Mahón or Maó as its known in the local dialect, is the largest city and port of the second largest island (Minorca) of the Balearic Islands which are part of Spain. It is the second deepest natural harbor in the world at 5km long and 900m wide, with very clear water.
The Carthaginians occupied the island in 205 BC and named the port after Mago Barca, the brother of Hannibal. In the middle ages Mahon was occupied by the Moors. In 1287 it captured by Alfonso III of Aragon who established the Kingdom of Majorca, a vassal state to the kingdom of Aragon. In 1707 the British took the island from the Spanish and kept it until the Napoleonic Wars in the 18th century when it went back to Spain.
Many people believe that the city of Mahon is the birth place of mayonnaise, after the french defeated the British who were inhabiting the port. The sauce was originally known as “salsa mahonesa” in Spanish and “maonesa” in Catalan (as it is still known in Menorca), later becoming mayonnaise as it was popularized by the French. As well, a traditional cheese is still made on the island (formatge de Maó) and is named after the city.
In the above map, Minorca is the island furthest to the right.
Our arrival into port was wonderfully quiet and serene. We arrived at the island early in the morning and started the long gentle glide towards the city, moving from the rougher waves of the Mediterranean into the protected and smooth waters of the harbour.
We softly glided past the still-sleeping rows of houses built along the banks including one built for privacy in the harbour itself. (Apparently it is known locally as “little Venice” and is sometimes rented by Richard Branson)
After we docked we went on shore to wander around the Port of Mahon for a while. Also docked on the quay near our boat was a Spanish galleon that was attracting the locals. We checked it out and took some pictures before signing up for a catamaran ride and local history tour of the harbour and the town along its shores.
Returning to the port, we walked around the old town built majestically on a cliff as a protective and defensive solution to all the invading armies.
As always it was soon time to leave and set sail for Port-Vendres (France)
Port-Vendres is a typical Mediterranean fishing port, situated near the Spanish border on the Cote Vermeille in south west France. Port-Vendres is renowned for its numerous fish and sea food restaurants and is one of the few deep-water ports in this part of the French Mediterranean coast. It takes freighters and cruise ships, as well as large and small fishing boats.
We were feeling tired and needed more of a down day, so we just wandered around the town looking at the local sights and taking pictures.
We found this fun pile of old cannons — the sign says that this is a transfer areas for the paulines protected habitat and that any explosives should be kept in this zone. Discharge of explosives is forbidden. Brian found that sign and old canons together, really funny.
When we left port, the weather was starting to get a bit more intense for the first time in the cruise. The waves were getting choppy and there was a wind coming across the bay of lions. The boat had a bit of a roll but nothing too over the top or difficult to deal with. Both of us found it quite fun to feel the boat roll and sway.
As we arrived in Spain (Barcelona to be more exact), Brandi’s voice decided to take its own vacation, similar to when it disapeared before our wedding. It would not return until the end of the cruise. To say this was frustrating would be a huge understatement. An inability to communicate in anything but whispers — impossible in any crowded or public place. The other passengers on the ship were vaguely sympathetic, but made lots of jokes about singing or talking too much or Brian finally getting some peace and quiet for the first time in our marriage. Really it was just an annoyance, until getting out into the city.
In the city it was a little frightening. Barcelona is crowded, with people in every direction, tourists and those looking to make money off them — legally or not. Pushing and jostling and yelling, everyone trying to get our attention, just a moment of it — in every direction. If we were separated in the crowd, Brandi had no way of getting Brian’s attention. Not even the ability to scream… But thankfully it never came to that. We held hands or each other’s backpacks, and Brian was conscious of not wandering off like he sometimes is apt to do.
On our first day in Barcelona, we travelled the historic Ramblas street; checked out La Boquería and strolled across the Plaça de Catalunya where several demonstrators were camped out and eventually we arrived at the Block of Discord as well as Casa Milà.
- La Boquería is a lively produce market that is an explosion of chicken legs, bags of live snails, stiff fish, delicious oranges, odd odours, and sleeping dogs.
