WARNING - THIS WILL BE A LONG REVIEW!
Since I was so delighted to read the reviews written by others and posted on Cruise Critic, and it really helped me get through the crazy times when I was counting down the days and was so excited I could hardly wait for our cruise - I am happy to return the favor!
First, I will cover the general aspects of the cruise and then go through the ports one by one.
Packing: First of all - because of all the warnings about problems with lost luggage, we packed in the following way - we checked two large 28" suitcases and a large garment bag. On the way there, since we could have one carry on and one personal item each, we each packed a rolling suitcase and (due to the advice of those from cruise critic) each packed 2 changes of clothes and those things we "really needed", in case luggage was lost. In the past I have way "over packed" for cruises, and since we knew we would be "self debarking" due to an early flight home, we were determined to bring only what we really would use.
REMEMBER - THAT WHEN GOING THROUGH SECURITY IN ROME WHEN COMING HOME, YOU ARE LIMITED TO ONE CARRY-ON. THESE ARE THE SECURITY RULES, NOT THE AIRLINE RULES. BE SURE THAT YOU WILL HAVE ENOUGH SPACE IN CHECKED LUGGAGE TO "TAKE UP THE SLACK". I NEEDED TO BRING ALONG MY LAPTOP TO COMMUNICATE WITH MY BOSS - SO ON THE WAY TO ROME, IN ADDITION TO OUR TWO ROLLING BAGS, WE HAD MY LARGE TOTE BAG (COUNTED AS A PURSE) AND THE LAPTOP BAG. GOING HOME, WE HAD TO PUT ENOUGH STUFF IN OUR CHECKED LUGGAGE SO THAT THE LAPTOP BAG COULD FIT IN ONE ROLLING SUITCASE AND THE TOTE BAG IN THE OTHER. ONCE THROUGH SECURITY WE COULD GO BACK TO THE 2 ITEMS EACH GETTING ON THE FLIGHT.
GETTING THERE: We flew out of Minneapolis on Continental flight 171, and then changed planes in Newark, where my sister and niece joined us for the flight to Rome. Flight 40, Newark to Rome, left two and a half hours late. We were a bit bummed as one of the motivations for taking this flight was to get to Rome in time for the Holy Rome tour (and get through passport control and collect luggage before 11:00 a.m.). The flight, once they figured out their maintenance issue, went well, and we were served dinner and a light breakfast. All of our luggage made it through, and we were happy to check our luggage with the Carnival representative in the airport at 10:40. We explained that we were concerned about getting on the tour that had a deadline of 11:00, but were told, "no problem there is plenty of time, go wait over there with those other people". We were all taken outside to meet another group of Carnival personnel who handled the tours 10 minutes later (it was then 10:50 - so we were there within the stated time frame); however, we were told that the tour had already left.
We were bummed over that - we later met 3 others on our cruise that were planning on this same 11:00 tour, but their flight was delayed, and they didn't reach the check in point till 11:10. I assured them that they didn't "just miss it". My conclusion is that they had the buses going on that tour full to capacity and decided that they weren't going to run another bus for it. We were offered the Carnival transportation to the ship - but knowing that was $75 per person, we declined and found a cab instead. Probably if we had looked a bit more and attempted to bargain we could have gotten one cheaper - but we were tired and bummed out and decided to just get to the ship. We took a cab for 140 Euros with a 5 Euro tip and arrived at the ship around noon.
EMBARKATION: I know that embarkation is not to be until 1:00, but we were checked in right away, very quickly and efficiently (could not have taken more than 10 minutes) and allowed to go to our rooms. The line for first-time Carnival cruisers was much shorter than the line for past Carnival cruisers, so we took the first one. Though the rooms were not totally cleaned, we were told we could leave stuff there and go up to the Lido deck and have lunch - which we did. We explored the ship a bit - then returned to the room and took a nap. Luggage didn't arrive until sometime after dinner, but we put things away after the boat drill. They don't have a show scheduled for the first night - good idea as everyone was really tired!
