We spent 2 1/2 days, pre-cruise, in Barcelona. Although we'd been there before, our children and their families had not. It was a fantastic "hit" with everybody. We have a 10 year old who was just overwhelmed with what he saw, loved everything especially the soccer stadium where Lionel Messi plays. Our 16-year old G-Daughter was enthralled and overwhelmed with the "eye-candy" of the city. My wife and I had lived in BCL over twenty-years ago and I was surprised that my wife picked Barcelona as the best port of the trip. The family loved it, our Daughter, who is a fantastic "foody", would give it an A++.
I would say that each of us would re-visit, but next time spend a week not two days, especially our son's family having come from Southern California and a 24-hour flight to get there.
RCL canceled Livorno and substituted LaSpezia for the jumping off port for Pisa and Florence. Livorno wasn't much; we'd been there three times and each time it rained, but at least it was a town that you could walk to from the ship and it had a bit more character and history.
The ship's daily Cruise Compass boasted about La Spezia that in the 1800's Napoleon first planned to develop La Spezia into a major naval base. It has since become one of Italy's main military and commercial harbors. It also serves as gateway to Florence, Pisa and the rest of the beautiful Tuscan and Ligurian countryside.
U-m-mm! Not a lot written there about the city of La Spezia? That should have been a clue! What we saw of it was a bit old and worn out, it appeared that it lacked the T.L.C. we'd seen in our previous stops. Maybe we stopped here because RCL wanted to help spread a little cash into the local economy. The town wasn't warm or inviting in any way. I would say that if you en up there and don't plan to take any tours (Florence, Pisa or Cinque Terre), just stay on the ship.
One of the downsides to cruising on a mega-ship like the Liberty of the Seas is that its immense size (approx..30 foot draft) forces the ship to use only the larger commercial ports on its itinerary, totally missing some of the smaller and more picturesque spots along the way. Consequently, the ship's port mates were more of the working-vessel variety, such as container ships, oil tankers, car ferries and sometimes even naval vessels. Not a great choice for the view.
Toulon was just such a place. Although the ship's daily info sheet (Cruise Compass) touted Toulon as being "nestled between mountainous terrain and the azure waters of the Mediterranean, the seafaring town of Toulon boasts one of the most beautiful harbors in Europe. . . .and is home to the premier French naval base." Well, I don't know about that! Where we docked the only thing we were "nestled between" were some car ferries, a broken down aircraft carrier that needed a lot of paint and bunch of cargo ships off-loading cargo.
This is the first stop in our week of cruising and we were anxious to get out and see the countryside. For our shore tour we settled on Transferts Services and its owner Delphine Segret. They came highly recommended by Cruise Critic Members. Contacting them and getting confirmation of our booking was fast, easy and complete. All by e-mail. We had to make a couple of changes as the months passed due to changes to the ship's arrival and departure times, but that too was handles seamlessly. Our driver and guide's name was Johan. And our first stop of the day was Aix-en-Provence, about an hour's drive Northwest of Toulon
Pick up at the port was very prompt, had our names correct and new precisely where we were going and what we wanted to see. Driver/guide was very polite and considerate of all of us. He was knowledgeable about the areas we visited and made us feel welcome everywhere we went.
The home of Cezane and a lot of French poets. There is lots of history and plenty of photo opportunities here. It's a wonderful city to walk through and sample the sweets and pastries in the many shops along the way. We ended our short visit walking down the Cours Mirabeau; what a street! We were told that Cours Mirabeau was the street that you mentioned whenever you were going to meet someone in Aix; like "I'll see you on the Cours Mirabeau"!
Cassis is about 32 miles SE of AIX, just about mid-way back to Toulon, and both are in the region called Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, and part of an area called Bouches-du-Rhone. Cassis is on the southern coast of France, just east of Marseilles. It's in the Bandol (?) wine region and is famous for its white and rose wines, some of which we tried while we were there. It's an absolutely gorgeous town, tucked in between two notable sites, the Calanques and the Cap Canaille Mountain, the highest sea-cliff in Europe. The best I can describe what a "Calanque" is would be that it's an inlet or a bay of the Mediterranean flanked by the local chalk-white cliffs.
Cassis was a picturesque and scenic town and well worth the effort to go there. If it weren't for the ever present crowds it would be like a step back in time. Very clean and just brimming with interesting restaurants, bakeries and candy shops just waiting for you to try their wares. It's on the Bay of Cassis, quite compact in area, and snuggled right up to the shore line of the Bay. It appeared to us that nearly every square inch of space is taken up by some kind of a shop, Patisserie or restaurant. Originally we were going to book a boat tour from the harbor, which would have taken us out on the bay to view the white cliffs and the town of Cassis. However, although it was an absolutely spectacular day, warm and crystal clear, the wind was blowing in from the Mediterranean, with enough force to play havoc with a couple of the restaurants by blowing down some of the signage and cleaning off the tops of the outdoor tables. It's the "Mistral", we were told. It comes and goes depending upon the temperature of the Mediterranean, but when it comes its winds can reach 60 to 70 miles an hour. I don't think we saw anything like that during our stay there, but it was strong enough to keep us off the boats
When we booked our tour with Rome in Limo Tours, they suggested that we hire a Pompeii-specific guide to walk us through the ruins and explain what we were seeing. While not absolutely necessary, it was a good decision to do it that way. Armed with the proper guide books, I think doing it yourself is possible, but certainly would take more time than we'd allocated.
