Mare Nostrum III: The Northwest (Mediterranean) Coast

Barcelona sounds different. Venice was filled with the sound of water lapping against the docks. Rome was so much noise, scooters, cars, people talking, and radios playing. Spain’s pedigree is all street music. I haven’t heard so many violins, accordions, and guitars out on the sidewalk since a year ago, in Dublin.

Cruise ship on western Mediterranean.
Big ship, little ports in the western Mediterranean. (Celebrity Reflection photo by kajmeister.)

After a week plus in Italy, we are another week on a boat–a big boat–riding around the western Mediterranean. The coast is lined with cliffs near the water, so views are dramatic and establishments are swanky.

Giambologna's Mercury
Statue of Mercury by Giambologna, Bargello Museum, Florence. Photo by kajmeister.

Firenze (Florence): Home to the Medicis

After leaving Rome, our ship made one more stop in La Spezia, Italy. We took a tour inland, along to Arno, away from Pisa (no leaning towers today), into Medici territory. Like other parts of Italy, Florence is majestically old, resting on its Renaissance laurels, and deservedly so.

We didn’t have the time or the tickets to visit either the Uffizi Gallery, which boasts two million visitors a year to masterpieces like Botticelli’s Venus or the Accademia, to see Michelangelo’s David. We’ll just have to come back to Florence. We did manage a 45-minute run through a museum called the Bargello. Less crowded than its famous neighbors, this nice little sculpture museum still displayed a plethora of Donatellos, Michelangelos, and Giambolognas–like the famous Mercury above.

Duomo cathedral, Florence, Italy.
Duomo cathedral, Florence, Italy. Photo by kajmeister. Duomo cathedral, Florence, Italy. Photo by kajmeister.

Major Duomo

Another big attraction in Florence is the Cathedral, also called Il Duomo di Firenze, which has a Parthenon-like dome designed by Brunelleschi. This was the site in 1478 of an attempted murder of Lorenzo di Medici at Easter mass. Lorenzo the Magnificent was only wounded, although his brother Giulano was killed. Historians say the original hit men balked at conducting this business in the cathedral, so some wayward priests were hired instead. Afterwards, supporters of the Medici rivals ran into the streets, shouting “Pozzi” while others shouted “Palle,” referring to the balls on the Medici coat of arms. The Medicis hanged the archbishop; the pope responded by putting an interdict on the city and convincing King Ferrante of Naples to attack. Oh, those Guelphs (supporters of the pope) and Ghibellines (supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor)! Such merry bands of pranksters! Fun times!

Dante's tomb, Florence.
Dante’s tomb, Basilica of St. Francis, Florence, Italy. Photo by kajmeister.

I also spent a speedy ten minutes–Sofia, our Italian tour guide, was strict about Time Back to the Bus–running through the Basilica of Saint Francis. It was a short but fruitful time, as I snapped pictures of one famous name after another–Da Vinci, Enrico Fermi, Machiavelli, Marconi, Michelangelo, and Dante. I finished in 7.5 minutes, with 2.5 minutes left to get gelato.

Ciao, Italia! On to the French Riviera.

Villedefranche-sur-Mer and the Uphill Medieval Village of Eze

Our Cote d’Azur port was a small village near Nice. It reminded me of La Jolla, if you could visualize Nice as San Diego, much more crowded and “urban.” In Villedefranche, the coastal street was lined with shops and cafes with umbrellas, one of which suddenly flew off in the beach wind, leaving an elderly French waiter to start waving, “Atencion! Atencion!” as it bounded gaily into the surprised cafe au lait-sippers across the street.

Cactus garden in Eze, France.
Cactus garden in the Uphill medieval village of Eze, France. Photo by kajmeister.

Our tour was to the Uphill Medieval Village of Eze–that’s what the brochure called it. I don’t know if that was just pointing out that, being on a cliff, the access to the village would require an uphill trek, or if the Ezeians themselves liked to refer to their village that way. Since the neighboring town is called Villedefranche-sur-la-mer, perhaps the locals in the tiny village felt the name Eze was too short.

Rose petals at the Fragonard perfume factory, Eze, France. Photo by kajmeister.

Fragonard Petals Petals

There was also a tour of the Fragonard Perfume Factory, a bit unexpected as it was not listed in the itinerary, but machines are always interesting to me. Sylvie, the French tour guide, was a little unclear about directions and process anyway. She sort of waved in the air at things as we went by in lieu of stopping to provide pertinent details. “And zees is the shopping… and zees is the gardens…”

Clearly the French are obsessed with smell. It takes three tons of rose petals to distill a liter of oil. Perfume workers study for years to memorize the 200 difference scents. This culture also enjoys sniffing wine and eating eye-watering cheeses. Truthfully, half of the perfumes we sampled were surprisingly pleasant, and I would consider wearing them if that’s how I wanted to spend my money or my time. But it seemed odd to have fragrances for women, men, and children. American culture is criticized for things like producing “food” such as fried Twinkies, but I would say a culture where the children are encouraged to wear perfume is also weird. My recommendation would be daily bathing.

Sea view at Villedefranche-sur-mer, France.
Villedefranche-sur-mer, La Cote d’Azur, France. Photo by kajmeister.

After the day in France–vive la France!–we pushed on 300 miles west to the core destinations of the sailing trip: the seaports of Eastern Spain. After landing in Barcelona, we started on a tour up another mountain, to the monastery at Montserrat.

Montserrat–La Moreneta

Montserrat is the site of a Benedictine monastery, built in the 11th century, and still in use today. Many of the buildings have been rebuilt since then, particularly after Napoleon destroyed most of it. This recently rebuilt is a Spanish theme.

