Saturday, 8 October–
The Spanish port city of Alicante. Short version: another port city, another castle, another cathedral, more old-town narrow streets filled with cafe tables, another bullfighting ring.
We did an excursion here, i.e. a bus tour, and the first stop was the castle on the hill, up a narrow road originally designed for donkeys, as the guide pointed out, and which allows for only one bus at a time, alternating uphill and downhill. This castle isn’t as old as the two we saw in Lisbon and Málaga; its famous moment in history was that it was severely damaged during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, and sections of it have only been partially rebuilt. We spent over an hour there, then the bus took us through parts of town, the shopping district, past the bullfighting ring (they’re like football stadiums but circular, and increasingly used for other things than bullfights, our guide explained), and then let us off for a walking tour, past the city’s rather plain cathedral, the town center plaza full of wedding ceremonies in preparation and some kind of handball tournament, then leaving us at the esplanade along the waterfront, a palm tree lined walkway decorated with two million tiles in curved patterns, for an hour of free time. We found a cafe on a side street to eat paella and fried sardines. We’ve noticed that on the one hand, the cliche that Europeans don’t do ice in drinks (as Americans do) seems no longer an issue, in our experience so far; they provide ice with soda or cold tea without being asked. On the other hand, we still have to beg for the bill (check), even when we’re on a deadline to catch our tour bus; you’d think the local vendors, especially in tourist areas, would be a bit more attentive in that regard.
Now I have several observations about our whole trip that I’ve neglected to mention so far — I’ve been collecting them in my iPhones notes.
- I should have mentioned that the historical significance of our first two ports, Cádiz and Málaga, is that they were the westernmost settlements of the Phoenicians, the first great civilization to sail the Mediterranean and establish an empire, albeit commercial rather than militaristic; and this hundreds of years before the Romans came along and took over those settlements and renamed them. Alicante, in contrast, has no pre-Roman history.
- Cod is everywhere on the Portuguese menus but, one waiter explained to us, it is not a local fish. It’s all imported from Norway.
- The cars they drive: In Portugal and in Spain, they’re mostly German and French. Lots of VWs, lots of BMWs (though smaller models, nothing larger than a 3 series), quite a few Mercedes, even a few Audis. Then the French: Citroen and Peugeot. Japanese cars, Toyotas and Hondas, though usually models you don’t see in the US. Virtually no American cars, though I have seen a couple Fords, again models you don’t see in the US. And then makes and models unfamiliar to me: Toledo, Clio, Ibiza, Skoda. I could look them up.
- In Portugal, there’s an item on every restaurant tab for “couvert”. It’s a charge for the bread, olives, and whatnot that would be ‘complementary’ anywhere else.
- In Málaga, but no other city we’ve been to, the stoplight pedestrian signals display an animated walking man when it first turns green. There’s also a count-down counter in seconds. As the counter passes 30 or so, the walking man animation starts running. When it gets down to 10 seconds or so, the animation runs really fast. When it turns red, the counter resets and counts down the red light.
- Especially in Málaga, all the young men have beards.
- Tapas, we’ve been told, is a term that originally described complementary pastries set on a plate that covered your drink.
- The sommelier’s story: Anyone who’s been on a cruise probably knows about the work conditions of the staff — working round the clock for months or years without a break. On our ship, the first night we had dinner in the Grand Dining Room, and ordered wine, a sommelier came to help us choose. He’s a young man with a red beard, a maroon vest, and big chain around his neck that signifies his status. I asked casually about how long he’d been with the ship, and he explained that he’s on his third contract, how each contract is for six months, and how he never has a chance to leave the boat — like living in a prison, he explained cheerfully, and then went on to service other guests.
We saw him again two nights later, and he remembered our stateroom number and the bottle of wine we hadn’t finished (a Spanish white) and had saved for our next meal there. (A useful function of cruise ships!) We’d also noticed how the dining room hostess had remembered us, and complemented him on his memory. He explained that he had trained as a classical pianist, and was good at memorizing scores.
I’m posting this Sunday morning, local time, while we do our own laundry in the provided laundry room. We’re in Palma, on the island of Mallorca, and will head out in an hour or two to explore on our own.