When the Arctic chill blew in, a Christmas cruise to Barcelona, Casablanca, Tenerife, Funchal and Malaga sounded warm, fuzzy and therapeutic. With sunny days, tropical fauna and flora and flamenco music dancing in our heads, my other half and I sailed on the new MSC Divina and looked toward a blissful holiday.
This is a city that will get your creative juices flowing. Phenomenal legacies of Gaudi and Miro abound in this Catalonian city in Northern Spain. There are not enough words to describe its sophistication, vibrant districts and rich gastronomy.
Given limited time, we focused on La Sagrada Familia and came away fully awed by Gaudi’s Gothic style church with organic forms and intriguing symbolism throughout. Within the structure’s light and airy magnificence is an inexplicable mystery that is not easy to fathom. Even harder to believe is that the Church has been a “work in progress” since 1882, with its completion date still unknown.
Returning to planet earth, we headed for the bohemian “La Rambla,” rife with painters, street artists and musicians. Enroute is the gastronome’s delight, “La Boqueria,” luring us into its animated halls. Fresh meats and fish beckoned, exotic fruit, fresh produce, fragrant cheeses, sausages and wines likewise tempted to be sampled and bought.
Speaking of temptations, this city’s Medina teems with lovely carpets, leather goods and metal ware, but the Notre Dame de Lourdes Church was our goal. True to reports, the effect of light filtering through rainbow-colored glass windows in the structure’s open and uncluttered interior was simply dazzling…mesmerizing.
The island is about as close to paradise as you can get considering its sunny disposition, verdant nature and negligible crime rate. La Laguna, a UNESCO Heritage Site, took us back in time through cobblestone streets, splendid medieval mansions and churches.
Mt. Teide, an imposing landmark soaring 11,000+ ft above sea level, was a step closer to heaven, we thought.
Along the way, the rugged topography, already used in a number of films, was stunning. The terrain has also served as laboratories for international scientists engaged in outer space research and studies. Then, on a terrace just below the mountain peak (accessed via a cable car), we took in breathtaking vistas of otherworldly desertscapes perfect for intrepid mountain bikers, hikers and outdoor lovers.
Bodegas Monje winery and restaurant provided more sweeping sea vistas and acres of vineyards. The site is a veritable food and wine temple in Tenerife, specialized in seafood and fresh agricultural products.
Our scrumptious lunch began with tastes of the highly-prized “jamón iberico” or black pig ham, unique to Spain. Soon grilled octopus, foie gras and roast pork arrived, all complemented by memorable Monje wines: Hollera, Tradicional and Drago-Blanco.
On select occasions, the winery intrigues with a special “Wine and Sex” dinner theme, where the chef extols aphrodisiac food in the ambrosial and commodious wine cellar. Learn more at http://www.bodegasmonje.com/
This sparkling and tropical wonderland is attracting media attention for the “Painted Doors” in the historic district. Fronting the medieval narrow alleys are idiosyncratic paintings and collages of people, creatures and objects. This open-air museum is worthy of a second look.
At the local market, fascinating floral varieties seduced and so did passion fruit, guavas, avocados, mangoes and bananas. The Portuguese scabbard fish when fresh is grotesque, but superb as a main entrée with Mateus Rosé, which we experienced at the stately Quinta Do Monte Garden Restaurant in the awe-inspiring village of Monte.
Unique to Funchal and guided by strong-legged, robust men is the thrilling 2-km toboggan (wicker basket on a sled) ride down a steep road. Ultimately, the drive to the 1,920 ft Cabo Girao Cliff, was just as exciting. Dizzying sea views plus precipitous hills dotted by vineyards, hotels and houses rounded off our beautiful day.
Attending Mass on Christmas Day at Catedral de Encarnación highlighted our four-hour visit in Picasso’s birthplace. The cathedral provided a glimpse of heaven through its combined Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic styles. Inside the church, I noted the beautiful floral and diamond designs on the silver and bronze altar against the exquisitely-carved choir. As well, I found the gilding embellished and added elegance to the columns and chapels but did not overwhelm.
Outside the church, we noted beautiful buildings in an immaculate yet compact environment adorned by holiday trimmings. We continued our exploration through the Malaga Sightseeing Hop On/Off Bus and saw several radiant poinsettias, flowing fountains, grand monuments as well as a fortress.
The cutting-edge ship is testimony to Italian elegance and style common to MSC Fantasia class ships. From the Swarovski crystal encrusted stairways to the red, black and gold décor in the Main Dining Room and to the sculptures in the gallery and walkways, we felt a classy, chic atmosphere throughout.
Fresh in my mind were pleasant and courteous staff and senior officers, complementing the calm and gentle personality of Captain Mario Stiffa, who charmed guests with his warm, welcoming smile.
Being Italian food lovers, we were impressed by the variety of regional pasta and seafood dishes, our palates always wanting for more. Food presentations were arresting and irresistible for our cameras. Moreover, our Neapolitan waiters (both named Raffaele) were cheerful, attentive and efficient echoing our room steward, who energetically kept our cabin tidy.
Consistent with the ship’s sophisticated aura, the gala nights provided opportunities for men to dust off their tuxes and the ladies to don their best frocks. And true to the Italian love for spectacles, the evening shows recalled colorful fashion exhibitions highlighted by skillful dancing and singing. We shared other guests’ superior ratings on the Michael Jackson lookalike, whose moves and singing talent impressively recalled the legend.
Overall, the sights, sounds and tastes we experienced on and off the MSC Divina brought us the glow of Christmas and clement winter havens we had wished for.
If you go:
City tourist offices provide maps and significant information as well as guided walking tours.
Also, city sightseeing tour buses provide low-cost overviews and hop on and off choices. View those and other options through Viator at http://www.viator.com