THE SHIP: We had to agree with all the comments on the dEcor of the ship. Very gaudy and over the top "too much is never enough", but it isn't a home or country club - it is a cruise ship, and the overall mixture of colors, patterns, pulsing lights all over the floors, walls, ceilings, etc. is most definitely different than anywhere else you would live for 12 nights, but soon you hardly notice it. The Freedom has the same odd traffic pattern on the 3rd and 4th decks, where you cannot "get from here to there" without going up to the 5th deck or down to the 2nd deck, due to the proximity of the 2 story dining rooms as the Valor. Once you adjust to that - you can handle it OK.
The rooms are in same the muted orange we found on the Valor and are very comfortable with plenty of storage for all your clothing and room to stow suitcases under the bed. Balconies are large enough for two to sit and have a small table to put a drink, or to play cards - but only in port - too much wind while sailing!
This was our 8th cruise overall and our second one on Carnival, and something that was really different on this one was that neither our room steward, nor our head waiter introduced themselves. We never did meet, or speak directly with our room steward, though we had decided ahead of time, that when we first met him, we would give him/her $20 just to be nice - so saved that $ for other things. He did a good job of keeping our room clean and supplied, and we think we figured out who he was - but he must have been painfully shy as he would duck into one of the staff areas when he saw people. Though our head waiter, Depak, didn't introduce himself, or his assistant, Jana, I think that he was also very shy, but of course did speak to us every night. We made a point of making conversation with them, and they warmed up a bit - again, they did a great job, and I think that the fact he did not "break the ice" the first night made things awkward for Jana - but by the middle of the cruise we were having a good time with them.
ENTERTAINMENT: The production shows in the Victoriana Lounge were all fantastic with great energy, and costuming - singers and dancers were exceptional. The only "so so" performance we saw there was a rather sarcastic comedian/magician. There was an extremely talented soprano, who was on the ship only one night, who sang some opera and many familiar show tunes. There was also a multi-faceted British performer, who sang and played many different instruments. We also enjoyed the talent show, made up of acts performed by guests and followed up with a hysterical skit directed by cruise director John Heald and using audience members. I understand that these people are selected ahead of time, but the act is not rehearsed, and have heard it described on other cruises, so it is obviously a staple. Don't miss it - it is really funny! John really earns his label of the best cruise director on the high seas! He is upbeat, funny, and incomparable! The one show we missed (it was the last night, and we were too tired from tromping around Rome) was the Legends Show, featuring again - guests.
There are many bars and lounges, most grouped around the aft on deck 5. Though we weren't able to experience all of them, due to general exhaustion following port days, all the live entertainment we heard was great, both on deck 5 and in the lobby bar area! We didn't get in to the piano bar, but I understand it was great as well. Again, with all the ports, it's hard to take advantage of everything offered, and I have only one slightly negative comment:
• One day we attended a "film clip trivia" game. The sort of odd young man that ran it, admitted that he hadn't seen any of the films shown, didn't seem to know or understand the answers to the questions he asked, and seemed overall, ineffectual and immature. Out of character considering the quality of the rest of the cruise.
The Captain's cocktail party and the past Carnival guests' parties were both very well attended, with liberal drinks and appetizers offered. Get there EARLY!
FOOD: As far as the food was concerned, we were very pleased with both the choices and the quality, both in the dining rooms and on the Lido deck. Of course some of the items were not what we personally liked, but that happens in fine restaurants too! The omelet station in the middle buffet is confusing in that it appears that it is on only one side, but there is another one directly opposite the signs, usually not as busy. We loved to get a plate of cookies from the Lido dessert counter to take to our room to snack on in the afternoon or on tours and enjoyed the ice cream, though finding toppings was hit and miss. Generally, the ice cream machine near the adult pool on deck 9 aft had toppings in the early afternoon, but the machine next to the mid-ship pool and snack bar did not. However, the latter had frozen yogurt also. For tours, we got some cold sandwiches from the Deli between the buffets the night before and kept them in our frig and took them for lunch on our tours in a backpack. This saved not only lunch expense but also time, which is the real premium on the shore excursions. The people who have complained big time about the food on this ship must have much fussier palates than ours!
