About the Ship - We traveled with Bill and Lisa (myself) both 45, Tyler, 15, and Kyle 14. We really enjoyed our cruise experience, and the crew worked very hard to see that every need was met and problem solved, especially the room stewards who everyone agreed were outstanding. I would say, however, that Celebrity is designed for morning people, not night owls. The dining options, the entertainment, etc, is heavy on the morning and mid-day, with fewer options in the evenings. I felt that the ship itself was very nice, and they did a great job refurbishing it during dry dock. The carpets all seemed brand new, the furniture was all fine, the bedding was nice, the beach towels were awesome, the bath towels were okay, not great. The grand foyer is definitely not grand, only a few stories, and no bar or music there. It is basically only the pursers and excursions desks. But who spends time hanging out there anyway? If you need Euros, they will exchange your money at the desk for 2.5%. If you're a soda drinker, you may want to skip the card, which bills you $5 per day, and opt for the ala carte price, which is only $1.50 per glass. My kids are dedicated soda drinkers and they probably only drank them once or twice all cruise, except at dinner, because it "wasn't convenient." If you opt for the card, buy it at the Cova Cafe. The pool bar also sells them but they run out of stickers quickly. They will give you a free thermal cup to use throughout the trip; however you cannot just take that to the bars to refill (which I saw some little kids trying to do.) You must have your room card. If you're still looking for a cabin, it doesn't matter tremendously which side of the ship you are on because most of the ports are industrial and there is no good view, but for the two tender ports, it would've been nice to be on the starboard side of the boat. The food in the Cosmopolitan is very good, but not fantastic. Selections were limited. There were five daily entrees plus five standards (steak, etc) that are available every night. The biggest star was dessert, of which there were always interesting choices. We did get lobster on the last formal night, it was okay, and of course the big baked Alaska event, which was fun. On the first few nights or on formal nights, when it is crowded, the wait staff does not have time to be chatty, but they are still great at what they do, and fun to get to know on the other, quieter nights. In the Waterfall, the drink machines are frequently out of order, with some nights all machines out of order except one. They served iced tea, lemonade and fruit punch. Ice machines are often empty. However, we really like the layout of the Waterfall. There is plenty of seating by the windows, and as a very cool touch there are glass circles on the floor where you can look down and see the water. The kids loved standing on those (okay, I did too.) When it is open, the food in the Waterfall Grille is plentiful, and pretty good. Lots of interesting choices. We all raved about the pizza and the fries at the poolside grille. The problem is that food is not available whenever you want it. Breakfast is until 1130, with lunch starting at 12. There is no real "dinner" in the Waterfall. Once lunch is over at 2:30, you can have sushi from 5-9 and pizza or pasta until 11pm. After that you rely on room service (which is free.) The room service menu is plentiful with sandwiches, burgers, fries, pizzas, quesadillas and desserts. The internet is horribly slow in the evening when many people are trying to get on. One night we spent $5 and 9 minutes waiting for Facebook to load before we just shut it down. The next day at 2pm there were only one or two people in the cafe and we were online in just a minute. The TV choices are terrible. There are only a handful of channels and they just rotate the same pre-determined shows. The only real network on and in English is CNN. 1/3 of the channels are ships channels. My biggest complaint is the hairdryer. The hairdryer is a very strange tube, like the old kind that came with a hat, only no hat. It also got so hot in my hand that after a few minutes I had to wrap a washcloth around the handle to hold it. I must confess we didn't see much of the entertainment; however, I was excited about the Broadway show on the first formal night. After tunes from Gypsy, the Producers, and Modern Millie, I was getting a little bored because they weren't really shows I was that familiar with, when Tyler announced that someone behind him had become ill. After that we all left. We gave high marks to all the music on board. The band that played at the pool, and the one in the Rendezvous lounge were outstanding, as was the string ensemble. The dance club Revolution sounded really fun but we didn't have much time to hang out in there. You may have heard people talking about White Night. We never saw anything about it, however there was a Mediterranean night by the pool in which a lot of people wore some white, including the band. The casino was nice, the photographer did a great job, and the dessert night where they bring up all the fancy desserts and the ice sculpture to the dance club was really outstanding. It was so fun to watch people dancing to the old disco music while enjoying three kinds of crème brulee, cheesecakes, among other wonderful confections.
