12 Day, Grand Mediterranean cruise from Venice to Barcelona.
This cruise was a fantastic value and the itinerary was amazing. By the end of our vacation we were exhausted but we saw some spectacular sights and had a phenomenal vacation. We are 26 and 30 years old and moderately active. We chose to do all but one port on our own in an effort to save money and maximize our experiences. We easily walked over 5 miles at each port. If you are traveling in a similar style as us, my best advice is to try to be off the ship first, which we failed to do a few times. Sometimes, being 15 minutes late will put you 1 hour behind schedule because of missed busses/trains and longer lines. Also, research the public transportation options before you go. Print out Train/Subway maps and buy the international data plan for your phone, even if you only use it for Google maps. Because when you get off the boat, it's not always obvious which direction you need to go to find the train/bus/metro. Also, usually you can find other people on your boat that are doing the same thing that you are doing, so don't be afraid to ask those people (or even locals) for directions or information on train schedules. Most people that we encountered spoke English and tried to be helpful. We relied heavily on Rick Steve’s "Mediterranean Cruise Ports” book and downloaded a lot of his free audio guides to our phones.
The Spirit In a word, this boat is just "OK”. Our cruise focused more on the ports so a lack luster experience on the ship was not a big deal. We ate at the Raffles buffet and both of the free dining rooms (Windows and The Garden, which were very similar except for the dress code). I would compare the buffet food to the quality of a Golden Corral. The dining room food was a little better and I would try to eat there when I had the chance. The dress code was casual. I packed one shirt and tie (just in case), but it wasn’t really necessary. I wasn’t too impressed with the shows, but they were a good way to pass the time. They were mostly song and dance, but there were also acrobats and a magician. The passengers were mostly older. There were a few other couples around our age (late 20s), but not many. There were meet-and-greet focus groups, but nothing for your regular, English speaking, straight, young-adult couples. The staff was wonderful.
Venice We flew into Marco Polo airport and took the ATVO bus to Piazalle Roma for 6E/person. We walked 10 minutes to Alla Corte Rossa with our luggage. The hotel had a great location for a decent price. The shower was tiny, but overall it was a good place to stay for one night. We walked all over Venice and got lost in the small streets numerous times. We saw St. Mark’s square, Rialto Bridge, and the Jewish Ghetto. I wanted to ride in a gondola, but didn’t want to pay 100E so rode a Traghetto across the Grand Canal for 2E each. We ate a lot of gelato and had a late dinner at a place in Campo Santa Margherita. On the 2nd day we needed to board the ship between 12:00 and 19:00. At 17:00 we took the people mover from Piazalle Roma to the ship to board, the whole process took less than an hour. We chose to not go back out into Venice (I think all aboard was around midnight). The ship had a lifeboat drill at 4:00, but since we missed it, we had to make it up the next day, while at sea.
Athens We walked about 30 minutes to the metro and bought day passes at a newsstand along the way for 4E each. Got off at the Monstiraki stop and walked to the Acropolis (20 min). Acropolis tickets were 12E each (includes ancient agora) and must be bought on site. We explored the Acropolis for about 1.5 hours then we walked down to Mars Hill, then walked over to the ancient agora (Athens forum). We headed back to the Monistiraki square and had an amazing gyro then took the metro to Syntagma City Center. We walked back, past Monistiraki square to the Thissio metro stop. We had a few beers and light snack then headed back to the ship with at least an hour to spare.
Izmir - This is not a practical DIY port so we hired a private (half-day) excursion through Ephesus Tours. It was about $70 per person and we were surprised to find that we were the only two people in our tour group. Our tour guide was (Tanner) and he was awesome. He was very personable and informative on both the ancient history and modern Turkish culture. We arrived at the ancient city of Ephesus early so it was pretty empty (not the norm) and our guided tour lasted about 2 hours. On our way back to the ship we got a quick demo at a rug factory. It was a little akward because we weren't with a bigger group, but the people were nice and low-pressure. The rugs were amazing, but the cheapest one was around $500. We were supposed to have lunch at the rug demo, but we were too early so the food wasn't ready. However, they had drinks and snacks for us. We headed back to the ship with over an hour to spare, but chose to not explore Izmir.
Istanbul - There's a tram near the port that will get you closer to the sights, but we chose to walk the entire time. We walked across the Galata bridge, to the spice market, to the blue mosque, to the basilica cistern, to the grand bazaar, back across the to the galata bridge to the galata tower then back to the ship. We stopped many times for shopping and street food. We waited in a 45 minute line to get into the blue mosque and we paid 10E each to get into the basilica cistern. My favorite part was how crowded some of the streets and markets were. We ended the day with some beer and raki at one of the bars near the port, and again we got back to the ship with about an hour to spare.
Mykonos - This was a tender port. It probably took about 1.5 additional hours before we actually got to MyKonos. I loved the look of this town with the blue/white houses and streets. It was too cold to swim so we didn't go to any of the beaches. We basically walked all over the town, to the windmills, then eventually up a hill to a nice lookout. We walked back down into town to do some souvenir shopping and try some of the local food and drinks. Since there was a long line waiting to tender back to the ship we decided to have a few more beers in port and enjoy a nice sunset before catching one of the last tenders back to the ship. A lot of people rented ATVs and motor scooters to drive around the island, which looked like fun.
