Porto, Portugal

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Porto, Portugal

We are disembarking our cruise ship today in Lisbon.  We were here in May at the conclusion of our transatlantic cruise.  We stayed on for a few days then and even took some day trips out of the city.  The one place we had really wanted to visit was Porto, aka Oporto.  It was far enough away and had enough to see, that we needed more than a day trip out of Lisbon.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View of the Douro River from the balcony of our hotel, Gran Cruz House, in Porto, Portugal.

Since we found ourselves in Portugal again, we decided to extend our trip through a long weekend to enjoy the city of Porto and the nearby Douro Valley where the grapes of the city’s most famous product are grown and in some cases produced.  We are taking the train to Porto.  Porto is the second largest city in Portugal, following Lisbon in size.  It sits on a estuary of the Douro River.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Porto Cathedral, Portugal.

After disembarking the ship, we took a cab to the train station.  The driver said that all city destinations leaving from the cruise terminal were a fixed price of 35 euros.  Outrageous, but Boris just wanted to go.  I had researched the trains and knew the direct and fastest trains to Porto left from the Lisboa Oriente Station.  You enter on the bottom level of the station where services are available.  Go up one level for the ticket booths.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View from Porto, Portugal of the gondola ride over the Douro River.

Unfortunately nothing is sign posted at this station in English.  We figured most of it out.  There are ticket booths at each corner of the upper level, but they service different trains.  The booths are not necessarily on the side you think they are.  We walked right past the right one on the first go around.  Luckily one of the station workers offered help and spoke English.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Train platform at the Lisboa Oriente Train Station in Lisbon, Portugal

The direct trains from Lisbon take about 2 hours/35 minutes to 3 hours (depending on the departure time you choose) to reach Porto.  We were on one of the high-speed trains called Alpha Pendular that go directly to Porto’s main railway station.  The current cost is  28 euros ($31 US) for second class and 42 euros ($47 US) for first class.  The ticket agent spoke English and they take credit cards.  There were two young men with passes who were having a difficult time getting tickets to Paris.  They were there before we arrived and after we left the booth 20 minutes later. The line had really grown and they finally got another agent to sell tickets.  It moved swiftly for all the other passengers.  Make sure you go to the booth for international and longer routes.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our first class coach on the fast train to Porto.

Boris decided we needed first class tickets, so we could sit together.  We would have been separated in second class.  I didn’t complain.  We had a coach with fewer, wider seats; electrical outlets (European plug); a drink cart that comes to your seat; free newspapers and headphones; and a nice, clean bathroom.  Usually you don’t need to reserve early, especially on a Thursday.  I guess we are still in the season in Europe and Porto has become much more popular.  So for this route, I recommend pre-booking; the prices quoted on-line were the same as at the station.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Arrabida, one of Porto Portugal’s six bridges over the River Douro.

It was a scenic ride.  We arrived into Porto’s main railway station, the Campanha Train Station, passing over one of the city’s six main bridges.  I didn’t know to be ready, but I recommend getting out your camera about 30 minutes before your arrival into the city.  After the long tunnel, look to the seaside and you will see a wonderful and very long wooden boardwalk and the beach; it was lovely.  Just before our arrival at the station you pass over the Douro River and have wonderful views of the city riverfront.  That is where we were headed.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our Hotel, Gran Cruz House, Porto, Portugal

It was a short cab ride to the Gran Cruz House.  The road down to the riverfront was blocked.  After our cab driver hit the speaker button one of those pylons was lowered so we could drive right down to the hotel.  They will let cabs through, but not UBERs.  We unloaded and paid a very reasonable fee for the ride.  It was a little tough to find the main entrance to the hotel and the staff was at lunch but they came right down when we called.  The entrance is on the side of the building by the sidewalk cafe’s drink station.  We were greeted with our choice of one of four of the Cruz ports.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen River view from our room at the Grand Cruz House in Porto, Portugal

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Cool bathroom door in our room at the Grand Cruz House, Porto, Portugal

We were shown up to our gorgeous room overlooking the river.  We were so glad it was ready even though we arrived before check-in time.  The desk manager was great about helping us with restaurants, scheduling a tour to the Douro Valley for the next day, early breakfast arrangements given the time of our tour departure, and even reservations for some of the most popular Port Wine Cellars across the river.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Taberna dos Mercadores, Porto Portugal

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Photo ©Jean Janssen  Taberna dos Mercadores, Porto Portugal

We rested for a while and then went out for lunch nearby.  The restaurants along the waterfront are not particularly good, mostly just tourists traps.  Our concierge said he knew of one exception just up the street, Taberna dos Mercadores.  It was very small; it only had 8 tables for 2 persons each (although they will push tables together to accommodate a group of 3 or 4).  The restaurant was full and there was a group of three already waiting.  We decided it was worth it; we only waited about 15 minutes and enjoyed watching the dog that had accompanied the couple with the open window seat table.  Taberna dos Mercadores does not take same-day reservations.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen  Flaming, salted cod at Taberna dos Mercadores, Porto Portugal

The food was fabulous.  I had the traditional salt-crusted cod.  It was brought to the table whole and flaming.  The server deboned it table side.  It came with a side of potatoes and vegetables.  Boris had steak and side dish of traditionally spiced rice which he also thought was wonderful.  We enjoyed lunch with some of the local wines and sparkling water.  The bread was also very good.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen  My coconut dessert at Taberna dos Mercadores, Porto Portugal

Boris loves his desserts while on vacation so he opted for chocolate and I went with the coconut.  Of course we had to try some port as well.  I think the servers were a little frustrated with Boris regarding getting a table when we first arrived, but by the end they loved us since it was obvious how much we appreciated the food.  Leaving a tip probably didn’t hurt either.  Taberna dos Mercadores is a definite keeper and worth the wait for a table.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen  Palacio da Bolsa on Porto’s historic square

After lunch we headed uphill to the see some of the special sights near the hotel.  We are staying in the medieval Ribeira (riverside) district with narrow cobbled streets. It was an extremely hot day, so we really didn’t want to sit atop a hop on/hop off bus and fry.  That bus had been the original plan for the afternoon.  After our touring on-foot, we looked into one of the tuk-tuk tours in English, but they were full for the rest of the day.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen  Statute of Henry the Navigator on Jardin do Infante Dom Henrique, the historic heart of the city of Porto, Portugal

We passed the city’s historic square, Jardin do Infante Dom Henrique and the Palacio da Bolsa, the 19th century building that was the city’s commercial center.  It was once part of the 13th century St. Francis Convent.  Dominating the Jardin do Infante Dom Henrique is the statute of Prince Henry the Navigator.  The statute was dedicated in 1900 to celebrate the five centuries since the birth of the “main figure of Portuguese discoveries.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen St. Francis Monument Church and Monastery, Porto, Portugal

Next to the Palacio da Bolsa (formerly the St. Francis convent) is the beautiful Franciscan church and monastery, São Francisco.  Secular and other religious groups did not accept the Franciscans and life for them in 13th century Portugal was very difficult.  According to the Church’s guide book, “it was in Oporto that they suffered most.”  However, the friars’ devotion and generosity appealed to the people and a follower donated the land where the Gothic Style church sits.  Construction began in 1245, but was not completed until 1410.  The architecture in this part of Portugal was mostly Romanesque at the time and the Gothic style church was a novelty.  The church itself “is known for its lavish baroque interior with ornate gilded carvings.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The monastery at St. Francis in Porto, Portugal. It is now a museum.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ceiling of the private chapel at the St. Francis monastery in Porto, Portugal.

You can tour the monastery and the church, but photographs are only permitted in the monastery.  The monastery chapel and the rooms were very opulent (although nothing compared to the church we would tour after).  For me, the most interesting part was the friars’ graveyard on the lower level underneath the friars’ private church.  I made this part of the visit alone.  Boris once got lost in the catacombs in Rome and now refuses to go into tombs.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Friars’ graveyard at St. Francis Museum, Porto, Portugal.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Friars’ graveyard at St. Francis Museum, Porto, Portugal.

