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Barcelona And The Woman Who Knows It Best

Maria NadinaOf all the tour guides we have encountered over years of cruising — and all have been varying degrees of good at their craft — no one was better than Maria Nadina.

For us, she is the First Lady of Barcelona.

It's not just because she speaks six languages, all of them (as near as we could tell) with clarity and eloquence. It's not just because she seems to have time to answer every question about every part of her adopted home. It's not just because her smile and her personality put a good face on Barcelona.

It's for all of those reasons.

It goes without saying that Maria is delighted at the growth of cruising her city has experienced (in case you hadn't heard, Norwegian's 4,100-passenger ship the Epic is the latest to make Barcelona home). It's good for her business.

She lives in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and anybody who has been there surely knows why. We were smitten on our first visit, before we ever met Maria Nadina.

Yet she knows better than anyone that a city needs balance, and sometimes Barcelona can seem too touristy.

"Sometimes," she worries, "it's not so good for the locals, as all the industry seems to be oriented to tourism. And local services are somehow abandoned."

Abandoned never applies to her clients, of course. She will show them La Sagrada Familia, the church that may never be completed. She'll enlighten you with the La Sagrada Familiachanges to Barcelona, starting with the biggest modern-era one that came with the 1992 Olympic Games. She'll tell you about where to go in Las Ramblas, the legendary shopping and eating core of the city. She'll educate you about the legacies of Picasso, and of Antonio Gaudi, who designed the church that nobody can finish and who lies under it. She'll tell you the good and the bad, just like she does about the impact of tourism.

It was the Olympics that brought Maria to Barcelona from Belgrade, although she also enhanced her credentials by conducting cruise tours in Brazil, Alaska, the Caribbean, Mexico and Argentina. When she settled in Barcelona to stay, Maria built her business — Barcelona Code — to the point where she offers cruise passengers at least half a dozen varied tours, inside and outside the city.

And at the end of it all, she still finds that in her beautiful city "every daily walk is enough dose of inspiration for the next work of art in my glass and mosaics workshop."

As you can see, there's nothing shallow about this First Lady of Barcelona.

Today at portsandbows.com: The best of Bordeaux

Holland America Oosterdam
7 nights
June 1, 2014
AnchorageGlacier BayHainesJuneauKetchikanVancouver
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $85
www.hollandamerica.com

An Epic Move in Norwegian Entertainment?

EpicOf all the cruise ships we've sailed on, the Norwegian Epic still ranks at or near the top of the list. This, despite the fact that many have railed against it as the ugly duckling of the family for any number of reasons, starting with its "box top" appearance.

Frankly, what a ship looked like never bothered us one way or the other. We were more concerned with where it was going, how comfortable it was if there's turbulent waters, how easy it was to navigate, what it had to offer on board, if its people were friendly and interesting, and what came out of the kitchen.

We love the Epic.

So now it's going to Europe, to be based in Barcelona. Oh, to be in Barcelona, a city we also love…

We do have a question about the Epic's new life: What about the entertainment?

Norwegian specializes in entertainment. It was on the Epic that we first saw Blue Man Group, not once but twice. It was in the Epic that we were introduced to the Slam AllenLegends in Concert. And it was on the Epic that we met and enjoyed a jazz/bluesman named Slam Allen — it appears we weren't the only ones who liked him, because Norwegian moved him and his band off the Epic and onto a newer, "prettier" ship, the Breakaway.

But what happens in Europe?

Do Europeans feel the same way about the glitzy performances of "legends" whom some — not us — might call poor imitations of the real Michael Jackson, the real Rod Stewart and the real Whitney Houston?

Eric Clapton notwithstanding, do Europeans find the blues (assuming that Slam Allen was succeeded by another blues band) as comforting and entertaining as North Americans do?

We're told that Blue Man Group played for tiny audiences in Europe…will it have a permanent place on the Epic?

Since its arrival in late 2010, the Epic has had its toe in European waters each summer, so Norwegian's decision to send it off to Barcelona was not done without research, of course. But those were just summer sailings and we wonder if this maligned yet popular ship will have what it needs the most: European entertainment sustainability.

Otherwise, the Epic will never be the same.

Celebrity Summit
7 nights
May 4, 2014
Bayonne (return): King’s Wharf
Inside: $494
Cost per day: $70
www.celebritycruises.com

New Ship: Royal Princess

 

There will be four new cruise ships launched this year, fewer than usual. This week, we're giving you a snapshot of all four, and the Royal Princess is number four…

Launch date: June 10

Capacity: 3,600

Staterooms: 1,780

Decks: 17

Sister ship: Regal Princess (2014)

Home Port: Barcelona, Fort Lauderdale

Where it's sailing: Mediterranean (summer), Eastern Caribbean (winter)

Ships now in Princess fleet: 17

Interesting: Named after the line's first purpose-built ship, the Royal Princess will be the largest ship in the fleet and feature the innovative SeaWalk, a cantilevered, glass-enclosed walkway that will extend 28 feet beyond the edge of the ship and 128 feet over the water…plus cruising's first TV studio.


Norwegian Jade
10 nights
February 13, 2013
Rome (return): Olympia, Athens, Izmir, Istanbul, Naples
Inside: $369
Cost per day: $37
www.ncl.com
 

Cruise Awards from the UK

There are so many cruise lines, passengers, critics and assorted opinions in North America that it's easy to forget about what the rest of the world thinks about cruise lines.

Today, we bring you a sampling.

It comes from the United Kingdom, where readers of Cruise International Magazine cast 20,000 ballots to pick the best of everything…everything from cruise agent to learning to well-being to — of course — cruise line.

You might be surprised by some of the results.

