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|Queen Victoria 2010 Cruises
Baltic Explorer and Jewels of the Mediterranean - Part 5
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We booked two cruises ‘back to back’ and so had a day 'In Transit' in Southampton. Fortunately we did not need to move to a different cabin. What is the best way of spending a day in Southampton, especially when it is a Sunday, and the weather is cold and gloomy ? We knew that the Solent Sky Aviation Museum would be open, but not until 1200. We also had a small amount of shopping to do, and had identified the ASDA supermarket as being within walking distance of Dock Gate 4. It opened at 1100. If the day was really a disaster there was always the Sir Lucien Curtis Weatherspoons nearby for refreshments. We disembarked just before 1100 when most of the disembarking passengers had gone, and the ship was empty. It was delightful to have her to ourselves, but we knew that soon there would be thousands of new passengers arriving, and rumours were that this would include some 250 children because there was a special offer on this voyage – children go free. To our surprise, many shops were open and the town was full of people shopping, some of whom we recognised as staff from the QV. We reached the Solent Sky Aviation Museum just after 1200 and had plenty of time to study the displays and admire the aircraft. We even persuaded one of the volunteer guides to open the hatch to the cockpit of their Ansett flying boat for us and give us a twenty minute talk.
After leaving Southampton on Sunday we enjoyed the three days at sea. The weather was perfect - the sun shone and those without the foresight to bring suntan lotion quickly turned the colour of lobsters. The Bay of Biscay was smooth. And the 248 children said to be on board for this special cruise were no problem. We passed Gibraltar heading towards Barcelona; Gibraltar would be our final port on the return journey.
The Queen Victoria was moored some distance from the town and there was a free shuttle bus to the World Trade Centre. It was very quiet with few people about. Spain has a reputation for late nights and late mornings. We planned a mixture of walking and short trips on the Metro, but everything was sufficiently close that we never used the Metro. We strolled across to the Monument Colon – it is a statue of Christopher Columbus pointing towards the horizon, on top of a tall column in the centre of the Placa del Portal de la Pau and commemorates his first visit to the Americas in 1492. Ahead stretched the main boulevard, La Rambla, a famous wide avenue with stalls along the side which were just starting to open. The Mercat de la Boqueria is the main covered food market, entered through an impressive gateway from La Rambla, then at the end of La Rambla is the Placa de Catalunya, dominated by the stark El Corte Ingles department store. We had walked the length of two Metro stops without any problem, and it is much more interesting above ground.
Another broad avenue, the Passeig de Gracia, starts in the Placa de Catalunya. By the start of the 20th century it was one of the most desirable residential streets, and includes several famous houses by Gaudi. Not all the interesting buildings are by Gaudi. The most impressive grouping is the Manzana de la Discordia and comprises three Modernistic masterpieces: Casa Amatller, Casa Batllo and Casa Lleo-Morena. They have different and clashing architectural styles. Casa Batllo, at number 43, is a Gaudi masterpiece, built in 1907. The facade is said to represent the triumph of St George over the dragon, with the mosaics representing the scales of the dragon, the roof the dragon’s back and the balconies representing the skulls and bones of its victims. The building was open for visits. There is a beautiful large room on the first floor looking out over the street. The garden is at the rear and we were able to climb the stairs to the rooftop to admire Gaudi’s chimneys.
Further along the Passeig de Gracia is the Casa Mila - ‘La Pedrera’. It was easy to spot at the corner because of the long queues waiting to go in. It was built by Gaudi in 1912 and shocked the town because of its unusual curving facade. There is an exhibition inside about the origins and construction of the building. The highlight here is again a visit to the rooftop terrace, and more of Gaudi’s unusual chimneys. Finally, the Catedral de la Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) is Barcelona’s most distinctive landmark and another Gaudi design. Begun in 1882, it was intended there should be three facades: Nativity, Passion and Celestial Glory. Only the Nativity facade and four of the towers were completed when Gaudi died in 1926, run over by a tram. The best view of this facade is from the park in Placa Gaudi and the darker early stonework with its fine details of plants and animals is in contrast to the lighter modern and minimalist recent additions. It is all still an active building site, and the Passion facade and 4 more towers have been constructed, each over 100 metres tall. The Glory facade and another set of towers, are part built, and previous concrete work is being demolished. Estimates are that it will be 80 years before it is all finished. We were amazed that the queues to pay to visit stretched half way around the huge site and must have held well over a thousand people - with hindsight we should have come here first. If there is only the chance to visit one of Gaudi’s extraordinary buildings, then it should be the Catedral. Entry also includes access to the towers and we saw glimpses of people. The views must be breathtaking.
