. However, it seemed likely to me that it was actually more of an artwork than actuality. Experts agree. Nevertheless, they are still rather startling creations.

We had hoped to stroll toward the nice part of town we remembered from our last visit, but it kept not being around the next corner, or the next, or the next, we were getting cranky, particularly since it was 35 (i.e. 95 Fahrenheit). The neighborhood had gotten better. Instead of sidewalk cafes that were ringed by moving vespas and cars, the cafes were now surrounded by parked Vespas and cars. Still not very inviting. The heat and the feet cried surrender, so we headed back to the ship for a shower and a drink. Ok, two drinks. For me, a fine americano, and perhaps the best caipirinha I’ve ever had (sorry aaronjv).
The dinner report: mozzarella buffalo with vegetables, veggie soup, pasta with broad beans, quail, the cheese plate and strawberry mousse.

Jul 28
At last, our first official excursion run by the cruise, a bus trip to the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. The ship got into Palermo fairly early and we were to assemble at 8 to be pretty much the first people off the ship.
We boarded a bus with both the English and Spanish groups (one guide for each, alternating their monologues). Agrigento is on the south-facing side of Sicily, so our bus had a two-hour trip to cross the island (at a fairly narrow point). Francesco, our English guide, was fine, though his English was a little rough around the edges, but the Spanish guide, Giorgio, was one of those PERSONALITIES one finds in the travel world. Gregarious in at least four languages and able to talk nonstop for long periods about the scenery, the history, or whatever happens to be on his mind. Of course, he was speaking Spanish, but we could catch at least some of what he was saying. He talked about (I think) the origins of the Sicilian Mafia from aristocratic families that had formerly protected the citizens and were paid tribute, and they didn’t see why they should be cut out of that business by a national government. Giorgio also pointed out the hometown of Lucky Luciano, a Sicilian town known for sulfur mining.

Oh, it was also interesting that the ‘English’ speaking group consisted of us, two French Canadians, two French people, two Russians (?) and a Japanese family. We were the only native English speakers.

We saw a few sights driving through Palermo: opera houses [Pagliacci was scheduled for tonight] and theaters, some statues and other remnants of the Spanish control of Sicily. Once out of the city, we traveled through the rocky, hilly terrain of the interior, with cities in the plains, or perched on hilltops, with an occasional crusader-era castle protecting a town.

Eventually, the modern town of Agrigento came into view and we had a nice sneak peek at the Temple of Juno before it was again hidden. A few other glimpses of the archeological sites, and then we arrived. The temples are from the late 6th and mid 5th centuries BC, and a couple are remarkably well-preserved, despite (because?) they are made of sandstone blocks.
The best preserved temples are those of Juno Lacinia and (especially) the Temple of Concordia. Add a roof to the Concordia temple and it would be good as new. Part of the reason it’s so well preserved is that it was repurposed as a Christian church. Nearby were catacombs and burials from the early Christian era, some individual and some clustered together and overlapping. The main remnants of the Temple of Hercules are 8 standing columns. And sadly, there’s very little left of the Temple of Zeus, which was the largest Doric temple ever built (or almost built, as it was never completed). The reason not much is left is that the stones were later carted away to be used in building the harbor, so all its Lego pieces are underwater. But when it was there, it must have been impressive, it covers an area about the same as a football field. Bits of it are still there, and you can walk all over the area.

The guide pointed out U-shaped depressions in some of the stones, these are where ropes were used to hoist them into position by slave-powered cranes during the original construction of the temples.

Before leaving the site, we had a quick look at the area where the Sanctuary of the Chthonic Deities had been, as well as some standing columns that had been put together higgledy-piggledy from bits and pieces found around the site. Before the bus headed back, we had time for a quick lemon granite to help us cool off – it was pretty hot out there, and not much in the way of shade.