- Plaça de Catalunya is dotted with fountains, statues, and pigeons, and is ringed by grand art deco buildings. This plaza is Barcelona’s center. It’s the hub for the Metro, bus, airport shuttle, and tourist bus.
- The Block of Discord is where several colorful modernist facades compete for attention along this single stretch of road. All were built by well-known architects at the end of the 19th century. Because the mansions look as though they are trying to outdo each other in creative twists, locals nicknamed the noisy block the “Block of Discord.”
- Casa Milà — This Gaudí exterior laughs down on the crowds filling Passeig de Gràcia. Casa Milà, also called La Pedrera (“The Quarry”), has a much-photographed roller coaster of melting-ice-cream eaves. This is Barcelona’s quintessential modernist building and was Gaudí’s last major work (1906–1910) before dedicating his final years to the Sagrada Família
We wandered through Casa Milà with our cameras and the audio guide and learned all about Gaudí, his inspirations behind the apartment building he designed and how he developed his techniques. His aesthetic was very organic and way outside the lines of the time. Even by today’s standards his buildings are strange — at the time, completely groundbreaking
Between this fascinating tour, a stop for some lunch at a streetside cafe, and a fight through the markets to get back to our ship for the evening, it was a long day — but of course we were rewarded with luxury and comfort back on board. Brandi visited the spa for a facial before dinner, which this evening was served on the top deck of the ship, open-air. Almost barbeque style, but we still had champagne and caviar, and servers carrying our plates back to our seats for us. The plan was for this to turn into a dancing-under-the-stars evening, but the wind picked up and everyone shivered and headed back inside after dinner. We personally didn’t find it too cold, but will admit we’re used to a different level of cold than many of the others (lots of southern Californians and Texans).
The on boat entertainment this evening was a local flamenco troupe, and they were truly impressive. One guy on guitar, one guy singing, two female dancers and one male dancer. Their body language, footwork and emotion was amazing. We are sure there was a story line to their performance, but of course we couldn’t really follow the language.
When we got back to our room there was a nice display of swans, scattered rose petals, a bottle of wine and two notes, one from Maria our stewardess and another personally signed note from the Hotel Manager wishing us the best on our honeymoon!
For day 2 in Barcelona, we got up early and headed to Sagrada Familia, a cathedral that became Gaudí’s main passion and where he devoted the last years of his life. At the time of his death in 1926, less than a quarter of the project was complete although he had been working on it for over 30 years.
The slowness of construction had never disturbed him, as when asked about the subject of the extremely long construction period, Gaudí is said to have remarked: “My client is not in a hurry.” (referring to God). Currently, one projection anticipates construction completion around 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death—while the project’s information leaflet estimates a completion date in 2028 or later.
Everyone had warned that the lineup to the cathedral would be very long (two hours, we were told), however our arrival from the local metro station at 10am still only gave us a 10–15 minute wait in the the line before we were at the ticket window.
To say the cathedral is massive is an understatement, the completion of the spires will make Sagrada Família the tallest church building in the world. Gaudí’s original design calls for a total of eighteen spires, representing in ascending order of height the twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and, tallest of all, Jesus Christ. Eight spires have been built, corresponding to four apostles at the Nativity façade and four apostles at the Passion façade.
We spent 4 or so hours walking around Sagrada Família taking pictures and learning more about the life of Gaudí. We returned to the metro and saw that there was a funicular at the end of the line. Knowing how much fun we had with the funicular in Austria, we took it to the top of monjuïc. This funicular was much less impressive as it was entirely underground. Fortunately, there was a much more scenic gondola from the funicular to the very top of the hill, to an old Spanish fort.
We wandered around the fort, feeding the local fortress cats (we miss ours) and taking pictures of the view and just relaxing and making comparisons about urban sprawl. We returned via gondola and funicular to the metro and walked to the boat in time for departure, and on to Mahón!
A quick note, if you are reading this on our blog and not in an email; if you click e picture they get big and full resolution
The first exposure to France was landing at Cannes. It was hot, extremely muggy, full of people preparing for the upcoming Cannes film festival. Tourists all over the place, and the locals seemed annoyed at them already. In the fist picture you can see the many tents along the harbour-front ready for the red carpet.