Instead of saving the best for last, let's reveal right off the top that the best cruise line is…Carnival. It's not exactly like winning Best Picture at the Oscars, but it's a feather in the cap of a cruise line that doesn't do much more than put its toe in the water in Europe. That makes it a curious choice.

Either Brits like to cross the ocean and sail on Carnival ships, or they're enamored with the British humor in the world according to John Heald, Carnival's blogger-in-chief. If you don't think that's possible, you should know that Best Cruise Blogger was one of the magazine awards, and Heald won it.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the red carpet…

Best FoodCunard, with an honorable mention to Holland America

Best for ActivitiesRoyal Caribbean, followed by Celebrity

Best Innovation — Carnival's 5D Cinema, ahead of Norwegian's Ice Bar on the Epic

Best for LearningFred.Olsen first, Cunard second

Best Luxury Cruise LineSeabourn number one, Oceania second

Best EntertainmentPrincess, followed by Carnival, with nary a mention of Norwegian

Best Shore ExcursionsUniworld, and honorable mention for Fred.Olsen

Best for KidsDisney, with Carnival best of the others

Best Destination (Europe) — Norway, then Stockholm, even though one is a country and the other a city

Best Destination (Rest of World)Alaska, then Jamaica

And in the event you think any of those are strange choices, this has to be the strangest…

Best River Cruise LineViking first, Uniworld second

Best Luxury River Cruise Line — Uniworld first, Viking second


Carnival Breeze
15 nights
November 6, 2012
Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Malaga, Las Palmas, Antigua, St. Maarten, Miami
Inside: $799
Cost per day: $53
www.carnival.com

Cruise Home Port A Changed City

 

BARCELONA — This is our recollection of the first time we enjoyed Barcelona, four years ago…

Drive in from a beautiful seaside resort. Pay a small fortune to park the car, somewhere near the tourist haven known as La Rambla. Wander the narrow streets. Get lost. Stumble across a church that's been in a state of construction for decades. Eat at a tapas bar. Re-locate the car. Drive up a long hill to see Olympic Stadium. Leave.

It was fun but our second time around was better, on a shore excursion from Oceania's new Riviera.

We feel compelled to make a recommendation to anyone who might find themselves on a cruise stopping in this capital of Catalonia.

Whether you take a shore excursion from a cruise ship or just get off the ship and take a local bus tour, it's the best way to get a feel for Barcelona. And take a map. Follow the bus route on the map (not that hard) and you'll see, for example, that it's an easy walk from one end of Las Ramblas, by the sea, to the other, by the main square.

You'll get a glimpse of where the 1992 Olympic Games were held, mostly up in Parc Montjuic, which overlooks the city. It's a tough walk to get there, but possible, and a funicular runs constantly to transport visitors. The funicular was built for the World Exposition in 1929 but was extensively renovated for the Olympics. You'll also get a sense of how far apart everything is, which makes it easier to plan your visit.

Those two stops, plus the church we stumbled across in 2008, are recommended for first-time visitors. If you're lucky enough to get a tour guide like ours, Marija Vasiljevic Nadina, you'll find out as much as you need to know about La Sagrada Familia (the church), Antonio Gaudi (the man who designed it) and how the face of Barcelona has changed.

She is quick to point out that if you were here before the Olympics, this is a different place.

"The Olympics changed everything," she says. "It's different."

In a word, tourism.

Barcelonians were known for "turning our backs to the sea." By "turning around" they opened up the waterfront in a way it had never been open. The Olympic Village was built there at a time when it was a decaying area to be avoided, and as post-Olympic apartments they were all sold before the Games even began.

In turning its front to the sea, Barcelona opened its arms to the cruise ships. Now it is the largest cruise port in Europe, No. 3 in the world and the European home of the Riviera, which was christened here last week. Beaches, previously ignored, are beautiful. There's a large casino, and Starwood has built a tony W Hotel in the shape of a sail.

Tourism is king. As an example, the bull rings were all closed because there were demonstrations every Sunday by people carrying "blood-stained" blankets. It was bad for tourism. Now there is only bull-fighting in the south of Spain, where legislators decreed than the "art" of bull-fighting be classified as a "celebration of national interest" so now it is protected by law.

Then there's the church.

Construction has been stopped and re-started several times, primarily for lack of funds. Now, it is almost wholly supported by tourist dollars. There are often line-ups to get in, more than two million visitors a year and so many buses in the area that they are being outlawed from the front of the church to be parked a few blocks away.

It's a church that has inspired contradictory credible comments that it is both "sensual, spiritual, whimsical, exuberant" and "one of the strangest-looking, even hideous, serious buildings in the world." It is probably both. Even Barcelonians don't like the final facade, under which is buried its only permanent resident, Antonio Gaudi.

"You have a word in English…gaudy?" says Marija. "I believe it means 'too much'? Yes, maybe that is Gaudi."

His sometimes-bizarre architectural tastes are everywhere around Las Ramblas, the best place to taste local cuisine. We went looking for two dishes: paella and zarzuela. Paella was everywhere but zarzuela, seafood-based like paella but without rice or noodles, was tougher to find.

Then, along came "Rodolfo King of The Ramblas."

Rodolfo Crespo's job is to coax tourists to a restaurant, called Living Barcelona, a block off the main drag. He didn't approach us, we approached him, in search of zarzuela.

"Si," he replied.

We dined at Living Barcelona. One of us had paella, one zarzuela. Were they good?

Si.

Oceania Regatta
14 nights
June 11, 2012
Miami, St. George's, Azores, Ponta Delgada, Motril, Valencia, Barcelona
Inside: $2,149
Cost per day: $153
www.oceaniacruises.com
 

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