Saturday, December 29, 2007

Boot Camp Graduation - Congratulations!

On November 13th, 2007 (see post of that date), oldest grandson Matt left town to be sworn into the Air Force. For the last six weeks he has been "enjoying" Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Today is Graduation Day and a crowd of proud relations made the trek to Texas to cheer him on. Brisk and windy, it was an otherwise perfect day and the ceremonies went off flawlessly.

After reuniting with the new Airman, all concerned began winding down from the stresses of the event. Following a few misfires, everyone got comfortably relaxed for the weekend and survived without damage.
As for Marian and I, we are enormously proud of this fine young American and the nearly eight hundred others who graduated alongside. It is thanks to all unsung Heroes such as these that we continue enjoy life in this wonderful country.

Well done Matt!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Cruise Ship Redux

Click around here for a tedious tour of a cruise ship. This one is the Star Princess of the Princess Line and carries 2,600 passengers with about 1,000 crew.
At the top of the stern, on the 18th floor, is the Skywalker Disco which was not well attended on this particular trip. Even with a six day stint at sea coming across the Atlantic, there was never a shortage of things to do. Would we do it again? Can't wait!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Funchal, Madeira, Portugal

By the time we left Cadiz, we had had eight straight days of shore excursions and had walked just short of fifty miles over some fairly hilly territory. An entire day at sea then, came as a welcome respite on the journey to the island of Madeira. We made the most of it - late to rise, ate frequently, watched television and generally behaved disgracefully - a pleasing project.
Madeira, the largest island of the Madeira Archipelago is 34 miles long, 14 miles wide and is home to 250,000 people. First laid claim to in 1419 by Portuguese explorers, it has remained in Portuguese care and is now an autonomous archipelago. About 200 miles from both the African continent and from Lisbon, Madeira enjoys a mild climate and a colossal variety of lush vegetation, some species of which are said to have been left there by explorers returning from the Americas.

Funchal is the capital of Madeira and sits in a natural bay on the south side of the island. In 1479, Christopher Columbus visited Madeira to buy a cargo of sugar and he not only stayed there, he married the daughter of the first governor of the second largest island, Porto Santo. Overall, an interesting place to visit although one day was not enough to do justice to everything available.
After leaving Funchal, it was, as they say, plain sailing as the ship headed for Fort Lauderdale and the end of our tour. An easy two hour flight later and we were back in the reality of a mid-west winter refreshed and ready for Christmas.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Cadiz, Spain

Following another excellent dinner as we left Gibraltar, watched The Bourne Ultimatum and then retired. Next morning, we found ourselves in Cadiz, on the Atlantic coast of Spain, a short walk away from downtown Old Town. Cadiz is quite small and pretty much the real thing as far as authentic old buildings, neighborhoods and ambiance are concerned. Roughly circular and almost completely surrounded by water, at about 3/4 mile in diameter it provides a good day of walking to see all the sites.

Cadiz has been a port for more than 3,000 years and had numerous masters over that period. The Romans bagged it about 230 BCE but, with the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Vandals and then the Visigoths both had a whack at it for a while. The longest running tenants were the Moors who brought their Islamic faith from Africa and thwarted all-comers for several centuries. Ultimately, and coincidentally, Ferdinand and Isabella ousted the Moors in 1492 since when it has remained Spanish.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Gibraltar, UK Dependency

The Brits have been in control of Gibraltar since 1704 when they captured it from the Spanish during the War of the Spanish Succession. Despite numerous attempts by the French and the Spanish in the intervening 300+ years, the Brits have hung in there. Strategically, Gibraltar controls the Gibraltar Straits, a 36 mile long body of water as narrow as eight miles in places that separates Europe from Africa. The Straits, of course, are the only connection between the Atlantic Ocean and entire Mediterranean Sea.

With an area of less than three square miles providing home to 30,000 inhabitants there is not a lot of room, especially since the "Rock", a 1400 foot high limestone cliff, occupies about half of the area. In 1967 the United Nations requested that a referendum be held to determine whether Gibraltar should stay British or return to Spanish control. There were 44 votes total for a return to Spain and 12,134 to remain British - close, eh? Two years later, the Spanish blockaded the one connecting road joining the two countries but, after 30 plus years of no noticeable effect, they lifted it again and the Brits continue in control. Rule Britannia!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Cartegena, Spain

About 200 BCE, Cartagena was Hannibal's Spanish headquarters during the 2nd Punic War with Rome. Currently, after many changes of ownership in the intervening years, Cartagena, with a population of around 175,000, is Spain's principle naval establishment, enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate and sports miles of excellent beaches.

