Sunday, March 30, 2014

Is Gaudi's architecture in Park Guell truly creative--or just gaudy?

Antoni Gaudi, famed Spanish architect, believed if he could imagine it, he could create it.

The entrance to Park Guell is decorated with massive tile work and
rock columns leading into Monument Hall
Nowhere is that philosophy more evident than in Barcelona, Spain’s ParkGuell, a fanciful urban space with buildings, paths, and stone steps leading to multiple levels that reflect Gaudi’s imaginative visions shaped by the curves and forms in nature.

Open to the public and free, Guell Park is one of Barcelona’s most visited attractions. It’s an opportunity to get up close and personal with Gaudi’s fantasies, including the Hansel and Gretel chocolate house that was inspired by fairy tale images.

Hansel and Gretel's house and the tower are among Gaudi's
many fanciful creations in Park Guell in Barcelona.
As you enter the park, take the opportunity to stand on the staircase beside a multi-colored tile-covered dragon fountain for a photo op. Then follow rustic stone columns and arches that lead visitors up and around the park.

Polychromatic mosaics invite you to sit on famous undulating benches facing the sea. Deep color combinations or white monotone tiles contrast with rough hewn stonework. Spectacular views abound at this vantage point, a great spot to simply sit and reflect.

A large plaza above the hall is perfect for relaxing,
picnicking, or looking out over the sea. Benches are
elaborately decorated with multi-colored tile designs.
We continued upward to the church on the top of a hill, marveling at the enormity of the park, admiring the large number of sculptures (metal and stone), and enjoying musicians entertaining visitors along the way.

Signature Gaudi construction elements of curves and mosaics form notable landmarks throughout the park. Rugged rocks are transformed into incredible arches and fences in which complicated designs blend seamlessly into the natural landscape. We took time to stop to look closely at the countless intricate details incorporated into Gaudi’s larger designs.

Spectacular rock work is a hallmark of Park Guell in Barcelona.
Colorful tiles cover railings, benches, walls, ceilings, and statues, making a bright contrast with earthen colors of the reddish-brown rocks. The monumental hall features a ceiling completely covered with broken tile pieces in a design of several “suns” shining down. It’s a wonderland of creativity—yes, even “gaudy” at times.
Ocean blue tiles decorate this fanciful fountain.

Named for the family who were Gaudi’s patrons, Park Guell was originally intended to be an English style garden city of 60 homes, but only two were completed. The house where Gaudi lived from 1905 to 1925 is now a museum featuring furniture he designed and drawings of his many projects.

Even if you’re not a fan of capricious design elements, you’ll appreciate the amount of work that went into creating Park Guell, one of the largest architectural compounds in southern Europe and a icon in the city of Barcelona.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

If you've admired Murano glass a visit to the Italian island is a must

Venice is a magical city unlike any other.

We had explored the winding streets of Venice, window-shopped at fancy boutiques, and enjoyed being serenaded by an Italian gondolier on a night time canal ride—all on a previous trip to the city built on water. So this time we decided wander further away from the main section called Veneto.

We joined a tour that took us to the famous glass-blowing island of Murano and then on to Burano, where lace making is a practiced art. While there, I was on the look-out for some special souvenirs.

Touring on the water made it easier to see the geographical structure of Venice, which is composed of 117 natural islands connected by more than 400 bridges. Although the total population of Venice is 58,000, some of the smaller islands are inhabited only by sea birds.
Transportation in Venice is primarily by boat or on foot. Our guide Francesca tells us that the absence of cars makes Venice one of the safest and cleanest cities in the world. Children become independent early because they walk everywhere.

Murano has many glass blowing furnaces, which attract visitors to the island.
After riding through the historical Jewish ghetto of Guidecca, now a pleasant residential area, and St. Mark’s basin on the southern coast of Venice, we arrived at Fornace Estavan Rosetto, one of the oldest glass furnaces in Murano. There master glass blowers gave shape to incredibly beautiful works of art using both traditional and modern techniques. Glass blowing has become a major tourist attraction and the main economic factor for Murano, an island of 10,000 people.
Fiery hot glass takes shape in the
skilled hands of a master blower.
We watched a master glass blower take a piece of molten glass out of the oven (1800 degrees), form it quickly into a small vase, and then set it aside because it was still 900 degrees hot. When the guide put a piece of paper inside the vase it immediately flamed and burned, leaving only black soot inside.