The monastery and cathedral is considered a place for pilgrimage for devoted Catholics to visit La Moreneta, the black Madonna, in the abbey of Santa Maria. Black Madonnas exist in many places–another was on a church in Barcelona’s Goth Quarter. Our guide pointed out several features of the mother and child relating to pre-Christian (i.e. pagan) symbolism, from the dark skin of mother and child to the fruit held by the baby, signifing fertility.

Near Montserrat monastery.
View from Montserrat monastery near Barcelona, Spain. Photo by kajmeister.

We had lunch with 200 other passengers at the monastery, where there was an unfortunate incident for the soft-spoken Parisian women at our table. After expressly clarifying her serious egg allergy (the Epipen kind, not the hipster-American “I swoon thinking of toxins” kind), they served her alternate entrée with a huge hard-boiled egg on it. It was fish—what kind of recipe for fish calls for a hard-boiled egg as a crowning garnish? I apologize, people with food allergies, on behalf of all careless cooks. (Her “special dessert” was a plate holding two unpeeled apples–with the stickers still on!)

I suspect the views from Montserrat are quite spectacular on a sunny day. For us, it was hazy and overcast. The sun did come out as we drove down the hill, into Barcelona, and into the music.

Let the songs begin/Dejalo nacer
Let the music play, Ah
Make the voices sing/Nace un gran amor
Start the celebration/Ven a mi
And cry/Grita
Come alive/Vive
And shake the foundations from the skies
Shaking all our lives
Barcelona, by Freddie Mercury with Montserrat Caballe

Cathedrals, Lamps, Mannequins, and Whistles

As we got off the bus in the Gothic quarter, a 4-piece band set up to start the crowd swaying to a samba beat. Next to the cathedral, a lone Spanish guitarist was Ottmar Liebert-ing away. A violinist on a walking path alternated a tango with Bach and then Yellow Submarine. After the muted greens and oranges in Venice and the faded stone and grays of Rome, Barcelona was colors, art deco design, giant Picasso drawings on building sides, and a mix of architecture and art. Riotous and fun!

Even the cathedral built to look Gothic was completed only in the 19th century–neo-Gothic. Gaudi apartments stand between contemporary flats or belle epoque styled buildings. Balconies are varied and plentiful. Street lamps and light posts seem individually carved and many bear the names of groups which sponsor them.

Barcelona Cathedral.
Barcelona cathedral. Photo by kajmeister.

Our tour of the Gothic quarter started in Placa de Jaume, where the government palace faces city hall. The two administrative buildings both displayed yellow ribbons in support of those arrested as political protesters during recent Catalan independence demonstrations. Catalan flags were also hanging from balconies– one across from city hall held a mannequin in Catalan colors which would show up in tour photos of the bell tower.

Barcelona, Catalan protests balconies.
View from Placa de Saunt Jame, Barcelona, Spain displaying yellow for Catalan independence. Photo by kajmeister.

Bridges span buildings from centuries ago time when the bishop wanted free access to the mayor. A few Roman ruins are preserved underneath taverns. Tapas restaurants are everpresent, from haute cuisine pricing down to that of a chain restaurant. But even the Brie & vegetables and Braised Meatballs tapas we had in a local franchise (based on the plastic menus) tasted mighty good, especially for five euros.

At noon, as we consulted the map once more, bicycles started flying through the narrow streets, with riders tweeting ear-piercing whistles. They started circling through the Saunt James, whistling and shouting. It reminded me of the San Francisco Critical Mass bicycle protests until a *bang* made us jump; they were setting off firecrackers in protests. We beat an extremely hasty retreat into a nearby museum, which luckily was all about Antonin Gaudi.

ETA for the Holy Family (La Sagrada Familia) is 2026

Gaudi’s ideas are so modern, post-modern, and post-post-modern, that it’s hard to realize he did most of his work now nearly a century ago. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Gaudi’s architecture style leaned on blending buildings with the environment and representing the modern with clean lines and curves rather than angles and blank blocks. But his visions were often grander.

La Sagrada Familia, his masterwork, was hardly begun before he passed away, but he planned for future generations to finish it. A museum exhibit pointed out that Gaudi’s curves and arches were novel engineering, but his technical approach included hanging weights from the ceiling. This allowed him to adjust angles to account for gravity properly and to analyze load-bearing for his unique designs.

Gaude Museum, Barcelona, Spain.
Detail from Gaudi Museum, Barcelona, Spain. Photo by kajmeister.

Gaudi was a devout Catholic and watched the Barcelona cathedral work as a young man. He wanted to pay homage to the gothic style, including stained glass windows and carvings, but in his own way. For example, he put the smallest glass windows near where the sun was strongest, growing other windows in size as the light dimmed, so that each glass would be similar in brightness. His designs were bright and colorful but modern in nature, such as the view for one of the “rose windows” below.

Gaudi Stained glass window example.
Stained glass window detail in La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain. Photo by kajmeister.

Several guides sighed when asked when the construction would be completed and said that work still continued, decades after Gaudi himself died. But, said Pilar, our Gothic Quarter guide, the last time she asked, they gave her an estimated completion date for the very first time: 2026.

Such timing may frustrate 21st century humans accustomed to instant gratification. Yet St. Peter’s took over a century, Salisbury perhaps 300 years. One of my favorite places in the world, the carving of Crazy Horse in South Dakota, started nearly a century ago by one guy hauling a drill up the mountain. It will likely take another hundred years to realize the horse and rider in full. There is enough of La Sagrada already to enjoy, and the prospect of completion within our lifetime seems worth waiting for.

La Sagrada Familia front, Barcelona, Spain.
La Sagrada Familia, under construction until ???? 2026? Photo by kajmeister.

I’ll just have to come back to Barcelona, after 2026.