After touring the museum, we went into the St. Francis church.  No photographs, but what a sight!  The church is covered with carved wood that has been gilded.  The effect is overwhelming.  Each of the side chapels, tombs, and altars are detailed and quite impressive.  Definitely worth a visit on your trip to the Ribeira district of the city.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Friars’ graveyard at St. Francis Museum, Porto, Portugal.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Friars’ graveyard at St. Francis Museum, Porto, Portugal.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen St. Francis Church and Museum, Porto, Portugal

We walked down along the tram line that stops just outside the church.  After we had no luck with securing a tuk-tuk tour, we decided we would try the boat tour of the bridges along the Douro River and the sights along the Ribeira district.  No luck at the booking agents by the square; the openings all conflicted with our dinner reservations.  We headed down to the waterfront where we had better luck.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Dom Luis I Bridge connect Porto to the city of Vila Nova de Gaia just across the River Douro.

Next to its connection to the production and distribution of the fortified wine known as port, Porto is perhaps best known for the “stately” bridges that cross the River Douro.  The short river cruises focus on these bridges.  There are multiple companies that offer the tours continuously on the whole and half hour most of the day.  There are also full day tours to the Douro Valley that depart from the riverfront right in front of our hotel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen The two-level Dom Luis I Bridge, Porto, Portugal

We chose one of the 50 minute tours; the cost was 15 euros/person.  The most famous bridge is the Dom Luis I Bridge that we can see from the window of our hotel.  It crosses from Porto to the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, the residential community with a commercial waterfront dominated by the port wine cellars.  The bridge has two levels.  We walked on foot across the lower level.  There is also vehicular traffic on this level.  The upper level serves the city’s metro.  The bridge was constructed in 1886 by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Dona Maria bridge designed by Gutave Effiel is Porto’s oldest bridge. It went out of use in 1991. In the background is its replacement the São João bridge.

Gustave Eiffel himself designed the city’s oldest bridge.  Raised in 1877, the Maria Pia Bridge was named for the then queen of Portugal.  Also known as Dona Maria, the bridge was a railway bridge.  Although out of service since 1991, the bridge is a popular tourist attraction and remains in place.  It’s replacement, São João, was built between 1984 and 1991.  It sits nearby and is the one we crossed over into the city.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen The underside of the Arrabida bridge Porto, Portugal

Farther down the Douro is the concrete Arrabida bridge that opened in 1963.  At the time of its opening, it was the concrete bridge with the longest arch in the world.  Although it is “[c]onsidered by some the least attractive of all the bridges in Porto”,  the Arrabida bride was one of my favorites with its interesting design on the underside.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Douro’s edge, Porto, Portugal

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View of St. Frances and the Palace from the Douro River.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Douro, Porto, Portugal

All along the way, we saw wonderful sites of the city and the buildings that line the river’s edge.  It was a hot ride, even in the evening, but I had some favorites along the waters edge.  There was a beautiful white-washed church from with amazing title work (so traditional for Portugal) along the water’s edge.  The Monastery of Serra do Pilar was at the top of the hill at the Gaia side of the river.  The station for the sky ride that climbs along the Gaia side of the edge of the River Douro is just below the Monastery.  The Jardim do Morro offers an amazing lookout point citizens and tourists go to for a striking view of Porto and a fabulous sunset.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Along the River Douro, Porto, Portugal

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Monastery of Serra do Pilar, Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A closer look at the Monastery of Serra do Pilar, Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal. Note the cable car station on the right side. The upper level of the Dom Luis I Bridge on the left side.

We noted the young boys who liked to jump off pilars along the river.  It looked dangerous, but at the same time I envied their chance to cool off in the Douro.  It is also not usual to see young boys jumping off the Dom Luis I Bridge to the cheers of the tourists and in the hope for a “tip”.  I did see one boy on the edge of the bridge holding on with one hand and egging on the crowds.  I did not see him jump, but when we walked by later he was sitting on the side, soaking wet.  I missed the good part, but was glad he was ok.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Jumping in the Douro near Porto, Portugal.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Along the Douro, Porto, Portugal

After a full day, we headed back along the waterfront to our hotel for a break and to change before dinner.  A shower never felt so good.  We were eating in the wonderful hotel restaurant, Casario, on the second story balcony overlooking the Douro waterfront.  From our hotel room we could see the buskers on the water’s edge.  Every 30 or 45 minutes the entertainment changed.  We only had to open the shutters (and even the window for more volume) in our room to enjoy the show.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Buskers along the Douro waterfront, Porto, Portugal

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The fading light on the Douro, Porto, Portugal

Dinner at Casario at the Gran Cruz House was wonderful.  We enjoyed three courses, and port of course.  We lost the light, but the entertainment and excitement on the boardwalk was maintained.  The flame juggler was my personal favorite.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View of the Douro and the port wine cellars on the Vila Nova de Gaia riverfront.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  View of the Douro River and the Monastery of Serra do Pilar in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal.

We have just seen a little, but Porto is everything we hoped for.  Tomorrow we are off to the Douro Valley to see the special region of Portugal where the grapes for the fortified wine are grown.  Great start to our visit to this special region of Portugal.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen St. Francis Church, Porto, Portugal

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Monastery of Serra do Pilar, the edge of the Dom Luis I Bridge, the Gaia waterfront, and a old wine barrel transport ship.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Principality of Asturias, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Oviedo, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Cathedral Square, Oviedo, Spain

Today we are docked in Gijon in the Bay of Biscay for a tour of the Asturias providence of Spain.  This is our last stop before reaching the port of Lisbon, Portugal where we will disembark.  We are doing the lazy panoramic tour by bus today.  Boris chose.  I would have gone for the kayak tour.  The other option was a apple orchard with cider tasting.  Cider is to Gijon and the surrounding region of Asturias as wine is to Bordeaux.  It holds another distinction; Gijon has the honor of having the largest number of bakeries per capita in all of Spain.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Near the shuttle bus stop along the waterfront in G, Spain.

There is a shuttle bus into the port city of Gijon and quite a few of the cruise passengers are not doing organized tours today.  During our drive through, I didn’t see much to do in the city so we probably made the better call going a bit farther afield.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The sun was just rising as I had my breakfast on the balcony as we entered the industrial port of Gijon, Spain.

We are in smaller buses that can make some of the turns needed on our route.  Usually by the end of the cruise you recognize lots of people on your tours.  I didn’t recognize a single person; we have been doing (at least some) higher energy excursions.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Centre, Aviles, Spain

Our first destination was the industrial city of Aviles and a drive by the Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Centre that sits along the city’s natural seaport.  The city’s goal was for the center to springboard revitalization to this industrial area.  It is an odd-looking modern building by award-winning Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer that didn’t do anything for me.  That was 45 minutes of my life wasted.  Perhaps if the guide had told us more about what was done or actually made a stop rather than just name dropping (Brad Pitt) celebrities that have visited.  I took the photo out the bus window on the drive by.  We didn’t make any stops in the city.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View from Monte Naranco, Spain with the morning mist.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View from Monte Naranco, Spain

Next we climbed (by bus) to a lookout point on Monte Naranco for a panoramic view of the region.  Oddly for a bus tour that caters to those with mobility issues, the driver stopped in a valley that meant you had to walk up to the lookout point or up the opposite direction to reach the statute of the Sacred Heart of Jesus reminiscent of that found in Brazil, at least that was the guide’s comparison.  The statute is 114 ft (35 m) tall.  The roadway on Monte Naranco is also the site of the finish of famous Spanish bicycle races Subida al Naranco and Vuelta a España  It is a steep climb with some serious switchbacks.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. This 114 statute of the Sacred Heart of Jesus stands in the mountains outside Oviedo, Spain

