15 July 2001 London to Barcelona

We faced international travel on less hours of sleep than it would take to watch the movie Titanic.  Jet lag may be a medical condition, but I can assure you that a late show and an early flight produces a similar stupor.  We grabbed the bus to Heathrow and an English style breakfast at the airport before boarding the wrong airplane.  It seemed odd to be in an almost completely empty plane without a seat number matching my boarding pass.  Someone had left the wrong door open on the jetway: in fact, ours plane required a bus on the tarmac.  

Reconnoitered, we did make our way to Barcelona on British Midlands air.  Jen paid a small fee to have representatives from Princess Cruises meet us at the airport with a bus, and it was certainly worth it.  They sped us to the peer, where we moved quickly through the registration lines, dropped off our passports and picked up our cruise card, which would act as room key, boarding pass and a credit card on board.  Looked pretty classy, too, with a picture of the ship in gold trim.) We rounded the corner...  and faced the largest freakin' ship I'd ever seen.  Take a good-sized Manhattan office building, lay it on its side, and set it afloat.  Paint it gleaming white, too, and surround it with polished rails and lifeboats that would make any speedboat owner drool.  The Golden Princess is 950 feet long and 163 feet wide.  That's four times the length of Grand Central Station.  She is eighteen decks high standing 211 feet, which is substantially taller than either the Statue of Liberty or Niagara Falls.  And it would take us several days to find our way around, let alone see all of her theatres, shops and bars.  Moreover, this was her inaugural season, and only her fourth cruise.  She gleamed.  

The room was the first shock.  We had not asked the room to be guaranteed, which game them the liberty to increase our level if they were heavily booked.  Oh, how they did: we had a window (not a porthole, mind you, an actual view over one of the lifeboats)!  The room, though not enormous, was far from cramped and beautifully decorated with wood trimmings, a television, bar and desk.  The first onboard goal, however, was lunch, served at the 24-hour Horizon buffet on Lido deck, fourteen stories above the ocean.  It was smartly divided to two sides with plenty of tables on each.  The crowd control on board was so slick that I was never to feel "processed" on the voyage.  And the food at the buffet alone was outstanding, with plenty of fruit and fish in addition to carved meats, cheeses, salads and vegetarian food.

These gargoyles never did spit oil on passers by.

But neither of us had been to Barcelona, and we wanted to take every opportunity to see the city.  We grabbed a cab downtown, while I carefully memorized the sign "estacio A" so we could return to the ship.  He dropped us off in the Gothic Quarter, surrounding the central cathedral of the Holy Family.  It's old, yes, and richly ornate.  The brown stonework makes it look even older than it is.  Seven geese live in the interior Monks' court.  The sanctuary is vaulted in high Gothic arches, though without the Anglican transepts we had seen in England crossing the main aisle to form the shape of a cross.

We could only look around for a while, though, as a Baptism was occurring in the Sanctuary that Sunday afternoon.  I expected a great level of formality but the families entering were casually dressed, though all covering their knees and shoulders.  Babies in their Catholic baptism shifts seem to be one of those universal constants: suddenly, cultural differences seemed a lot less significant.  We walked around the town, though many buildings were closed for the Sabbath.  The outside of the opera house was particularly stunning.  The had photographs of the lush interior posted.  It's adorned with tropical-themed frescos in vivid colors.  We ordered pastry from a local bakery, returned to see the cathedral again and spent a few minutes watching the ubiquitous street performers imitating mannequins.  

Inside the cathedral.  You can smell the incense, can't you?  

It was at this point that we ran into trouble.  Barcelona is a port town, and receives a lot of commerce from shipping and sea traffic.  We hopped in a cab, and I recited my request: "estacio A, por favor" carefully rolling my R's and flourishing the only Spanish phrase I'd learned with a robust accent.  (You'd have thought I'd have picked up more growing up in New York City, but the only phrases I'd learned there would have gotten us hastily deported from a Catholic country.) I suppose it shouldn't have been surprising that the cab driver sped off in the utterly wrong direction.  I mean, in a port town, you'd think we'd have realized that there would be several "peer A"s, right?  "No, no!  ," I cried.  "Um, a ship muy grande!  Muy grande!  " This utterly failed to impress him, but passing the sign with the word internacional.  On it looked promising, so I rallied my flipped R's, and pronounced the word with as much matador flair as I could muster.  It did the trick, but we felt really sheepish.  

That evening, Jennifer wasn't quite up for blind sociality yet, so we requested a table for two in the Bernini dining room.  , one of the two central dining facilities for "Personal Choice" dining.  The system is entirely new, and (here's a plug) only instituted by Princess.  The upshot is that rather than having two seatings at fixed times and tables, you book dinner as you would in ordinary dining out: show up when you're ready to eat.  It was lovely, and would allow us to meet numerous different people over the course of the cruise.  They customarily ask you if you'd mind joining someone, though tonight we said we'd rather not.  So they sat us by the kitchen, but fed us well.  The service was more efficient than I'd expected: with around 2700 passengers on board (of a potential maximum of 3300!) all expecting dinner nearly at once, I wouldn't have complained if the plates were a bit cold.  But the food was excellent.