Naples - We walked from the port into town (Toledo metro station). We tried to take the metro to the train station (Garibaldi), but the line was under contruction. So we walked from Universita to Garibaldi. The train station was a little confusing, but we eventually bought tickets from a newsstand and found the Circumvesuviana line that took us to Pompeii Scavi. We bought tickets for Pompeii on site and spent about 3 hours exploring the city. We returned to Naples and walked through town some more, stopping occasionally for pizza, beer, and Italian ice. We made it back to the ship with at least an hour to spare. In retrospect, we probably could have easily fit in a stop to Herculaneum or maybe Sorento if we didn't spend so much time exploring Naples. We should've caught a taxi or the tram to take us straight from the port to the train station.
Rome (Citteravicci) - The ship provided a free shuttle to the port gate (30 min wait, 10 minute ride). We walked to the train station (10 min) and caught the FR5 train to Rome (1 hour). We got off at the Ostiense stop and transferred to the metro, which we took to the Colosseo stop. We walked from the coliseum, past the forum, past Capitol Hill, to the Trevi fountain, to the Pantheon (free admission). On the way to the Vatican we stopped for a nice dinner (delicious pesto pasta) and a pitcher of wine. We continued on to the Vatican then walked to the train station (S. Pietro) to catch the train back to port. We returned with maybe an hour to spare. Of course, along the way, we often stoped for shopping, eating and drinking. I really wanted to see the catacombs but wasn't able to because they were closed.
Livorno (Florence/Pisa) - This can be one of the most difficult DIY ports depending on what you want to do. My wife really wanted to see the leaning tower so we went to Pisa first and our available time was going to dictate if we went to Florence or Lucca afterwards. We ended up going to Florence but we really had to rush through the city. In retrospect I would've rather went to Florence first then to Pisa. We paid NCL $12 per person to take a shuttle from the ship to the train station. We took a train to Pisa (2E each) then walked from the train station to the Field of miracles (30 min). The walk wasn't too bad and there were a lot of shops along the way, but given the time constraints we probably should've taken a bus or taxi to see the tower. We spent about 30 min taking pictures around the field of miracles then walked back to the train station and took a train to the Florence SMN station (8E each, 1 hour). In Florence we walked through an outdoor market (selling a lot of leather products) towards the fake David statue, then to the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. We wondered around Florence’s streets for another hour, we had some gelato and street food then headed back to the train station. Finding the train back to Livorno (9E each) was tricky because the departure board in the station was incorrect. This was our closest call with missing our boat because this train only ran once per hour, but with some help from a local, we boarded the correct train just before it left. Once we made it back to the Livorno train station (with an hour to spare), we had to wait like 45 minutes to catch our ship's shuttle because of a long line and lack of shuttles.
Toulon - This city was cool to sail into because it has a naval base and sits in front of some mountains. The dock next to the city was taken so we had to dock across the harbor and use a shuttle boat into the city. We were late off of the boat and lines quickly queued up for the shuttle so it took us almost 2 hours to get into Toulon. We wandered the streets a little and explored the old town market. I wanted to ride the cable car up the mountain, but I didn't get to. We had some baguettes, waffles, crepes, macaroons and wine then headed back to the ship. Again, there were lines to get on the shuttle boat, so we waited another 45 minutes.
Barcelona - Disembarkation was simple, we walked off the boat with our luggage to the taxi area (10 min walk). We took a cab from the port to Hotel Ingles (by the Liceu metro stop) for a steep 25E (I think because we had 4 bags with us). The hotel was good, affordable, and in the perfect location. We took the metro (2E each) to Park Guell. We got off the metro at Vallcarca and walked up a ton of steps to enter the park through the back entrance. We discovered an amazing lookout point, which was my favorite view of the trip. We spent about an hour in the park then took the metro from Lesseps to the Segrada Familia. We wondered around the church for about 30 min, grabbed some street food then took the metro to Catalunya (Las Ramblas). We explored Las Ramblas and the surrounding streets while finishing up our souvenir shopping. Along the way we discovered the colorful Boqueria Market which was my favorite market of the entire trip. We went back to our hotel to drop off some items and to rest for a bit. That evening was the Barcelona/Real Madrid soccer match, so we found a local sports bar and enjoyed some beers and futbol. We then found a restaurant to finish up our trip with some tapas and sangrias. Although the nightlife was just getting started when we went back to the hotel at 11:00. We were exhausted and had an early flight to catch the next morning. The next morning, we needed to get from our hotel to the airport. I guess there was a cheap local bus that we could've used, but we didn't have the time or patience to figure that out so we took a cab that was estimated at 30E but ended up costing about 45.
In closing, I loved all of the ports, especially Barcelona, but the two cities that I would like to visit again would be Istanbul and Rome.