Sunday, July 31, 2022

Lessons learned from our trip to Europe

We've been home for three weeks, so I've had time to reflect on our 16-day cruise in Europe. Except for travel back and forth between our apartment in Washington and our trailer in Tucson, it's the first trip we've taken since the Before Times.

As usual, I learned a bunch.

1. If you have a monthly travel budget, but you haven't done any traveling for two years, you have enough to splurge on business class plane tickets. You might have trouble figuring out how to get into your middle business class seat for the first time if you don't have very good visual/spacial intelligence; you block the aisle for a whole minute until you figure it out. The seat feels like being in a space pod. You can recline until you're lying down, and you can sleep. If you sleep for three hours in your business class seat, you don't have much fatigue and jet lag when you arrive in Barcelona.

2. It's a good idea to arrive at a tour's starting point a day early. When we went to Paris years ago, we arrived late in the afternoon of the start of the tour. I slept  through the entire bus ride of "Paris at Night". Since then, we arrive a day early when we're going on a tour.

3. If you have been learning Spanish on Duolingo for two months, you can have a conversation with the Barcelona taxi driver that you almost understand. Even if you're both limited in the other person's language, it can be done. Even if you both laugh from time to time.

4. You're glad you signed up for a "relaxed" group tour. You remember times in the past when you've walked several miles without a problem. And maybe it will happen again in the future. But if you have a bad knee, you're grateful to be with a group that takes it a little easier.

5. When you are watching out for your husband, who is still recovering from a weeklong hospital stay for sepsis that resulted in physical deconditioning, you sometimes don't give your full attention to lectures and other activities. But you knew this trip would be like that, so it's okay. You would both rather have this adventure than stay at home.

6. You have a comfortable cabin on the small ship, but you come to realize that you would rather be disembarking every day than spending every other day at sea. It's unavoidable if the places you're visiting are hundreds of miles from each other, but you decide next time you'll try river cruising.

7. Wine is free at dinner, and most of your shipmates enjoy that. You, however, don't drink, so when the conversations get louder, you usually excuse yourself and go back to your cabin. 

8. Walking around on a ship is good physical therapy, especially if you use the stairs instead of the elevator and if you leave your cane in your cabin sometimes. Since we've been home, I only use my cane when I'm walking a distance; in the house, and running errands, I don't. I'm stronger now for the ship experience.

9. All the ports of call were beautiful, whether in a city or in the countryside. Barcelona, Tangiers, Porto, Bilbao, Medoc, Saint Malo, Cherbourg, and Tilbury. 

10. Art had wheelchair assistance in the airports. Especially at Heathrow, we would have gotten hopelessly lost and might well have missed our flights, except for the assistance, which was magnificent. The distances were good exercise for me and possible for Art.

11. The hardest part of the trip for me was being without wifi. How embarrassing.

12. In our group, eight people tested positive for covid at some point onboard, and they were confined to their cabins until they had a negative test. We were lucky. We didn't test positive until the first week after we got home!

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Ports of call, Part 2 - France

We disembarked at Le Verdon-sur-Mer (Medoc, France) and drove an hour and a half or so through wine country. Art and I don't drink, so I wasn't much interested in this field trip, but I'm glad we went. The ride was beautiful, with miles and miles of fields of ripening grapes.

Many years ago, I went to a winery in Napa, California as part of a road trip. We did some wine tasting (I drank back then) and I found a rose I really liked, which I bought for years. The wine cellar was like a basement. Today's wine cellar had a different look.

Our local guide commented that most of the wineries were family owned for multiple generations. The young woman in the photo above is the fourth generation in the family-owned winery. These days, one of the children will run the business, another will do the marketing, and another will be responsible for the crop. 


Our next port of call was Saint Malo in France and a 90-minute bus ride to Mont Saint Michel. The photos I'd seen of the old fortress had always made the place look like an island.

But it turns out there's a tidal bore there, second largest in the world after the Bay of Fundy. In the space of a few hours, this monument temporarily becomes an island amid high tides. The tide was low during our visit.

Of the 11 people in our group not shown in this photo, eight were quarantined in their cabins and three had remained in Saint Malo to explore the town.

There's an abbey on the crest of the island and a village full of tourists and tourist shops on the lower levels. Art and I bought ice cream cones and then found stone benches set into the walls to people watch. It looked as busy as Disneyland. I've been told that if you find lodging for an overnight stay, it's really beautiful when the day trippers leave and the stars come out.

After our return to the ship for lunch, we had an option in the afternoon to explore Saint Malo. I wish I'd had enough energy to go out again. At the suggestion of the cruise program, Art and I were reading "All the Light We Cannot See," by Anthony Doerr, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The story is about a blind French girl (Marie-Laure) and a German boy (Werner) whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. Part of the story takes place in Saint Malo, and the book details many of the streets and features there in describing how the blind teenager, Marie Laure, gets around. I would love to have found the house at #4 rue Vauborel.

From the port at Cherbourg, France, a bus took our group to Omaha Beach, which was one of the five landing beaches on D-Day (June 6, 1944).  I expected this day to be a trip highlight for me. Our visits to My Lai in Vietnam in 2006, and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland in 2015, had been similar memorable times. I grew up in a military family, but actual war hadn't been talked about much. These destinations, for me, are markers of horror, of what humans can do to each other, whether they are looked at as heroes or monsters. For some reason, I need to see these places.

