Thursday, August 10, 2017

Goldring Travel Revisits Regent Seven Seas Cruises (Seven Seas Voyager: Rome to Barcelona - August 1, 2017) - Part VI (Palamos, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca & Valencia: Culinary Bliss..and Consistent Inconsistencies)

The Regent Seven Seas Voyager continued on our cruise, leaving France and arriving in Palamos, Spain; a small town on the coast north of Barcelona.  Because I was here a few years ago on a Seabourn cruise and we are flying out on the morning of our arrival in Barcelona on end of our cruise I chose to try another one of the “free” tours:  "Barcelona on Your Own" so that I could share with my daughter of a few of my favorite things in one of my favorite cities.

This “On Your Own” “free” tour (actually a 1.75 hour transfer) could not have been different from my earlier experience in Livorno traveling to Florence.  Rather than having an engaging tour guide we had a friendly enough, but worthless, assistant that said absolutely nothing about Palamos or Barcelona.  Rather he was more interested in non-stop chatter with the bus driver…who had her iPhone mounted to the windshield right in front of her so she could see all her text messages come in as she was driving.  (On the return it was so bad that many of the Regent guests commented on how the bus driver did not stop rattling for even an instant for the entire 1.75 hour drive…except when the assistant prodded her.  It took every bit of strength not to scream “Shut Up!” followed by, “I guess your husband is deaf…or he should be.”)  Aside from no sleeping on the bus, and on a serious note, the safety issues were clear.

Our bus driver was busy looking at texts and
talking with our "guide" for 1.75 hours each way
during our trip to Barcelona.  Dangerous! Annoying!
One of the most important things in delivering a luxury experience is consistency.  I should be able to know, in advance, if my “On Your Own” transfer will have a tour guide or an assistant.  Regent can easily give the local operators a Standards and Procedures to be followed.  Further, and once again, as there was no Regent Seven Seas representative on the bus, there was no quality control…or person who actually should have taken the iPhone off the windshield and told the bus driver to be quiet and focus on driving rather than yapping away and disturbing the guests.

Anyway, we arrived in Barcelona to intermittent showers.  Nonetheless we headed down La Rambla to my favorite market:  La Boqueria.  I could have spent ours wandering about, tasting all different sorts of hams and fish, breads and spices...and sampling some wines. 






Instead of driving my daughter crazy, I limited it to an hour…though we did stay long enough to have a late morning snack of razor clams in garlic and oil, octopus, and fried calamari, smelts and crab.

Razor Clams with Garlic and Oil
Octopus
Fried Smelts, Calamari and Crab
We then, still dealing with the rain, headed to the Picasso Museum which, with all of the time I have spent in Barcelona, I had never been to.  Devin was not, from what I could tell, terribly impressed with the collection as most of it was focused on his early years…and the museum was crowded.  We had purchased our tickets online the night before, so we were able to skip the rather long line and head straight in.  I am not sure why everyone doesn’t do it.  With this option available at most museums in Europe, I strong recommend it.


We then had some time to spend wandering the Gothic Barrio (Quarter) and La Rambla before lunch…and then the skies opened.  We ducked into a tent covered bar on La Rambla and figured we would grab a drink while we waited for the skies to clear.  I have to admit it:  I WAS A TOURIST.  I didn’t ask because I was just happy to be dry.  Out came a huge beer and diet Coke…and a 21€ bill.  It was embarrassing and I am still angry with myself.  But at least I am sharing this Fail.


I then redeemed myself (at least in my eyes) as we headed to one of my favorite restaurants:  Los Caracoles (The Snails) located in the Gothic Barrio.  This is a very old (founded in 1835) and famous restaurant with a number of different rooms (some lined with decades of photographs of famous people who have dined there and one with hams hanging from the ceiling).  You walk past the wine bar area to the small desk by the ancient kitchen and give your name.  When your table is ready you walk through the kitchen to your table.


 I was lucky enough to score a table in the small room right next to the kitchen.  I love watching the chefs cooking and tending to the fire below the stove with giant cast iron hooks; the waiters, in their white shirts and black vests, calling out orders and bantering while waiting for dishes to be delivered, and the smells emanating from chicken and roast kid, prawns to ox.


I started out with a large plate of snails in a roast pork sauce while Devin opted for the fish soup (this one so close to a bouillabaisse) followed by a true Catalan seafood paella, which uses a different rice and a dark, earthy, sauce which includes a touch of black squid ink.



We ended with a Catalan flan.


 It was then, all too quickly, time to head back to the bus for our drive home.

After our feast in Barcelona we opted to skip dinner again.  It is somewhat disheartening that because of the lackluster dining experiences on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager we really don’t feel like we are missing out on a culinary experience.