From Monte Naranco, you have views of the Asturias capital of Oviedo.  I walked through the damp grass in an effort to get a clear shot, but mostly got electrical wires.  I actually found the opposite side with the morning mist more picturesque.  Some members of our group made the walk up to the statute.  I got about half way and realized that I could not make it up and back in the allotted 15 minutes, so I headed back down.  No one made it in the allotted time.  We were there at least 30 minutes waiting for everyone to get back.  I should have gone.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Santa Naria de Naranco Church

Along to the road are the Pre-Romanesque shrines, Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo, dating from the Kingdom of Asturias.  We had to ask, but on the way back down we made a 3-minute photo stop at Santa Maria del Naranco church completed in 842 and consecrated in 848.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Like the shrines on Monte Naronco, San Julián de los Prados is a Pre-Romanesque shrine in Oviedo, Spain.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On Cathedral Square in Oviedo Spain

Next it was down to Oviedo, the capital city of Asturias.  “The Kingdom of Asturias began in 720, with the Visigothic aristocrat Pelagius’s revolt against the Muslims who at the time were occupying most of the Iberian Peninsula. The Moorish invasion that began in 711 had taken control of most of the peninsula, until the revolt in the northern mountains by Pelagius. The resulting Kingdom of Asturias, located in an economically poor region of Iberia, was largely ignored by the Muslims.”  The area where Oviedo is located was uninhabited at that time.  The city was founded in 761 by two monks.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Cathedral of San Salvador, Oviedo, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Oviedo, Spain

Oviedo was to be the highlight of the tour.  Boris and I agreed that we would rather have spent the whole day here.  We just got a taste in the 30 minutes of free time we were allowed.  After I located and waited in line for a toliet (free in the city market-go upstairs), I was down to 20 minutes so I just walked around and took pictures.  I really wanted to go into the Cathedral-6 euro charge-but there just wasn’t time.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Town Hall, Oviedo, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. City Market next to San Isodoro del Real Church in Oviedo, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Oviedo, Spain

We met back at the large square by the Cathedral before heading to the bus.  On the way out of the city, the guide told us about the cider production in the region and all the apple orchards.  She said she would give us an opportunity to try it and that is where everyone thought we were heading.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Lovely fountain on Cathedral Square in Oviedo, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Oviedo, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen San Salvadore Cathedral, Oviedo, Spain

Instead we climbed a narrower and narrower road that became rutty and very steep. At the top, there was another lookout and not a cider vendor in site.  We are at the top of Picu Sol.  There were two young women who had made the climb on horseback and were resting their horses.  This time we had views of the city of Gijon and the bay.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Resting after the climb near Gijon, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Jansen At the lookout point over Gijon, Spain a map let you know what you were seeing.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen A view of Gijon, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Headed back down the mountain.

Going back to Gijon, we passed through village where the land was owned by the families of former miners.  The mining infrastructure is still there but no longer in operation.  We saw orchards along the road and traditional horreos, grain storage rooms on stilts.  There is estimated that there are still about 10,000 in existence.  These were similar to the ones I had see at the Village Museum in Bucharest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Traditional horreos, raised grain storage houses near Gijon, Spain.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Homes and orchards near Gijon, Spain owned by the families of former miners.

We made our way back to Gijon and were going into town when one of the women asked when we would be back (we were already a half hour late at this point) as she needed a toilet.  The guide announced that she was taking us into town to get apple cider.  There was a minor revolt.  When the bus stopped in town and the guide told us we had 15 minutes, people actually started screaming NO, NO, NO.  Boris had moved to his own row in the back of the bus and I have no doubt he was among the chanters.  People were ready for their late lunch.  Since we could come back into town by shuttle if we wanted, people preferred to go back.  I would have liked the cider, but I wisely kept quiet given the angry mob.  As it was, we got back an hour late.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Oviedo, Spain

I would need to do a little more early research if I was going to visit this area again.  As it was, we visited the three largest cities in Asturias.  Not sure I would return to or recommend a visit to Aviles.  I would definitely have liked more time in Oviedo.  I enjoyed visiting this region of Spain which was new to me.  Our cruise comes to end after a sea day.  Today it is adios to Spain.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Gijon, Spain

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Bilbao, Spain: A City Transformed by a Museum and the Largest City of the Basque Country

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bilbao, Spain

Today we are in Bilbao, located in the northern part of Spain.  Bilbao is the largest city of the Basque Country which cover parts of Spain and France.  Twenty-three years ago this was considered a gritty, industrial city and not on anyone’s bucket list for travel.  However, I knew we were in for something special when early in our trip a fellow cruise passenger told me that this stop was the reason she had chosen this cruise.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Guggenheim Museum-Bilbao, Spain.  Next to the museum is the iconic La Salve Bridge

This is the workers’ city of the Basque Country, its waterfront formerly dominated by factories and warehouses.  The Basque Administration plans for redevelopment of the city began in the 1980s, but it was the inspired move in 1991 to lure the Guggenheim Foundation to Bilbao that would transform the city.  American Frank O Gehry’s limestone, titanium, and glass structure, the Guggenheim Museum-Bilbao, opened in 1997.  The museum sits along the Nervión River in the old industrial heart of the city.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen   The Abando Train Station in Bilbao, Spain.  Its interior stained glass is one of the city’s major attractions.

Suddenly other architects wanted to leave their mark on city.  Over the past twenty years the city has created a whole new identity.  It is a beautiful mix of the old and the new.  In 2010, Bilbo received the World City Prize, “considered the Nobel Prize for urbanism”.  The city’s mayor received the World Mayor Prize just two years later.  Bilbao was chosen the Best European City 2018 by the Academy of Urbanism.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Flying the Basque flag, Bilbao, Spain

Even though the architecture, the museum, and the transformation are enough reasons to visit, come for the culture.  Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country, the only region in Spain not to be conquered by the Moors.  The Basque people were often isolated.  Their language is considered one of the world’s oldest surviving languages and is unrelated to any other existing language.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Native dress in a shop window in Bilbao Spain.

Just take a look at the blood types and you will see the uniqueness of these people.  “Basques have the highest concentration of type O in the world — more than 50 percent of the population — with an even higher percentage in remote areas where the language is best preserved…Most of the rest are type A. Type B is extremely rare among Basques… [Additionally, ] Basques were found to have the highest incidence of Rh negative blood of any people in the world, significantly higher than the rest of Europe, even significantly higher than neighboring regions of France and Spain.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bilbao La Vieja.  The city’s trendy area with bars, clubs, cafes, boutiques, and galleries.  Also called Bilbi, the area all features some funky street art.

Today, I picked the tour.  Boris’ only stipulation was that he didn’t want to spend the day at the Guggenheim.  Sorry if any of you are reading this post to hear about that.  I knew we only had one day, so I wanted the overview and a chance to see a little of the culture.  I chose a walking tour with wine and tapas.  Tapas was the tour title as a way of explanation, but the treats we commonly know as tapas have their own name here.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Pintxos in Bilbao, Spain

Pintxos are a type of tapas.  Our guide said that there were distinguished as being more artistic and with a special taste.  I just thought it sounded yummy and a chance to have some Spanish wine as well.  We’ll make three stops for pintxos as we walk through the medieval part of the city known as Casco Viejo.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Mansion along the waterfront in Getxo, Spain where we docked for our visit to Bilbao.

Our ship is actually docked in Getxo, one of the ritzy suburbs with mansions along the waterfront.  We rode into Bilbao by bus and our guide pointed out the one remaining industrial area where redevelopment is currently being planned.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bilbao’s waterfront.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Living along the waterfront in Bilbao, Spain.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Small stage along the Bilbao waterfront.