One issue we had with the dining room was that our table, #374, was in a sort of "dead end" place. We were on the 3rd deck, in one of the side areas, down a few steps from the main area. There is the first aisle of tables - that is where we were - and then separated by partition is another bunch of tables, near the windows. As it turned out, we had neither the ability to see out, or to see anything in the dining room. When they had "show time" our view was the back sides of the wait staff - not that "show time" is that great - but the whole situation combined to make us feel like second class citizens. We are going to suggest to Carnival that during a 12 night cruise, they could rotate dining rooms and/or tables half way through to give guests equal opportunities for "tables with a view. Disney switches restaurants every night and it all works fine.
DEBARKATION: Because we had an early flight on the last day (10:00 a.m. departure on Continental #41), we arranged our own transportation to the airport, kept our luggage in our room the last night and departed the ship, luggage in hand to meet our 6:15 a.m. transportation. Through our Cruise Critic Roll-call group - there were 11 of us riding together. I had contacted Alfredo, from email@example.com, via e-mail ahead of time, and as I added numbers to the group, kept a running dialog with him. He was always prompt to answer and made good on his word to be there waiting for us at 6:15 a.m.. If you are interested, you can go on their website and get rates. Due to the fact that we were asking for transport so early in the morning, it was 20% extra - but the rate of 300 Euros was good for 9-14 people, and the mini bus was comfortable, and the driver took care of loading/unloading all the baggage. If you take it or something similar, they accept only Euros, not dollars. Strangely, the ship's currency exchange is not open the last evening, so get about 30 Euros ahead of time. It was a very nice and comfortable way to get to the airport - a bit of a personal touch for a lot less than Carnival charges ($75 each way) for the privilege of digging through thousands of bags to find your own and then being hauled in 60-passenger busses. Taking our own suitcases from room to gangway was really quite a simple thing, and we would definitely take this route again!
PORTS AND TOURS: Just a few comments about what to have with you and ways to make your tours go more smoothly. For the first half of our ports it was very HOT! Under even cooler conditions, I consume a lot of liquid. We prepared to carry extra liquids with us by purchasing two fairly large (ca. quart) bottles with fold down "straws", and tight lids that didn't leak. We got them at Walmart for about $2 each, and the morning of each port visit, we would fill them with ice and iced tea from the Lido deck. Additionally, we brought along a small insulated soft side cooler (about the size of a lunch bag). A couple of times we took along a picnic lunch, gathering deli sandwiches the evening before, keeping them in our fridge over night and then putting them in the small cooler with a zip-lock bag of ice to keep it cold. We also often took fruit, procured at breakfast, and cookies, procured from the dessert areas on the Lido deck. This all worked out really well, as we wanted to make the most of our time in ports. Another first for me was carrying a back pack - something my kids have always used, but which never appealed to me. Well, in addition to a hands-free way to carry your stuff - packed with the iced tea and little cooler, it kept me cool, at least for the first several hours! Additionally, we made certain that we had small packages of Kleenex with us - rest rooms are not always well equipped - better to be safe than sorry!
One additional suggestion - if you are planning tours with others, post your full name and/or your room number on the roll call for your cruise before leaving home. It really helps to be able to easily check on or set up times and places to meet. We took mainly Carnival tours, with the exception being Istanbul, when we went on a tour for 12 of us, set up by Bunnyette, through our roll call site (FABULOUS TOUR THERE - THANKS BETH!) Also, in Rhodes and Athens, we toured on our own, and that went fine. Though for Carnival tours, you are given a time and place to meet, and told that it isn't necessary to arrive before the appointed hour, if you do arrive 15 minutes ahead of time in the Victoriana Lounge, you get numbers based on "first come, first served" and can get out of the meeting site quicker on one of the first buses.
Now for the details of what we did in each port. The ports, were of course the main reason we selected this cruise, and we were not disappointed with them! The only disappointment was, of course that we didn't have enough time to visit many places, or spend as much time as we would like. I tried to keep in mind some advice I had read from one of the websites I visited in preparation for this trip, which was that you need to consider a day in each port as a sort of "sampler" to help you determine the cities in which to plan future multi-day stays.
NAPLES: Since we knew we would be really tired, after all the travel of the day before, we opted for the afternoon Pompeii tour. We were able to sleep in a bit and actually felt pretty good by mid morning. Since our tour wasn't until afternoon, we got off the ship and walked around Naples a bit. We had been told that traffic is unreal there, and that is the truth. Supposedly, red lights are "discretionary" and as a pedestrian, you are not a protected commodity! However, when several people cross at once, the traffic will yield.
