Friday, August 19, 2011

Around The World 2011 Day 52: Valencia, Spain

Today is a big day.  Tomorrow is officially the last day of the Around The World 2011 Tour, but it will be spent at the docks and at the airports and in the taxis that will take us home.  Which means that even though tomorrow is technically the last day of the trip, it represents the journey home more than the trip itself.  Which makes today feel like the last day, as I said around fifty words ago.

And it will be spent in... Valencia, Spain.

And in case you were wondering about our state of mind, the state is positive.  Barbie and I have both enjoyed the heck out the last fifty days, but we are also looking forward to things like our home, friends, and family.  It is a nice balance, actually.  We are looking forward to getting home while also enjoying the last day of the trip, and perhaps even enjoying it more because the comforts of home feel near.
A Mediterranean sunrise off the coast of Valencia, Spain.  You cannot do much better.

In order to see as much as we can of Valencia, we have signed up for the official excursion The Best of Valencia which involves our waking up as early as we have woken up all summer.  And now you know why I was able to take a picture of an actual sunrise.
The sunrise, his and her breakfast plates, and coffee.  I know it is going to be a long day, and I ingested what I felt was an appropriate amount of caffeine.
Behind that pillar awaits the shuttle bus that will show us the Best of Valencia.
Told ya so.  Signs do not lie.

Time for Valencia trivia; the name Valencia comes from the Latin valentia, meaning strength and valour.  In English, the Latin valentia became valiant.  The Romans founded Valentia in 137 BC, naming the town after the valiant Roman soldiers who had fought the local Iberians.

As we drove into town from the docks, I spotted what I thought was a football stadium.
I took this shot from the shuttle, thinking it would be added to the football stadium photo collection that I shoot for various soccer playing nephews.  I soon learned I could have not been less correct.
I had unwittingly taken a picture of our first stop.  You should be able to translate that yourself.  Fine.  I will be nice to those who cannot remember any High School Spanish.  This development is Valencia's City of Arts & Sciences.
This is an amazing complex of buildings, all designed by local hero architect Santiago Calatrava.  From left to right you have an Opera House, the world's largest IMAX theater, the science museum and library, and to the far right an empty multipurpose building that can be used for nearly anything from conventions to celebrity weddings.
There is currently a dinosaur exhibit, and as you can see this little guy is leaning in to get his kiss from Barbie.  We later learned that the dinosaurs around are animatronic.  This picture would have been impossible had he been moving around.
The Music Palace looks like a Star Wars helmet, but as it was designed by an architect who is also an engineer, we were told that it has among the best acoustics in the world.  Our guide told us that some world-renowned classical musician (name forgotten) was asked about this building and her referred to it as a Stradivarius.

Of course, I have learned to take everything guides say with a grain of salt.  Or a whole salt shaker.  Especially in these secondary cities, where all they do is keep repeating how Madrid and Barcelona have nothing on their hometown.  Local pride can interfere with the facts.
Want to know how inventive this complex was designed?  This reflection pool can be emptied and so that this space can turn into... outdoor concert hall for tens of thousands.  (The above is a picture I took of a poster showing an MTV concert festival from February 2010.  If you told me that crowd numbered over 100,000, I would believe you.  Right-Click it into a new window if you do not believe me.

This new part of Valencia is simply incredible, and clearly Valencia is either incredibly rich to have built all of this or they are severely in debt for having done so.  A few people in our group asked about how it was financed, and the answer from the guide was, "This we cannot say for sure."  Uh huh.  But I will say this; Valencia's port, where we were docked, reminded me of Hong Kong with its miles of containers.  It turns out that Valencia is Spain's most trafficked container port, and handles a great number if Spain's imports and exports.  There is a lof money to be made importing the goods that the land-locked capital Madrid requires.  And as a manufacturing city, perhaps the Valencianos are not as in debt as we arrogant Americans believed.
There can be no doubt that the USA is beloved here.  There is no way that Burger King did not run focus groups that yielded a positive reaction to the ad campaign, "Gracias America."

They love us for our fast food.  How could they not?

Soon enough we were in the old part of town.
The heart of Valencia features marble sidewalks, fountains, and beautiful architecture.  I suspect it would be lovely to casually stroll around and sight-see.  One of the drawbacks of a shuttle bus tour is that it gives you no time to take in the place.
We got out of the shuttle bus to visit the Valencia's central market, and I took a picture of this building.  I have no idea what it is, but I very much like the architecture.  With Muslim, Gothic, and Baroque influences, the architecture of Valencia is noticeably different from the rest of Europe.  (Update: By pure coincidence I came across this building online to learn it is Sant Joan del Mercat, built above a Mosque in 1240 and rebuilt in 1592 after a fire.)