Our bus left us off along the waterfront of Rio Nervion in the historic heart of the city.  This is the edge of the Casco Viejo, the old city.  We walked toward the Bilbao Cathedral where the Casco Viejo’s seven major streets meet.  The cathedral has lovely stained glass but one of the interesting things about the church is the facade that was to have two spires.  The second was never constructed due to settlement.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bilbao Cathedral

Our first stop was at Berton.  The bar had patrons even in the morning.  They had cool business cards with translations from English to Basque to Spanish on the reverse side.  I enjoyed my first pintxo.  “Although they are similar to tapas, generally speaking, pintxos are smaller. The name comes from the Spanish verb “pincher” meaning to poke or stab.  Historically, pintxos used to be served on a small slice of bread and have a toothpick piercing them through the middle.” Our first pintxo was toothpick free.  It was delicious, as was the wine.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. My first pintxo at Berton in Basque Country. Bilbao, Spain.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Natasha’s first pintxo bar, Beton, Bilbao, Spain.

After our stop at the pintxo bar, we wandered through the winding streets of Casco Viejo, arriving at the Merkatua La Ribera.  This is Europe’s largest indoor market.  The art deco building housing the city’s main market has been extensively renovated-too expensively to the taste of our guide.  The market features modern stalls and access while retaining the building’s lovely stained glass.  The market had a nice display on Bilbao’s history (and public toilets if you are in need of such while you are in the area.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Merkatua La Ribera, Bilbao, Spain.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Interior of the Merkatua La Ribera, Bilbao, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Historical display in the La Ribera Market, Bilbao

We got a good view of one of the few remaining homes of the old city.  My favorite part was the portico and the beautiful painting on the underside.  Beside the market was the one of the city’s oldest churches.  This is truly a scenic part of the city with views over the river to trendy Bilbi and beautiful stone bridges.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Historic architecture in the old city of Bilbao

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Underside of a portico across from the market in Bilbao, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Near the market, Bilbao

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Near the market in Bilbao, Spain.

We left the water behind, and returned to Casco Viejo for more pintxos.  After more wandering, we stopped at the Plaza Nueva (aka Plaza Barria).  The Plaza features neoclassical buildings on four sides with wonderful porticos where you find restaurants and pintxo bars. You access the Plaza through “arches known as cuevas (caves).” The main building of the plaza is “the site of Eukaltzindia, the Basque language Royal Academy.”  The plaza was constructed in 1821 and the main building originally housed government offices.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Plaza Nueva, Bilbao

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Pintxos at stop #2 Bilbao, Spain.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Pintxos at stop #2 Bilbao, Spain.

The first pintxo bar we visited on the plaza is a traditional one established in 1911.  We also ate in the traditional style, standing up at a long counter.  We had two treats at this pintxo bar and they were both yummy.  I love the taste, but I will say that nothing we had was too spicy.  I don’t know if that is because they traditionally are not spicy or if the cruise line requested those types to insure everyone was happy.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our traditional pintxo bar on Plaza Nueva in Bilbao, Spain.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Traditional Pintxo Bar on Plaza Nueva, Bilbao.

In addition to the wonderful pintxos and wine, the plaza offered great people watching.  Our pintxo bar was packed.  There were sidewalk tables to sit at if you were not into the traditional standing.  As it turned out, our third pintxo bar was also on the plaza at the far corner from where we entered.  This is a more modern approach to the pintxo and we sat inside for our single sample.  I stuck with the Spanish wine, but Boris went for a beer at this location.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A modern pintxo bar on the Plaza Nueva, Bilbao, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ready for sale or to make those pintxos on Plaza Nueva, Bilbao

One of my favorite things about wandering around Bilbao were the apartments all over the city with their wonderful balconies and glassed-in porches.  We saw both older buildings and modern structures adopting this style.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Check out the cool porches all over Bilbao, Spain.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A closer look at those porches and balconies.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In Casco Viejo, Bilbao, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Casco Viejo, Bilbao

Leaving behind the Plaza Nueva, we went back to the waterfront to catch our bus.  It was really just around the corner.  I loved Casco Viejo as well as the more modern parts of the city.  You would have a wonderful time just wandering up and down the waterfront,  not to mention the many museums I didn’t get to see.  This is a teaser trip for Bilbao.  With all the construction still going on, I anticipate more to see on my next visit.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Street signs in the Casco Viejo, Bilbao

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Casco Viejo, Bilbao

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Casco Viejo, Bilbao

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Casco Viejo, Bilbao

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Casco Viejo, Bilbao

As we were departing the city, we saw an example of some groups not happy with all of Bilbao’s changes.  There was a protest of older citizens regarding their pension rights at the city hall.  Our guide told us that this was one of the smaller protests and that protests were quite common.  They are part of the European culture.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Protest in Bilbao.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. What a Natasha post without a picture of a door or a window? Bilbao, Spain.

Before heading back to the ship at Getxo, we are headed up to the city’s lookout point.  There were amazing views of this transformed city and just in case you forgot where you were, big letters with the city’s name in a bold red (which are actually intended to be read from below).

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Photo ©Jean Janssen  Bilbao, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Bilbao, Spain

Just before reaching the port we passed the Vizcaya Bridge that connects the Bilbao suburbs of Portugalete and Las Arenas (part of Getxo)  The transporter or ferry bridge crosses the Nervion River.  “People in the area, and even the official website, commonly call it the Puente Colgante (literally “hanging bridge”, used for suspension bridge in Spanish), although its structure is quite different from a suspension bridge.”  Our guide correctly referred to it as a ferry bridge.  In spite of everything else we had seen today, our guide considers it the most iconic symbol of Bilbao.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Vizcaya Bridge, iconic ferry bridge outside Bilbao, Spain.

After our tour it was back to Getxo and the ship.   Tonight is our Azamazing Evening, the cruise line signature event.  Each cruise (except transatlantic ones) the ship hosts an evening out in one of our ports focusing on the unique culture of that region.  In is included in the price of our cruise.  Azamara does not cut cost on these events.  All we have attended have been fabulous.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen The port at Getxo, Spain.

Tonight we are going to the Theatre Campos Eliseos, commonly called the “chocolate box” in reference to its unique facade.  The brown paint of the interior also serves to reinforce this.    The theater was originally designed in 1910 and reopened in 2010.  We will be seeing Korrontzi with 5 musicians and a troop of 40 dancers.  They perform “a unique blend of Basque, and modern dance art, whose roots are based in the movements and steps that define the Basque Culture.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Theater Campos Eliseos, the “Chocolate Box”, Bilbao, Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Facade of the Theatre Campos Eliseos, The “Chocolate Box”, Bilbao Spain

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Musicians greeted us during our red carpet entry to the Theatre Campos Eliseos, The “Chocolate Box”, Bilbao, Spain.

Buses took us to the performance.  After a brief reception we took our seats for what turned out to be an exhilarating performance.  I loved every minute of it.  The music was wonderful.  They made use of several unique accordions-including a trikitixa (a Basque diatonic accordion), drums, a bass, a traditional guitar, and a tambourine (with an attached microphone). Korrontzi took the name of an old trikitixa player who went down from the mountain each Sunday to the Mungia main square to play his accordion for the generous crowds.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Korrontzi performs at the Chocolate Box in Bilbao, Spain

We headed back to the ship afterwards where they served champagne on the dock as we boarded.  A late night buffet was also served.  We leave behind the Basque Country today, but have one more stop in Spain before heading to Lisbon.

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Margaux, the Bordeaux Wine Region, France

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Almost harvest time in the Bordeaux Wine Region

Today we are taking our most expensive excursion of the cruise.   We are going to the Margaux region outside Bordeaux to visit a winemaker, tour a chateau, and have lunch.  I thought we were also doing tastings yesterday, but Boris and I got our wires crossed.  I am hoping for a special day today.  We are just before the harvest.  The grapes are being picked in a few weeks.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Gate in a field between two wine producing estates in Margaux, France.

