Port and Shore Excursions
Montserrat (From Barcelona)
Since we had thoroughly toured Barcelona in 2011, we opted for Montserrat this time. Six of us from the Roll Call researched taking the train on our own. See http://www.barcelona-tourist-guide.com/en/tour/barcelona-montserrat.html for excellent directions, maps, and guides. Armed with timetables and directions for what to do, we left the ship to get a taxi to the train station. First mistake? Telling the taxi driver where we were going. From then on, it was a hard sell for him to take us there. He told us what a difficult, circuitous journey we had ahead of us, which we knew was not true -- lengthy, perhaps, but not difficult. After considerable arguing, he finally agreed to take us there, wait for us, and bring us back at a price we were satisfied with. He ushered our group to two vans and then told us the cost was per van. Now, we were all angry, and one of our group threatened to get a policeman. That taxi driver left, and now it was clear no taxi wanted a meager fare to the train station. Finally, another driver increased the former's price just a little (for one van), and we agreed to have him take us. Yes, we did avoid the train station and having to take the cable car up, but we were honestly all looking forward to the challenge and the journey.
Our drive, though, was beautiful, and our driver waited until the boys' choir sang, so we had several hours at the monastery. Once there, our group split up. Be sure to tour the basilica and, if you're interested, wait in a very long line to see the Black Madonna. We did the former only and then purchased a ride on the funicular that went almost straight up -- quite an experience! At the top, we found several hiking paths and chose a very long one. We did not get to complete it, but we had spectacular views of the mountains, valley, and monastery and watched a few rock climbers as well.
We took the funicular down (you can hike down, but we wanted to get into the basilica early) and were in the basilica (which was filling up quickly) by 12:15. We were lucky to get a seat. The boys' choir sounded angelic. They sang about 15 minutes. We then met our taxi driver for the ride back to the ship. One of our couples asked to be deposited at the head of Las Ramblas, which our driver happily did.
Once back on board, Princess had arranged a late afternoon performance by a local flamenco troupe, which was a great ending to the day. Montserrat is simply beautiful, and if you have an extra day in Barcelona, it is a definite must-see. I would urge you to do this on your own and set your own timetable. Had we taken the train ourselves, our plans would have altered: we would have hiked first thing, completing what we originally wanted to do; listened to the boys' choir; then toured the basilica and grounds.
We left the ship in Livorno to spend 4 days in Florence, so I can't speak to a one-day port stop. But I can say the train station kiosks are very user-friendly, and it will cost just 8 euros or so (one way) to get to Florence (plus whatever method you get to the train station: cab or ship shuttle).
Florence is spectacular. See the Duomo (free). Get tickets to the Accademia (David) and Uffizi online before you go to avoid the very long lines. These are not to be missed.
If you're uncomfortable going that far, Pisa is a much shorter train ride, and you could probably get to Lucca by bus or train the same day. Both are easily seen in a half a day.
The Cinque Terre, while further, is stunningly beautiful.
Whatever you do, get out of Livorno! See if your ship offers simply transportation to Florence or Pisa, and you can wander on your own.
Get up early if you need to - sailing toward The Rock is an amazing experience, and seeing Morocco across the Strait was quite a sight.
With hearty thanks to a Gibraltar local I found on Trip Advisor, we had well-laid out plans to walk up face of The Rock. The Mediterranean Steps are on the opposite side from the cable car, and you definitely have a steep hike ahead of you, but if you're in any kind of reasonable shape, it is doable. And the views -- wow, just amazing. And what a feeling of accomplishment when you finally get to the top. You can take a local bus to the casino stop and start your hike there, but it was a bank holiday when we visited (May 7), so after waiting for the bus awhile, we just hoofed it on through Main Street and over to the casino area. If you find the review of the Med. Steps on Trip Advisor, you can download or copy exact directions and street names. We were glad we walked through town -- we saw the Changing of the Guard by accident, walked by the botanical gardens, and enjoyed the quaintness of the town. The Steps hike took us about an hour, and that included photo ops and breathing spells (!!). Wear sturdy shoes. We took our hiking poles but regretted it; it's such rocky terrain. On our descent, we passed through the Apes' Den, but since we walked through when no tour bus was present and the cable car had not stopped, we saw very few apes. But they were also quite playful (lots of babies), perhaps because they were not distracted by people with food, which was fun to watch. We did not take in the tunnels or caves, although we would have had enough time, but we did walk all the way to the siege tunnel entrance for some amazing views. Once off The Rock, we ate our lunch in the (free) lovely Alameda Botanical Gardens, slowly walked along Main Street, found an internet cafe to touch base with our grown "kids," and headed back to the ship.
While we were told by our port guide that Gibraltar would not take euros, my Trip Advisor contact said euros would be accepted, and they were. We paid one euro each to hike the Mediterranean Steps. Had we wanted tickets to the caves and tunnels, we could have paid at the entrance to the Steps.
Finally, the website for Toms Port Guides has an extensive report on Gibraltar, complete with maps and GPS locations!
Eight of us from the Roll Call booked Provence Connection Tours pre-cruise for an 8-hour day at E498. Silvio kept in good email communication with us before we ever left and was willing to take us wherever we wished to go, so we chose Arles, Les Baux, and St. Remy with Aix-en-Provence if time allowed (it did, easily).
While Silvio was late picking us up and we were getting mildly worried, the traffic was bad, and he was apologetic. From there on, we had nothing to complain about. Silvio talked to us during the drive, answered questions, and accompanied us as we walked around each spot (except Aix). I did not expect the latter. I figured he'd park, point us in the right direction, and give us a time to meet. Not at all!! So it was an expected delight to have him walk us around, introduce us to sights, and explain them. We had a couple of slow walkers (health reasons) in our group, and to his credit, Silvio never made them feel rushed.
I wanted to see Arles, but I am not sure I would place it high on a list again. There are so many Roman ruins, it was like being in Rome, and I wanted France!! Be sure, if you see Arles, to ask your guide (or get a good guide book) about Van Gogh and see where he painted "Starry, Starry Night."
Les Baux was amazing! I wish we'd had more time there as wandering around that mountain-top abandoned citadel and hiking to its top levels interested us. We wandered for thirty minutes.
In St. Remy, we walked into the courtyard of the mental hospital where Van Gogh spent a year but did not pay to see anything else. We started the Van Gogh Walk where we could see reproductions of his paintings from the spot where he (probably) painted them. Doing the whole walk would have taken more time than we had, but we enjoyed what we did see.
Traffic was bad at times along our drive, but Silvio assured us we would have plenty of time to see Aix, even spending almost 2 hours there, and still make it back to the ship with plenty of time to spare. He was right. He did not stay with us in Aix, but before he dropped us off, he drove us around, explained the history of Aix, and suggested things to do and see. Aix seemed much more French to me, and we enjoyed just wandering around. I am not sure I would want an entire port day here, though, unless a leisurely French lunch was on my agenda.