We met at 1:15 for our tour. Our guide was a woman named Maria - though her organizational skills were not great, her knowledge of history and of Pompeii was awesome. The bus first dropped us off in an area near the ruins in Pompeii (it wasn't really a town, more like an area with various food stands, restaurants, and small businesses), for a tour of the cameo factory. Then we were told incidentally that this is where we could use the rest rooms. The problem was that Maria was very unclear about a meeting time or place. People were left to wander through the rooms and floors looking at cameos and engaging in conversation with those that worked there, then expected to understand without direction that they should use the restrooms and present themselves back outside, collect a bottle of ice cold water and be ready for the tour of the ruins in very short order. So, a bit of time was wasted as Maria counted and recounted us and wondered where a few others were.
POMPEII Pompeii was an amazing place! However it was very hot, and there isn't a lot of shade. We had visited a traveling exhibit of artifacts from Pompeii when it was in Minneapolis a few months before, and I believe that gave us a better understanding of the thriving advanced culture than you would get from seeing the ruins alone. It turns out that the artifacts are not on site, but in a separate museum in Naples. Several of us were very concerned about the many stray dogs and cats that we saw all through the ruins. We were told that though they are strays, the restaurants feed them, and we did have to admit that they looked well fed and were very calm and acted as if we were visiting them in their homes. We found that having a knowledgeable guide was really important when visiting the ruins. Though, with a bit of imagination you can picture the bustling civilization, Maria's history lessons as we progressed through the ruins did a lot to make it "come alive" for us.
We had read on cruise critic that there is a Limoncello factory in Pompeii, so we asked Maria about it, and she said to remind her went we returned from the ruins. We did that, and she took us over to the factory, which was right in the same area where the bus took us and picked us up again. We are not sure exactly what Maria said to them in Italian, but the result was that two young women brought all sorts of things for us to sample, candies as well as straight Limoncello and Limoncello mixed with cream - both were sold in bottles. We bought some yummy candies and 3 bottles of Limoncello - one for us and the other two for gifts.
RHODES: There's a considerable bazaar area, and walking around the fortress in the old moat was the best approach.
(For any of you animal lovers - a short note) This city also has many stray animals, but we met workers for the humane society, who do pretty much the same things in regard to providing for and working on adoptions of the strays. In many places you can purchase calendars with pictures of the "Cats of Greece".
IZMIR: The tour we took here was of Ephesus and the Terrace Houses. Our guide was a delightful young woman named Banu. She explained that ours was the "first bus tour" she had done since graduating from the University in Istanbul - she had done only private tours in the past. She was sweet and charming and gave us not only a great historical picture of the ruins at Ephesus, but also was a real ambassador for her country. She gave us much background on Turkey in general, and specific information about the lifestyles and practices of Izmir, Istanbul and small town where she grew up.
The ruins at Ephesus were amazing, but the tour of the Terrace Houses was amazing - my advice is, "don't miss this". They are excavating this area and uncovering more all the time. The whole place is enclosed, and the steps you climb are Plexiglass, giving a great view of everything. It is not describable, at least I could not due it justice! You can see the elaborate designs on floors, walls, etc. and the level of civilization and modern comforts they enjoyed back then are on display - blew my mind!!
I think this was the day we decided to do laundry. Soon as we got back to the room, we gathered up our stuff and went to the laundry. There is one on each floor with 4 washers and 4 dryers, 8 quarters for each load. We got there when many were still on tour, so we were able to get a washer right away. Thirty minutes later the room was full of people.
ISTANBUL: As mentioned before, this tour was set up for people on our cruise through Beth, in our roll call. There were 12 of us and our guide was a very nice and animate young man named Hassan. It was not only important to him that we get the historical background of Istanbul, but that we understood how the culture affected everything. We truly learned more from him than we could have learned from reading several books and touring for days on our own!
