Marina and Riviera have said goodbye to Europe for 2013 and set sail for warmer waters for the winter. Both ships ended their final European cruise of the season in Barcelona, an amazing city that I’ve so enjoyed exploring as Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises.

One of the things that makes Barcelona distinctive is its blend of traditional architecture interspersed with the modernist buildings of Gaudí. The renowned architect’s inimitable style is found throughout the city, as he designed everything from private homes to public parks and churches. One of Barcelona’s most famous façades, Casa Batlló is the most unique and striking building I’ve ever seen. Now a museum and event space, Casa Batlló was built from 1904 to 1906 as a private home for textile industrialist Josep Batlló.



Next door is another modernist building, Casa Amatller. While it was designed by Gaudí contemporary Josep Puig i Cadafalch, the style is drastically different. The contrasting styles of these buildings, along with two more nearby homes by two other modernist architects, have earned this block the moniker of Illa de la Discòrdia, or Block of Discord.


6a013480ad3a9d970c019b0172dcb1970b-150wiAfter visiting Casa Batlló, I stopped for some tapas and wine on the patio of a restaurant just down the street on Passeig de Gràcia, one of the most fashionable and expensive streets in Barcelona. Every time I visit Spain I’m truly amazed at what the Spanish can do with just bread, tomato and a touch of garlic. Pan con tomate (literally “bread with tomato”) is one of my favorite tapas. Add a little manchego cheese and I am in heaven! I also enjoyed a glass of El Perro Verde (The Green Dog), a lovely and very reasonably priced Spanish verdejo.

It was a good thing I fortified myself with tapas, because my next stop, Park Güell, is perched on the top of a very steep hill overlooking the city. Esuebi Güell, a well-known Catalan industrialist, commissioned Gaudí to create a residential garden village. Although the residential project failed, the city of Barcelona acquired the property and opened it to the public as a park.

The entrance, unmistakably designed by Gaudí, is composed of four flights of ornately decorated stairs, including a beautifully tiled dragon-like lizard, one of the best-known images of the park.


Among the completed buildings were two pavilions for visitors and park keepers, also distinctly Gaudí. The number of beautiful, detailed mosaics, sculptures and structures is astounding. The park is essentially a spectacular outdoor museum with free entrance!




I’ve shared a few blogs about Barcelona, but there is so much to see and do in this city that I’ve only scratched the surface. I look forward to sharing more when Oceania Cruises’ ships return to Europe next season, and I hope I’ve inspired you to plan your European cruise for 2014! Oceania Cruises makes frequent stops in Barcelona in the summer season, so hopefully you will have a chance to visit on one of these cruises or the many others offered:

0 comments on “A DAY IN FLORENCE”


Last week Nautica, Marina and Riviera all called on the port of Livorno, the gateway to Tuscany. From this port, you can explore the beautiful Tuscan countryside and so many charming towns, from Pisa to Cinque Terre to San Gimignano. Of course, one of the most popular places to visit is the grand city of Florence.



I recently took the Florence On Your Own shore excursion, which is perfect if you want the freedom to wander the streets of this amazing city at your own pace without worrying about getting back to the ship on time. A comfortable, air-conditioned bus picked me up at the ship for the two-hour trip to Florence, during which a guide shared info and maps that helped me navigate the city. Once we arrived, I had six lovely hours to enjoy Florence before the bus picked me up and returned me to the ship.

The bus dropped me off at the Piazza di Santa Croce, just off the Arno River and near the Basilica di Santa Croce, where I began my day. Construction began on the basilica, the principal Franciscan church in Florence, in 1294. With 16 chapels, it is the largest Franciscan church in the world and the burial place of some of history’s most famous Italians, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Rossini.


At the steps of the Basilica di Santa Croce stands a statue dedicated to the great Italian poet, Dante. Donated in 1865 to celebrate the sixth century since Dante’s birth, the statue was moved to the steps of the basilica in 1968. Born in Florence, Dante was eventually condemned to exile for political reasons, and it wasn’t until 2008 that Dante’s sentence was rescinded. Thus, while the city of Florence built a tomb for Dante in the Basilica di Santa Croce in the 19th century, his remains are still in a tomb in Ravenna, the city where he died. At each corner of the base of the Dante statue sits a rather stern-looking heraldic lion with one paw on the city’s coat of arms, said to represent the power of the people of the Republic of Florence.


