Sunday, April 19, 2009

Homeward Bound

Thursday, April 16, 2009

We made it to Cadiz, Spain, only 45 minutes behind schedule, not bad considering we left Valletta eight or nine hours late. We had no tour planned today and were in no hurry to get up. Nevertheless, we were up before 8:30 and were in plenty of time to have breakfast in the dining room with four members of the geriatric set. Only one of the four was still in touch with reality.

We decided to take the HO-HO bus around Cadiz, then to look for a grocery store on the second pass. The other night, MA ordered lemon meringue pie for dessert. It came to the table still frozen, so Toro, our waiter, said he would have a piece for her the next night. When she mentioned it to him at dessert time, Toro had to tell her that Mukti, his assistant, had eaten it. Mukti was embarrassed but he is so lovable that we couldn’t get mad at him; besides, he continues to make exotic cappuccinos for D for dessert. Today’s mission was to find a lemon pie for Mukti.

Rather than head for the old city on our second pass on the HO-HO, we opted for Cortes Ingles, the mammoth department store of Spain. One of the bus stops was smack in front of the store, an omen, we hoped. Indeed, there was a full grocery store inside. Unfortunately, there were no pies of any kind, so we settled for limon cookies. It’s the thought that counts, right?

Back on board, we lost at trivia before going to the theater for a local Flamenco presentation. Andalusia is the home of Flamenco [or flamingo as one passenger calls it] despite the show in Barcelona. It was intense and we were exhausted when it ended.

Dinner, reading, e-mail and blackjack rounded out the day.

Tomorrow – Sintra and Obidos, Portugal. Docked

Friday, April 17, 2009

We are docked at Lisbon, Portugal, today. We have visited Lisbon twice before and seen the same “highlights” both times, so we were anxious to see something else this time. We arranged a private tour to the towns of Obidos and Sintra. We knew nothing about either one other than that HAL was running its own separate shore excursions to these towns. We had a great day.

We met Marvin & Barbara and Lynn & Leonard, our companions for the day, and were off the ship before 9:00. Once we cleared the terminal, we were greeted by Filipa, today’s guide. She whisked us off to the minivan and headed off to Obidos which lies about an hour from Lisbon.

Obidos is another medieval village complete with a multinational history as reflected in its architecture. It has its own castle, a big, dreary-looking affair, which we skipped. According to Filipa, there is nothing in it worth seeing. It would have taken a medium walk in light rain to get there, so we passed it up. Instead, we visited an old church. It was not much to look at from the street. It had a small courtyard in the front where we found schoolchildren playing the local version of hopscotch using a roll of packing tape in lieu of the heel of a shoe, and Marvin hopped across the “board” as if he were 10 again.

Although Filipa said this was a plain church devoid of the ornamentation of the cathedral, we found it charming and beautiful. The walls were covered with decorative ceramic tile in the Manuelian style [named after King Manuel]. Most were in blue and white, but there were other colors as well. The painted ceiling was not ornate but was in good repair and the central painting was bright with golds and reds. Filipa told us a little about the church and its artwork before leading us to the first of today’s surprises.

We have been surprised by guides on earlier tours -- the lemoncello in Sorrento, baklava in Athens – but this one wasn’t free. We walked through the tiny main street of Obidos and entered a wine shop. Here was our surprise: cherry liqueur served in dark chocolate cups. We paid the one euro per person to sample this local treat and were all pleasantly surprised, even D who doesn’t usually drink. We vowed to return to purchase some of the liqueur on our way back to the car. We then had a half hour to walk and shop, there being little else to do here. Most of the stores were selling similar, if not identical, merchandise, so it didn’t take too long to find a box for the collection. We looked in several stores before selecting one and then went back, as promised, to purchase the cherry liqueur which is sold with cherries in the bottle. As we returned to the minivan, we stopped at a roadside vendor’s and bought dried apricots and a trail mix which was mostly dried bananas. We shared our goodies when we got to the car and enjoyed fresh almonds bought by Lynn.

Filipa drove toward Sintra, another hour or so away. The rain alternated between light and horrid, but tended more to drizzle than downpour. On the way, we discussed whether we wanted a quick lunch or a traditional lunch. We agreed on a traditional Portuguese lunch, so we stopped on the outskirts of Sintra at a restaurant Filipa said is one of her favorites.

Lunch in Portugal is no ten-minute affair. First, of course, we had to figure out the menu since not all of them were in English. Once we got that settled, we all opted for what was labeled “The Tourist Menu.” The “tourist menu” included bread, butter and olives; soup; main course; salad; drinks and dessert, all for 16.50 euros per person. Such a bargain! We offered to pay for Filipa’s lunch but she told us hers would be comped by the restaurant for bringing in her tour group.

The bread, butter and olives were on the table when we arrived along with very small wheels of cheese, a plate of sliced cold cuts, and something which resembled cottage cheese. Barbara and Marvin tried one of these before we realized they weren’t included, but it wasn’t a big deal. Soon we were served a potato-based soup made with Portuguese cabbage [which was rather stringy] and a piece of sausage. Main course choices were meat or fish, so we ordered one of each so we could compare. The fish dish was mashed potatoes, salmon and shrimp mixed together and then baked; the meat dish had cubed pork and cubed potatoes sautéed in olive oil with spices and maybe chiles. Both were delicious and we could not decide which we liked better. The salmon entrée reminded us of old-time salmon croquettes but not as strong. It was heavier than the pork-and-potatoes which we ate more of, but there was simply too much food. One entrée could easily have served two people. Had we know, we would have ordered less and passed platters more. Halfway through the meal, a simple salad of greens, onions and tomatoes dressed in olive oil was delivered to the table, but no one could eat any of it.

