We signed up for this 14 day cruise 45 days before sailing since another cruise on our favorite line, Holland America was sold out. We heard a lot of good things about the Prinsendam but were not sure we wanted to sail on a 20 year old ship and pay higher fares due to the smaller size. We signed up for an outside room D Category thinking it would be big enough and the weather cool enough we would not need a balcony. More on this later when we moved up to a suite! This cruise leaves from Rome where we stayed at a B and B, the Domus Manlii near the Vatican for 90 Euros per nite. We found the B and B on www.venere.com and www.michelinguide.com. Our B and B was a very quiet, safe and recently remodeled apartment. We landed at the Rome airport and took a train to the St. Peter's Station for 5 Euros. We then walked with our bags to the B and B. We packed lite due to new airline rules and knew we would be schlepping our bags up and down stairs in metro stations where there are no elevators or escalators. From our B and B we walked all over Rome and took bus 64 to the main railroad station and back and could get off to see most of the sights that were important to us. Traffic in Rome is fierce so don't even think of driving a rental or a, heaven forbid, motor scooter. If you want you can take the train from Rome to the ship in Civitavecchia for about 5 Euros and it only takes about one hour. A friend we met on the ship paid 160 Euros for the same trip!
After we arrived at the port city, we walked several blocks to the port entry and found a ship sponsored shuttle bus we took to the ship with the last stragglers and the ship's crew. We arrived about 3:45 PM and there was no one in the big embarkation tent and were met by a security guard who escorted us to the Front Office where a very capable Delores signed us in and we were in our room by 4 PM. We immediately were impressed with the condition of the ship and found new carpets, wall treatments, granite, new bathrooms, etc. The ship is very gracious, rooms and never felt crowded. It was hard to believe the ship was 20 years old based on what we saw. The crew was most friendly, helpful and courteous. We were called by our correct names from the first day forward. The ship is small enough to get around easily as it is only 700 feet long and only had 700 passengers. The Captain Halle Thon Gundersen was a delight, humorous very communicative and always working and in uniform. We had lunch with him in the Pinnacle Grill early in our trip where he told us of his background, home and favorite recipes (cod in salt water he catches near his home on the coast in Bergen Norway) Since the ship was built in Finland and operated by Seabourn everything is of high quality, light fixtures, furniture and wall treatments. We never felt vibrations or the throb of the ships engines as on other ships. The ship felt very stable and was not top heavy like alot of the new ships that have 15 decks. We were on deck 11 forward and we never felt any swaying or rolling as on other larger ships. Of course the Med and the Black Sea didn't have waves over 7 feet either.
We had anytime dining and loved it, change if you can. Those who didn't wanted to join us and couldn't. The dining room was a pleasure to behold with lots of room and never crowded or 'full.' Food was delicious and well prepared. Pinnacle Grill was the best we have ever seen and ate there twice for lunch. The halibut sandwich was fantastic as was the filet.
Our first stop was in Dubrovnik a quaint and lovely old walled city. You can take a bus 1B at the dock to and from town. We took a cab, it was 15 Euros one way and not worth it. Take the bus. It's only a mile to town! Some walked but it was hot that day and we opted to ride on the bus. We paid on the bus with Euros I think but there are ticket offices too, but we didn't use them due to lines. Be sure to eat a lite breakfast as there are great sea food restaurants in town. Check out the restaurants on the left side of town, after entering town at the nearest gate go straight about two short streets turn left and go about one block uphill and then you'll be at a narrow street with restaurants on both sides. Great place to have a drink or small meal of fish.
Next stop was Sarande Albania. Not a good spot. Very poor, weird people. Most cruisers walked in town for an hour or so and came back to the ship by 11 AM! Many unfinished buildings here and citizens seem poor and desperate! Some took a excursion and enjoyed seeing the country side which is dry and barren. Government is in flux here with youths driving big cars recklessly down streets, spinning tires and stopping abruptly. Some said they are workers paid by the communists to get support by paying locals to vote or support them. Very strange. There is a long ocean side walk viewable from the ship that would make a good walk for about ½ mile or so. Next year they are not stopping in Sarande for good reason.
Next was Argostoli Greece which we loved. You can walk from the ship to the downtown shopping area which is only two blocks. There is a nice park, walking/shopping mall, and nice restaurants where you can have coffee or a snack. We bought wine in the local stores to drink on the ship. The wine was very good and not too expensive. Good stop here. Very clean and nice.
Next was Istanbul. We took a big excursion which was nice since we had a fabulous lunch at the Cirgran Palace. Many of our friends did the walk to the Blue Mosque, etc and had a good day. They had to buy their own tickets but some took the ship shuttle, but since the ship parks in the harbor right downtown you can take a bus or cab to the sights which are all close nearby which would be acceptable to most. Most of our friends had been there before and knew everything was very close. You could take a cab or bus to the Cirgran Palace for lunch which would be very nice as it is about 1 mi. to the right down the coast before the big bridge to the Bosporus.
Next was Trabazon Turkey which we loved. Don't take the shuttle for $10 @ as it is only 3 blocks to town! It's ok to walk in the downtown which is up on the hill. Great shopping and prices! This is Turkey of 1940. They have not seen many tourists here. There is a great shopping mall in the downtown that is several streets long that is used by the locals. They have great linens, bedding, towels, pots and pans etc. Go to the top of the hill and there will be a square. Walk thru the square and into the down town where you'll see the shopping areas. Good restaurants here too so get some local money as they don't take Euros, etc. Some of our friends did a taxi for $100 and drove around for 4 hours and went to the monastery etc. The cab was a 12 person one so you can take your friends and split the bill. You can get a cab at the gate to the port, about 150 feet from the ship. Just ask the guard to get you one or you can walk to town and get one in the square. Just be sure to shop on the walking mall.
