Valencia: Feb 07 issue

Elio Leturia checks out a stopover in Barcelona, while Jay Clarke finds the Silver Whisper cruise liner is well up to the task of being an America’s Cup viewing platform

With the America’s Cup about to kick off in Valencia, Spain, this year, the big cruise lines are offering a number of packages to capitalize on what is likely to be one of the most hotly-contested and spectatored events in the Cup’s history. For the first time, the Cup is being raced in modern Europe, the hub of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
The cruise liner Silver Whisper is being used as an oncourse viewing platform/hotel for the races and for the first time has been given permission to shadow the Cup racers down the course. Whisper will be departing for Valencia from its rival Mediterranean port, Barcelona on 22 June, which means if you time your flights properly there’s time for plenty of R and R in Barcelona for a few days prior.
Barcelona is a city of contrasts, especially between the medieval sites and the newer, modernista areas. It’s easy to navigate and walkable, though you’d need a map in the charming and narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter.
Here are your reference points: Gran Via De Les Cortes Catalanes runs parallel to the sea and divides the old city from the modern. La Rambla in the old city divides the Gothic Quarter from El Raval. Passeig de Gracia divides the more modern Eixample neighborhoods.
Placa de Catalunya is the hub, at the end of lively La Rambla and at the beginning of chic Passeig de Gracia. It is the best place to begin after having taken a bus from the airport (around 4 euros compared to a much more expensive cab ride).
The placa, or plaza, is a big, open space where multitudes converge and move off in different directions, looking for stores to shop in, sights to see, restaurants in which to dine. In the area there are stores, good restaurants, fast food chains, business offices and a busy subway stop.
Let’s begin by walking in the direction of the sea, following the famous La Rambla. It’s like a carnival, busy and buzzing with tourist attractions. Magicians, mimes, musicians, exotic-animal vendors, beggars and fortune-tellers share space with tourists and strollers.
To your right is El Raval. It is the poorest area of the old city and its reputation has been one of vice and crime. It used to be known as Barcelona’s Chinatown. Now, it has its share of interesting places and affordable restaurants, even if it is a bit seedier in spots than the Gothic Quarter or more modern areas.
Among Raval’s spots of interest are the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, Antoni Gaudi’s magnificent Guell Palace and the Gran Teatre del Liceu. But if you are looking to explore the flavor of the city and the friendly demeanor of the locals for free, visit the Mercat de la Boqueria, a “modernisme” (Barcelona’s version of art nouveau) structure made of metal, where you can do your grocery shopping and choose from an extensive array of prime local ingredients and produce from seafood, breads and fruits to spices and vegetables.
There is the old Hospital de la Santa Creu, which holds the Catalunya library (3 million documents, says National Geographic’s “Traveler Barcelona” book), where you can see students chatting in a building dating back more than 600 years.
On the other side of La Rambla is the Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter, a labyrinth of medieval streets filled with stores, bars, restaurants, hotels, churches, a breathtaking cathedral (work started in 1298) and Roman ruins.
With its dark corners, cafes and history, the Gothic Quarter showcases a unique personality. An afternoon here is spent weaving through the crowds of tourists who fill the narrow, cobblestone streets, and you could easily spend days exploring its alleys and walkways.
Next to the Gothic Quarter, you find El Born, a neighborhood that has been restored and embellished. It is home to the Picasso Museum, where you can see artwork from his early years (Picasso spent his youth in Barcelona). Be sure to walk through the 700-year-old Carrer de la Montcada, which houses grand galleries and sophisticated bars.
At the sea edge of La Rambla, south of El Born, you find the monument to Christopher Columbus, then the waterfront.
Facing the Mediterranean Sea, you notice a commercial area with numerous malls in what is called Port Vell, next to the water. Feel like shopping? This is a good place to find affordable items. You will also find the aquarium and the Maremagnum, a complex of stores, eateries, bars and discos.
Facing the port, another neighborhood called La Barceloneta is to your left. Once a group of warehouses, it harbors pricey seafood restaurants and blue-collar housing in amazingly narrow blocks. Beyond that is the beach, which bubbles with sun seekers.
On the other side of Placa de Catalunya, there is a dramatic change in the streetscape, as the view becomes that of modernist buildings and streets laid out in a grid. It’s L’Eixample (the extension), a district divided by Passeig de Gracia and its elegant stores, tapas bars, cafes and restaurants.
This is a different face of Barcelona. Modernisme is the main architectural style, and it’s a delight to the eye. For Barcelonians, L’Eixample can mean a place to live, a place to work, a place to enjoy the nightlife and especially, a place to shop. Unfortunately, most everything is expensive.
What can we do here on the cheap? Try walking. In just one block on Passeig de Gracia you can admire the facades of three architectural wonders: Gaudi’s extraordinary Casa Batllo, with its undulating lines and balconies resembling jawbones; Puig i Cadafalch’s Casa Amatller and its geometrically tiled top floor and, at the corner, Domenech i Montaner’s Casa Lleo Morera, with its magnificent windows and bulging balconies.
To see what’s inside these and other modernist buildings, you can buy a Ruta del Modernisme ticket that gives you access to these and other buildings, as well as other museums and attractions, at half-price within 30 days. The price is 3.61 euros for adults, 2.40 euros for students and senior citizens.
A couple of blocks away on the same street you find Casa Mila, or La Pedrera, another Gaudi marvel. It’s so convoluted and striking, it’s difficult to describe. But think of the movie “Star Wars.” You will feel you are in outer space. Gaudi practically eliminated any straight lines in the architecture, from staircases to floors to ceilings.
Following the work of Gaudi, you have to see Sagrada Familia, a cathedral, still unfinished, more than a century in the making. Inspired by Gothic cathedrals, this church’s design is unique, with its swirling towers and busy details.
Ten blocks from Casa Mila, Sagrada Familia has eight finished towers which represent the apostles (four others are to be built). Drawings show that more towers are part of the original design, with the tallest representing God as the central axis.
Work continues, but what you can see already is enough to take your breath away. It looks as if its towers were made of sand eroded by the wind. And still the overall effect remains solid and imposing.
Eight euros buys you a visit from 9 a.m. till 6 p.m. during the colder months. The site is open until 8 p.m. from April through September.
If you’re looking for more Gaudi at an even more reasonable price, visit Parc Guell, which is free. Originally conceived as a garden city, two homes were built in a setting supposed to hold 60. The park makes you feel as if you are in a fairyland, with its curved benches, fountains and plazas covered by colorful mosaics and sculptures of real and mythological creatures. From the park, you can stare out over the city to the Mediterranean and feel the pure and clean air.
If you’re looking for a smoke-free environment, try Starbucks. There are three of them, the only smoke-free places I found in Barcelona.
On board the Silver Whisper, of course, it’s a different story again. I knew I was going to like the Whisper as soon as I stepped into our suite. Our stateroom, like all others, had a walk-in closet – a feature that instantly convinced my wife that we were truly on a classy ship. Our bathroom was equipped with double sinks as well as a tub and separate shower – notice, not EITHER a tub or shower, but BOTH.
Beyond the sitting area with its plush sofa and chairs was a veranda, a nice place to read a book or enjoy a cocktail while gazing at the restless sea. The mini-bar was pre-stocked with sodas and liquor of our choice, and canapes were delivered to our suite every day at 4 p.m. Sometimes it was hard to leave our room.
But of course we did, and found the rest of the ship just as elegant as our stateroom. Soft colors and rich woods gave the public rooms a warm feeling, and we never had to memorize fancy names for ship spaces. The decks were numbered, not named, the bar was simply The Bar, the restaurant was The Restaurant, the spa was The Spa, The Humidor was the cigar smokers’ den, the Terrace Cafe had a terrace and the Panoroma Lounge indeed provided a panoramic view. Simplicity can be elegant.
It and its sister ship, the Silver Shadow, are the line’s largest vessels, but with a maximum of 382 passengers they’ll never threaten today’s giant cruise ships, which can carry more than 3,000.
Which is how its guests like it. Luxury cruises do not come cheaply, and Silver Whisper’s clientele are discriminating yet very down-to-earth people, we learned.
Such people demand a certain level of excellence, and they get it aboard the Silver Whisper.
First, they demand service that is several cuts above that on mainstream ships. Our cabin attendant, a young Italian woman, was always around with a happy smile, making sure our needs were met. Dining room waiters did their job with skill and pleasantry, even knowing that tipping is a no-no on all Silversea ships. A room service meal was just as fine as the restaurant’s, and if they said it would be there in 10 minutes, it was.
We generally took a buffet breakfast in the Terrace Cafe, which transformed itself in the evening to an elegant, reservations-only alternative restaurant. We often took lunch on the pool deck, and I thought it was sort of incongruous – considering that people were in shorts or bathing suits – that waiters stood by to carry our plate of hot dogs, potato salad or whatever to our table, just as they did in the dining room. A nice touch, though.
In the evening, we took most of our meals in the dining room, where the menu was inventive, the food excellently prepared, the choices broad and the service impeccable. I was particularly impressed with a cannelloni that was delicate in taste and texture. Lifting an ordinary dish like this one to such heights was, I think, the mark of a good chef.
Complimentary wines of high quality were served with lunch and dinner, with the sommelier choosing ones to complement the entrees. But passengers could order different selections if they chose, also complimentary. Bottles of rarer wines like the grand crus, however, carried charges that ran as high as US$785 a bottle. Yes, there were people who ordered them.
In the Mandara spa, services were keyed to a high level. Businessmen breaking away from their workday gruel might go for an Executive Men’s Facial to smooth out those pinstripe worries. Women could luxuriate in a Javanese Honey Steam Wrap treatment, which uses cinnamon, ginger, sea salt, coffee, honey and steam, or go for a Hot Lava Rock Massage, in which spa personnel massage client’s bodies with steamed lava stones covered with a blend of rich cocoa butter. Luxury? Yes, indeed.
Onboard diversions ran along traditional lines. Books, magazines, games and movie video tapes were available in the library. Daily bridge games attracted several tables of players. Trivia quizzes, musical and otherwise, were popular, and in the evening we enjoyed pre-dinner and post-dinner shows in the two-story show lounge. Other than the fitness room and the pool, there were few activities for more active passengers. Shore excursions, too, were more geared to the older travelers the ship caters to.
On sum, Silversea gave us an experience well above what we’ve had on any other ship.
It doesn’t get any better.
Gross tonnage: 28,258 tons.
Length: 186 metres.
Beam (width): 25 metres.
Passenger decks: 7.
Passenger capacity: 382.
Lance Green at New Zealand’s Viaggio has managed to secure berths on Silver Whisper for kiwis wanting to see New Zealand win back the America’s Cup on the Mediterranean. Green, who has extensive background in the cruise industry, argues the liner’s smaller size and upmarket décor make it the perfect viewing platform for the America’s Cup, allowing guests the advantage of both watching live from the decks as the yachts duel their way past, and also the close-up action on the live TV coverage on the ship and in the suites.
“Throw in the fact that we’ve secured a package with no hidden costs, in NZ dollars, and we’re confident this is simply the best way to see the races, bar none.”
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