Then we realized that dessert was included. Despite universal complaints about having eaten too much, we all had dessert, too. MA and D shared two different ones: a pie which resembled a pecan pie but was lighter and was made with almonds; and a crème caramel [sort of] flavored with cinnamon. The crème was so light that it was like eating air. We finally waddled out of the restaurant ready to tackle Sintra.

Instead of walking through the town with Filipa, as our itinerary had stated, we went straight to the Pena Palace [PEN-nuh]. This conglomerate of a building had once been a monastery and the original building was still intact and in some a state of exterior dilapidation. The flaking paint on the outside walls reminded us of Lisbon most of which needs a few coats of paint. The rest of the Pena Palace had been built over the years a succession of Portuguese kings, especially Charles. It has gargoyles, arches, a ceremonial drawbridge, formal rooms and family rooms.

To get to the Pena Palace, one must traverse a dizzying switchback road up the side of the highest point in the area. The curves are tight and the distance between them is short. Combined with Filipa’s habit of jerking the steering wheel and swerving in her own lane, the ride could have been disastrous but wasn’t. By the time we arrived, the rain had become more of a problem and we were pretty wet by the time Filipa bought our entry tickets. We had to wait for a trolley to carry us up the rest of the hill – this thing just kept on going.

Once at the top of the hill, we found ourselves at the bottom of a long, slippery, cobble-stoned driveway. What may have been an easy approach for a carriage was wearying for us, especially those with bad knees and backs. Just when we thought we were finally at the top, we rounded a corner and found more cobblestones. Finally we found a flat entryway where Filipa took the time to explain some of the history of the Palace. We took lots of photographs of the exterior which showed several styles of architecture and was covered mostly in ceramic tile. There were monsters portrayed; decorative mad-made coral and shells around and arch; and towers. We saw bits of Moorish influence combined with Baroque. It was Disney on Drugs.

No photography is allowed inside [all the better to sell the commemorative booklet], but our pictures would not have captured to extent of the Palace or its opulence. Because it is not very old, we found flush toilets, bathtubs and even an early telephone. The ceilings here were done in a variety of styles including the trompe d’oiel painting made to look three dimensional. One room was painted to look like wood, not stucco. The original furnishings were still in place and it was a wonderful museum of Nineteenth Century royal life.

There were lots of steps to get to the bottom of the palace since there had been a lot to get to the living quarters. The worst, though, was going back down the slippery cobblestone driveway to the bus stop. Once there we had to fight our way through a group of rude Europeans [Polish, we think] and only Barbara, Marvin and MA got seats. D, Lynn, Leonard and Filipa waited for the trolley to return before they could join the others and head for our next surprise.

We zigged and zagged down the hill in full mortal fear as Filipa sped toward Sintra. We stopped in the main square where she gave us directions to our next adventure. After having eaten enough for a small army, we were being sent to sample the local pastry. Oy! We followed her directions while she parked the car, were able to describe what we wanted to the saleswoman and took seats to await our treasure. We ordered three pieces of two kinds of indescribably delicious pastry and then ordered drinks while we waited for plates and carbohydrates to appear. Mamma mia! What a way to end the day.

We wandered into a few shops before heading back to the Prinsendam and arrived just past 7:00, a full two hours after our tour was supposed to end. We paid Filipa who seemed genuinely surprised that there was more money in the envelope than the tour price. In fact, instead of our usual ten percent tip, we left almost twenty percent. She was speechless.

We all agreed that we would be skipping dinner tonight. We certainly did. WD went to the dining room to let Toro know we would not be there and then MA read before turning in for the night and D caught the journal up-to-date before he forgot anything. It was a very good day.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

We’re on the downhill side now with just 10 days until Ft. Lauderdale. We have run out of land tours and will take it easy in the Azores and Bermuda; in New York, we will have lunch with one of MA’s former students.

That is not to say that we haven’t been busy. We haven’t been busy but it has been by choice. There are plenty of things to do on a cruise ship, we have just chosen to do them. Yesterday’s big excitement was another blackjack tournament. D made it to the finals again but lost again. We lost at trivia yesterday, too, but won resoundingly today. More key chains – we have enough to open a store. Which former leader do Cambodians pray to for good luck in the lottery? What is the primary cause of death for on-duty police officers? How much does the brain of the average 30-year old male weigh?

D tried to organize a luncheon meeting for the CC crowd, a sort of farewell feast, but the only available time was 11:00 a.m. We decided that that was too early for lunch and, besides, it conflicted with the regular 11:30 trivia. Instead, we will have our last get-together at the regular time, 10:00 a.m., on Tuesday. We’ll tell stories of our assorted shore excursions, perhaps exchange e-mail addresses and let others know about our blogs [Sk8teacher and Grumpy1 are writing them as well].

We were surprised at dinner tonight when one of the supervisors asked us if we minded adding two people to our table. Since we have been eating alone, save for Mary next door, we agreed without hesitation. Our new tablemates are guest lecturers from Coral Gables just outside of Miami. They are both psychologists and will present five lectures between here and home. Bert and Sally’s first presentation was at 11:00 this morning, so we missed it [trivia trumps everything], but Marvin and Barbara said it was interesting. The topic was “How to Forget Worrying About Your Memory,” a perfect topic for HAL’s geriatric set. They said they had about 200 attendees, almost one-third of the passenger complement, and four times what they expected. We had an enjoyable conversation and didn’t leave the dining room until almost 10:00, more than a half-hour later than usual.

After dinner, MA read and D played blackjack in an effort to recoup the $20 he lost during naptime this afternoon.

Tomorrow -- Ponta Delgada, the Azores

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