We meandered back taking whichever roads looked interesting until we reached the Via Laietana. The Palau de la Musica Catalana is a dazzling building, standing back from the road. Built in 1908 it is said to be one of the finest concert houses in the world. It is certainly a very beautiful building, but it is very difficult to stand back and take pictures so we had to be content with postcards.
The Gothic Quarter is Barcelona’s oldest district, with narrow streets and alleyways. It is not an area limited to gothic architecture although it includes the Gothic Cathedral. The outside of the building was being restored, but inside was peaceful. It is dedicated to Saint Eulalia, who was martyred in the 4th century. She lies in the crypt below the altar. The cloister has a pond with 13 white geese to match the 13 punishments she suffered. It is possible to take a lift up to the roof and admire the views. The queues were not very long, which was fortunate because the lift only took 8 people. There was a lot of construction work going on, and we were restricted to where we could go.
La Rambla had now become alive with street entertainment and souvenir shops, and was full of people. It was such a contrast to the peace of the early morning. We completed our walk with the first part of La Rambla de Mar, to look back at the Passeig de Colom and the small boats in the harbour before working our way back to the ship.
We had expected to be at anchor off Monte Carlo with a slow and tedious tendering operation to go ashore, so were delighted when Captain Paul Wright hadannounced the previous day that he hoped to get into the one berth there. Indeed the weather was kind and we were successful. However, as we went ashore it started to rain, and continued for most of the morning. In bad weather we like to be under cover, so walked from the dock up the steps to the Old Town of Monaco-Ville, directly above us. Here we began with a visit to the Prince’s Palace. Usually there is a daily ceremony of the Changing of the Guard but there were lots of notices stating that it was not to take place. Nevertheless rows of tourists, several deep were waiting under their umbrellas, alongside their tour guides who should really have known better. It was still raining so we walked through the narrow streets with their pavement cafés to the cathedral. This Roman-Byzantine cathedral is the burial place for former Princes, the most recent being Prince Rainier II who died in 2005 and his wife Princess Grace who died in 1982, the former actress Grace Kelly.
Our next visit was to the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium. This is one of Prince Albert I’s greatest achievements. The Prince was himself a respected and significant explorer and scientist, and the renowned Jacques-Yves Cousteau was the museum director until 1988 and some of his original equipment is there. In parallel, alongside the usual stuffed birds and model ships, there was a temporary display of modern art by Damien Hirst. There was one oversize human figure outside the building and then a white dove in the entrance lobby, followed by preserved whales in large glass cages. Each had a guardian to discourage photography. From the rooftop there was a good view of the principality, and yet another large modern human sculpture and its guardian. We preferred the Aquarium in the basement which is excellent, and was full of parents and children, all marvelling at the displays of colourful fish. We have seen Aquariums in other countries, but this display was really special, not only for the fish but also for the context in which they were living. It was all that we had hoped to see when we visited the Great Barrier Reef earlier in 2010, but had been disappointed.
The weather improved as we left, and the sun shined. There is a regular electric bateau-bus to cross the Port Hercule to the Casino and it had just arrived and only costs 1 Euro each way. It was then a short walk to the lift up to the Casino gardens and a view down onto the Queen Victoria. Having got this far we had to go inside the legendary Casino, so we checked our cameras and bag and looked inside. Without passports (and a big budget) it was impossible to go beyond the Atrium and into the gaming rooms, but we could get a glimpse of some action through the doorway. Opened in 1863, the entire collection of buildings exudes the essence of La Belle Epoque. Outside in the Place du Casino there were lots of people enjoying the sunshine and the gardens outside, and the Cafe de Paris opposite, were both full. It was such a contrast with the morning and we wished we could stay longer. When we see the next Monte Carlo Rally on TV we will know exactly where the course is staged.
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