We first went to the Blue Mosque (ladies, if offered access to the restrooms outside of the Blue Mosque - be aware of two things - you must have money; American will do - - - but more importantly, the "toilets" are the hole-in-the-floor variety). Because we were there fairly early, and it was well before the next call to prayer, we didn't need to wait too long. You do need to have shoulders and knees covered (both men and women) and take your shoes off. The interior is beautifully carpeted. One gentleman in our group wore shorts and was given a piece of blue fabric to wrap around his waist. The Mosque was amazingly beautiful, and we enjoyed wandering around on our own a bit after Hassan gave us the historical view.
Hassan explained the history and significance of the item out in the square area - several fabulous gifts from other countries. Following the Blue Mosque, we went to Topkapi Palace, which was grand, with beautiful gardens, intricate mosaic work, and a fabulous display of jewels and valuables.
After lunch at the "Pudding House", where we could select our food cafeteria style and carry it upstairs to an air conditioned area - where there were nice restrooms, we went to Hagia Sophia. This place was unbelievable! It was a Christian Church last rebuilt in the 6th century, then later turned into a Mosque and now lives as a museum. It is not possible to describe the sheer size and magnificence of this place! As my husband said, "You could put Grand Central Station in here and still have room to drive around". During the time that this was a Mosque - they were evidently disturbed by all of the incredibly beautiful, and gigantic Christian mosaic art work adorning most of the walls. Luckily for all of us - at least they didn't destroy it - they whitewashed it. In many areas they have been able to remove the white wash and expose some of the art - it is breath taking!
I'm sure that anyone visiting this site is truly amazed, but evidently most tours do not take the time to go upstairs. Actually, there are not stairs - there is a stone ramp that zig zags upward. According to Hassan, the rulers, who were not expected to walk all the way up there were carried up the ramp on divans - and the ramp provided a smoother ride than steps would have. If you have the chance, go up there - you get a much clearer perspective of the entire site. This really is a MUST SEE!!!
The next thing we did in Istanbul was to go to the Grand Bazaar - and it is Grand! When reading about this before the trip, I didn't think it would really be something that would interest me. I'm not much of a shopper and don't like a lot of confusion - but I changed my mind after being there! It is amazing! It is a gigantic covered mall, parts of which have been in use as a market since the 8th century! The ceilings are domed and decorated, the atmosphere is definitely different than anything I've experienced before - it felt like taking a step back in history. Evidently anything you could possibly want to purchase is there - if you can find it. Hassan introduced us to an artist (Nick's) he knows, who is famous for his fabulous calligraphy and Bible passages and designs microartwork painted onto large leaves - we had never seen anything like it and decided that this what going to be our official "trip souvenir". It was $350, but was preserved between two pieces of glass, and presented in a red velvet box with a certificate of authenticity. This is not something I would normally look for - but it is beautiful, and we loved it immediately. We also bought some hand painted bowls and some more Turkish Delight. We were supposed to meet our group at an appointed time and place and we found ourselves really lost in the bazaar - not hard to do! It took us a few minutes to wind our way to the proper place, but we were not the last to arrive - others were more lost than we!
We will definitely return to Istanbul - it has become my new favorite city! There was something almost magical about sailing from the lighted city of Istanbul at night - don't miss it - plan to be up on deck!
NOTE - WE WERE ABLE TO USE EUROS THROUGHOUT TURKEY - AND MOST TIMES, AMERICAN DOLLARS AS WELL! STREET HAWKERS ACCEPT AMERICAN DOLLARS.
ATHENS: We decided to see Athens on our own. Following the directions given on cruise critic, we took the shuttle to the cruise terminal and then set out on foot for the train station. As directed, you stay on the water side of the street, follow around till you see an elevated walkway having an escalator that takes you to the walk way - over the street - and down on the other side, where you find the large yellow building that is the train station. It would have been an easy walk if it had been cooler, but it took us maybe 25 minutes - a little over a mile. You can just take the green train and get off at Omonia station, transfer from the green to red train to Dimetrius and get off at Acropoli. It cost less than 2 Euros each for roundtrip transportation on the train - a good deal! There are some interesting displays right in the train stations, so be sure to take the time to check them out. Note that the trains' "names" are the last station on the run, but stops are on a map above each door. The maps are in Greek and English.