A very short drive brought us to lunch at a local tourist trap. I kid, but the restaurant clearly catered primarily to the tourist bus trade. And now my nightmare began… the cuisine of Siciliy, being an island, relies heavily on fish. Primo piatto: 3 thin slices of different fish, surmounted by a heap of wiggly tentacles and even less identifiable things. The wiggly stuff I swept aside, but I managed to eat some of the fish. The brownish one was the least fishy… I could almost pretend it was fishy prosciutto. I could eat it without visibly grimacing. The white fish was unpleasant, and the gooey pinkish one? I regret the single bite I took. Secondo piatto: Pasta. Yay, pasta! In tomato sauce… with tiny chunks of fish. Sigh. Terzo piatto: Stuffed fish skewers. It wasn’t very fishy, fortunately, and I survived eating one big chunk of it. dark_of_night marveled that I ate any fish at all, and commemorated the scene with a photo. It’s probably been many years since I’ve eaten any fish other than the occasional tuna. Guess what? I still don’t like it.

The restaurant also had strolling musicians in native dress: guitars, accordion, tambourine, wood flute. They pranced about annoying entertaining the guests. As they played, the Japanese father sat blankly with his eyes closed and a sour expression on his face. He looked like he would rather be somewhere else; either that, or he wished he could go on a samurai rampage and destroy their instruments.

But at the Spanish tourgroup table there was a one gentleman who really loved the music, and helped accent it with claps and played spoons. dark_of_night congratulated him on his musicality, but he had little English. However, his 10-year old daughter apparently was a whiz at English class at her school and spoke with a very enviable British accent. We chatted with her and her brother for a time.

A quick espresso and back to the bus for our trip back to the port. Some cleaning up after the excessive heat of the day followed by some aimless ship activities, and then to dinner: prosciutto, cauliflower soup (not as good as I hoped), beef tournedos (very nice indeed) and sort of a chocolate chip sundae for desert. I splurged on a pricier Barbaresco and was not disappointed.

July 29
There was some unpleasant run-around last night with the excursion in Tunis. We wanted to go see the ruins of Carthage and the Bardo Museum and had gotten tickets. Then, a message was left in the cabin after dinner that said to contact the tour office before 9. I looked at the clock, which read 8:55, and sprinted for the office. There I learned what was up: there weren’t enough people signed up for the English version of the excursion. Well, do you have Spanish? No. French? No. German? Yes. Ok, what the heck, let’s try that. New tickets issued, case closed. Then just after turning in for bed, the phone in the cabin rang. No German. Only Italian. Fine, whatever. Mostly, we wanted the transportation to the sites, since they were in opposite sides of the port, and my Arabic is a little rusty, to say the least.

More snafu in the morning as we get on the bus, and then wait. And wait. And wait. After a half hour, a family of 6 or 8 got on, and we waited more. Finally, we’re given the go ahead to leave without our last few passengers and move out. The wait was a particular pain, since the ship would not be in Tunis for very long.

On the whole, the architecture and people of Tunis seem quite Mediterranean. If you erased the Arabic and replaced it with Greek or Italian, you might be fooled into thinking you were there, though the occasional mosque might give it away. There was more difference in the newer parts of town, where a lot of construction seemed to be going on, and they were building skyscrapers and things of that sort. Not quite Dubai, but it had something of that flair, with some of the buildings having interesting architecture.

Anyway, not far from the ship was part of ancient Carthage, primarily Roman-era ruins built some time after Carthage was wiped off the map by the Romans in the Punic Wars. The primary structure was a bath complex from the time of the Emperor Antoninus Pius. There were a few markers here and there that dated back to old Carthage, but no structures. The archeological site borders the presidential palace, and one is not supposed to take pictures facing toward the palace, for security reasons. The thought of being on the site of ancient Carthage is exciting, but the ruins aren’t much to look at.

