Port and Shore Excursions
This was our fourth time in Barcelona, so we had seen the main tourist sites. We shared a taxi with another couple, and went to the Gothic Quarter, beginning at the Museum of Chocolate! This was quite interesting, and one could order the wonderful cups of thick hot chocolate at a stand in the lobby.... yum. (Madrid has two wonderful chocolaterias, but we have yet to locate one in Barcelona). We then walked through the meandering streets to the main cathedral, not far. Along the way we passed a wonderful, overlooked church, with the most fascinating and lofty vaulting inside: Santa Maria de Mar. Lovely inside. Then just two or three blocks to the cathedral square and the Christmas Market. It was Saturday, and a holiday, and the crowd was shoulder to shoulder. Enjoyed the market but were always conscious of everyone around us because of the pickpockets, so we couldn't really relax and enjoy it to the fullest. I had a waist pouch that zipped, and kept only about 40 euros in my front jeans pocket for easy access. Credit card was in the pouch.... no problems.
Our guide was very good (Georgi) and his voice carried most of the time to the back of the 8-person van. Eze was fascinating and we did not have near enough time there; a true medieval hilltop village, not as touristy as St Paul de Vence. The Fragonard shop was wonderful for gifts (loved the orange blossom, and the rose essences, all natural)but too rushed. Monaco and Monte Carlo.... would not do again, once was enough. Our tour driver stopped at a small street market in Nice so we could make some interesting purchases (wonderful cheeses; artisan soaps; Provencal tea towels and tablecloths, etc.)... much appreciated. We did not need the stop at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral and it cut down on our time in more interesting places, like Eze.
The Chianti Wine Region Tour (L-18) was very interesting, but a bit rushed; needed more time in the town of Greve, capital of the Chianti region. Our van driver and guide was not the best; he needed more knowledge.... long periods of silence.... and a microphone as those in the back of the 8 person van, could not hear. A lovely region, would like to do a different tour next time.
We would not have known how to enjoy this city, had we not been picked up by friends who lived just up the coast, and taken to the beach area for lunch. It was a lovely beach, and in December there was hardly anyone there although it was 80 degrees! Lunch at the Oasis Cafe on the beach was nice, as was the shopping and walking around Las Olas boulevard. Our experience getting off the ship was twice as long and tedious as Princess had told us; we had to go through immigration there, as well as later in Galveston when we arrived back. Way too many older people were kept standing around because there were only 10 or 12 immigration officers for a couple of thousand people. Those wanting to get off just for the day, were made to wait in the long long lines with those who were actually disembarking in Ft. Lauderdale..... what an unorganized mess.
We love Lisbon, and a group of eight of us did our own walking tour, from where the ship's shuttle dropped us off near one of the large squares in the center. We walked about six blocks, and after much asking, found the trams that go uphill to the old section of the city. We got off "at the top" (Martim Moniz stop) with the recommendation of a kind English-speaking fellow passenger, and walked three blocks to a church (S.Maria da Graza, Our Lady of Grace) with a terrace and wonderful views out over the city to the river Tagus. We found a small cafe where we all shared a couple of jugs of sangria.... delicious. Then we got back on the tram at the same stop and went back down to the center. A good map is essential. We only had four hours in port, so it was back to the Princess shuttle bus with 30 minutes to spare. We need much more time at this port; last time we had a whole day, took the hop-on hop-off bus with time at St Geronimo monastery and the excellent Maritime Museum there.
This island of San Miguel, the largest in the Azores group, is just beautiful, with many interesting volcanic features. A group of 18 of us had a small bus with a private tour done by Canadian Lisa Ringelberg. She was an excellent guide. We had looked forward to the meal in the farmhouse with winetasting. The winetasting we enjoyed, and although the meal was authentic, we did not think it at all outstanding. They were trying to cook for and serve too many people at once, in our opinion, as our group was not the only one there. But we did have an enjoyable day, and would like to see the western end of the island next time. The flowers in bloom were lovely; some hydrangeas, many camellias, huge red-hot poker plants.
A lot of walking around the Testaccio area of Roma, not often experienced by tourists. We had seen the major sites, and wanted something different. Sarah was an excellent guide, and all the places we visited were varied and interesting. The food samples were delicious! We took the train from ship to Ostiense station, then taxi to meeting place. The trains were on time; we booked our tickets from home, before we left; very reasonable, good value for money.
We enjoyed the bars we stopped at, and the chichetti offered; the wine was OK. The tour operator "ran on" a bit, too wordy and rambling, needed more precise substance; especially standing around too long at some stops in very cold weather.
Could not have been more charming and informative, with no wasted time, but we were not rushed either. This is the only way to see St Mark's basilica. The Square was flooded, but the wooden walkways were up, and it worked OK. A group of eight of us shared the cost of Luisella's tour, which was from 9am at Santa Chiara Hotel, and walking all the way to St Mark's Square, so not a fast pace. Had lunch in the cafeteria at the Doge's Palace, and paid for her lunch between us all. She had an interesting restaurant picked out, but the flooding prevented us going there.