With only one basilica down, I was already starving. I stopped at a restaurant on the piazza and enjoyed one of the best Caprese salads I’ve ever had, accompanied by some delicious prosciutto, a rich lasagna and a glass of red wine. Suffice it to say, I was sated and ready to continue exploring.



My next stop was Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s most famous bridge. Originally built during Roman times, it is the oldest bridge in Florence. The current structure was built in 1345, and the workshops along the bridge were mainly used by butchers and tanners. Today the shops offer a wide array of jewelry and souvenirs to the many tourists that visit.



6a013480ad3a9d970c019b012103df970c-120wiAfter Ponte Vecchio I moved on to the nearby Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall. At the end of the 13th century, Florentines decided to build a palace that provided greater security to the magistrates. The massive Romanesque fortress is one of the most impressive in Tuscany and overlooks the Piazza della Signoria.

The Fountain of Neptune stands on the piazza, as well as a replica of Michelangelo’s David, marking the place where the original statue once stood. The original is now housed in the Accademia Gallery, about a 15-minute walk north of the Palazzo Vecchio, and I consider it to be one of Florence’s must-see sights. While you’ve probably seen any number of the images and replicas of the statue that seem to pervade Western culture, the original is truly astounding in its scale, detail and beauty.




6a013480ad3a9d970c019b01216791970b-200wiNear the Palazzo Vecchio and also well worth a visit is the amazing Uffizi Gallery, one of the oldest and most famous museums in the world. The gallery houses some of Italy’s greatest works of art, including works by da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. One of my favorite works in this museum is Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, although it’s almost ludicrous to name any favorite amidst the incredible collection of masterworks. There is usually a long line to get into the Uffizi, so I highly recommend advance reservations, which can be made online for a fee. Oceania Cruises also offers excursions to both the Uffizi and the Accademia Gallery, so you can avoid the lines at both.

There are so many wonderful things to see in Florence, and I haven’t even mentioned the Duomo yet, one of the most famous and impressive cathedrals in Europe! I’ll save that for a future blog, and if you want to see this wonderful city for yourself, here are just a few of the ample opportunities to visit with Oceania Cruises in 2014:



Marina and Riviera both call on Corfu this week, and guests have the opportunity to explore this lovely island on the Corfu Town and Achilleion shore excursion. As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I recently enjoyed this wonderful excursion on a perfect summer day.


When reading about the Achilleion Palace, you will always find mention of the great views from the palace grounds, and many have attempted to capture these impressive vistas in photographs. But it is not until you are actually standing there, looking out across the beautiful island with the Ionian Sea glistening in the distance, that you truly understand what all the fuss is about. Having said that, this palace is more than just a pretty face. It also has a quite fascinating history behind it.


6a0120a92e343a970b019b003723fc970d-150wiUpon arriving at the palace, I was greeted by a marble statue of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, affectionately known as Sisi, who built the palace in 1890 as an expression of her passion for Greek culture. In fact, she spoke Greek better than most Greek queens of her time. The central theme of the palace is Achilles,
a mythical figure whom the empress admired for his strength and beauty, two characteristics she herself possessed. Achilles and Sisi also shared a tragic fate. At the time when the empress built the palace, she was desperate to escape her grief over the loss of her only son to suicide the previous year. And the empress would herself be killed by an anarchist in 1898.

6a0120a92e343a970b019b0036b946970c-150wiOne of the most moving and impressive rooms in the palace is Sisi’s Catholic chapel with its domed ceiling depicting the trial of Christ and a painting of Madonna and child hanging above the altar. I found this particularly poignant given the devastating loss of the empress’s son.

As you would imagine, there are several depictions of Achilles inside the palace. One of the most imposing is an enormous painting, The Triumph of Achilles by Franz von Matsch, in the hall above the main staircase. It dramatically portrays Achilles dragging Hector’s body behind a chariot in front of the gates of Troy.



Achilles is also well represented on the palace grounds, which I found even more impressive than the palace itself. High on a pedestal stands the centerpiece of the gardens, a marble statue of Achilles at the moment of his demise as he tries to pull the fatal arrow from his heel. Elsewhere in the gardens, a huge bronze statue of Achilles was added by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who purchased the palace after Sisi’s untimely death. The antithesis of the beloved Sisi, he too would only enjoy the palace for a short time because he soon launched Germany into World War I and was later exiled with Germany’s defeat.