Our guide is taking us to the market to show us both Valencia's huge indoor market and give us a taste test of three levels of Iberian ham, the world-renowned Jamón ibérico.
This is the largest indoor market I have ever seen.  In the center of this picture you might notice the beginnings of a dome.  They so adore their market that it has a dome like a cathedral.
Barbie poses with the Iberian ham of which our guide is quite proud.  I will be honest.  I tasted all three levels of ham, and my conclusion is that Parma ham is superior.  Had I shared this opinion with our guide, he would have either been insulted or lectured me on why Parma ham is inferior.  Trust me.  And someday go to Parma for at least one day of feasting.
Valenciano restroom graffiti.
For the record, Valencia's Mercado Central is one of the largest and oldest indoor market of Europe.

Time to walk across the street.  Why?
Across the street sits the first mercantile exchange the world ever saw.  The Llotja de la Seda (Silk Exchange) began in 1482 and is the first place on Earth where merchants met not to exchange goods in person but instead to write contracts for exchanges too large or complex to be handled by hand.  The transition from physical exchanges of goods to contracted exchanges is one of those things that is very easy to take for granted, but should not be.  Modern society could not have come to be without it.
The Llotja de la Seda is also one of Europe's best preserved examples of late Gothic architecture.  As you know, I would take Gothic over Baroque any day.  It does not try to hard to impress you.  It lets the clean lines and beauty of design do the work without throwing a ton of decoration at you in an effort to impress.

And now... a different topic.  Young women.  I rarely let you in on this, but there are occasions when we are in foreign cities and attractive young women happen to pass by and on some of these occasions, perhaps many, I take a candid picture.
Dog Walking Candid, Valencia, Spain, August 2011.

Now... the reason I shared that is because one of the older men on our tour basically put me to shame.  Maybe thirty seconds after I took the above picture, he noticed her and walked right up to her.
At first she tried to get away, a little put off by his outright asking her to pose for him.

Then he said something nice to her and she smiled, and posed.
And this is the picture he took.  Frank Greene, you have surpassed me.  You, sir, are a master.
Ahead we see Valencia Cathedral, known formally as the Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady of Valencia.  That long name reminds me how in college I referred to my roommate John as Juan Felipe Medrano Capistrano Madrid.  If there is one thing people in the USA need to embrace, it is long names that identify previous generations.  It is the only way to keep track of who we are in a melting pot.
There is something quite unique about the Valencia Cathedral.  The main sanctuary features two distinct forms of architecture, Gothic and Baroque.  Why?  It was built in the 1200's in Gothic style, but over the centuries it was constantly added to and remodeled.  During the Spanish Civil War, which began in 1936 with a coup by a group of conservative generals that removed the democratically elected government and inserted dictator Francisco Franco in 1939, the cathedral was severely damaged.  (Should I mention how two years ago Picasso's Guernica brought up how ruthless this war had been and that the Nazi regime tested their blitzkrieg strategy on behalf of the fascists?  Oops.  Off track.)  In 1972 it was decided that the Valencia Cathedral would be restored, but it had undergone so many decorative changes over the centuries there was a debate about which era to restore it to.  They compromised and decided to restore the main hall to its original Gothic state, while restoring everything outside the main hall to their Baroque state.
The super-decorated front chapel, filled with golden Baroque and Neoclassical elements.
The main hall, with its unadorned Gothic columns and vaulted ceilings.

The next thing that makes Valencia Cathedral unique is one of its relics.  It is in possession of the Holy Chalice, which might be the actual cup that Jesus drank out of at The Last Supper.
I promise to not make fun of religion here.  Instead, I am making fun of our Valenciano guide.  Why? He pointed to this painting from 1570, and its depiction of The Last Supper with a chalice exactly like the one in the adjacent chapel, as factual support for the theory that the golden chalice in the next room was used by Jesus ro enjoy some wine with his friends.  Apparently painters whose subjects lived 15 centuries before their time can be relied upon for historical accuracy.

Let me say this.  If everything in the New Testament happened, and happened as described within it, I still have a hard time accepting that the Son of God, who preached beautifully about poverty and salvation, would have been drinking out of a golden cup so big that it had to be lifted with two hands.  There.  I said my piece.
The Holy Chalice is THERE.
This young Valenciano sleeps against the wall during a religious service in the chapel that holds the Holy Chalice.  I longed to do a panorama that went from him to the Holy Chalice, but I did not want to be overly rude to the worshippers.

I should confess to one last piece of bias.  Our guide, during his Holy Chalice spiel, referred to the authenticity of the chalice and stated that archeologists had studied it and verified that the chalice is the type used by, "Palestinians at the time of Jesus."  This really did floor me.  I said nothing, as he had just showed me his cards, but to refer to the people at the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean as Palestinian and not Judean is ridiculous.  Jesus lived in Roman occupied Judea and nobody would ever disagree with this fact.  This guide might have just made the most ignorant-slash-politically-charged statement I have ever heard.  Yep.  He lost me right there.  I do not need a grain of salt to listen to this man; I need a bag of salt.
We exited the cathedral and walked around behind it to Our Lady Square, where Barbie spotted a huge Star of David in the Valencia Cathedral's window.  She asked the guide about it, and he went on a long explanation of the Old Testament and New Testament and early Christianity, during which she had to interrupt him now and again when he was wrong or made no sense, until finally the guide told her that the Jewish community of Valencia helped to build the cathedral and the Star of David was placed there out of respect.  Things were very different for Valencia's Jewish community before the Inquisition.