Tom and Patty are on our tour today too so we made sure we were on the same bus so we could enjoy lunch together.  Noreen and Jeff were sitting behind us. Although I have seen them on some of our other tours, I met them on this tour on the return ride back to the ship.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Football stadium, Bordeaux France

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Photo ©Jean Janssen  La Cite du Vin, Bordeaux, France

As we left the city, our guide pointed out a few local landmarks like the wine museum and the football (soccer for my USA readers) stadium.  Several people from our ship are visiting the museum.  La Cite du Vin is considered more than a wine museum; it is billed a wine experience. The interesting multilevel structure has a different experience on each floor.  There is more than 10 hours of audiovisual material.  They say it takes 2-3 hours just to see the permanent exhibits and 4-hours for a themed visit.  Of course, you will want to take some additional time to sample some of the wine.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Near Margaux in the Bordeaux wine region

We quickly started to see the vineyards as we left the city.  Our guide told us about the regulation of the wines, how they were classified, and a little about the process itself.  One of the things I was surprised to learn was that most Bordeaux wines are a blend of different grapes.  “At the Exposition Universelle of 1855 in Paris, Emperor Napoleon III asked each wine region to establish a classification.”  This classification is the most prestigious and our destination, Château Prieuré-Lichine, Cantenac, AOC Margaux, holds the honor.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Margaux, France

We also found out that each winemaker bills itself chateau, regardless of the structures and their size. The designation has nothing to do with a castle or manor house, which I always thought was the meaning of château (plural châteaux) in French. Well actually it is, but not in this context.  This should have been my first clue that this tour was not going to be all that I expected.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Château Prieuré-Lichine, Margaux, France

When we reached Château Prieuré-Lichine, we were taken into the wine shop.  I joined the long queue for the toilets.  Boris went shopping.  When they were finally ready to get started, we all gathered outside a small house. We learned that the property was originally the priory for a group of monks and this was where they lived and made wine. The structure was right next to a small church.  Only two items from the priory remain.  With the French revolution, the monks were forced to flee. The tradition of wine making continues.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Château Prieuré-Lichine

Most of the properties started out in families but over the years many have had to sell out to companies and foreign investors.  Few can afford to self-pay the estate taxes when the older generation dies.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Château Prieuré-Lichine. Not the “castle” I was expecting.

Well back to that small house.  We found out that no one lives on the property except when the owner comes to visit from outside the country or if special visitors are on site.  It was shuttered closed.  If you look at the picture on the company’s label and on the promotional literature for the excursion, you will see what looks like a large home on a vast estate, not this shuttered building with wine production buildings and a church around it.   It was probably that picture and the word chateau that made me think we were going to visit a French estate in addition to a winery.  Apparently not.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Iron fireplace backs cover openings to the taps at Château Prieuré-Lichine.

The tour continued with a stop at the owner’s vast collection of fireplace backs.  These were rather interesting and in some cases opened to the vats in the room behind it.  This used to be the way that they reached the vats.  You could still see some of the taps.  It was an attractive display.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Château Prieuré-Lichine

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Château Prieuré-Lichine

Next we went into the room with the large concrete vats.  Apparently the company had innovated and moved to concrete on a previous occasion.  However, concrete is porous and it was determined that it effected the taste of the wine.  They moved away from that method, but have previously returned to it as concrete varieties have improved.  From our tours in California, we know that the material the vats are constructed with is just one area where winemakers options differ.  The shape of the vat has to do with how the liquid is separated from the skins.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Château Prieuré-Lichine

We stopped in the room where barrels were stored and then we were taken back into the shop that also served as the tasting room.  We tried two of their wines.  Very good, but neither Boris nor I was interested enough to purchase them.   I walked around outside and got a few pictures of the grapes on the vine.  They are just a few weeks from the harvest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Our lunch spot in Margaux, France in the Bordeaux region.

So apparently that was the winery and chateau visit.  We drove next into the village of Margaux to have lunch.  In spite of the very warm day, we are eating outside on a covered patio that was surprisingly cool.  It was a charming setting.  Lunch was a fixed menu with open bottles of water and wine on the table.  The bread was wonderful.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Château Prieuré-Lichine

Everyone gave himself or herself a generous pour of wine, so there was little left when it reached our end of the table.  Patty wisely ordered another bottle and then sat it on the ground next to her for refills. I think the four of us drank three bottles.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Margaux, France

Then I learned I was having salmon.  I love seafood, but am not a fan of salmon.  I also thought it was an odd choice.  I asked the waiter if I could have something else and he said that I had confirmed the order.  Wait; I was never asked.  Apparently the cruise line confirmed for me.  I couldn’t even offer it to Boris since he doesn’t like salmon either.  Okay so at least there were potatoes…and wine.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Château Prieuré-Lichine

Then I saw a couple of other people getting something else, so I asked again.  Still no.  Boris, Tom, and Patty all thought I should see if the guide could do something about it. So he came over and said that they had all this salmon prepared and that it would go to waste and that I had confirmed my selection last week.  I said that others got an alternative and he added that they had an allergy.  Boris told them I was allergic in French, but I didn’t want to be dishonest about it so I said that wasn’t the case.  Boris asked them to bring me more potatoes.  I just let it go.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Margaux, France

Then a woman three seats down announced that she had just asked for something else, was not allergic, was not even asked if she was allergic, and that she was being served an alternative.  That was it. It became the quest of the people at my dining table that I should be served something else.  The French waiters just glared at me.  I was ready to eat more bread and my potatoes.  About 10 minutes later, I received duck.  It was fabulous.  I even shared with Boris.  The women down the table asked if I wanted her duck; she liked that less than salmon.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Margaux, France

Since that was the whole tour, I was glad I got a lunch I enjoyed.  I did thank the servers later for accommodating me.  Really it wasn’t their fault at all.  There was lots of rumbling around the room.  Apparently one woman was highly allergic and had to completely leave the patio because she couldn’t be around the salmon and was worried about cross contamination.  Others were very upset that only seafood was being served.  One of the servers made the mistake a telling a guest how much the cruise line was paying per person-it was less that 14% of the cost of the tour-that caused more problems.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Margaux, France

Everyone was confused about what the tour included-how many places we were going.  Some thought the lunch was supposed to be at the winery.  Others were frustrated with the lack of choice with the food.  The cruise line had started passing around a tablet for us to complete a survey on the way back on each tour.  The tablet was not passed today.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Back in Bordeaux.

I learned a lot of what was said when I met Noreen on the bus.  She and Jeff were at another table.  From there our group got into a discussion about food preferences and Boris had to tell everyone about how he is educating the kitchen staff on the ship on the correct way to make the grits.  I really should say the correct way to serve grits to him.  Boris has never cooked grits before in his life; he just wants it done his way and the cruise line is always ready to oblige.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, the vertical lift bridge over the River Garonne, Bordeaux, France

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, the vertical lift bridge over the River Garonne, Bordeaux, France.  Note the La Cite du Vin in the background.

I think my favorite part of the day was the bus ride back.  We all had so much fun together that we reconvened that night on deck for the white night dinner-no grits or salmon in sight.  We will overnight here in Bordeaux and then then leave after light in the morning.  I am looking forward to seeing the vertical lift bridge over the Garonne River, Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, introduced in 2013.  At the time of its introduction it was the longest vertical lift bridge in Europe.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, the vertical lift bridge over the River Garonne, Bordeaux, France. Note the La Cite du Vin in the background.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, the vertical lift bridge over the River Garonne, Bordeaux, France

This is our farewell to France.  We will be in Spain tomorrow with a stop in Bilbao.

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Bordeaux, France

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On the waterfront in Bordeaux, France, a reflecting pool highlights the Place de la Bourse.

Today we are docked in Bordeaux, France.  Bordeaux is the sixth largest metropolitan area in France.  The riverfront in Bordeaux in along the Garonne river.  “The Garonne merges…below the city with another river, the Dordogne River, to form the Gironde Estuary…the biggest estuary in France.”  Normally an ocean cruise liner can not come into a river port such as Bordeaux, but with Azamara’s more compact ships we were able to go in river and dock right in town.  The best of both worlds for us.  Bordeaux is a popular river cruise destination.  Remember when I mentioned this was billed a Wine and Romance Cruise?  This is the port that has it all.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Sunrise outside Bordeaux, France

We have a walking tour scheduled this morning.  There was a wait list and as the temperatures are supposed to be in the 90s F (32+ C) some people cancelled and we got their spot.  This is not the tour I thought we were waitlisted for.  I thought we were trying to go to two wineries in the Bordeaux region. Boris was pretty upset that I wasn’t excited when the tickets came; I was pretty upset I was missing the wine.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen   I took this from the ship as we docked in Bordeaux, France right in the heart of the city on the River Garonne.