And the American Cemetery. One of our group had an uncle buried here.

The Aegean Odyssey left Cherbourg for our final leg across the English Channel, to the port of Tilbury on the River Thames. It's London's major port. We disembarked the next morning, boarding a bus for Heathrow Airport and our travels home. 

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Ports of call, Part 1 - Spain, Morocco and Portugal

We flew to Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, a day before the Aegean Odyssey embarkation and stayed at the Hotel Del Mar, near the port. A smallish room but fine for us to catch up on the time-zone difference. And a great breakfast buffet, with conversations in multiple languages around us.

The next afternoon, we took a taxi to the pier, got our passwords checked and temps taken, and took a quick Covid test before we boarded the Aegean Odyssey. Between that time and end of the cruise two weeks later, in our group of 24, eight people tested positive. They were quarantined in their cabins until they tested negative. Passengers were required to wear masks in all the public rooms and on public transportation. We were grateful to escape the virus during the cruise.

The first tour day our "relaxed" group (one of eight separate 25-person groups in this Road Scholar tour) took a panoramic bus tour of Barcelona, exploring the sites of the 1992 Summer Olympics. I wondered, in that congested area, how the Games accommodated the traffic.

The tour on the second morning was to the Picasso Museum, where many of the artist's early works are displayed. 

He was self-taught until the age of 16, then went to school to learn the traditional methods. He was a prolific sketcher; this wall displays only a small number of them.

It was a half-mile walk from the bus to the museum and back. Art passed on this field trip. Using my cane made the walk doable. I'm not much of a fan of art museums, but we had an excellent guide who made this one interesting.


The Aegean Odyssey left Barcelona that afternoon for a day at sea on the Mediterranean passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, which separates Europe and Africa.  We disembarked in Tangier, Morocco. It's historically a city for international trade. Our relaxed group skipped the hilly climb to the Medina, the old city and marketplace. Instead, we visited Cap Spartel, a lighthouse tower near where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.

We also went to Hercules' Cave, of archaeological and mythological fame. I was proud that Art and I both managed the walk on the downward-sloping stones. 

And an extremely rough night and day at sea, when we were advised not to move around on the ship any more than was necessary. We appreciated the grab bars in the shower and in all the hallways.


Porto, our next port of call, is the second largest city in Portugal. In the medieval Ribeira district, narrow cobbled streets wind past merchants' houses and cafes.  

I stopped in a tourist shop near the cathedral. Small shop, MANY items for sale! 


Our next port of call was Bilbao, Spain. I had never heard of this city, in Basque country, and I wonder why that is.  

From Wikipedia: "Bilbao is one of the most important ports in Spain. Beginning in the 1870s, Bilbao experienced rapid industrialization based on the export of iron ore and the development of the iron and steel and shipbuilding industries." Thirty years ago it was a dirty and polluted industrial city. The industry is no longer dominant, and the city has become revitalized. The significant amount of money spent came from the EU, from taxes remaining in the region rather than being sent to the central government, and land sales available because many companies went bankrupt and had to sell their properties to pay taxes. 

We drove from the port up the river, so we could see where the old industrial sections had been. Our first stop was at the Vizcaya Bridge, the first ever transporter bridge built in the world, and one of the few surviving examples. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Vizcaya Bridge connects Portugalete and Getxo, two port towns along the Bay of Biscay. It's like a ferryboat suspended from a bridge.

There's a hilltop park that overlooks the city. We could see the revitalized river area and the Guggenheim Museum. As we stood at the railing, I said to Art, "I could live here." 

I'm not much into art, but the Guggenheim Museum was impressive. I love how the building is designed. I can't imagine how an architect's mind works to create "unconventional" structures. 

Here's just one of the exhibits: 

I took this photo - in the gift shop - because the people, hands in pockets, looking up, looked like I felt when I looked around the museum, from outside and within it.

Here's a link to a Lonely Planet article about how the museum came to be.

Ports of call, Part 2, coming soon.



Friday, July 8, 2022

Going, going....


Neither Art nor I got covid - though my son James, who lives upstairs, did. Fortunately, we hadn't seen him for three days before he got symptoms.

Art's physical therapy is going very well. Most of the time he's standing upright, rather than bent over as he was before. He's becoming "conditioned" again.

I went to the ortho clinic on Monday, got a steroid shot in my knee and an "offloading knee brace" to minimize the discomfort when I walk a distance.

I said to Art, "Are you looking forward to this trip?" He said, "Yes. I thought for a while you weren't going to want to go, so we wouldn't be going." I said, "That's because I didn't know if you would be strong enough." He rolled his eyes. I guess he was feeling better.

I'd read that lots of flights were being canceled and that there was a great shortage of baggage handlers at Heathrow and other airports, and that passengers were being advised to pack three days of clothing in their carryons. So we did that. 

We got everything into four suitcases, and made reservations for Uber to get us to the airport. Once there, we asked British Airways for wheelchair assistance for Art, both in Seattle and at Heathrow in London for our connection to Barcelona. We couldn't have asked for more attentive treatment. 

Business class is fabulous! 

I'll be sending out two more blogs about our trip: one with pictures for our seven ports of call and the other with my "what I learned on this trip" list.