Our Adventure begins...Layover in Dublin - With an 8-hour layover in Dublin (we give kudos to Aer Lingus, by the way) we first make sure our ATM card works in Europe by getting out our first Euros from the airport, then took the opportunity to grab a taxi and head downtown to see the sites. Our cabbie was quite chatty, telling us all about the differences between soccer and futball, and how they all want to know why we call our American Football "football" when you only kick it two times per game. Hmmm. When asked what they think of Barack Obama, he says Ireland is trying to claim him as one of theirs, since apparently his mother has Irish roots. Interesting. So after a 20 minute ride we arrive at Dublin Castle, in what is know as "South of the Liffey (River)" in downtown Dublin. There is not much to see inside, so we walk around the outside and into the courtyard and take some photos. It looks like what you would expect, with tall doors (so people could ride in on horseback - who knew?) A turret, some statues, etc. It wasn't that big, and not well respected by the Irish as it was built by the British when they ruled over the country. Still for a couple of tourists from Kentucky it was pretty fun to see a real castle! By now it was about 1130, but none of the Irish pubs were open until noon, so we walked over to Trinity College to look around there. It is the largest and oldest university in Ireland, and has a real Ivy League look to it. We enjoyed walking around there and reading a little bit about the history. Finally noon arrived so we walked a few blocks over to the Temple Bar area (a few long streets with many restaurants and bars, including Hard Rock Cafe.) We found a place that looked fun and served fish and chips and shepherds pie...real Irish food. They also had a little band that played Celtic music while you ate. We sat at this big beer barrel table and had a great time chatting with the people in there. After lunch we still had an hour or so to kill, so we walked back to Christ's Church, which was back by the castle. It is one of the oldest churches in Dublin, and had some impressive stained glass windows, old doors, and stonework. Finally we hopped in a cab back to the airport where we were regaled with our driver's stories about ignorant tourists who think leprechauns are real and that Irishmen go around saying "Top o' the morning to ya" all the time. Too funny! We all agreed that we enjoyed the people of Ireland and would like to see more of the country someday.
Days One and Two - Venice - I was prepared to not like Venice, as I heard it was falling into disrepair, covered with pigeons, and being swallowed back into the sea. All I can say is We're in Love with Venice! All four of us loved this city. We are water people, we love to ride on the water, sit by the water, look at the water, and Venice certainly delivers that. The Venice port is very industrial and hard to navigate. You feel like you are going to be mowed down by a truck, taxi or scooter as you make your way either to Celebrity's water shuttle ($20 US for a 24 hour pass, but it only gets you to St Marks and back to the ship) or to one of the two nearby vaporettos. When I say nearby, they are not really all that close. For either one you have to walk to the entrance of the port. For Trachetti you then go left, across the bridge, and you will come to a large parking garage (from here, follow the signs with the boat on them.) Turn left down a narrow sidewalk towards the port. When it opens up, turn right and go into the building to buy your tickets (vaporetto desk is on the left.) Buy a 24 hour ticket for $18e, you will use it! If you have a 24 hour pass you don't have to validate (they are small tickets that look like movie tickets.) For shorter rides you get a white card, for which you will have to validate the first time in the yellow box, they wave in front of the white box before each ride. I can tell you that no one ever checked our tickets in two days, but you are supposed to do it in case they ask. If you opt to go to the Piazzale Roma stop, at the port entrance go up the hill (slight right) to the road and turn right. (You are up on a bridge.) Keep going down the road past the police station, and then turn left when you see a bunch of motorcycles parked down the hill. Piazzale Roma is down there.
The best way to start your adventure is to just get on one that is headed up the Grand Canal. That way you'll get the hang of all the different stops, which way the boats travel, etc. Note that each stop has two platforms. The one on the right is traveling to the left and vice versa. Try to get a seat up front. The ride up the Grand Canal is magical. Ride all the way to St. Marks before you get off. Most of your time will be spent at St Marks or Rialto. We loved St Marks and there were not that many pigeons, they certainly didn't bother us. We took lots of photos, and then rode to the top of the Campanile for $8e each. It was worth it for the beautiful city views. We spent some time trying to find the bridge of sighs, before finally spotting it from the vaporetto on the second day. We walked back into some of the streets behind St Marks, passing many designer shops along the way, and crossing some of the smaller canals. We then walked along the Grand Canal and purchased a print from one of the many craft and souvenir booths on the water. This was a fun part of the day. There are also ATMs located here. We then rode back down to the Rialto stop, which we loved more than St Marks. They have many shops here with jewelry, glass, local crafts and souvenirs. Also next to the Rialto Bridge are waterside restaurants. We sit down at one and enjoy some wonderful pizza and calzones (not on the dinner menu, but they served us from the lunch menu if asked) ravioli, and squid (okay, I didn't try the squid, but the kids did.) With two cokes, one sparkling water and one still water (you could share the water, we didn't know) and the bill was $91e before tip. I think it said tip was included, but we tipped anyway. It was well worth the splurge for the gorgeous views of gondolas going by as we dined. We finished the first day by riding around in circles on the vaporetto, enjoying the many beautiful views. The second day was morning only, as we had to be back on board at 1:30. Bill and Tyler shopped for cheap souvenirs at Piazzale Roma, while Kyle and I took one last vaporetto ride. It wasn't the magic of the first day, but it was fun anyway. We opted against the gondola ride, which would've been over $100, but we didn't miss it.
