We already visited Barcelona in the past, so we went out on our own for a stroll on the Ramblas and a fly-by of our favorite spots.
You can walk to the city centre from the ship, however the 2 kilometers to Plaza Colon are ugly and over a bridge. We opted to take the MSC shuttle instead (about 10 euros per person all-in, you can go back and forth as often as you like). Maybe a bit expensive given the short distance covered, but then the time ashore is valuable, too, so in the end I think it was worth it.
Getting around in Barcelona is easy enough using the metro, although as long as you stay around the Ramblas, you might not even need it.
We went up to Parc Guëll where you have an impressive view of the city (ship in background) as well as some iconic Gaudì sculptures and architecture. We loved it on our first visit, though it was an unpleasant discovery that it's no longer free (since last month :-/ ). If you go there, do take a metro, it's uphill and decievingly far as we discovered on our first visit 2 years ago.
If you want to visit Sagrada Famiglia: there's a very - very - VERY long waiting line, but you can buy tickets on automatic vending machines in nearly every Caixa bank office in town. With this ticket, you can enter at once at a pre-arranged hour. There's a Caixa on the corner near the Sagrada Famiglia, which is possibly the only one in town that doesn't have the vending machines. Any other Caixa bank should do - there all over town - and IMO a visit of the inside of the church is really worth it. It is to a Gothic cathedral what a Gothic catedral is to a Roman one. The shear height of the arches baffles the mind, and you have to stand under them to truly experience it; pictures don't do.
Also: be aware of pickpockets, especially on the Ramblas. Last time, I got mugged (they took my make-up pouch, which looked a bit like a wallet, even though I kept my valuables securely stored away. A fellow passenger lost everything on this stop: id, cash, credit cards. In her case, it happened when she was taking a picture of one of the living statues. Leave anything you don't need on the ship, and keep the rest on your person.
It's the home port for MSC, so an obligatory stop.
Frankly, there's not much to see, especially compared to the other stops on the trip. The cathedral is majestic though, and the covered market (on the left hand side when you walk down the central shopping street away from the cathedral) is a sight to behold. Live shrimp, truffles, piles and piles of fresh fruits and vegetables,... a pity we couldn't take anything back home!
There's a single metro line from the port to the centre; 1.50 euros per person. For some strange reason, the only working (also: new) ticket machine was the one at the port (Principe). All the other machines were of an older generation and did not work. Many were turned off, on one the cursor jumped back and forth erratically, and all the others seemed to work normally, except that there was no 'ok' button and any money inserted was immediately returned. After watching a large number of Genoese simply pass the access booths (many of which lacked boom barriers, we ended up freeriding back to the ship. Even today, I have no idea whether or not we were supposed to pay or not, but since the only options for paying were either the vending machines or an SMS, we had no real way to pay our fare back from the city centre.
Tip: if you're going to wake up early once during your cruise, do it here!
Arriving in Palermo is magical; the slow sunrise illuminating the Etna volcano (far off to the left) and then slowly coloring the mountains over Palermo is breathtaking. Meanwhile, the city is already in a buzz, with honking cars inching their ways up and down the main arteries. As soon as the sun rose over the horizon, a single church bell started to ring - not just the ordinary 'bim - bam', but the Ave Maria. You do not have to be a religious person to be touched by it; and it - over the background noice of honking traffic - set the tone of the day.
Again, we went out on our own with the help of a city map. Splendid corruption; marvellous marble palaces, slowly decaying and split up in small apartments are everywhere around town. A few sights are really worthwile; the Teatro Massimo, the 'Fountain of Shame', the cathedral, all were picture-perfect. Taking a wrong turn here and there, we ended up on the market, which is something we always enjoy, fresh fish, meat, fruit and vegetables everywhere - and a guy carrying a half pig carcass on his back- unwrapped. We also walked up to the Catacombe dei Cappucini, where Palermos bourgeousie and clergy were interred in the 19th century. A stronger 'memento mori' is not possible. Not for the weak-stomached, though. And again, the term splendid corruption comes to mind; with all these people 'buried' in their sundays' finest; their bodies given over to the decay of nearly 2 centuries.
Further, Palermo is an Italian city, full of stylish shops and finely dressed people. A fascinating city.
The distance between Civitavecchia and Rome was too large to adventure on our own, so we booked to coach ride to the centre. At 45 euros per person, it was rather expensive, but at least provided us with the security of getting back on board in time and without losing to much safety margin. The city map we were provided with was sponsored by some restaurants, which given the number of guests and the price they pay, slightly irked me. The toilet on the bus was not open, causing us to have to stop and lose 10 minutes because one of the passengers really needed to go. Again, with a full bus at 45 euro per person, this could and should have been avoided.
