Lifestyle

European journey ends in Barcelona

Barcelona, Spain, is where we disembark our ship and spend three days exploring the region.

To expedite our disembarkation, we sign up for a half-day tour of Montserrat where we see the legendary Black Madonna. Our tour takes us through the beautiful countryside of Catalunya with its villages to the sacred saw-toothed Montserrat mountain range. We visit the extraordinary 16th-century monastery and Renaissance Basilica where the La Moreneta or Black Madonna, Patroness Saint of Catalunya, is displayed in a gold-laden vestibule at the top of the altar.

The monastery sits spectacularly atop a projecting spur of rock at the very top of the mountain. It was built there to be closer to God by the monks. Montserrat is considered one of Spain’s most significant places of pilgrimage. A special treat is a performance by the famed Montserrat Boys Choir. We return to Barcelona from this fascinating tour and settle into our hotel for a few days of exploration.

Touring Barcelona is quite easy, efficient and economical. We board the Barcelona Bus Turistic system, which is open-air double-decker buses with an audio guide system in 10 languages. When you board, you can pay 23 Euro per person for a two-day unlimited off and on tour. You are given headsets you plug into a console and select your preferred language for complete narration as you go. In all, you go to 44 of the major tourist sights and landmarks of Barcelona. You learn about each through the excellent narration and you can get off the bus and spend time at the sights that interest you most and reboard at your convenience.

Barcelona has long been considered one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. It is an interesting mixture of old 14th- through 16th-century and modern contemporary architecture, sculpture and design. The works of architect Antonio Gaudi offer the city a new and exciting appearance.

We experienced a very special treat at the end of our day of touring. Carol and I were hot, tired and thirsty. We went into the Catalonia Barcelona Plaza Hotel to enjoy some air conditioning and to have a cold drink. We noticed a heavy concentration of police officers on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. We sat down in the lobby and were enjoying our cold drink when a motorcade pulled up to the front

of the hotel. When the doors opened, the Dalai Lama emerged and entered the lobby of the hotel. I was able to take multiple pictures from less than 5 feet away from the Dalai Lama. It was exciting and I was struck by the friendliness and openness of the Dalai Lama to the small crowd that had assembled. It certainly made our visit memorable.

Well as our journey comes to an end and we head for home, I will share with you a few observations that may be of value if you decide to vacation in Europe.

First, the weak dollar against the Euro can makes a European vacation very expensive right now. One way you can mitigate this is to consider a cruise or tour package that includes most of your lodging and food cost. When you purchase your cruise or tour, you are pre-paying in U.S. dollars, which can save you a lot of money. If you are paying as you go in Europe for your hotels and meals, you need to plan close to 30 percent difference between the dollar and Euro right now, and many credit card companies and debit cards charge an international transaction fee on top of your purchase.

Always buy travel insurance. With all the flight delays, cancellations, overbooking and involuntary bumping as well as lost or delayed luggage, the cost of the travel insurance is well worth it today. If you were to have a medical emergency or require medical evacuation, you could incur thousands of dollars of debt if not covered. If you want to assume the risks and go without insurance, just ask yourself if you are prepared to take a total loss on the cost of your vacation if something should go wrong.

Prepare for lost or delayed luggage. This is a monumental problem in Europe. Be sure to take a carry-on with the items it will take to get you by for a few days if your luggage is delayed.

Give yourself extra time if you are doing your own transportation. Air transportation today is too unreliable to go to Europe and make tight connections or to plan on being right on time. If you are cruising, consider a stateroom with private verandah to maximize your experience. On a long journey, you will be in your stateroom more than you think, and this is a great way to enjoy it.

Take guided excursions to learn about the history, culture and significant sights of the area. We always try to identify the “best of” tours that highlight the area. Your vacation experience will be much richer for it.

Jerry Vaughn is president of World Voyager Vacations in Federal Way and can be reached at jvaughn@worldvoyagervacations.com.

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