A glass blower apprentices for 15 to 20 years and then continues to perfect his technique before being considered a master. Working quickly with nimble fingers wielding metallic tools and a practiced technique of blowing air into a pliable glass tube, the blowers showed their artistic skills when creating a horse and other multi-dimensional figures.
An artist's hands created this figurine in just
minutes--before the glass cooled.
After the demonstration, we spent time in the shop admiring extraordinary art pieces composed of complex colors and shapes. Some pieces were made with bubbles inside, and amazing sculpture-like forms highlighted a variety of textures.

After admiring the uber-expensive exhibits, I wandered into the area with affordable pieces, not cheap souvenirs but collectible works showcasing all the skills of the blowers—just smaller and less ornate. I was enthralled by so many lovely items, but I eventually settled on a traditionally designed vase featuring blue and copper stripes and 14K gold somehow inserted into the handle. It’s a piece I’ll treasure for a long time.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier



Sunday, March 16, 2014

Chill out at the South Pacific island of Moorea

For our South Pacific cruise, we flew into Papeete,Tahiti, the only city in French Polynesia with an international airport, and the ship set sail during the night. Well, we only had 12 miles to go to Moorea, second most popular tourist attraction in the Society Islands.
Moorea is a laid-back South Sea island (think Bali Hai), but it has white-sand beaches not common on Tahiti. It’s a triangular-shaped island encircled by a protected lagoon  fringed by the blue ocean. Tourism is concentrated along the north coast around Papao (capital) and Hauru. Visitors love the relaxed ambience of the island and its inherent beauty. 

The breakers indicate location of the coral reef--inside is a
turquoise lagoon and beyond is the deep blue ocean.
A little background: The Territory of French Polynesia consists of five archipelagoes: Society Islands, Marquesas Islands, Tuamotu Islands, Austral Islands, and Gambier Islands—all under French administration. The cultures and traditions of each island group are generally specific to the home archipelago and island, yet modern transportation, education, and communication have resulted in an ongoing blending towards a national identity.

Jagged mountain peaks formed from volcanoes eons ago.

Moorea was first settled by Polynesians from islands to the west who arrived in canoes from South Asia over 1,000 years ago. Marae, stone rocks shaped like pyramids with carvings telling about sacrifices, provided ancient landmarks.
The first settlers from Europe arrived in the 18th century.  Cook’s Bay is named for Captain James Cook, although he never visited the bay. Supposedly it is the place where he settled, but the guide on our snorkeling excursion said Cook actually  went  to Opunohu Bay. Still, it’s a scenic highlight.  After the French won the war with its sister island Tahiti, Moorea was considered part of French Polynesia.

Lush tropical landscapes with interior mountains are a hallmark of Moorea.

Our discovery begins on a slightly overcast morning, but the scenery is breathtaking from our balcony on the Oceania Marina. Jagged peaks, covered with lush greenery frame the deep blue of Opunohu Bay where the ship is docked. In addition to the dramatic volcanic mountains, which includes shark-toothed Mount Rotui and towereing Mount Tohivea, stories of Polynesian history and lore attract visitors to Moorea.

For our Snorkel and Stingray Safari we took the tender to shore, then boarded a catamaran and sailed the lagoon for almost an hour. We stopped at a four-foot deep sand bar inhabited by large stingrays for an encounter with these flattened mammals, that range up to three feet in diameter. It’s cool to stroke the soft skin of these fearless rays who are looking for a handout of fish. Just be careful not to get your hand underneath its mouth as it can suck in a finger or leave a mighty bruise on your arm. Also swimming in the water with the rays were a host of sand sharks.
Beautiful coral species make up the reef around Moorea.
Then we went snorkeling in the cool turquoise water. Because the currents were very strong at the reef, we stopped short in calmer water, although there was still enough current to keep us moving over many beautiful varieties of coral. The formations were mostly large, lumpy, and colorful. Some had crevices and bridges through which the fish swam. We saw many varieties of fish —blue, yellow, white, black, and a few striped—but no large schools of fish.

After 45 minutes of observing coral and fish, the catamaran headed back to the pier. Along the way we were served fresh tropical fruit--sweet pineapple, passion fruit, guava, kiwi, grapefruit, and papaya. What a treat!
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier 


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Are non-refundable airline tickets ever refundable?

Did you ever buy an airline ticket and then quickly realize you booked the wrong date? 

If you bought a non-refundable ticket because the fares were cheaper than refundable ones, you might cringe at the thought of paying a high fee to change it. But if you made your reservation more than seven days ahead of travel and caught your mistake soon after purchase, you may be in luck.

24-hour policy

We recently had an experience where a ticket booked late one night on United for Larry was inadvertently charged to Beverly’s credit card, although Larry had a similar airline credit card. That meant he would have to pay $25 for his first checked bag. A call the next morning to United customer service cancelled that flight, and he rebooked charging the flight to his own card. No cancel fees—and ultimately no baggage fees.

