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From Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #17 – “Palermo, Sicily: The City of the Cosa Nostra, fabulous Pizza & Gelato and the Great Mount Pellegrino.”

Festive Horse & Carraige - Palermo, Sicily

Festive Horse & Carriage – Palermo, Sicily

Palermo is located on the island of Sicily and is the region’s capital city.  It’s history has suffered 13 foreign dominations from which she has taken both the best and the worst. The invasion of so many diverse cultures has made Sicily a fascinating place, quite unlike any other…

Enrico Alfano, one of the first publicly known mobsters in Sicily

Enrico Alfano, one of the first publicly known mobsters in Sicily

Since the mid-19th century, Palermo was known as the hive of Mafioso activity. The genesis of the Mafia began under feudalism, whereby the nobility owned most of the land and enforced law and order through their private armies. In countryside towns that lacked formal law, local elites responded to banditry by recruiting young men into “companies-at-arms” to hunt down thieves and negotiate the return of stolen property, in exchange for a pardon for the thieves and a fee from the victims.  These companies-at-arms were often made up of former bandits and criminals, usually the most skilled and violent of them. While this saved communities the trouble of training their own policemen, it may have made the companies-at-arms more inclined to collude with their former brethren rather than destroy them. On the other side of its much-debated history, my grandmother told me that the mafia actually started out as a benign organization. That it was mainly created to protect the women and children.

From Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #15: Palma De Mallorca, Spain: “The City of Olive Tourism, Castle of Kings & Prisoners, And House of Wax & Taxidermy”

Overlooking Palma De Mallorca, Spain

Overlooking Palma De Mallorca, Spain

Palma De Mallorca is the capital and largest city of the Balearic Islands in Spain. The name of the island originates from an old Latin phrase ‘insula maior’ that means ‘larger island’. In ancient times, the Romans would use this term to refer to the island because Mallorca is the largest island in Spain. Over time, the phrase was mispronounced and corrupted. The British pronounced it as Majorca, while the rest of world simply referred to it as Mallorca.

Yachts with the Cathedral Palma Mallorca in the background - Palma De Mallorca, Spain

Yachts, with the Cathedral Palma Mallorca in the background – Palma De Mallorca, Spain

Today, Mallorca is one of Europe’s major holiday destinations. It is a city of modern hotel chains and flashy shops, yet still retains much of its old architecture. Football is a passion on the island, with the Real Mallorca team competing at its home playing field, the Iberostar Stadium. The island is famous for its many olive groves, which has led to the development of olive tourism on the island.

Bellver Castle - Palma De Mallorca, Spain

Bellver Castle – Palma De Mallorca, Spain

Gothic style structure of the Bellver Castle - Palma De Mallorca, Spain

Gothic style structure of the Bellver Castle – Palma De Mallorca, Spain

From Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #14: Monte Carlo, Monaco – “The City of Glitz, Glamour, Beauty and the Most Expensive Penthouse in the World”

Yachts along the shore of Monte Carlo, Monaco

Beautiful Monte Carlo, Monaco

Monte Carlo is situated at the base of the Maritime Alps along the French Riviera. Its name is of Italian origin meaning “Mount Charles,” in honor of the then-reigning prince, Charles III. Monaco is a sovereign city-state, governed under a constitutional monarchy, currently held by Prince Albert II (a constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which the monarch is legally restricted within the boundaries of a constitution).  Monaco is the second smallest country in the world next to the Vatican, and is also the most densely populated country in the world (with a population of 36,950 citizens within an area of 1mi2).

Casino de Monte-Carlo - Monte Carlo, Monaco

Casino de Monte-Carlo – Monte Carlo, Monaco

Yachts along the shore of Monte Carlo, Monaco

The harbor of Monte Carlo, Monaco

The principality’s mild climate, beautiful scenery and gambling casinos, have contributed to Monaco’s status as a premier tourist destination and haven for wealthy escapees. Monaco levies no income tax on individuals, thus attracting a considerable number of affluent “tax refugee residents” from European countries… who derive the majority of their income from activity outside of Monaco (ie: Ringo Starr). Monte Carlo is host to the Circuit de Monaco racetrack, on which the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix takes place. The lavish Casino de Monte-Carlo has been featured in numerous films, such as the James Bond series and Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly – the then future Princess of Monaco. There is a scene in To Catch A Thief, when Grace Kelly drives her car very fast and dangerously along the steep winding roads of Monaco – a sad coincidence to her actual death in 1982.

From Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #13: ‘The Great Freedom Port of Marseille & the Starry, Starry Night of Van Gogh’s Arles, France.’

Port of Marseille - Marseille, France

Port of Marseille – Marseille, France

Marseille is as cosmopolitan now as when the Phoenicians first founded it. Vital to the Crusades in the Middle Ages and crucial to Louis XIV as a military port, Marseille flourished as France’s market to the world – and still does so to this day. Marseille’s port is the second largest Mediterranean port, with over eighty-six thousand tons of goods transported annually. It has also served many travelers to freedom to America, including my great grandfather and his family – fleeing the Armenian Genocide.

Roman amphitheater built in 90 AD - Arles, France

Roman amphitheater built in 90 AD – Arles, France

Our tour began by driving fifty miles northeast of Marseille to the city of Arles, where post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh lived from 1888–1889 and produced over 300 paintings during his time there. Before exploring everything Van Gogh, we learnt about the city’s Roman history. We stopped at the Arles Amphitheatre, a two-tiered Roman amphitheater built in 90 AD – inspired by the Colosseum in Rome (built in 70 AD). The amphitheater was capable of seating over 20,000 spectators, and was built to provide entertainment in the form of chariot races and bloody Gladiator battles.

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 #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 #2 – ‘St. Malo, Brittany: The Walled City of Pirates’

Traditional garden of a "Malouinière," Montmarin, France.

Traditional garden of a “Malouinière,” Montmarin, France.

St. Malo, France is an ancient walled city situated on the North Coast of the Province of Brittany. It is now a busy fishing port and seaside resort, with a long and proud history of nautical explorers, traders and pirates. The city sustained damage during World War II by the Germans but has since been restored. It was named for the 6th century monk who converted the locals to Christianity. It was also an important port in the voyages of discovery. Cartier sailed from there to Canada in 1534. Soon after, St. Malo began to flourish as a trading port.

Old walled city of Saint-Malo

Old walled city of Saint-Malo

From the ramparts of St. Malo, one can peer down over the beautiful town, built in solid-gray granite with uniform black slate roofs. The city became notorious as the home of ruthless French privateers and pirates, terrorizing all on the high seas. Even the French King had a certain grudging respect for them, and often helped fill their coffers with booty.

Le Petit Bé: fort Vauban à Saint-Malo

Le Petit Bé: fort Vauban à Saint-Malo

Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #1 – ‘Amsterdam: City of Bicycles, Beautiful Girls and Anything Goes’


Karen touring one of Amsterdam’s 88 canals.

The very first thing I noted, driving into Amsterdam, was a massive sea of bicycles, scooters and motorbikes. I actually saw a man, peddling away on his bike, reading his phone. I saw yet another man on his bike, riding next to a young woman on her bike, with his arm around her. There were children on bikes, senior citizens on bikes, girls, their blonde hair waving behind them, on bikes. In fact, bikes are so popular, there is a three-story garage filled to the brim with them, where one can park one’s bike – much like we do in America, except our garages are filled with automobiles. I was told the reason why everyone has as a bike, is because to park your car at a meter in Amsterdam, can cost over $30 Euros an hour ($37 USD)


The many bicycles of Amsterdam.

I visited the magnificent Rijksmuseum. We got there late, unfortunately, so the tour guide flew me around the rooms. As a result, I only had a nibble of what is housed in that brilliant museum. The Rembrandts, in particular, The Night Watch, is a towering, gigantic painting. It is so powerful, that one wonders how Rembrandt was able to capture in paint, the souls of his subjects.