When you emerge from the Acropoli Station, you are only a couple blocks from the Acropolis and then, entrance fee is 12 Euros. After all the walking we had done to get there, my sister took one look at the top of the Acropolis and announced that she wasn't going up there! However, the climb is done gradually, and before she knew it, she was up there. We saw all the ruins of the various buildings up there, with well preserved statues and scaffolding indicating on going work. There were officials with whistles that blew them in an effort to control tourists climbing or walking where they shouldn't. Though it was hot - and the serious fires had only been out for a few days, we didn't have the problem I have heard others complain of - smog. It was hot, sunny and totally clear, and we got wonderful views of the city of Athens from way up there!
When we got back to the train station, we went one stop to Syntagma Square. Our intent was to explore a bit there on foot. We did see the huge government building as soon as we emerged from the subway, but decided we better save our feet for the long walk to the ship later on. We spotted a McDonald's not too far away and went there for a cold drink (by now our ice tea and sandwiches had been devoured) and to use the restroom. This was one place I was happy to have my little package of Kleenex - no paper! Across the street from McDonald's we spotted an ATM machine and were able to get some more Euros.
The trip home went as smoothly as the trip there - though the walk to the cruise terminal seemed twice as long after a busy day as a tourist. A nice cool shower never felt better!
KATAKOLON: We arrived in Katakolon only a few days after the fire that ravaged much of the area had been totally extinguished, and had been assured by John Heald that they really needed our business to cheer them up. Our guide for this Carnival tour of Olympia and Folkloric Dances was Mary. She was an older lady, who seemed to really know her history of the area and Olympia; however, she did not seem as enthusiastic as other guides we had toured with. When we first arrived at Olympia, she pointed out where there were restrooms, and a number of our bus mates went to use them. Mary didn't really tell them where we were going, or that she wasn't waiting for them, but mumbled something like "we will just go over here and then, they will find us". She had an Ace bandage on one foot and ankle, and that may have been the reason that she didn't seem to want to show us very much of the ruins. We could observe all the burned areas in the vicinity and realized how terrifying it must have been for the residents.
The ruins themselves were quite surprising. We expected a rather small site, considering the stated use, that this had been the site of the original Olympic games. We thought there might be a few buildings, around some grassy areas and a lot of open space, for conducting athletic events. It was far more than that! It is a large site, and in the distance we saw things that looked far more interesting than what we saw up close. Mary chose to take us down one street, near where the arch to the stadium was, told us about some of the history of the area, then tell us to go and check out the stadium and return to that spot. Again, nothing specific as to timing, but she did wait there quite a while. Had we known we would be there for that length of time, we would have explored more of the area on our own. Once she felt everyone was there we simply walked back through the ruins the same way we walked in - again, leaving the more interesting places unexplored.
Mary did tell us that Nero built a villa there on the site and procured many of the best statues to decorate it, but only motioned vaguely to that area, and we didn't get a chance to take a look. If we were going to do this again, and we had a guide that obviously didn't want to walk around much, I would inquire as to how much time we had to wander on our own before rejoining the group. Following the bus trip back to the little town of Katakolon, we were taken to the taverna, where long tables were spread with various appetizers and a variety of drinks. There were cans of Coke (they went fast), some bottles of water, then some white wine and a big bottle of Ouzo (in a strawberry water bottle). The performers I think were quite good, singing and dancing. I say that "I think" because these tables were very long - and there must have been 10-12 of them, and the performers were not on any sort of elevated stage, so the view of them wasn't very good.
Mary had given us the option of staying in the town to do some shopping or taking the bus back to the ship. As it turned out - this time she did give a time to meet at the bus if you wanted to get a ride. We found we had enough time to sample the food and drink (caution should be used with the Ouzo - which was in a large jar with strawberries on it - one woman, obviously believing that it was flavored water, poured a big glassful and took a huge drink and just about fell over before she could sputter out "what was THAT???"), and still get a bit of shopping done and ride back to the ship. There is a duty free shop, right next to where you get on and off the ship and we were able to purchase a six pack of diet Coke. If you want more time for the ruins and small on-site museum, opt for that tour and not the folkdancing.