Regulations of the U.S. Department of Transportation  require that, for tickets purchased more than a week in advance of flight, you’re entitled to hold your reservation and the fare and change or cancel your reservation within 24 hours of booking without paying a fee. With $200 as the typical cancellation or change fee for large carriers on domestic flights (up to $450 for some international fares), this is a significant savings.

Of course, you must act within the 24-hour window to change or cancel the reservation without penalty—keeping in mind that if you change flights, a fare difference may apply. You’ll still be required to pay for the booked airfare (always use a credit card, preferably for the airline you’re booking) and then get a refund. This applies to any airline selling airfares in the U.S.

This handy chart shows a variety of fees charged and policies of many different airlines. 

Allowing refunds keeps the skies friendly for passengers.
A few airlines provide more flyer-friendly options. American Airlines allows you to hold your seat and the fare for 24 hours prior to payment. Of course, you must remember to actually pay for the ticket before the grace period expires. If you do pay at the time of booking rather than putting the ticket on hold, you will be expected to pay the change or cancel fee.  Alaska Airlines allows free changes if made at least 60 days before travel.

Booking through third-party websites (Kayak, Ortitz, Travelocity, CheapOAir, etc.) can be more complicated. So it’s best to book directly with the airline, either online or by phone in order to take advantage of the 24-hour policy.

Other refundable situations

And then there’s the matter of involuntary refunds. If the airline refuses to carry you for any reason, your flight is delayed more than a specified amount of time (usually 2 or 3 hours, depending on airline), or the flight is cancelled you can apply for a full refund even on a non-refundable ticket. However, you do have to check in for the flight.

Also, a significant schedule change before departure might warrant a refund. That means a qualifying change in departure time (obviously more than a few minutes), longer layover, or change from a nonstop to connecting flight may be enough for you to request a refund. Always check the flight schedule before departure.

When your plans are iffy, it may be worthwhile to purchase a refundable ticket. But don’t hesitate to ask for a refund on a non-refundable ticket in the right situations.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Try a helmet dive instead of snorkeling

If you’ve ever wanted to have the experience of diving underwater—and staying there for half an hour—but aren’t sure SCUBA certification is right for you, there’s an alternative. It’s called a helmet dive.
Get close to tropical fish when underwater in a helmet dive.
While visiting Bora Bora one of the Society Islands in the South Pacific, we decided to try this new way of exploring the ocean floor and all the marine life to be seen below the surface. A short boat ride from our cruise ship took us to the Coral Garden, a protected open-water aquarium in the lagoon surrounding the island--which happens to be one of the most beautiful dive spots in the world.

Helmets lined up and ready for us to wear underwater.
After a safety briefing and instructions for equalizing pressure once the helmet was in place (swallow a couple of times), each participant in turn started down a ladder into the ocean. Because the helmet is very heavy—heavy enough to hold you 10 feet down—it is winched up and then lowered over your head, resting on your shoulders, just before you become submerged.
Larry is surrounded by colorful fish--10 feet under the surface.
The good news is you can wear glasses or contact lenses to see through the front glass. That was a big help for taking pictures. Also, your head—and hair—remain dry inside the helmet. Air bubbles sparkling in the sunshine rose from each helmet as people breathed normally inside.

Once on the bottom we were free to wander within a roped-off area. Since each helmet is connected by an air hose to the boat, we obviously needed to stay within those boundaries. I felt the sensation of water slightly swirling gently around my shoulders, but that could have been my imagination. No water entered the helmet.
Clear turquoise water allowed us to take excellent photos.
A great variety of beautiful tropical fish swam all around us—black and white striped, gleaming yellow, tiny blue, iridescent white, large black, white with splotches of pink and green—so close we could actually touch them. Of course, the small piece of bread in a mesh sack attached to the helmet was a big attraction for the fish.

Although we’re cautioned not to touch coral for safety and environmental reasons, we were encouraged to touch one soft section of tubular orange coral waving in the current. A photographer took pictures of couples by using hand signals to match them up. After an exciting 30 minutes, we held onto the rope encircling the dive area to maneuver our lighter-weight bodies back to the boat’s ladder.
Fish and fingers explore coral at the bottom of the sea. 
As soon as my head was out of water the helmet was winched off. On the way back to the dock, we toasted each other with a drink of fresh fruit juice. This incredible experience was much better than we had expected. If you can’t get to Bora Bora, many Caribbean ports also offer helmet dives.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier