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From Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #12: “The Towering Mountain of Montserrat and Why the Sacred Statue (the Virgin Mary and Child) is Black. “

Karen overlooking the clouds in Montserrat, Spain

Karen overlooking the clouds in Montserrat, Spain

Via a nail biting, narrow winding road, forty-miles outside Barcelona, Spain, we ascended by bus, 4,000 feet above sea level, to the astonishing Montserrat Monastery – that literally floats above the clouds. Dating back to 888 B.C., Montserrat is Catalonia’s most important religious retreat. Groups of young people from all over Catalonia make overnight hikes, at least once in their lives, to watch the sunrise and visit the Basilica.

Cross of San Miguel - Montserrat, Spain

Cross of San Miguel (to the right) – Montserrat, Spain

In Catalan, “Montserrat” means ‘saw mountain’ (as it appears serrated like a handsaw). The name describes the mountain’s peculiar appearance, with its multitude of rock formations that are visible from a great distance. The mountain is composed of strikingly pink conglomerate, a form of sedimentary rock. Montserrat is Spain’s first declared National Park.

Virgin Of Montserrat - Montserrat, Spain

The Black Virgin Of Montserrat – Montserrat, Spain

Amsterdam To Rome Cruise Post #11 – ‘Barcelona, Spain: The City of the Never-Ending Church, the Brilliant Gaudí and the 2nd Most Valuable Soccer Team in the World.’

Karen at The Church of Colònia Güell by Antoni Gaudí

Karen at The Church of Colònia Güell by Antoni Gaudí – Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona, the capital city of Spain and the country’s 2nd largest city, is an important cultural center. Particularly renowned are the architectural works of the great Antoni Gaudí, which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city has hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics and many other international sport tournaments, including their own famous, home soccer team, Futbol Club Barcelona. Unlike many other football clubs, the fans (which has included Pope John Paul II, an honorary member) operate Futbol Club Barcelona. It is the second most valuable sports team in the world, worth $3.2 billion, and the world’s second-richest football club in terms of revenue, with an annual turnover of $613 million (the richest being Madrid, Spain).

La Sagrada Família by Antoni Gaudí - Barcelona, Spain

La Sagrada Família by Antoni Gaudí – Barcelona, Spain

Amsterdam To Rome Cruise Post #10 – ‘Valencia, Spain: The City of Oranges, Giant-eyed buildings and Paella’

Turia Fountain, located in the Plaza de la Virgen - Valencia, Spain

Turia Fountain, located in the Plaza de la Virgen – Valencia, Spain

There are parts of the ancient city of Valencia, founded as a Roman colony in 138 BC, that have a definite futuristic quality to it. As an example, Valencia houses the bizarre and fascinating City of the Arts and Science complex– the largest leisure and cultural complex in Europe. Several of the buildings that make up this group of six, lay on their sides in water, their elongated windowed-eye gazing towards the seemingly constant Valencian blue sky. The futuristic set of buildings was created by Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela in 2005… they include:

L'Hemisfèric - Valencia, Spain

L’Hemisfèric – Valencia, Spain

Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #9 – ‘Rock Of Gibraltar: The City of Ferocious Macaques and the Wedding of John & Yoko’

Rock of Gibraltar from the Seven Seas Voyager cruise ship

Rock of Gibraltar from the Seven Seas Voyager cruise ship

It was a day at sea on the Regent cruise ship, en route to Valencia, Spain. I awoke to a voice on the PA system alerting guests of the Rock of Gibraltar to our north. I opened the curtains and went out onto my balcony, welcomed by the wondrous view of the 1,398ft high limestone rock situated on the Iberian Peninsula. The gigantic, pale-grey monolith, comprised of crystalline and dolomite minerals, shimmered in the morning light. Wanting a closer view of the Rock, I quickly got dressed and headed for the 13th floor observation deck.