LIVORNO: In Livorno we opted for the Florence on Your Own tour provided by Carnival, where you get 1.5 hour bus transportation to Florence and then back to the ship. We had made on line reservations for the Uffizi Gallery, as we had read on cruise critic about the 3+ hour waits for entry. Our reservation was for 10:45 and you are supposed to present yourself 30 minutes prior to the entry time to exchange your voucher for tickets. After being dropped at one location in Florence shortly after 10:00, then walking to the square by Santa Croce, where we were to meet our leader for the return to the bus at the end of the day at 3:30, we set out to walk to the Uffizi. We arrived about 10:25, and though the woman exchanging the vouchers made mention of the fact that we were a bit late to check in, there were no problems and we were able to bypass the huge lines and get into the museum. Note that the outside of the Uffizi is horseshoe shaped. If you are standing at the open end, you go to door# 4 near the right leg of the horseshoe to exchange your vouchers for tickets. Then go to door # 1 on the left leg for quick entrance, which will irritate the hundred or more waiting in line at doors 2 or 3. It is amazing - there is so much to see! At first we were really taking our time, but then realized that if we were to see anything else, we had to pick up the pace. In the end, we probably spent 2.5 hours there - but didn't really do it justice. My advice would be - if this is your first visit to Florence - you either see all the non-museum sites, or you go to a museum(s). We could have spent the whole day there!
As it was, since we had decided to have lunch at a little restaurant (Finisterrae), right on Santa Croce plaza, and it was nearly 1:00, we took some pictures of the Ponte Vecchio out of the windows of the Uffizi, and walked over to get a closer look at the charming old bridge, but didn't have time to walk over it. We went back to the Santa Croce area and had a nice lunch - used their restrooms, and then my sister and niece wanted to shop, and so my husband and I walked over to the Duomo. We had thought that Santa Croce was very nice - but of course it looks miniature compared to the Duomo! No matter what you read, I don't think you could be prepared for the magnificence that is the Duomo! It is huge and unbelievably intricate and adorned. I know that all the advice says "get there early" and if you want to get inside - you would need to do that! There was a line waiting to get in the Duomo that rivaled the one outside the Uffizi - maybe longer, since the Duomo is free! Also, next time we will go early and do the climb of the bell tower - but you definitely would want to do that early before either the crowds or the heat took over! As far as the heat - it actually broke the evening between Athens and Katakolon, so it was only in the 80s - rather than the 90s. That helped a lot, however when you are walking many miles, it still feels very warm!
We were disappointed to realize that our time was up so soon and don't know why the time of 3:30 had been picked as our meeting time. We could have stayed another hour and still made it back to the ship in plenty of time. We enjoyed Florence a lot, and we will definitely return!
ROME: On our last full day of the cruise we went to Rome, with Carnival's Rome on Your Own tour. It was similar to the day before - with a 1+ hour bus ride to the city and then back to the ship. The big difference was Margaret, the guide on the bus! The day before on our way to and from Florence we had a nice young man named, Simon. Though he gave us maps and would answer any questions we had, he lacked the maturity and experience to understand what we needed to know - even though we didn't know what that was. He readily admitted we was not a guide but an assistant. Margaret knew what to tell us, how to warn us, how to advise us, etc. She not only passed out maps but walked up and down the aisle of the bus making sure that everyone understood exactly where things were that they wanted to see, and answering questions of how to get there. She also announced where she was going and offered to guide anyone that wanted to go with her - or point others in the right direction for whatever they wanted to see. She was very clear about where and when to meet - we had until 5:00 that day and arrived at about the same time we had gotten to Florence the day before, so we had an extra 90 minutes in Rome.
There were 5 of us for Rome, as my sister met a lady on the bus who was there alone and invited her to join our group. We began by following Margaret to the People's Square, and then the Spanish Steps, which were relatively empty - compared to when we came through this way at the end of the day - when they were absolutely packed. Everywhere you look there are magnificent statues, intricate architectural details, and old world charm and beauty! Shortly after the Spanish Steps we spotted a McDonald's and decided to stop and use the restrooms. It was still locked, though it should have opened at 10:00 - and it was now about 10:10. We had heard that the night before Rome had hosted an all night parties with all types of music concerts and events occurring all over the city. We talked to a couple of young men who were also waiting for McDonald's to open. They said they were sure the reason for the late opening was that people were exhausted from partying all night, and indicated that is what they had done and were wanting to eat breakfast before going home. The doors were opened around 10:15, so we didn't have to wait long.