A little busdrive away, we stopped briefly to see the ‘camels,’ which are actually parts of an old cistern system covered in arches, like humps. From there to the Carthage Museum, housed in a cathedral on a hilltop. We didn’t actually enter the museum, but there are some columns and other artifacts on the grounds, and the hilltop offers fabulous views of the city. Also there are some of the only remnants of buildings from ancient Carthage from before its destruction. There was also time to hit the giftshops and peddlers. And then we learned an important fact about Italians: if faced with street vendors in Tunis, they will buy miniature bongos, stenciled with a camel silhouette and the word Tunis. We saw people buying 1, 2, 3… armfuls of bongos, presumably to distribute to their nieces and nephews back home. It was literally incredible; I’m convinced there were more bongos than people on the bus by the time we left. Perhaps, though, I should not mock the Italians for their souvenir choices, since we came away with a stuffed camel that plays Arabic music when you squeeze it. Maybe that’s what all the Americans buy.

It did take forever to corral everyone onto the bus, as people kept leaving the bus for a last minute bongo buying spree, so that we couldn’t get everyone on the bus at the same time. But eventually, we got moving and headed for the Bardo Museum. Much of the trip was along a long causeway separating a lagoon from the sea. The Bardo Museum is not very interesting to look at from the outside, but was originally a 13th century palace that was later home to Ottoman beys until the area became a French protectorate in the 19th century, so the building itself had lovely architectural details, quite apart from the collection itself. The carved plaster in some of the rooms is just ridiculous in its ornateness.

As for the collection, the Bardo has a ridiculous number of Roman mosaics all over the walls and floors of many rooms. In some rooms, you’re actually walking on the mosaics, while others are better protected. It’s hard to appreciate the museum at the speed we had to move through it, but the whole thing is just astonishing. There were also some grave markers that came from a more inland area of Tunisia that retain traces of the Tanit worship of the ancient Carthaginians. So the Romans may have destroyed Carthage, but some of the Carthaginian culture lived on for a time afterwards.

Back to the bus and back toward the ship. Even with the speedy trip through the museum, we had clearly overstayed our time, but many other tours were equally late getting back to the port, so the ship had fortunately not left without us. We were herded through the souvenir shops at the port, and then out to the dock where they were offering camel rides. But given the time, we scampered aboard and hit the buffet. I piled my plate with everything from rigatoni to French fries, pizza slices to cold cut salad, all washed down with some very welcome beer. By the time we drained our beer, everyone had made it aboard and the ship was edging away from Tunis and Africa. Goodbye new continent!
Took some pictures as we left Tunis (and were followed by the even bigger MSC Fantasia that’s been shadowing our ship around the Med). The sea is quite shallow here a for a time the screws were churning up mud from the sea bottom. The shallow water and the tremendous heat combined to throw lots of moisture in the air. It was like a thin, hot fog that really limited visibility… very odd. Once the coast disappeared, we went belowdecks for a drink. I sipped my tequila sunrise as I caught up on the past day-and-a-half of this journal.

Another detail that comes to mind is that for the past couple days, we’re been getting towel animals in the cabin. Dog, elephant, swans… but today’s animal is a little mysterious. Is it a bat, a manta ray, a butterfly, a Batman? I don’t know, but at least it’s friendly.
Since we’re back to the ship fairly early, there’s time to spruce up for our second ‘Gala’ dresscode for dinner. [Here’s how we looked.]
Dinner: somewhat disappointing veal with shiso sprouts for an appetizer. Excellent pesto that I ate absolutely all of, followed by a couple pieces of duck as the main course. One piece was fantastic, while the other was dry and tough. One outta two ain’t bad. Mascarpone to follow with raspberry sauce. Yum.

I talked dark_of_night into going to the theater show. The theme was ‘Time’ and it started off with the Time Warp of all things. The female singer was really excellent, far outshining the male singer. The dancers were acrobatic and comely, but I think their best skill was in costume changing. Neither of us is a big theater/production fan, and I can only take so much prancing about, particularly when it gets a little strange, like the bowing mushrooms with the inflatable flora. But it was the tarted up alteration of of “Summertime” that finally got me out of my seat, and out the door. I’m sure she could have sung it straight, and beautifully, but the male singer warbled annoyingly and they wrapped it all up with a Salieri bang. Goodbye.