Rock of Gibraltar, Spain

Rock of Gibraltar, Spain

While Gibraltar itself was an extraordinary sight, I was overcome by a sense of awe upon entering the mouth of the Mediterranean. So smooth and calm the sea was, compared to the Bay of Biscay, which had caused three rather restless nights due to rocking and rolling  in six-meter swells. As I looked out to the north, there was the continent of Europe and when I turned to the south, there was Africa (Tangiers, Morocco), with its arid, chocolate-brown Rif mountain range. I experienced a peculiar sensation, being able to see two very different worlds at the same time – only a small expanse of 50 miles of sea between the continents. What with Ebola, HIV and internal conflicts in Africa, it was quite a contrast to behold that mass of land, so peaceful and serene, from the vantage point of the ship.

Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #8 – ‘Lisbon, Portugal: The City of Light, Art and Egg Tart Pastries’

Karen overlooking Lisbon with Targus River in background

Karen overlooking Lisbon with Tagus River in background

Known as “the white city” because of its clear light and beach-worthy climate, Lisbon is spread over a string of seven hills north of the Tagus River. With its switchback streets and alleyways, pastel-colored houses with laundry hung out to dry, black-and-white mosaic cobblestone sidewalks bordering wide boulevards, red and yellow trams clanking through the streets, blue-and-white painted, glazed ceramic tiles adorning churches and fountains, it is as if the city had been handcrafted for a Cinemascope movie.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, was colonized by many civilizations such as the Greeks and the Moors, and finally in 1147, by the Portuguese. The city is linked with heroic deeds of the Portuguese maritime exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was the Age of Discoveries and the Golden Era of Portugal, transforming Lisbon into the opulent center of a vast empire. Part of the wealth from these expeditions was used to build monuments and buildings in a unique Portuguese style: the extravagant Manueline architecture, best typified in the Jerónimos Monastery (a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Jerónimos Monastery - Lisbon, Portugal

Jerónimos Monastery – Lisbon, Portugal

Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #7 – ‘Oporto, Portugal: The City of Port Wine and Bookstore of Harry Potter Inspiration’

Historic Centre of Oporto from the Douro River - Oporto, Portugal

Historic Centre of Oporto from the Douro River – Oporto, Portugal

Oporto, also known as ‘Porto’, is the second largest city in Portugal (next to its sister city, Lisbon). Once an important outpost of the Roman Empire, Oporto is now one of the oldest cities in Europe, dating back to 275 BC. The Douro River, which was a Roman trading center, is now hallmarked by an extraordinary double-decker bridge, the work of the famous Parisian engineer, Gustav Eiffel (of the Eiffel Tower, Paris).

Dom Luís I Bridge over the Douro River - Oporto, Portugal

Dom Luís I Bridge over the Douro River – Oporto, Portugal

Porto is registered as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. One of the reasons for its fame is its unique, classical gilt-work architecture, reflecting the baroque-style and romanticism of the 19th and 20th century. I remember thinking the lacey balconies gracing many of the buildings, somehow reminded me of New Orleans.

Ribeira Square - Oporto, Portugal

Ribeira Square – Oporto, Portugal

Porto’s most internationally famous export is port wine, which is named for the city. The Portuguese take their wine so seriously, that the guidelines dictated by the ‘European Union of Protected Designation of Origin’ state that only port from Portugal may be labeled as Port Wine. I’ve personally never been a fan of port because of its overwhelming sweetness, but after visiting the Sandeman Winery and tasting a glass, I could possibly do a commercial! The port was memorable… smokey and sweet, delicate and bitter – all at the same time.

Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #6 – ‘La Coruña, Spain: The City of the Tower of Hercules Near the End of the Earth’

Palacio Municipal in the Plaza de Maria Pita - La Coruña, Spain

Palacio Municipal, located in the Plaza de Maria Pita – La Coruña, Spain

It was a rainy, overcast day as we walked through the ancient cobblestoned streets of historic La Coruña – one of Spain’s busiest ports. We passed unusual Celtic monoliths on our way to the remarkable Tower of Hercules, one of the oldest lighthouses in the world that is still in operation.