Day Three - Dubrovnik - The ship wasn't due in port until 9, so we slept until 8. We headed up to the Waterfall Cafe at 9 for the breakfast buffet, which was by now packed with people wanting an early start of it. The weather forecast was 88f and sunny, and everyone knew it would be even hotter up on the wall. For breakfast they had quite a buffet including eggs, every kind of meat, oatmeal, fruit, six kinds of dry cereal, along with a make your own omelet stand. I had an omelet and toast, Bill and the boys filled up on scrambled eggs, toast and bacon. They had skim milk in the fountain and whole milk in little cartons. They also had four different kinds of juices. I have yet to find the famous waffle stand.
We went to the desk to exchange money for the day and they said they didn't carry any kunas because every place took Euros. They also said that we would need a photo ID with our sail card for this port. We actually docked at the port (not tendered) and the port is right next to the main street (we were in a gated area.) Now it is about 1030. We noticed some taxis and tour buses next to the ship, but since we were visiting Dubrovnik on our own we decided to walk on and look for the bus station. We kept walking next to the water for a bit until we came to a building on the left which was customs. We went in there and a very official lady said we could not go through unless we had a photo id for each of us. Bill showed his drivers license and Tyler his high school ID card, but Kyle had left his wallet on the boat. She was very upset about that, but finally let us through with a warning. Though she owed us no favors we asked her about which bus to catch to go to Old Town and she said either the 1A or 1B. We noticed several public buses going by and finally boarded 1A. The bus driver said it was 1.5 euro each, which we thought was very reasonable. The ride over to Old Town was only about ten minutes, which was good since we had to stand. The route runs near the water and at one point opens up for a magnificent view of the sea, straight down!
At Old Town we hop out and I am immediately impressed. To my right is a little park with a beautiful fountain, trees, and a view of the sea. To my left is what reminds me of a giant sand castle, with the imposing wall in front of me with a giant entryway. The whole area around there is planted with beautiful shrubs and palm trees. We go inside to buy the tickets so we can get around the wall before it gets too hot. Adults are 50 Kuna and children under 18 are 20 Kuna. I believe that was around 17 euro. We decided against the audio tour as it might take too long in the heat. This is a pretty strenuous climb for anyone with any hip or knee issues. The first steps take you straight up to the top of the wall. The other problem is how smooth and slippery the stones are from all the years of foot traffic. I wore flip flops and slid forward several times. And of course it is very hot up there in the summer, and the walls keep any breeze from blowing over. The nice thing is that there are four or five places along the four walls where you can abandon the walk and go back down if it gets to be too much.
Once were up there, we had some gorgeous views of the bay and many photo opportunities. There was a lagoon on one side where people were renting canoes and kayaks, and you can also see the famous Buza bar straight down one wall. Looking down inside the walled town you notice that there are still folks living in those buildings, as you see laundry hanging out, and private balconies. You also notice the bright orange of some rooftops that had to be replaced after the recent bombings. Once we finished walking the wall we decided to go down and see what else was inside the walls. It seemed a little disorganized with a mix of private residences, sidewalk cafes, gelato shops and street vendors, but I suppose they are still trying to figure out what to do in there. Bullet holes on some of the walls are a reminder of what took place there not that long ago.
About now it is noon, and we decide to check out the Buza bar. By now it is scorching hot, and since the first one we come to has rails we decided that was good enough. We have two "still" waters and two cokes, which come in tiny little bottles, for 16 euro. Tyler has worn his swimming trunks as he is determined to get in the water. He and I walk the stone steps to the sea, which is beautiful and clear, but freezing cold. Some college students are cliff jumping, which I think was making Tyler a little nervous. Nonetheless, he takes off his shoes and plunges in, proclaiming it "fine," but getting back out pretty much immediately. I put my feet in as well, and find it darn cold, but also refreshing after being so hot up on the wall.