July 30
With the long trip to Mallorca, we spent the morning sleeping in, eating a leisurely breakfast, sunbathing, and watching the Balearic Isles slip slowly into view, along with the sailboats that dotted the sea. Mallorca’s southern coast had steep cliffs, while the other isles were mainly lower. It looked like a sailboat would be a great way to putter around the area. Ultimately, we got to Palma de Mallorca, the largest city on the island, and we got great views of the huge cathedral as we approached our berth.
Once ashore, we (unwisely?) walked from the port to the center of the old town. The street along the marina was very international, with many restaurants, ranging from tapas bars to Thai and Indian.

The cathedral dominates the landscape, but our first visit was to the Almudaina Palace. Originally a Moorish fortress, the palace was completely remodeled by Jaume II of Aragon around 1300. It certainly seemed like a very civilized place to live. Tapestries, a chapel with stained glass and a reliquary of Saint Ann, an arched main hall, and even more modern conveniences in the king’s study and queen’s study, which were furnished in a more 18th-19th century style.

The cathedral was directly across from the palace, and the first thing you see as you enter are some ridiculous displays of gold and silver. Also there were some interesting reliquaries, complete with the expected bony bits of saints. The main space of the cathedral is quite gothic and majestic with lovely stained glass, enormously high ceiling and gaudy chapels. Indeed, there was even a Gaudi chapel, and he also constructed the strange baldacchino over the altar.

Several of the grave slabs bore skull & crossbones motifs. Probably just funereal imagery, but it was easy to imagine the deceased as pirates. My brief survey showed that the better rendered Jolly Rogers were better placed in the cathedral, as though the more successful pirates could afford better art and better placement in the cathedral (& better rewards in the afterlife?).

After the walk and sightseeing, it was an excellent move to downshift a bit. In the Placa Santa Eulalia, we stopped at the Café Eulalia for some water, beer and wine, a much needed and refreshing stop. We then wandered the cute narrow alleys of Palma, lined with interesting buildings, doors and overhanging roofs. The Santa Eulalia church was closed for renovation, while the Sant Francisco church just closed-period, but the area is really charming.

We managed a quick tour of the Arabian baths, just about the only remnant of the Moorish occupation of Mallorca. Not a lot to see, but a lovely garden area among the bath buildings.
We strolled back through a more inland course, passing many shops and art galleries and eventually were forced back to the sea. At one point, we noticed a thing drift of smoke, and saw that it was coming from a planter. Looked like maybe a cigarette had been thrown in and set the cloth lining of the planter on fire. Two policemen handled the situation by dousing the tiny flame with some bottled water.

dark_of_night correctly decided that we should save our feet and hop on the bus that went down to the port area. There was an amusing moment – many of the other passengers were clearly other cruiseship passengers – but we didn’t quite know where the best stop was going to be to get to the ship. The ships got closer and we all eyed them carefully. Then one of those wisdom of crowds events happened. The milling tourists got off the bus and stared around stupidly, and then poured back onto the bus again. The driver just shrugged and we got off at the next stop, which was right at the port. There was surprising security at the port, with people checking not just our shipcards, but also our passports (or rather our photocopies of them, since the cruiseship took them from us). To go back in time a little bit, we had noticed all day that police vehicles had gone screaming down the main road from time to time. We wondered what was up, but now we finally learned that the ETA had celebrated its 50th anniversary of blowing things up by blowing up a police car in a nearby town, home to the royal palace. That’s a close as I hope to get to a terrorist act.

Safely aboard, we had just enough time to scrub off the worst filth and get to dinner. I had a huge feast: quiche, tomato soup, lasgnette, pollo alla diavola (excellently spicy), the cheese plate and an orange-chocolate terrine. The terrine was actually not very good, but since it happened to be Hassan’s birthday, he was brought a truly excellent cake to share around the table, along with champagne.

We met later with most of our dinner companions in the main bar, where Fara graciously stood us all a drink. We chatted a bit and then we said our goodbyes.
Tags: cruise, travel

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