I should just be happy that he did not refer to the Star of David as Palestinian.
Our Lady Square features this fountain which our guide said uses the Roman water system that dates back 2,200 or so.  Note that I present these tidbits as our guide said and not as facts.
Valencia Pedestrian Candid.  August 2011.  One of the great candid scores of my career.  A nun and a pretty Valenciana in a single shot!

The next and last stop of our tour will be...
...the Oceanographic Park.  This is the largest marine park in Europe.  It is part of the new collection of buildings with which our tour began, which is why that architecture should look familiar to you.  The complex is almost entirely underground, and the attractive modern buildings such as the entrance before you function simply to bring you to the lower levels where the exhibits can be seen.
He did not speak English, but his shirt does.
They have these very large displays of fish made from garbage pulled from the sea.  The above fish is made of discarded sandals.
This fish is made of discarded cans.
Fascist anti-pollution propaganda displaying how long it takes certain types of garbage to decompose.  As if the marine life do not enjoy having water bottles and sandals to playfully swim around for 1,000 years.

Now, this 1,100,000 square foot complex -- yes, 1.1 million -- takes a full day to see.  And the planners of our tour have given us one hour that included getting in and out.  It was unanimous.  We would go to the sharks, take pictures of the sharks, and then leave.
There is an amazing effect to these underwater walkways that cannot be captured by a camera.  There is an optical illusion above you that make the fish appear to be in the air above your head, as if you could reach up and touch them.  
On the way to see the sharkees I stopped and grabbed some jellyfish shots.  I cannot help but call the sharks sharkees because in Hawaii my nephew got a plastic shark and named it Sharky and ever since may brain assigns all sharks that extra vowel sound.
To get to the sharkees we had to go above ground and then back under.  While above, we passed what has to be the world's coolest spherical bird cage.
These two do not need cages.  When I took this, I did not know that some other tourist was pointing at the pelican like that in the upper left corner.  This marks the first ever accidental colossal point.  The pelicans are THERE.
Sharkee time.
I honestly put a lot of effort into trying to get a good four-shot animation of a sharkee passing for YOU.  I kept adjusting the timer between shots and such.  For this one, I apparently turned on a green spotlight effect.  Still, it is one of the better sharkee passings that I got.
People gazing with amazement at sharkees.
Not as good an animation, but I have it and see no reason to deny you the pleasure of watching these two sharkees swim.
The last sharkee shot of the day.  The truth is that I left off the "ee" several times and had to go back and add them to be loyal to my nephew.
This shot will mean nothing to people unfamiliar with the Busway in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley, but I found it very interesting that Valencia too has chosen to turn a former train track into a busway.  

You do not know it, but a whole diatribe about mass transit sits in my mind but you have been spared this time around.

And with that, we returned to the ship for the last time!  The next time that we step off of the SeaDream is the last time this visit.
The last SeaDream lunch; her Pumpkin soup, her Monte Cristo sandwich, his Chicken Satay, and their extra french fries.

There was some social time by the pool, but everyone on-board had to pack as well.  Soon enough came dinnertime, and there was the usual prom-like complexity of who sits where.  At our table, which was undoubtedly the cool table, we sat with two of the very coolest couples aboard SeaDream; Jerry & Joan and Ira & Robin.
From left to right; Jerry, Joan, Ira, and Robin.  One of my goals when I am home will be to put some meals on here and keep doing these table panoramas.

Now... for the final dinner the SeaDream chef has provided a Menu Dégustation.  Yes, a fixed menu with but two entrée choices.  Daring.

I will just say it in advance; every dish was superb.  Absolutely superb.  If a restaurant in any city in the world served this meal the place would be booked for weeks if not months.
First course, L'Oeuf Poule au Caviar Surprise.
Second course, Steamed Lobster on Marinated King Crab tartar with Orange Dressing and Herb Phyllo Crisp.
Third course, Cappuccino of Pumpkin Soup with Fresh tarragon and Roasted Pumpkin Seeds.
Fourth course, Raspberry and Champagne Sorbet.  (I am not sure if something this flavorful can truly cleanse the pallet, and am counting it as a course.)
Barbie's Main course, Pan fried Sea Bass fillet with Grilled Baby Zucchini, Wild Mushroom Risotto and Truffle-Olive Oil Jus.
My Main course, Chateaubriand of Beef with Gaufrette Napoleon Potato, Green Asparagus and Sauce Pays d'Auge.
Sixth course, Warmed Morbier Cheese with Carmelised Mix Nuts.
Dessert course, Earl Grey Tea infused Soufflé with Crème Fraîche Ice Cream.

There.  A seven course meal, each one wonderful.
I handed the waiter the iPhone for a last table shot that even includes me, but the lighting is just terrible.  Still, it is proof that I was not hiding in our cabin.
A final shot of the moon over the Mediterranean.  Tomorrow morning we will wake up in Barcelona and be the first people off the ship, headed to New York and then Los Angeles during one of those 33 hour days that includes 14 hours in the air.

Until tomorrow...