We spent the last of the evening taking a promenade around the Promenade deck, which features an outside deck that circumnavigates that entire boat.  By my math, that means one turn around the ship is fully a half mile walk.  I explored various doors, including a locked one.  That was how we met Alastair Greener, the Cornish-born cruise director, head of the myriad entertainments on board.  Being a mariner, he is well versed in all of the special jargon that only sailors use.  'Companionway' is staircase, 'bulkhead' is a wall, and so forth.  Alastair rushed over, cheerfully asking "Do you need any help?  " Which, of course, is sailor's talk for "Why the hell are you trying to break into the crew area?  " It was such a brave, new world!

16 July 2001 Barcelona

Princess is well known for it's selection of tours.  Jen and I share an aversion to tours: huddled together with often scary American tourists, it can be an uncomfortable way to view selected preselected attractions at someone else's pace.  There were, however, practicalities to consider.  With limited time (sometimes very limited), it might be difficult to arrange transportation and tickets, often in an unfamiliar city or language.  We decided to tour predominantly where logistics were an issue.  

Having explored downtown Barcelona a bit on our own, we took a morning tour to Montserrat, a beautiful monastery up in the hills overlooking the city.  As in all the tours, a local company provided the bus and the guide, and it seemed to lend an air of authenticity that the woman leading our group had a lilting Spanish accent.  It was a cold, misty morning, and we paused for the view at the base of the cliffs before ascending the winding road to the monastery itself.  It was an old abbey, founded around 800 AD, but destroyed along with much of Europe by Napoleon.  It is the fact that the church has been rebuilt slowly since 1880 that gives it a unique, disjointed feel.  The styles inside vary wildly from room to room, including some ultra-modern settings from the 1960s and a classic rose window in the back.  The surrounding cliffs are equally strange, with cylindrical promontories lending an otherworldly feel.  Montserrat is home to a celebrated boys' choir school specializing in Spanish renaissance polyphony and to one of the few Black Madonnas in Europe.  The Madonna is displayed on a balcony high over the altar.  We climbed steps to it adorned with images of female saints, including St.  Cecilia, patron of music.  Jen and I took a few minutes to sit in the sanctuary after the tour as the organist prepared for Mass.  Such quiet moments are the only way I can begin to grasp the feeling of a sanctuary; otherwise it always seems a mildly interesting architectural phenomenon.  After a few minutes, the sanctity of the chamber began to sink in.

We returned to the Princess.  Tours also assure you don't miss your boat.  The 'sail away' was demarked by a small celebration on the open decks, with some appropriate music accompanying our cast off.  Now, Freddie Mercury and Montserrrat Caballe bellowed Barcelona as the ship's mammoth horn split the afternoon.  Though no one on dock waived, and though Leonardo di Caprio was nowhere in sight, it was a majestic moment and we felt like kings.

The afternoon was spent beginning to explore our new, though temporary home.  We met our cabin steward, Ramon from the Philippines, and began to discover to our delight that almost none of the 1150 crew members were American.  Seven short blasts and one long on the ship's whistle indicated the start of a muster drill for safety, where all passengers grabbed the lifevest from their room and gathered at their designated area.  And, of course, began to size each other up.  After this, the tables in the Horizon court had quickly filled up, so we took our lunch outside to the aft deck with a view and a swimming pool.  It began to rain heavily, and we retreated to the large, covered part of the deck.  It was still warm, however, and this would prove to be our only rain on the cruise.  

The evening was our first in formal dress.  I was nervous that I'd be the only one, but determined to share in the classic elegance of a cruise and wore a tuxedo to dinner.  Jen wore a formal gown, and was thoroughly pleased to find most of our fellow passengers dressed for the occasion.  White dinner jackets, suite, gowns and tuxedos abounded.  It felt just like a movie.  This evening, we did join another coupe at dinner, a lovely, rotund and quite social pair from Mississippi.  We also went to the first production show, a musical review

Yes, the mountains up there are wrinkly.

called "Lights!  Camera!  Action!  .  " The staging was unexpectedly lavish, with movie clips projected on to round, handheld screens, numerous sets and, of course, a dancing camel.  Uber Rossi, an acrobatic clown in the Cirque du Soliel style led the show (and yes, that does hearken back to the comedia dell'arte, and yes, he was, appropriately, Italian).  None of the four production shows on the cruise would have a plot, but the voices were well trained, the choreography interesting, the lighting outstanding and it was awfully hard not to enjoy one's self.  