Many other monuments to ancient Greek mythology also adorn the grounds, including several statues that line the courtyard. Some of my favorites were the nine muses, especially the one pictured here, whom I like to think of as the musing muse.


The Achilleion Palace is only one of many fascinating things to do on lovely Corfu, and I am resolved to return and further explore the other palaces, forts and quaint villages and learn more about the history of this beautiful island. There are several opportunities to visit Corfu with Oceania Cruises in 2014:



Today Marina
calls on La Spezia, Italy, and guests have the chance to visit delightful Cinque
Terre. As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I had the opportunity to visit the
villages of Cinque Terre last year, and they are the most enchanting I’ve seen.



Cinque Terre is composed of five fishing villages along the
stunning Ligurian coast of Italy. Soaring cliffs rise straight out of the sea,
and this rugged landscape kept these towns inaccessible by land and completely
isolated for centuries. As a result, the traditional Ligurian culture has been
remarkably well preserved, and Cinque Terre is both a national park and a
UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Even today it is very difficult to reach the villages by car,
and no traffic is allowed in the historical centers. The best way to reach the
villages is by boat or train, both of which are available from La Spezia. There
are also hiking trails that lead between each of the villages, although some
require steep ascents or descents, often via stairs. The easiest, shortest and
most famous path is the Via dell’Amore, or “Lovers’ Lane,” that runs between
Manarola and Riomaggiore and offers spectacular views. But then, in Cinque
Terre almost any vantage point offers spectacular views.

My visit began in the village of Manarola. At first I was
simply mesmerized by the uniquely scenic beauty of the town, embodying all the
romance of the Italian Riviera. But I was even more astounded to imagine what
perseverance had been required to create these isolated villages and ensure
their survival. In addition to fishing, the locals have made their living
through the centuries by constructing thousands of miles of terraces along the
cliffs on which grapes and olives are grown. Because of the challenging
topography, most of the cultivation of the vineyards is done manually. Today
Cinque Terre offers a picturesque and peaceful retreat only because of
centuries of hard work and determination.



My next stop was Vernazza. Both Vernazza and Monterosso were
devastated during a freakishly severe rainstorm that caused destructive floods
and mudslides in October 2011. But both towns rallied impressively afterward
and made a remarkable recovery. Now the cafés,
restaurants and shops are all bustling again as tourists and locals alike enjoy
Vernazza’s charming waterfront, one of the most photographed spots along a
coastline that inspires infinite photographs.


My final stop for the day was Monterosso al Mare, where the Torre
Aurora stands on a promontory overlooking the sea. The medieval tower was one
of several constructed in the 16th century to protect the town from pirates. A
lovely walk along the coast took me from the train station past the Torre
Aurora to the Old Town.


Monterosso has some lovely churches, such as the 14th
century Church of Saint John the Baptist with its striking striped
façade and rose window.


Next door is the Church of the
Brotherhood of Death and Prayer. This charitable brotherhood for the poor, farmers,
fishermen and sailors was committed to providing burials for those who could
not afford it. As I was admiring the Baroque details of the church, I suddenly
found myself taking a much closer look. The interior was adorned with skeletons,
a reminder of the inevitability of death. It is said that pirates donated their
treasure to the church in an attempt to save their souls.



After a day of touring, I stopped into one of the lovely
restaurants that lined the narrow streets. I felt obligated to reward the local
fishermen and vintners for their efforts, so my choice for lunch was an easy
one: seafood pasta and a local wine. Both were absolutely delicious, and the
crisp white wine beautifully complemented the flavors of the pasta. Liguria is
also known for its pesto, so as an appetizer, I tried some trofie al pesto. The
hand-rolled pasta was the perfect marriage for the best pesto I’ve ever tasted.



I was content to conclude my visit without seeing the other
two villages, Riomaggiore and Corniglia, because that gave me an excuse to
return! Oceania Cruises offers excursions to Cinque Terre not only from La
Spezia but from Livorno as well. I hope you have the chance to visit these
captivating villages on an upcoming Oceania Cruises voyage.