Sadly, all the looting, pillaging and sacking over the centuries - the most recent being the Spanish Civil War in 1936 when Franco's troops from Africa landed in Cartagena and fairly wrecked the joint - has reduced the city to collection of historical fragments effectively robbing it of any clear identity. The city authorities seem to have recognized this and have instituted a major program to repair and rebuild former parts of the city, presumably with tourist dollars in mind. Current conclusion: not ready for prime time as a tourist destination.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Cannes, France

Prior to 1834, Cannes was a tiny fishing village on the French coast of the Mediterranean. It has a picturesque marina and a small harbor but no facilities for vessels anywhere near the size of a cruise ship. Thus, the ship anchored out in the bay, dropped five or six of its 150 seat lifeboats and tendered passengers to and fro throughout the day.

From its beginnings as a fortification on Le Souquet hill, probably in the 10th century, it seems that the population remained under 1000 and the area where mainstream Cannes lies today was marshland. The big push came in 1834 when the Lord Chancellor of England, Henry Brougham, stopped in on his way to Nice. So enamored was he with the appearance, climate and beaches that he bought a tract of land and subsequently built a holiday home there. The Who's Who of Europe quickly followed and the town developed rapidly to become a chic high-spot of the Riviera with exclusive shopping, dining and lodging. The original (and very small) Old Town, now known as Souquet, melds into the nineteenth century strip development that runs close to the beach and which is variously carved up by 20th century attempts to keep the congestion moving. Several miles of sandy beaches are adjacent and are renowned for their overcrowding in summertime even though the population has only risen to about 67,000. The International Film Festival has been hosted there annually since 1946 in the "Grand Auditorium" which is redolent of a good sized boy scouts hut. For all of its sophistry and elitism, Cannes is off of our list of desirable destinations.
On this day, we helped to consume 90 gallons of ice cream on board th ship.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Genoa, Liguria, Italy

What a great city this is! We had driven by Genoa on a rainy day back in the spring of 2007 and had been disinclined to visit at that time due to the difficulty of parking and the inclement weather. Well, this morning when we awoke, our little boat was tied up alongside the quay less than a mile from downtown of this soon to be discovered city - and the weather was gorgeous!
After another obscene breakfast we pulled on our walking shoes, grabbed our cameras and strode off to town.

Old town Genoa was a walled city (of course) and at least two of the gates are fairly complete and very accessible. The interior of the old town is amazing with its confusing warren of extremely narrow streets separating huge, seven and eight story ancient buildings in the residential areas, while the busy retail and market streets, many of them covered to some degree, make up the business part of town. Genoa appears to be a vibrant and prosperous city with an easy blend of old and new, built around a large bay in the northern Mediterranean. The Old Port occupies the eastern side of the bay with the modern port wrapping clear around the western side. Genoa is a major European port handling million tons of freight each year.
Christopher Columbus was probably born in Genoa in 1451. This energetic man, often attributed with the discovery of America without ever having set foot in that country, appears however, to have had quite a remarkable birth. For example, according to historians, he was born over a period of 25 years (between 1435 and 1460) in at least four different places - Genoa in Italy, Chios in Greece, Majorca (Spanish Balearic Islands), Galicia, and other places in Spain. Even more outstanding, he was buried in at least three different places. Following his death in Spain at the age of 46 to 71 his burial took place in Sevilla, Spain; Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and also in Havana, Cuba. It must be great being famous.
Today, 7,000 pounds of fruit was consumed on the ship along with 470 gallons of coffee.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Livorna, Tuscany, Italy

What a life! After an early night in Naples, we were up at the crack of noon the following day to an artery clogging medley of eggs, bacon, grilled tomatoes, roast potatoes and hash-browns. Looking out of the window, we found ourselves in Livorno, another Italian port a couple of hundred miles north of Rome on the west side of the Italian boot. Livorno is a great jumping off point for visits to Florence, Pisa or Lucca and is quite interesting in its own right. Since we had spent time in both Florence and Pisa earlier this year, we decided to visit a couple of tiny rural medieval towns in the Tuscany heartland. Volterra was the first of these.

With a population of about 11,000, Volterra is an ancient walled city, the importance of which has dwindled significantly since it was a regional episcopal power in the 13th century. Supported currently by local alabaster mines, alabaster processing and tourism, it is a tidy little burg but one with seemingly little growth potential. Another piece of Italian suspended animation, i.e. a loss of consciousness resembling death.