Our next stop was the Trevi Fountain, and even though it was fairly early - it was packed with people, though everyone is quite pleasant and polite and understands that everyone needs their opportunity to get down there and throw your coins over your left shoulder. We did that and then at one point, my sister was really tired and wanted to sit somewhere. I spotted some steps and suggested we sit there for a bit. I noticed people going in and out of the building the steps led to, so I checked it out. It turned out to be a fabulous old church (St. Marcellus; no big surprise there as there are churches every block), but this one dated back to the 1500s and had adornments every where, the ceiling, the floor, huge wall size murals, huge marble statues, it was just amazing, and we just happened to find it. Imagine if you had several days in this city, what you could stumble onto???
Then, on our way to the Forum and the Coliseum, we found ourselves at a huge and magnificent building - turns out it was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier - it was amazing! Directly across the street on the left from the Tomb was a park-like area with shade and benches. It was next to the monument to Hadrian which included a very tall stone obelisk, with details of his military battles engraved on it, and a small area with ruins that was being reconstructed. We decided it was nearly noon and a good spot for a picnic. We had again, brought sandwiches cookies, trail mix, bananas and ice tea and had a feast!!
At that point we split up. My sister, niece and our new friend, Maria decided to take a brief look at the Coliseum and then go over to the Vatican, in spite of the fact that due to it being Sunday the museum and many other things were closed. We really wanted to first see the Forum and then take some time in the Coliseum. We were blown away by the Forum - it is huge! I told my husband that I had read on cruise critic that you should plan to spend a half day there at least. We didn't have that much time to spend but did walk around and "ooh" and "ahh" quite a bit. Then we found ourselves over by Palatine Hill, and I remembered reading that if you buy your tickets there (11 Euros each), it not only allows you to climb the stairs and see what is on Palatine Hill (the scenery and structures are well worth the climb), but allows you entry to the Coliseum without the long lines you will find at the other gate - right in front of the Coliseum - more great advice!! The Coliseum lines were huge - both the ones to buy tickets and then the one to get in with your ticket! We were directed right past the long lines and entered after only two minutes - no kidding! I believe they were charging 12 Euros for only the Coliseum.
Well - what can you say about the Coliseum? - the tired adjectives just don't do justice!! It is far more impressive and exciting than you can imagine it can be. To walk in the place where so much of history, albeit violent and "other worldly" events took place! We spent a good amount of time there and then decided that there was enough time to visit another large building that was on our map - not a clue what it was but it was near a Metro station - and we had decided that we could save time getting back to the meeting place by using the Metro. We walked and walked and finally found it - another fabulous church! Snapped some pictures then walked to the Metro station. Well - that one was under construction, and I was to the point I just made it there - so we had to drag ourselves to the next Metro station. We finally arrived and went down, down into the dark, hoping we would be able to figure out where we were going and how to get there. There was no manned ticket booth there - only 2 machines selling tickets, and one was broken. The people in front of us couldn't get the other machine to work either. When it was our turn, we stood there trying to figure out what to do - we encouraged the people waiting behind us to go ahead. It was a young couple, and we decided to watch them and thereby, learn what to do. As it turned out, they took pity on us and helped us. They seemed to know just how to insert the 5 Euro note so the machine would accept it and then showed us how to get what we wanted. We then puzzled out what train to take and where to catch it and before we knew it, we were at our stop (Flamino station) near the People's Square, which was near the park where we were to meet our group. The really amazing thing was that we just happened to bump into my sister, niece and Maria. They had the same idea we had - go back to use the restroom at the McDonald's near the Spanish Steps, to make for a much more comfortable ride home! We all trooped over there, got something to drink - OH BY THE WAY - MC DONALDS IN ITALY HAS UMTEEN KINDS OF GELATO!! - and we made it back to the park and onto the bus for our return ride to the ship.
How amazing it was to all of us that our 12 nights aboard the Freedom were nearly over!! But we will be back, maybe to try the other itinerary. If anyone has any questions that you think we might be able to answer, feel free to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.