We walked around town, Strolling through the old parts of town and through the market streets taking some pictures and having the locals generally confused by a keen interest in to their culture. (Brian: I saw some baguettes leaning up against a doorway and thought it would make a fun picture. As I was taking the shot, a local walked by and muttered under her breath, “c’est seulement du pain, Monsieur” meaning “it’s only bread, sir”).
We did our best to hide in the shade, and wandered back to the boat in the afternoon to get away from the craziness of the film festival set-up.
Brandi scheduled a full-body massage on the boat and and Brian had a nap. As the boat was preparing to leave the dock, a sudden cloud burst rolled through the port made for some very interesting and fun cloud photos.
Sanary-sur-Mer is said to be the sunniest place in France. It is surrounded by wooded hills that protect the town, bay and fine sand beaches from the strong mistral wind. We signed up for an excursion to Aix-en-Provence (Aix pronounced Ex) and boarded a bus tour where we were driven to town about an hour away upon arriving we were led on a guided tour of the old town.
With sun-dappled squares, luxuriant fountains, and Paul Cézanne’s hallowed studio, this captivating university town is considered the main hub of Provence and the most cultural town in the region.
After the tour we had some free time to explore Aix-en-Provenance and we quickly found a cafė for our first experience of the French cafė lifestyle. In a word, amazing! In the background of the picture below, is the oldest continually operating cafė in France.
We returned to Sanary-sur-Mer and wandered around the main harbor-front finding naturally growing birds of paradise flowers growing all around. Eventually we returned to the ship for dinner and drinks.
Our flight from Amsterdam to Rome was only delayed a few hours, which made for a rather boring wait in the terminal while we waited for the plane to arrive. Compared to our last one it was a short little hop about 3 hours, but of course we slept through much of it. We got at least a good hour or two of sometimes-interrupted plane sleeping in on this one.
After arriving in Rome we donned our backpacks, instantly remembered that a heavy backpack is even heavier with no sleep, and quickly found the train station at the airport. We got on the “Leonardo Express” airport express, which took us straight to Roma Termini (Romes main train station terminal) in about 30 minutes passing through some Italian country-side and offering us our first glances of the Roman aqueduct and our first exposure to some Roman history. We were able to check some maps at the local Tourist Information booth and about fifteen minutes later we were at our hotel.
We had booked a room at Hotel Oceania before our trip, based on some reviews in the “Rick Steves’ Rome” travel book. We entered through huge wooden doors, into a beautiful tile-and-marble building. White marble stairs curved up to the left, but we saw a sign directing us, via the lift, to the third floor. The lift was a tiny box (only barely big enough for the two of us plus our backpacks at our feet.) inside a cage that extended up about four floors. It was a little nerve wracking, but once we did it with our packs, we felt braver about it later by ourselves. On the third floor, we found ourselves on a little walkway across a courtyard, vines dangling across the walls, and opera music wafting up from somewhere below. We were greeted warmly and shown to our beautiful little room just past the main common area. We took off our packs, washed our faces, and made sure to not lie down for fear of falling into deep deep sleeps.
We had just arrived in this beautiful exciting city, and shortly after having relieved ourselves of the backpacks, our energy levels were up again. We wandered about 15 minutes south of our hotel, and found some incredibly impressive monuments, ruins and history. We didn’t know what we were looking at, but we knew it was breathtaking. But we also knew we were tired. Our brains fought between excitement and exhaustion. The air was so warm, the sights so amazing, it seemed a waste to sleep through any of it! But eventually our more logical minds prevailed, and we turned back towards the hotel.
We bought a calzone (for Brian) and a slice of pizza (for Brandi) and took them back to the little courtyard of our hotel. The air was warm and cool and perfect, and darkening. As soon as we ate, it was clear that the only next option was to crash. And that we did. I believe it was instantaneous. Our heads hit the pillows and we were out.
Until 1:30am. Brian got up to pee at that time, and I woke up when he did. Then we laid there, wondering why we couldn’t get back to sleep. Then realized our bodies thought it was 5:30pm. Eventually we did drift back to sleep though, and slept solid until later that morning.