San Gimignano, City of Towers
The community has been around since the third century BCE but came to some prominence when Saint Geminianus, from whom the current name was derived, fought there against the Huns in the tenth century. San Gemignano was on the main route leading to Rome and developed partly as a stopping point for pilgrims. Everything in fact, was hunky-dory up through the middle of the 14th century when, in 1348, the plague struck the town and people began avoiding it, well - like the plague. It wasn't until the 19th century, when tourism developed, that the city emerged a little from its obscurity.
At its peak, around the end of the 12th century, everyone with a few bucks to squander fell prey to the size matters syndrome and set about furiously building the biggest tower in town. Most of the seventy plus towers that existed at that time have since fallen victim to various wars, been plundered for building materials or simply fallen down, leaving just fourteen which are now zealously maintained to keep the tourists coming. Sort of sad when you think about it. Much happier, was the cheerful participation in consuming 2,100 pounds of beef eaten on the boat that evening. That was fun!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Naples, Campania, Italy

This morning we find ourselves in the Port of Naples in southern Italy. See Naples and Die! Well, certainly if one were to look too closely, one might just do that. The place is filthy, congested and unappealing and, if pollution didn't do the job, the Camorra, Naples' version of mafia gangland, might. Fortunately, on this trip, Naples was not the objective.

A really early start - 1:00 am US time, 7:00 am local - was tough but we were sufficiently disoriented not to notice too much as the motor coach wended its way through the Naples traffic toward Pompeii, or at least what's left of it. Of course, there is a current Pompeii, built to the south of the one that got ruined almost two thousand years ago, but we didn’t go to that one.
In 79 CE there were about 20,000 inhabitants of Pompeii with numerous additional visitors, in what was then, a significant port. The majority of these folks left town when Mount Vesuvius, just to the north, began coughing up its contents, although about two thousand foolhardy souls remained in town and succumbed to the horrors of asphyxiation, burning and involuntary premature burial. So rapid were some of these events that, during excavation, voids in the volcanic covering were found in the shape of people huddling on the ground where they fell. Plaster casts of many of these gruesome finds were made and are now on display in various museums.
Pompeii is an impressive site to visit, if only for the sheer scale of the excavation. Numerous roads, houses, stores are reasonably recognizable, two theaters are quite unmistakable and the town center, known as The Forum, is pretty extensive.

We had lunch in Sorrento at a restaurant hidden away in a little alleyway off the main street. Not exactly fine dining and the food had a strange *kind of Italian flavor. Outside of lunch, a brisk wind and cool temperatures, there did not seem to be much to recommend Sorrento except the harbor which provided some attractive views. Downtown is built over a deep ravine, the bottom of which is close to sea level while the modern city is atop the cliffs. Moving from one level to the other was by way of a frightening series of stone staircases. From the harbor, we boarded a hydrofoil that took us on a bumpy ride to the Isle of Capri.

Isle of Capri
Like Sorrento, the Capri weather was sunny, windy and quite brisk. The crossing was rough with a number of passengers showing off their Technicolor yawns by the time we arrived. Capri is a tiny island with almost vertical cliffs along much of its shoreline causing most of the 12,000 inhabitants live on top of the mountain. The quickest way up to the town is the funicular railway which leaves from the harbor area. Once into the town at the top of the railway, there was some shelter from the wind and the tour around town was pleasant. Again, Capri is very small and to see the key sites does not require much time. Due to the steepness of the streets however, the couple of mile walkabout was quite strenuous.
Replete with a public transport bus system, a city hall, a school system and shopping facilities, life on Capri seems to be oddly disconnected from reality. There appears to be little or no industry and not too much in the way of career opportunities.
After an hour or so, we went back down on the funicular and took a ferry directly to the Naples port where we rejoined the floating hotel. Rack of Lamb, a glass of wine and an early night completed the day. Today, 70,000 dishes were washed in the ships kitchens.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Away from it All

With Thanksgiving over and nothing planned until Christmas, we decided to take a quick break - this retirement thing has turned out to be such hard work! Thus it was, on a mean and icy mid-west weekend, that we found ourselves getting on the big metal bird in dreary Detroit to fly away to warmer climes. First stop was Frankfurt, Germany - a little warmer but still raining and miserable. Fortunately, Frankfurt was just a brief layover and we quickly continued, southward this time, to arrive in Rome around 10:00 am in the morning. Next, a change of pace as we enjoyed a pleasant coach ride to the city of Civitavecchia, a little coastal town 40 or 50 miles north of Rome. Here, we caught the first glimpse of our home-to-be for the next three weeks - a huge, white, 109,000 ton boat. A few formalities later we were in our comfortable little room recovering from our thirty hour journey. After a little exploring, we found one of the restaurants, enjoyed an excellent prime rib dinner followed by bread pudding and finally retired for the night. The ship left port in the early evening and set sail for our first stop, Naples.
While in Civitavecchia the ship took on 110 tons of food.