In my opinion the “walking” tour was a disaster.  We did a lot more standing than walking (which actually is tougher) and we covered very little ground.   It didn’t help that it just kept getting hotter.  It was in the mid 90s F (35 C).  After the tour was over and in a 1/3 of the time, Boris and I covered a lot more ground and made it back to the ship.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. One of two fountains at the base of the Monument aux Girondins in Bordeaux France

As we started out, we walked along the city’s waterfront, unnecessarily crossing back and forth over the tram tracks and a very busy street.  We had headsets so we could hear the guide even while we were walking.  You could even stop and take pictures and catch up while listening to the commentary.  In spite of this, the guide would still stop for long periods of time.

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Photo ©JeanJanssen. Street trams along the waterfront in Bordeaux, France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Napoleon ordered the building of the Pont de Pierre, the stone bridge over the River of Garonne, in the French city of Bordeaux.

I did enjoy the views. We could see the Pont de Pierre (Stone Bridge) ordered by Napoleon which connects the left bank of the Garonne River to the right bank.  We had passed under the newer Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, a vertical lift bridge where the roadway rises up when larger ships pass beneath it on our arrival.  The residents probably hate it.  They put the bridge up 45 minutes before the scheduled arrival blocking traffic for a pretty long period of time.  We will go back under on our way out.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen The Esplanade des Quinconces ends at the River Garrone and features these two columns depicting the the city’s commercial and maritime pursuits.  Bordeaux, France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Street lights along the Esplanade des Quinconces in Bordeaux, France highlight the city’s river-based heritage with ships in the ironwork.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Circus tents on the Esplanade des Quinconces for a traveling horse show. Bordeaux, France.  You can see the front of our ship in the background on the left side of the picture.

The Esplanade des Quincones ends at the left bank waterfront.  It is visible from our ship.  There are currently dark circus tents set up for a horse show. The columns on the waterfront side denote the city’s main interests-commerce and maritime pursuits.  Even the street lights feature seafaring vessels.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  The reflection pool along the Quais de Bordeaux (the city’s waterfront) is affectively know as the Bordeaux’s swimming pool for obvious reasons.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Cooling off in the reflecting pool along the Quais de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France.

Farther down we came to one of the city’s newest installations, a shallow reflecting pool. We arrived just as the water started bubbling up for the day.  It beautifully reflected the Place de la Bourse across the street.  The installation has become very popular with the residents. Our guide said it is referred to as Bordeaux’s swimming pool.  It wasn’t hard to see why.  When we first arrived before the water had started, I thought the crowds were gathered for the view of the buildings on the water.  Once the water came up, I found that it was the opportunity for the children, and anyone who was a child at heart, to enjoy the water that had drawn the crowds.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Porte Cailhau along the waterfront in Bordeaux, France.

Just a little further is one of two remaining fragments of the city wall, the Porte Cailhau built in 1495.  The gate “was constructed to celebrate King Charles VIII’s win against the League of Venice at the Battle of Fornovo…[I]t had the dual purpose of being a triumphal arch as well as a city defense.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The reserve side (looking toward the Garrone River) of the Porte Cailhau, Bordeaux, France.

I sat here in the shade on a short concrete stump as the guide told us about the area.  Later in the day I learned that these stumps were traffic control and could be raised and lowered remotely when access to an area needed to be restricted or granted. We had a good laugh with Patty and Tom from Wisconsin over the possibility that it might have happened while I was sitting on it.  It would definitely been more thrilling than standing in the heat and might have been the highlight of that walking tour.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Shell markers denote the path of the pilgrims in Bordeaux, France.

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Photo @Jean Janssen. Warding off evil on a courtyard gate in Bordeaux, France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On a building facade in Bordeaux, France.

Leaving the waterfront behind us, we walked through the old city.  Our guide pointed out the bronze shell markers on the ground that mark the path of the pilgrims.  He also noted the homes set back from the street with the street-side gates that open into a courtyard.   I spotted the many carved faces that appear on the façade of various buildings.  While they are decorative, their original purpose was to ward off evil.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Opéra Patisserie in Bordeaux, France.

We made a leisure stop at the Opera Patiesserie, a lovely tea room.  The exterior of the building looks very modern, but photographs inside show the condition before the renovation and how they tried to preserve some of the historic details.  There were a few tables and long display cases with their wonderful pastries on the bottom floor.  We headed upstairs where there was ample seating and they served your selections. We had a choice of many unique hot and cold beverages and a choice of one of four of their specialty pastries.  My raspberry tart was beautiful and tasted even better than it looked.  I highly recommend the tea room if you are in Bordeaux.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Place de la Comédie, Bordeaux, France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux

Afterwards, our guide took us over to Place de la Comédie where several tram line cross and the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux built in 1790 dominates the landscape.  All the buildings in this area are attractive and unique.  There is also a lovely standing clock in the median and an inviting carousel opposite the theater.  From here the guide was just walking everyone back to the ship.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Rue Sainte Catherine, Europe’s longest pedestrian shopping street in Bordeaux France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  Bordeaux, France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Modern construction on the edge of the old city in Bordeaux France.

Boris and I broke off and headed back into town.  We walked part of Saint Catherine Street, Bordeaux’s major shopping street and by some accounts the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe.  You can walk from Place de la Comedie to Place de la Victoire via Rue Sainte-Catherine.  We went through more of the old city and heading toward the city’s cathedral and the Hotel de Ville (city hall).  In the distance we saw a shopping mall of a very unique design.  We didn’t go that far, but some of fellow travelers-Noreen and Jeff from Vero Beach, Florida- did go inside and said it was pretty impressive.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, Bordeaux France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, Bordeaux France.

The Bordeaux Cathedral dedicated to Saint Andrew was built between the 12th and 16th centuries on the site of an 11th century Romanesque Church.  There has been a church on this site since the 9th century.  The current structure is an example of Angevin Gothic architecture, aka Plantagenet style.  It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1998.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, Bordeaux France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, Bordeaux France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, Bordeaux France.

Of course, I took photographs.  The exterior featured fabulous arches while the inside had lovely chapels behind the altar and beautiful stained glass.  The Cathedral is one of several churches in Bordeaux that have a detached tower that visitors can climb for wonderful views of the city.   The Cathedral’s Pey-Berland bell-tower was built between 1440 and 1450; it takes 282 steps to reach the top.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Hotel de Ville, Bordeaux, France

While it did not appear you could go inside the Hotel de Ville, the exterior was worth a photograph. By now, Boris’ foot was beginning to bother him and it was really hot.  We were also on the far end of the old city from the ship.  A cool cabin on board and a nice lunch were beckoning, so we started back to the boat.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The old and the new in Bordeaux France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Peaking into a courtyard in Bordeaux, France.

We finished touring at the opposite end of Esplanade de Quinconces (from the two columns we had seen in the morning) at the Monument aux Girondins.    The monument is quite a beacon; you can see it from the ship, from most places along the waterfront, and from Place de la Comedie.  As impressive as the monument was, the fountains on either side were even more impressive.  What a surprise.  We probably would have sat here for a while, but there was no shade to be found.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Place de la Comedie with the Monument aux Girondins in the distance. Bordeaux France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Monument aux Girondins, Bordeaux, France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen At the base of the Monument aux Girondins in Bordeaux, France.