On Wednesday we toured The Forum and Paletine Hill. We started with the Forum; it was the political, religious, and commercial center of the ancient city of Rome. Rome’s most important temples and halls of justice were here as it was the place for religious processions, political demonstrations, elections, important speeches, and parades by conquering generals. As Rome’s empire expanded, these few acres of land became the center of the civilized world.
The Forum was amazing, we walked on the same cobblestone street that the emperors of ancient Rome did. Truly mind-boggling, honestly. We saw the Temple of Saturn (where they kept their spoils of war), the house of the Vestal Virgins, and the very spot where Julius Caesar’s body was burned after his assassination. Today it is a mound of clay and dirt, covered in flowers and other offerings. We saw the spot where his house had been, and through scaffolding we saw the remnants of Caligula’s Palace.
Palatine Hill was once a huge palace, the residence of emperors for three centuries. Orgies, royal weddings, assassinations, concerts, intrigues, births, funerals, banquets, and the occasional Tupperware party took place within these walls. The palace was built by Emperor Domitian in about A.D. 81. A poet of the day described it as so grand that it “made Jupiter jealous.”
We walked through the ruins and saw the remains of the Imperial Palace, which housed Emperor Nero, and others. We saw the site of Augustus/Octavian’s home, and that of his wife, Livia, as well as more of the aqueducts bringing water from the mountains.
All our guidebooks said each of these tours would take about an hour and a half, but we took closer to two or three hours each. Partly because of stopping to take lots of photos, but partly also because we kept lingering, trying to wrap our brains around what we were seeing and touching. So old, so full of stories. It was an incredible day of learning. By six or seven pm, the tour sites were closing and our camera batteries were dead, and our feet were aching.
We went back to our hotel to shower and change for dinner. Eating time for Romans is closer to th 7-11pm time frame with relatively few (mostly catering to toursts) open earlier. We wandered out into the streets to find a nice little Italian restaurant with an outdoor patio — of which there are many! We ate our yummy little dinner next to a couple of priests. They spoke fluent Italian to the waiter but had their personal conservation in French — and as they left, they wished us a good evening in English.
After eating, once again, our minds turned straight to sleep. We picked our way back through the vibrant Roman streets, and slept more solidly on this second night.
Thursday morning we got up early enough to get to the Collosseum. You didn’t think we’d leave Rome without doing that, did you? Honestly we expected to tour all three sites the day before, but our time grew too short. So Thursday morning it was for The Collosseum. Again, words cannot describe the feeling of being in this amazing historic place. If you can imagine it full of people as it once was, you can almost feel the energy of the crowds.
By noon, we were back to our hotel to get our packs (we had checked out earlier, but they were happy to store our bags) and then back to the train station to catch a train to Civitavecchia, which is the port our cruise ship departs from.
In five days, we board our plane to Amsterdam, then Rome. One week from right now, we will be asleep on our first night of our cruise, somewhere along the NW coast of Italy.
Recently the cruise-line emailed to notify us that our second port of call had changed. Originally we were going to the small Northern Italy port of Portofino on the second day of our cruise, but apparently the Italian government has changed some cruise ship rules around anchoring in certain areas (Insert Costa Concordia joke here). This made enough changes to how and where the cruise could anchor that they had no choice but to change the port of call to something more accommodating.
This should have been where we were going:
Now, we are going to Portovenere — which looks beautiful and sounds interesting too, so we don’t really mind. There seem to be some castle ruins, and there is an excursion to Cinque Terre! Of course we were in Cinque Terre in 2008, but we loved it and would love to see it again — this time via boat and random stops for the regions famous focaccia bread.
Our port of call Portovenere:
We have also been trying firm up what we would like to do after we disembark from the cruise. The plan is right now to visit Eze, Nice and a few of the other towns in the riviera region of France before we make our way over to Mont St. Michel and then to Paris. Ah Paris in the spring time, what could be finer? Notre Dame, catacombs, la tour Eiffel! il ya tellement de choses à faire!
Obviously we do need to get to Amsterdam and must ensure we leave enough time for that leg of the adventure.
It hardly seems real, it’s really a dream vacation… We are so lucky to be able to have these wonderful adventures!