The evening, our first at sea, began to introduce me to the mariner's way.  Despite the size of the ship, the bedroom moves!  The shower moves!  It rocked me, like a baby, to sleep.

Some residents seemed perpetually stoned.

17 July 2001 Monte Carlo

Everything I know about Monaco I learned from Alfred Hitchcock's film, To Catch a Thief.  I have always imagined Monte Carlo as a storybook city, with rich playboys in white shirts and thin horizontal stripes.  With Grace Kelly driving Cary Grant recklessly along unimaginably sunny cliffsides.  The thing is, this is not a fiction: the city is actually that idyllic.  This is not just because Grace Kelly actually married Prince Rainier III to become Monaco's most beloved treasure.  It is because Monte Carlo looks almost exactly as innocent today as it did in 1955.

Jen had been here before, and wanted to show me the vistas, so we spent the morning driving to the little Medieval village of Eze in the French Countryside.  En route, we passed along the road where Grace and Cary had their famous picnic, and where Princess Grace died, too young, in a car crash.  

Princess adds a little value to the tours by making arrangements with local businesses to demonstrate their craft and, hopefully, sell scads of their wares. Before arriving at Eze, we stopped at a perfumery. The southern French countryside is especially good for making perfume, as the long, sunlit days extend far longer in the year than most places. They have three good growing seasons, and produce flowers as resplendent as any I've seen. In the perfumery, they press fruits and flowers and extract intense essences. Only a few exalted professionals in France are qualified to be a Nez (literally, a "nose"), who will combine these scents into perfumes. They must watch their diet, health and spend only a few hours a day in the richly pungent surroundings, lest they dull their faculties. Perfumes produced here are sold to designers, who label them and mark them up a few thousand percent, then sold to American department store saleswomen, who attack you with them as you try to find the waffle iron department. We did buy several bottles of the good stuff, sans designer label and export tax, at a pretty steep discount.

Eze is gorgeous.  It was built into a hillside, and still features streets too narrow and too steep to accommodate an invading legion.  (The width also ensured shade in the unairconditioned summers.) High turrets provided spectacular vistas of a cactus garden and the surrounding fields.  Shops sold unusually classy souvenirs.  I was eyeing a tapestry that reproduced a scene of a unicorn in a circular fence.  The original hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; I had grown up loving it.  When the shop's owner informed me that "C'est une reproduction d'une tapisserie à New York," I was sold.  Jen let me buy it for my office (what a marvelous concept...  I'm going to have an office!).  A gallery featured appropriately abstracts paintings based on Pierre Boulez' Piano Sonata No.  1, presented alongside pages of the score.  The curator and I had an animated conversation half in French, half in English about the remarkable work until we had to sprint down the hill to meet our bus again.  


We took lunch- a jambon and brie baguette alongside the harbor, which I expect was particularly good mostly because the waitress was very cute and winked at me.  ("Can't figure out the currency conversion, dear, let's just tip her everything we've got left...  ") Jen wanted to walk up to the castle, to tour the family's history, including a late painting of The Princess, and an extensive collection of Napoleonic artifacts.  The shops in the courtyard were overrun with aggressive T-shirt and purse buyers, including a Spaniard trying to pay with a traveler's cheque, while the shopkeeper bellowed at him "We are not a bank!  .  "

After paying our respects at Grace's tomb, I decided that it was a moral imperative to see the legendary European casino.  This seemed a straightforward walk, but you must visualize that Monte Carlo essentially is a cliff surrounding the harbor.  We climbed stairs upon stairs, and reached a summit- only to find that we had to hop over a wall to go any further.  The hopping led us straight to a highway, where we dodged traffic until finding the top end of the elevator we should have taken in the first place.

The Casino.  Our argument: ownership of a Rolls Royce ought to be determined by how cute you look standing next to it.

Sashaying past the Bentleys and Rolls, we entered the building, a lavish and plush affair bedecked in a high vaulted dome and chandeliers.  I insisted upon paying the entrance fee to see the casino floor and watch the high rollers lose their mortgage to the baccarat table.  As for us, I am proud to say we lost about $25 on slots.  Very slowly.   As the port is too small to accommodate the Golden Behemoth, we took launches back to our ship over formidably choppy seas, but we watched our disembarkation that evening from the deck, sitting in a hot tub- a decadent end to a rather decadent day.

At dinner that evening, we were seated with two couples.  One was American newlyweds, the other was Stuart and Cheryl, utterly charming English about-to-be-newlyweds, who were to be married by the Captain our first full day at sea.  The show that evening featured the "World's Only Legal Pickpocket" demonstrating techniques used to relieve tourists from their hard-earned wallets.  It was quite successful in making us thoroughly paranoid.  And I'm from New York City.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Cary Crant.  Just ignore the waist.

This would be an excellent time to ask her for
permission to buy stereo equipment.

Next: Italian food, hold the pizza.

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