The Tower Of Hercules - La Coruña, Spain

The Tower Of Hercules – La Coruña, Spain

The Tower of Hercules is still standing at 187-ft and can be seen from 32-miles away. Now declared a National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was constructed by the Romans in the 2nd Century A.D. by the order of Emperor Trajan – dedicated to Mars. Through the millennia, many mythical stories of its origin have been told. According to a myth that blends Celtic and Greco-Roman elements, the hero Hercules slew the giant tyrant Geryon after three days and three nights of continuous battle. Hercules then—in a Celtic gesture— buried the head of Geryon with his weapons and ordered that a city be built on the site. This myth is represented by the skull and crossbones that can be seen atop the lighthouse and appears in the coat-of-arms of the city of La Coruña.

Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #5 – ‘Bilbao, Spain: The City of Guggenheim’

Bilbao, Spain skyline

Bilbao, Spain skyline

On June 15th, 1300, Don Diego Lopez de Haro V, Lord of Biscay, founded the Basque city of Bilbao. Seven hundred and fourteen years later, Bilbao encompasses almost 1 million inhabitants, nearly half the total population of the Basque Country and the fourth-largest urban population in Spain.

La Salve Bridge with spider sculpture “Maman” (1999) by Louise Bourgeois, next to the Guggenheim Museum

La Salve Bridge with spider sculpture “Maman” (1999) by Louise Bourgeois, outside the Guggenheim Museum

The main reason I had been dreaming to visit Bilbao, was to finally set eyes on the magnificent Guggenheim Museum designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry. Thanks to the ship’s itinerary, my wish came true. As we drove toward the shimmering vision of 30,000 sheets of titanium, suddenly there before us was the towering 257,000 square foot monumental masterpiece, built in the shape of a ship. The museum opened in October 1997 and overnight, became Bilbao’s main attraction worldwide. The enormous atrium, more than 150-feet high, is connected to the 19 galleries by a system of suspended metal walkways and glass elevators. The museum’s collection has featured the works of some of the most influential artists of the last century, including Pablo Picasso, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollack, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Yves Klein, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Richard Serra.

Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #4 – ‘Le Verdon & Bordeaux: The City of Wine and Guillotines’

Plantation-style architecture on winery grounds - Le Verdon, France

Plantation-style home on winery grounds – Le Verdon, France

On a unseasonably sunny October day, we visited the Chateau Marquis de Terme vineyards and their winery, housed in ‘plantation’ architecture. We also toured their cellars and sampled some of their best wines. Following our ‘tasting of the vines,’ we headed from Le Verdon to Bordeaux, which is a UNESCO world heritage city. I soon discovered why…

Karen outside the Chateau Marquis de Terme vineyards

Karen outside the Chateau Marquis de Terme vineyards after a glass (or two) of their best wine

Victor Hugo described Bordeaux as, “Versailles plus Antwerp.” Conservative and refined, Bordeaux is an outstanding example of innovative classical and neoclassical architecture, and a melting pot of culture. The city is the world’s major wine industry capital. Bordeaux wine has been produced in the region since the 8th century, with an annual production of approximately 960 million bottles – some of which, are the most expensive in the world… as an example, the Mouton-Rothschild wines.

The seven-metre-high work, entitled "Sanna," (Jaume Plensa, 2013), depicts a woman’s head.

The seven-metre-high work, entitled “Sanna,” (Jaume Plensa, 2013), depicts a woman’s head.

Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #3 – ‘Lorient and Point-Aven, France: The Little City the Nazi’s tried to destroy’

Karen by stone house in Point-Aven

Karen by stone house in Point-Aven

Lorient is located south of Brittany on the Atlantic Ocean. It is a major fishing port that was established by the French East India Company in 1664, chartered by King Louie XIV. Lorient was a former base of the French Navy but then was taken over by the Germans in World War II and became a German U-boat base (Keroman Submarine Base). The base was capable of sheltering 30 submarines undercover. Although allied bombing raids heavily damaged Lorient, the naval base survived through to the end of the war. The Germans held the city until May 1945, refusing to surrender to the American army that surrounded them. Since the allies could not destroy the base and its submarine pens, they decided to flatten the city and the Port of Lorient, in order to cut the supply lines of the U-boat bases. Over 60,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on Lorient. The city was almost completely destroyed.

Where Paul Gauguin painted in Point-Aven

Where Paul Gauguin painted in Point-Aven