Our guide was waiting for us when we arrived at the parking area just outside of the entry gates to the Pompeii ruins. He rounded us all up, explained how we were going to progress through the venue and off we went. We saved a couple of Euros on entry tickets as he took our Grand-children ahead of us and through a different gate where they didn't have to pay. As the day progressed I realized the guide was worth every Euro cent that he cost. Very knowledgeable, sincere and patient with our questions, he made the experience pleasant, fun and educational. I'm sure he'd done the same dance hundreds of times before, but he never seemed to be bored with our incessant questioning. Also, knowing our limited time frame he steered us to the most important of the sites and those with the most interesting stories.
It's amazing how vast these digs are! I think the size of the original town was somewhere around 150 acres. The idea is to envision what it must have been like 2000 year ago! You are walking the same cobble-stoned streets and walking into the shops and homes of the people who lived there, all those many years ago. The House of Lucius Caecillus Jucundus, the House of the Faun, the Forum Baths, or the Temple of Jupiter. There's the Theatre, the Municipal Office, the Market Place, and the Gladiator's barracks. And, so many more. It's a bit eerie but fascinating at the same time.
If it were up to us to judge, Positano's specialty was the scenery. The town just clings to the cliffs that rise hundreds of feet from the Bay and is a photographer's delight. Hours could be spent just walking and shooting pictures. Earlier we talked about "Limoncello", a liqueur bought, served and sampled all over this part of Italy. The Amalfi Coast is especially known for its version of this Italian favorite. The area is a large producer of lemons, known as sfusato amalfitano, so it makes sense that an off-shoot of the many lemon groves would be a substantial amount of Limoncello produced in the region.
We spent our time in Positano on Piazza dei Mulini which was a very busy shopping street, the end of which led to the beach. I saw why we parked as soon as we entered town. If it wasn't a Vespa, it wasn't moving, let alone able to find a spot to park a car or van on the street. The end of the street was connected to a narrow downhill path and some occasional flights of steps that lead to the beach, below. The youngsters in our group split up their time between shopping on Piazza dei Mulini and getting down to the beach, while my wife and I just hung around the shops checking out what was being offered; shops selling ceramics, lemons, shoes, fashion clothing, shoes, and more shoes.
We came across the Sorrento Peninsula, over the mountains and approached Sorrento on the road alternately called "Via Nastro Azzuro" and "Via Nastro Verde". As we crested the final hill and turned onto the "Via Capo" we had the whole valley, the Bay and the city of Sorrento laid out in front of us in spectacular fashion. Not only did we have the great views of the city, but during the last 4 or 5 miles of the drive into town, we were surrounded by grape vines and lemons. Not so much lemon "groves", but more like lemon trees planted by everybody who had a spot to plant one. No wonder we were overwhelmed by the availability of Limoncello. It was the local "White Lightning"! Every country in the world must have some kind of a local brew made from whatever is available. Brasil has their cacha?a or pinga, we have White Lightning and I guess the Italians have Limoncello!It was pretty and picturesque from a distance and didn't disappoint when we arrived. While it is in close proximity to Naples, it's as different from Naples as night and day. Although we only passed through Naples on our departure from the ship, the ever-present graffiti and trash littered streets which were "paved" with potholes, wasn't what we saw in Sorrento. It's as though there was an invisible fence of some sort that separated Sorrento from its surroundings and welcomed visitors in a much friendlier fashion. It seemed very evident that tourism was king and the locals intended to make the most of it with as inviting experience as they could.
Don't bother. A lot of people sitting on an outdoor flight of steps. However, if you want to do some serious shopping, this is the place. Every known brand name in the world must have a shop here.
Too much to see in one day. We booked a private tour with driver and English speaking guide for the Vatican and several noted landmarks, such as the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. Because we insisted upon having a good Italian lunch, we did cut short on our sight-seeing schedule, but lunch was such fun we didn't think we'd missed much. Kidding aside, pick one of two things to see and "see" them well. There are many more knowledgeable people who could give you better "tips" about Rome. Mine would only be to have a good guide and if you're going to the Vatican get the pre-paid admissions.Oh, and come back and spend a week there!
Our tour company was O.K., although I expected a full-time English speaking guide. Ours only joined us once we were at the Vatican and left us at the Spanish Steps. He knew his stuff, but we were looking for more. a fun fact, our driver looked just like Marcello Mastroianni, so we never did remember his name, it was always "Marcello". I asked him to get into the Trevi Fountain but my Italian wasn't good enough for him to get the "joke".
Take some coins and go. Try to find an empty spot to sit along the rim of the fountain and have your picture taken while you throw in your coins. Everybody does it!
Wonderful experience, learned a lot. This where our English-speaking guide really shined. Pointing out little known facts and helping us through by selecting only the best highlights in our limited time. Would go again.
This tour was a bust! It was a way to kill a few hours, but the bus was hot, the windows were filthy (couldn't get a decent picture through the foggy glass), and the driver was more concerned about people eating on his bus than showing us a good time. The tour narrator was somewhat knowledgeable, but tiring in her attempt be entertaining instead of instructive. We made a couple of "picture" stops along the Corniche. Next on the tour was the walled city of Eze. The problem was we had very little time to see anything. By the time you fought your way through the tourist to the top of the hill, it was near time to return to the bus. However, We should have done more research on this little town (Villefranche sur Merbefore) we arrived. Had we done that, I'm sure we would have foregone the bus trip to Monaco and Nice, and spend our time right there. The little we were able to see, Villefranche looked to be a perfect place to while away a lazy afternoon. There were enough interesting looking bistros and small restaurants, right along the Quai de la Cordiere, which overlooked water and just seemed to be inviting the thirsty and hungry tourist to come in for a couple of cocktails, a few snacks, and to pass the afternoon watching the world go by.