We walked back to the ship up a beautiful cobblestoned and tree lined street.  The trees kept it cooler, but the cobblestones were pretty rough on our already tired feet.  We crossed over to the paved side of the street.   I liked the city of Bordeaux and it is certainly worth a visit.  It is the probably the most popular city to relocate to in France right now.  Not that long ago, the waterfront was all warehouses and factories; now the area has been cleared and you can enjoy the view of the river and of the newly cleaned buildings.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Beside the Esplanade des Quinconces in Bordeaux France

After a very late lunch, I had intended to enjoy the pool but it was just too hot.  We are staying overnight in Bordeaux.  Tonight was to be our White Night Party on the deck, but the captain and our hotel manager have decided to move it to our second night in Bordeaux to take advantage of expected cooler temperatures and a slight breeze.  I am just hoping to get some Bordeaux wine.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Thinking of Rocky, while wandering around Bordeaux France.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On the base of the Monument aux Girondins, Bordeaux France

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Belle Isle: A little bit more of Brittany

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Entering the walled harbor at Le Palais on Belle Isle, France.  You see the city of the left and the citadel on the right.

Today we are docked just off of Belle Isle, France.  Like our previous stop, the island is in the Brittany region of France.  It is the largest of Brittany’s islands and less than nine miles from the Quiberon peninsula extending from the French coastline.  The island has numerous small inlets and beaches and a breathtaking coastline, as seen on our way in to anchor.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Le Palais, Belle Isle, France

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Belle Isle, France

Artists have always been drawn to Belle Isle.  It is the home to the largest Opera festival in Western France.  Impressionist Claude Monet depicted the island in his work; Australian impressionist painter John Russell established an artists colony on the island; and Matisse’s work is said to have changed dramatically after and been influenced by his visit to Belle Isle.  Author Alexandre Dumas’ characters from The Three Musketeers have ties to the island and the second sequel to the novel is set in part on Belle Isle.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Belle Isle, France

The island is the second home to many of the French.  The island’s population of 5,300 swells in the summer months with the vacationers and opera guests.  The island’s economy depends on tourism and fishing.  That said, they are not set up for nor do they encourage cruise ship visitation.  This stop is a new one for Azamara as the cruise line tries to expand their unique offerings and set themselves apart in the market.  There were only two excursions offered on the island.  The one we were interested in was sold out, so Boris and I are touring on our own.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Azamara Journey as seen from the Le Palais Harbor, Belle Isle, France.

Not surprisingly, we can not dock at Belle Isle and once again were using the tender boats.  It is a gorgeous day with sunny skies and cool temperatures.  The air feels wonderfully fresh and clean.  The ship’s arrival was timed for 11 am.  I had an early morning massage and then showered.  We had lunch on the ship and then tendered into shore after the excursions had gone out and we no longer needed a tender ticket.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Belle Isle, France

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Le Palais, Belle Isle

We stopped off at the Tourist Information Center right at the ramp that served as our tender station and picked up a map.  Belle Isle’s harbor at Le Palais is a walled harbor.  (Our tender boats could only enter the walled harbor one at a time and we had to sit just outside the wall and wait for another tender to leave on our way in.)  The city was small and easy to navigate on foot.  I found it utterly charming.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Belle Isle.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Beautiful stained glass in the church at Le Palais on Belle Isle, France

I am always drawn to churches and led Boris straight to Le Palais’ Catholic Church just across from city hall.  With the church’s unassuming facade, I was shocked upon entering.  The stained glass windows were beyond beautiful and the altar decoration was colorful and unique.  What a surprise!  However, it will be no surprise to my blog readers that I took lots of pictures inside.  (Boris never complains.  He enjoys sitting and resting inside.)

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Hotel de Ville (City Hall), Le Palais, Belle Isle, France

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris wanders into La Maison d’Armorine, a confectioner that opened in 1946.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris liked the name of this restaurant, named for a character (Corto Maltese) in Hugo Pratt’s graphic novel.

The intersection by the church was full of riches with the interestingly named restaurant Corto Maltese and the Hotel de Ville (city hall) with its attractive facade.  Boris chose a nearby candy store as the first place he wanted to go into and of course he made a purchase-some wonderful caramels in a unique tin.  The proprietress did not speak English and I think Boris enjoyed using his French.  I just pointed and smiled.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen The canal in Le Palais, Belle Isle, France

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Wash day on board, Belle Isle, France

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Van, Kayak, bicycle, ready! Belle Isle, France

The small city winds around an canal.  There were lots of pleasure boats of varying sizes tied up along the canal.  For some it was wash day, others were restocking supplies, and others had just tied off to explore.  There were lots of people-including families with young children- in town just sitting by the canal and enjoying a picnic lunch (where I would have looked for a grassy area, they enjoyed the harbor walls and the view of the citadel just across the canal).

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A Westie! We look for West Highland White Terriers everywhere when we travel to remind us of our own Peabody at home.

Lots of people were on bicycles.  Many others were walking their dogs.  We were excited when we spotted a West Highland White Terrier (think Caesar ads) like our Peabody.  Of course I had to snap a picture.  There was a market in town on this Thursday which was just starting to shut down when we arrived.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Market Day in Le Palais, Belle Isle was just ending when we arrived.

Boris was on a mission to find crepes.  There were plenty of places, just not when he starting looking for them.  We rounded a corner and found a nice spot overlooking the citadel and took a seat at one of the outdoor tables.  The citadel can be seen from everywhere in town, from the harbor and canal that runs along it, and even from our cruise ship at anchor.  It is now a museum.  A walking bridge across the canal gets you there.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Cider on Belle Isle with a view of the citadel.

Brittany is too wet to produce grapes for wine, but they do produce a lot of apples and consequently cider.  We started with two glasses of cider. Boris spent a lot of time discussing the traditional crepe for Brittany with the server.  I just went with the special-strawberries, hazelnuts, whipped cream and ice cream.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Crepes on Belle Isle

The crepes came out as big buckwheat cakes.  Yum!  I definitely out-ordered Boris.  We found out later than this is the place the locals recommend.  Boris was proud of himself for stumbling upon it.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Must be a local artist on Belle Isle that makes these metal creatures. We saw them at the entrance to the citadel as well.

Around the corner numerous sidewalk cafes lined the street facing the harbor.  Some served wonderful large seafood platters like we the one we had in Bruges.  If we had come in for lunch, that would have been my pick.

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Sunset on the deck as we left Belle Isle

Having made the circuit, we headed back to the tender to return to the ship.  Belle Isle is a lovely island.  There is more to see if you have the time and oh those beautiful beaches!  Belle Isle would be a wonderful place to come stay and relax for a few days or a week.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In the church on Belle Isle, France. Beautiful

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Mont Saint Michel and St. Malo, France

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Mont Saint Michel and its Abbey, Normandy, France

Today we are anchored off the walled city of St. Malo, Brittany.  Brittany is one of fifteen regions in France.  However, the main attraction on today’s stop is actually in Normandy, another region of France.  But for the flow of Couesnon River, the rocky tidal island of Mont Saint Michel would be in Brittany.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The harbor at St. Malo, Brittany, France. When I woke, this was in darkness with only the lights from the town and the boats making the scene visible. By the time breakfast had arrived in our cabin, this was our view.

Boris and I are traveling by cruise ship once again.  We left Southhampton yesterday after a direct flight into Heathrow from Houston and a bus transfer to the coast.  It was an hour of driving around to all the terminals at Heathrow to pick up other cruise passengers and then an hour and 15 drive to the cruise terminal.  We took a red eye flight, so we were early and had to wait about an hour for the ship to open for new passengers.  Boris and I were the first ones on after the guests with suites.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In the Abbey at Mont Saint Michel, Normandy, France.