Rome itself was as eternelly beautiful as it has always been. We moved through the mayor sites at lightning speed. Since we were dropped off at the Colosseum, we took a metro to Saint Peter's first and walked back.
We stopped for lunch at Piazza Navona, where they were busy setting up the Christmas market. We ate at Il Grifone, and - although given the location we were expecting a tourist trap and likewise prices and quality, we ate the best pizza we ever had, accompanied by 50cl of rather good red wine, a friendly waiter, a clean toilet and a bill that was so low we doubled the tip we intended to give. As a thank-you for that, we got a glass of Limoncello each. I don't know if it was just this place, but in general our experience in Rome was very positive; with cars stopping to let us cross, even though they could have squeezed through before us etc.
If you're into geocaching (google it if you're not), we found the app very helpful on our hurried trip passed all the mayor sights. After an initial stop at a Mac Donalds (beware though that in Italy, because of local laws you need a complicated sign in procedure to be able to access wifi internet anywhere) to charge the sattelite and map, it guided us quickly to all the places we wanted to see.
We decided to adventure out on our own, taking the train to get to Tunis, Sidi Bou Said and Carthage.
As a result, we saw the underbelly of Tunis, which is quite different from the polished up version you'll see when you take an organised tour. It's not for everyone. We didn't enjoy it, but then again, not all excursions need to be fun. We learned a lot during this trip.
In case you choose visit it as we do: make sure you get some dinars. We spent the equivalent of 20 euros for 2 persons all day, though we didn't pay any entrance fees.
We walked towards the station first, but since the ticket office isn't marked and looks like an out-of-use electricity cabin (yes, really!), we dodn't find it and took a taxi instead to the centre of Tunis/the Medina. After some haggling,we payed 10 euros. Since the driver wouldn't accept my euro coins and claimed to have no change for my 20 euro note, I asked for my change in dinars. The 20 dinars I got in return got us through the rest of the day.
After a stroll around the souk in the Medina, we drank a mint tea in the opera café (one of the fanciest in town, where local people had to pass through a metal detector to enter - we got a free pass, though), then managed to locate the train station (hint: it's about 1 km away back up the road, past the barbed wire on the square. Just ask enough people for the "Gare TGM / train station") where we payed for 2 second class tickets to Side Bou Said. Prices here are in milim (one thousandth of a dinar) which is quite confusing. I tried to pay with the 10 dinar note (about 5 euros), but was asked for something smaller. Ended up paying with a one dinar coin and got a heap of change and two tickets back.
There's only one train line that goes from Tunis, over La Goulette (where the ship docks), then 5 Carthage stations (stop at Hannibal for the ruins) and Sidi Bou Said. Names of stops are marked in French. The train was rather an experience, with a few young people hanging out of the open doors to get a free ride. A few stops before Sidi, we all had to get out and continue by bus. Also, don't bother getting first class tickets. If you're going for this experience, you might as well go all the way; in anycase, there didn't seem to bemuch difference in comfort anyhow.
In Sidi, we walked around and got to see some really magnificent views. Also, we got ripped off in a café, which greatly annoyed me. The mint tea came with some pine nuts in it. Afterwards, it turned out to cost the double of the marked price because of them. We were told they didn't serve regular mint tea at noon, and that since I drank the tea and ate the nuts, we'd have to pay for them, too.They also tried the dish of pastries trick, but we didn't fall for that one. Let's say we ended that match on a draw :-/
Back at the train station ticket office/electric cabin, a ticket to Carthage Hannibal turned out to be a few milim more expensive than the longer traject from Tunis to Sidi. This is however, for some reason, correct, and in anycase still very cheap. At Carthage, we walked around but didn't enter any of the sites. Apparantly, the organised excursions did the visit in the opposite direction, and we were met by a lot of just closing up shops and stands - clearly, the show was over. Since my husband had already visited the site on a previous holiday, we decided not to visit them again and took a last train ride back to the ship.
There, the cruise terminal with it's camels, shops and music welcomed us back in a 100 and 1 nights atmosphere.
Was it a fun experience? No.
Was it worthwhile: Yes, certainly. It's confrontational, we got to see a lot of misery, poverty and even violence. We were cussed out and ripped off, but we also met a few really decent people; the lady on the train who told us where to get off, the two taxi drivers who stopped to help us locate a geocache we were looking for and the lady at the ticket office who could have easily pocketed 10 dinars from us, but didn't.
After all the glitter and glamour of the cruise ship, I think it's good to get a reality check like this.