Unfortunately, our evening entertainment options are also limited. The in-room movie selection on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager is not terribly interesting nor is the television selection which is essentially five news and one documentary station.  Karaoke and disco/70’s pop music in the clubs also seems to be the most popular, further limiting our options.  Enrichment lectures?  There is only one lecturer who is painful to listen to and is limited in his talks to European history circa World War II. 

Our second to last day brought us to Palma de Mallorca.  I had a “free” tour signed up for, but honestly we needed a break from them.  I am usually not a “tour guy”, enjoying just exploring, and the tours so far have been less than stellar.  Even the ones that have good elements aren’t holistically enjoyable.  So Devin and I decided to take the shuttle into city center.



We found La Rambla which is both beautiful and lined with trees, but great shopping as well.  After a bit of shopping we dove into the old city, with winding walkways and lots to see and enjoy.  We eventually headed to Mercate de L’Olivar, the local market.  It was OK, but a big let down after yesterday’s visit to Barcelona’s La Boqueria.



After stopping for a sangria in a funky little joint, we wandered looking for a great place for lunch.  Once again, my ability to suss out a culinary gem came to the fore.  Just visible from the sidewalk, hidden by the corner of a building, was a local’s restaurant, Vermuteria La Rosa.  (A Vermuteria is literally a place to drink vermouth, but that is never done.  It essentially is a convivial drinking place.)  Devin, of course, went vegetarian, but I ordered the Majorcan Black Pig Sausages Platter with Iberican ham, chorizo, and a variety of sausages with local tomatoes (to be rubbed on the awesome local bread with olive oil and sea salt).


It was then a stroll back to the transfer – after some window shopping - and back to the Seven Seas Voyager mid-afternoon.

We confidently decided that we would have dinner in Sette Mari, as our first experience was well and truly excellent.  And that is where we screwed up.  We should have left it alone.  Our experience was almost exactly the opposite..and the consistency of Regent Seven Seas Cruises inconsistently smacked us right in the face!

We sat down and then just sat there.  Then, unlike our first experience, a glass of prosecco was just poured and the antipasti was virtually thrown on our table with various items pointed to and then the waiter disappeared.  Getting a welcome to the table was fleeting at best.

For starters Devin ordered the minestrone soup and I the cheese lasagna.  Devin's watery, flavorless, soup was delivered literally ten minutes before my lasagna...which I had to ask for twice; only to have delivered a small square of over-cooked pasta dish.  The main course was no better as Devin's spaghetti was Olive Garden quality and my Lamb Osso Bucco was incredibly fatty (though the meat - once found - was quite good.  (I was going to post a photo of all of the fat, but decided to spare you.)

The consistency of the inconsistency is both remarkable and exhausting.

Our last morning we arrived in Valencia, Spain.  I felt compelled to try a Regent Seven Seas Cruises "free" tour one more time "Valencia at a Glance and Wine Tasting".  With a deep breath we headed out.  Our guide was charming, witty, well-informed and very efficient.  I could not have asked for a better guide.  Regent sent along someone from the ship; the first time in our ten days.  Also, our tour did not start at an incredibly early time.  And the wine tasting was both informative and entertaining. This was the best of the "free" Regent tours on this cruise.

Our tour, with 22 guests, started with a brief drive around the historical parts of Valencia.


We then disembarked our bus at a gate to the old city, where we had short walk to our wine tasting.

Old City, Valencia, Spain
(The description has the wine tasting at the end, but it was better this way.)   Our wine guide was a charming man whose job is to promote Valencia wines and he did a fine job balancing information with a bit of humor.


We then walked through the old city to the Mercat de Central (Central Market) where we were given 30 minutes of free time to shop and wander about.


Afterwards we continued our brief tour of the old city


before heading to the City of Arts and Sciences; an architecturally intriguing area recently developed by Valencia to promote tourism.  We only had a photo stop, but it probably is worth a bit of a visit the next time I am here.



Once again, I have to ask myself, why Regent Seven Seas Cruises can deliver a wonderful tour right after one that was painful (and dangerous).   The consistency of inconsistency is both frustrating and mind-boggling.

As we arrived back at the ship at 2:45 pm once again I had no lunch option other than the very limited menu at the Patio Grill.  I thought I would give the hamburger and hot dog test a second try. While I am happy to report I did receive a top and bottom bun on my hamburger and my hot dog bun was toasted, the rest was pretty much the same disappointment.  My daughter ordered a panini and it came soggy; something that I have never seen before. Ugh.  Not a great way to wind up our experience on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager.

Well, it is now time to pack up and head home.  I will be writing a Reflections article in the next days.