Our original plan was to go to Vietnam and Thailand in October but we had to cancel because Boris has a firm trial setting.  Those destinations are on my bucket list and we hope to get there in the spring.  This replacement cruise was the only one that fit in our schedules for the end of summer/fall. Billed a Wine and Romance Cruise, we will be stopping in ports in France and Spain before docking in Portugal.  Once we are land based, we will take a few days to see Porto which we missed when we were last here in May.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Houses along the city walls of Saint Malo, Brittany, France

Our first stop in St. Malo, France, a port city in the English Channel in the region of Brittany.  Historically, it was the home of French privateers (pirates sanctioned by the monarchy).  St. Malo’s old city is walled.  It has been destroyed twice.  First during the 16th century and then again during WWII when German troops were garrisoned in Saint Malo.  The city was heavily bombed by the Allies.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. One of the entrance gates to the walled port city of St. Malo, France.

We hope to have time to visit the city when we return from our excursion.  It was predicted to be a beautiful sunny day and our group all headed out to the tenders without raincoats or umbrellas.  We are unable to dock at St. Malo, so we have to tender in to shore through an opening in the walled harbor.  About half way into our tender ride, the rain started coming down heavily.  There was no time to go back for coats or umbrellas.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our tender stop in the walled harbor of St. Malo, France.

It was only a light drizzle by the time we reached the dock so we made it to the bus without mishap.  Our destination is Mont Saint Michel just on the border of the regions of Brittany and Normandy, about an hour away.  This is a spectacular world heritage site that is not to be missed.  The climb to the Abbey at the top is supposed to be grueling, but I have been told by anyone that has gone that it is worth the attempt.  Post surgery I can do pretty well with flat walking.  Uphill is a different situation.  Houston has no hills; so injury or not, I am not conditioned for climbing.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Bay surrounding Mont Saint Michel as fed by the River Couesnon

Mont Saint Michel is an island just over half a mile off the mainland coast.  The River Couesnon forms an estuary at Mont Saint Michel.  The final stretch of the river “forms the border between the historical duchies of Normandy and Brittany.”   The first monastic settlement was built on Mont Saint Michel in the 8th century;  the Romanesque church was built in the 11th century.  When the Abbey was built, pilgrims could only cross at low tide.  Water wasn’t the only hazard; the quicksand surrounding the mont still claims lives today.  The water level varies widely with the tides, as much as 46 feet.  The tides made the island “defensible as an incoming tide stranded, drove off, or drowned would-be assailants”.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The new light bridge over the bay has a wooden boardwalk for pedestrians and a road for shuttle access.

Crossing to the island has changed over the years.  There was a tidal causeway and then in 1879 a raised causeway was built with the later addition of car parks.  More recently, a dam has been created along with a light bridge which allows the water to pass freely around the island.  The causeway has been eliminated and the car parks have been moved to the mainland.  Today you can walk to the island or take a free electric shuttle.  There is a charge for the horse-drawn shuttle.  Some still brave the sandy marshland, but should only do so with a guide to get them around the quicksand.  The light bridge flooded once in 2015 as the result of a “super tide”.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Abbey at Mont Saint Michel

“According to a legend, the archangel Michael appeared in 708 to Bishop Aubert of Avranches and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet.”  The Abbey which sits at the top was one of great prestige until the Reformation reduced both the number of pilgrims visiting and the number of monks in residence.  With the French Revolution, the remaining monks were forced to flee and the Abbey was stripped of it ornamentation and became a prison.  “[B]y 1836, influential figures, including Victor Hugo, had launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure. The prison was finally closed in 1863 and the mount was declared a historic monument in 1874.” The Mont and the surrounding bay were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1979.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Mont Saint Michel

The mont and its Abbey are visually dramatic.  The best view is from a distance, which you speed by while on the shuttle.  If you have the time and the energy, walk the wooden path toward the island to see this almost unparalleled site.  If you are on the shuttle, you will still be left off some distance away and can enjoy the view.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The old pulley system used to raise and lower items to/from the Abbey is still in use today. Sure wish it was me they were pulling up.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Top of the pulley system at the Abbey at Mont Saint Michel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Pulley wheel, the Abbey at Mont Saint Michel.

Our guide lead us up what she said was the easiest path.  Easiest being a relative term.  It is a difficult climb up a less than smooth pathway with rock, cobblestones, and steps.  The young and fit will most likely have no problem, but I recommended some conditioning if you are not in the best of shape.  I had to stop a few times to rest and catch my breath.  The guide was sensitive to the needs of our group.  There were some people who simply couldn’t do it.  The cruise line had given us warnings about the difficulty.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris made the trek up to and through the Abbey with me.

Don’t be fooled once you make it to the Abbey.  It may be easier, but is not easy to make your way through the structure.  To tour, you will still be going up and down steps and ramps and utilizing straight and circular staircases.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Abbey Church features Romanesque architecture

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The roof of the Abbey church was designed to minimize weight and pressure on the lower floors of the structure.

The Abbey church features both Romanesque and Gothic styles of architecture.  It has a wooden, almost straw-like ceiling to reduce the weight on the lower floors.  The top of the church spire features a statute of Michel the Archangel.  In March 2016, a helicopter was used to temporarily remove the golden statue on the spire in order to restore its lightning rod device.  A model inside the Abbey recreates the procedure.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The golden statute of Archangel Michel was restored by helicopter in 2016

Leaving the church, you walk into the Abbey cloister.  There were views of the garden and the bay from the cloister.  This cloister didn’t have the same wow for me after visiting the Monastery of Saint Mary of the Victory in Batalha, Portugal in May.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Abbey cloister, Mont Saint Michel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Detail on the cloister arches, the Abbey at Mont Saint Michel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The cloister and church at the Abbey at Mont Saint Michel.

The Abbey has several levels.  God dominates the top level, next came the clergy, then the noblemen, than the rest of the population.  The distinction in amenities was not as clear with all the decoration removed.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Abbey at Mont Saint Michel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Fireplaces in the Abbey at Mont Saint Michel.

We walked through the gardens on our way out of the Abbey.  We descended the Mont from the Abbey via the town.  Throngs on tourists were on the pathway, either due to the later hour or the popularity of this route.  It felt a little like our experience in Obidos.  None of the shops caught our interest enough to go inside and actually our tour time was so limited that there really wasn’t much time to do anything other than walk down.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Perched in the niche of the Abbey Walls of Mont Saint Michel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Descending Mont Saint Michel through the town.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. I saw this in a alleyway as we descended Mont Saint Michel through the town. It almost looked like a mini drawbridge to me.

I did enjoy the facades of the buildings and particularly the iron signs.  At one inn/restaurant, two cooks beat batter (presumably for crepes) in time against their metal bowls and attracted quite a crowd.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Cooks beat their metal bowls in rhythm attracting a crowd of on-lookers, while my camera decided to focus on the iron rooster in the foreground instead.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Iron sign on Mont St. Michel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Gate to the town on Mont Saint Michel

We made it to the bottom and I snapped a few more pictures before we returned to the boardwalk to wait for the shuttle.  I was pretty hot, tired, and wet.  Wet not from rain but the exertion.  Of course, I was pretty proud of myself and glad I didn’t let anyone talk me out of trying.  Ideally, I would have gotten a picture from a greater distance, but I honestly didn’t have the energy or the time.  The guide told us it was a least an hour to get back on foot and I would have missed the bus.

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I did it! Natasha climbed and descended Mont Saint Michel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In the silt at Mont Saint Michel.

Returning to St. Malo, we drove around the walled city from the opposite direction, giving us a nice view of the beach and the fortress out in the bay.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The fortress just outside the walled harbor of St. Malo, France.

When we got off the bus it was not raining and it was a reasonable walk to the city gate, but we were tired and hungry and wanted more than the two hours remaining before the last tender to explore.  We decided to save the old city of St. Malo for our next visit.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Leaving the walled harbor of St. Malo by tender.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The coastline near St. Malo, France at twilight.

We went to a very late lunch when we reached the ship and then (no surprise) took naps.  As we left our spot at anchor outside the walled harbor, I enjoyed taking in the coastline, the beautiful hotels and homes, and the charming beaches.  St. Malo is definitely worth another visit.  On to more of Brittany with a stop at Belle Isle tomorrow.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View of the Bay as we ascended Mont Saint Michel.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Mont Saint Michel

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