Istanbul: I should mention the peddlers are very aggressive in Istanbul compared to Trabzon where they are very polite if you can find one. In Istanbul I had one peddler actually pull a 50 Euro note out of my hand while we were discussing price and what I was going to buy! He handed my money to his associate who then ran away! Luckily he thought I still owed him $20 (he saw it in my wallet) and I had his goods in my wife's arms so we told him we were done and left with two small silk carpets. Thinking back about it I should have called the police who were nearby so don't hesitate to do so if you are mistreated. Your guides will also help and protect you from these characters if necessary. Don't show them your money and negotiate before you pull your wallet out so the price is firm. Once they see money in your wallet the price goes up to what they see! Beware of all carpet dealers! If you do want a carpet in Istanbul or Kusadasi get ready for full time negotiation and be firm. If the price is $3000 you should pay no more than $1500. We were told by some that you should not pay more than 35% to 50% of their first price. Once you start negotiating they feel you will buy and won't let you leave till you do so beware once you show interest or ask the price you are in for it. Kusadasi was a lot more relaxed than Istanbul for carpets, but there is still a lot of pressure.
After Trabzon we went to Sochi Russia. Wow, still Russia to be sure. You can't leave the ship unless you have a visa or excursion booked. We did the Stalin house which was interesting but our guide was very bad and could hardly speak English, but our friends who took other excursions had even worse experiences. They served a little wine and appetizers after the tour which was nice but the wine was poor and the food suspect. I didn't eat any due to the flies on most of it! Luckily we weren't in Sochi too long and were glad to leave although it was quite a feeling to be in Stalin's house knowing all the people he murdered and tortured.
Then we went to Sevastopol in the Ukraine where we had a great tour and a fine DINNER at Yalta where we visited the Czar's summer palaces and site of the Yalta conference where Europe was divided up by the big three. We had a great guide but the bus ride was somewhat long, I think about 50 to 60 miles one way. The Ukraine was better than Russia but still depressed somewhat. It's amazing to know how many wars have been fought there over the years and all for what? Our friends rented a cab since they had been to Yalta before and toured the Sevastopol area and it's museums and had a good time for a fraction of what we paid for the excursion.
Next was Nessebar Bulgaria where we walked the town that has 40 old churches and ruins. Nice shops and great restaurants. Eat another lite breakfast. They have great sea food here too. We ate at a restaurant on the right of town on the ocean (the food and service there was superb, the restaurant was up from the landing on the right up a little street after the first church ruins about 300 feet and was the first one on the right with the entry having vines around it and steps down to the restaurant. There are restaurants in town too but we wanted to eat with a view and had a great time. We were back on the boat by 1 PM as the stop is short and tendered. Our friends who didn't walk the town (recommended) took tours 30 some miles back into the country and couldn't believe the poverty and hopelessness of what they saw, some even enjoyed it. We don't do poverty so we enjoyed the town walk on the old cobblestones. There are a lot of retirees there from all over the world as the weather in Nessebar is very much like San Diego, cool and sunny.
Next we went to Ephesus where we took the best of… with lunch at a great hotel overlooking the city and ocean. We had a great guide and liked the tour that took in the ruins, Mary's house and downtown shopping where we bought a rug at 50% of the asking price. We thought we got a fair deal but almost missed the ship that sailed at 5 PM due to haggling with the merchant who wasn't going to let us leave without buying something. They are having a recession in Turkey so the prices are coming down and you can take advantage of that as we did. Our last nite on ship we said goodbye to all of our wonderful newly found friends, packed and got ready for Athens.
In Athens you can get to the airport in three ways: by HAL bus for $120 for two, cab for about $90 or shuttle bus or metro for about $5. We took a cab from the ship to the nearest metro station, about a mile and took the shuttle bus. There is a ticket booth out front of the metro station and the bus number E96 runs every 20 minutes or so. The cabbie said he would only charge us 5 Euros so we thought that was a good deal from the ship, he even loaded our bags into the bus! It's about one hour to the airport from the dock or metro station. The Athens metro would also be a alternative but you have to change trains at least once and we decided that was too much trouble. Cabs at the dock are more expensive so we got one on the street just in front of the ships landing (about 200 yards) just make sure you cross the road since the metro station is to the left of the harbor entrance and is shown on a map they will give you on the ship. This may have been our best cruise and European trip ever. After booking an outside room I called the travel agent 10 days before the trip and up graded to a balcony room for a good price. Then 7 days before I called again and upgraded to a suite on the 11th level also for a small price. Basically the ship was not full a week before so HAL was discounting cabins. Many of the people we met on the ship were upgraded for no charge and were very happy. We loved having a suite as it is like traveling first class on the airlines. Our room was over 600 sq ft. with a large balcony and access to the Neptune Lounge and its helpful attendant, Marson. We were also given free laundry, tender priority, shoe shine service and best of all a wonderful butler Bayou. Entertainment on the ship was very good with good singers and dancers. The individual acts were also very good although we did not take all of them in. Disembarkation was very smooth as well in Athens, but we hated to leave the ship and crew we had come to love along with our fellow passengers. We were at the airport an hour after we left the ship and on our way to Paris for 5 days, but that's another story. I am sorry cruise ships can't dock in Paris. If you have a European cruise be sure to stop in Paris for a couple days to enjoy the food and sights.