At about 1pm we decide we'd had enough, so we grabbed some gelato on the way out ($1e each cone) passing many tables with locally made lace tablecloths and runners, and went back to the bus stop at the Old Town (Pile) gate. We boarded the 1A bus where we were promptly told that they did not take Euros! We said we'd paid Euros to get there and he said none of the buses took Euros. We finally decided it wasn't worth the hassle of changing money, so we grabbed a taxi back for the set price of $10e. It wasn't much difference from the $6e for the bus, and the taxi took us to the door of the ship instead of our walking through customs, which seemed like a good deal all things considered. We thought it a nice touch that Celebrity had ice water and cold towels waiting for us outside the ships doors.
The heat took its toll, so Bill and Kyle went back to take a nap in the air conditioning while Tyler and I headed to Cards to play Yahtzee. We also managed to squeeze in a Wiii golf tournament (Tyler came in 2nd) before getting Bill up for sail away. We took some wonderful photos and videos of the ship leaving Dubrovnik. Since we hadn't had lunch, we popped into the Waterfall Cafe for a snack. I had 4-cheese and pepperoni pizza, while Bill and Tyler tried some of the sushi. They had a pasta bar with several types of pasta and sauces to choose from, and also mushroom stuffed ravioli. They also had a stir fry area with about 30 different ingredients. Tonight was formal night so we all got into our fancy clothes and spent some time in the different clubs before dinner. Tom, the piano player in Michael's club, was doing a medley of Sinatra songs, which Bill really enjoyed. Next, off to Rendezvous lounge where the band played a great mix of songs.
Athens - Determined to avoid the heat and crowds so often mentioned regarding Athens, we were up at 6:30 and off the ship by 8am. By the way, we did finally find the waffles on 10 in the very back of the ship. The waffles were good, but the pancakes and French toast were not the best.
Piraeus (pronounce peer-a-us) is an industrial port with not much to see. The town and port are not very clean and covered with graffiti. The train station was probably exactly across the bay from where our ship docked. The port provides a free shuttle from the ship to the customs and immigration building (about halfway around, then you have to walk the rest of the way, or take the dreaded taxi.) We just walked through the building (follow the "to the city" signs,) we didn't need to check in with anyone. We turned left out of the building and kept walking until we could get up onto the street. We then followed the street next to the port all the way around until we hit a dead end (a port entry.) We looked right and saw a big yellow building and realized we went one block too far, but no worries, we cut through a parking lot, across a bridge that went across a busy street, and went in. It had been about a 30 minute walk. Not knowing whether we would be going back and forth from the green line to the red line, we opted for the 24 hour ticket at $3e each. Inside the station there were two trains sitting there, one with a Greek word in red, and number 20, the other a Greek word in black and number 19. This was confusing as we knew we needed the green line #1. After asking a guard and checking the station map, we discovered the town at the end of the green line was on the train on the left (black, and I'm sure the final town started with a "k" but I can't remember it.) We hopped on and had an easy ride to Thissio. In hindsight, it was so easy to get on and off at Thissio that we could've just bought the round trip ticket for that stop. I was surprised that the former Olympic venue had so much graffiti (we called it Greekiti) all the way to Thissio.
We arrived at Thissio in about 15 minutes, exited the station and saw what looked like a big gated park in front of us (the agora.) Grab a water bottle at the stand there for only half a euro. Go around the left side of the park and up a quaint little street with sidewalk cafes until you come to the entrance. Buy a ticket to the Acropolis which will cover the Acropolis and the Agora. Tickets were $12e each adult, and free for the children (even teens.) With the coming heat in mind, we headed for the Acropolis first. All I can say about walking through the Agora is WOW. All around you are remnants of beautiful old buildings, pillars and columns, and that isn't even the Acropolis. We just kept saying, I can't believe I'm in Athens! It is quite a steep walk up the hill to the Acropolis, but there are trees and shade in some places. At the top I was overwhelmed by the buildings that are largely still intact. The Parthenon is of course the most impressive, but we still marveled at the beauty and workmanship of all of them. At the top you will have beautiful views of Athens, the temple of the Olympian Zeus and Hadrian's Arch. You don't need to go down there to see them. After taking tons of pictures and videos we headed back down to the Agora. It helps to have a guide book (I used top ten in Athens) to explain the different items in the Agora. It is definitely worth a stop at the Agora museum where they have so many statues sitting outside that were recovered from the site. You can go inside the museum for free.
After leaving the Agora, we stopped at one of the cafes on the way to the station and had lunch. We bought an order of meatballs and spaghetti, a pork pita, and swordfish, plus two cokes, a milkshake, and a 1.2 liter of water. The total bill was $45e with tip already included. The food was all very tasty and worth trying the local specialties. Look to your right through one of the little restaurants and see right behind there is an active dig site. About ten archeologists were working, some uncovering an ancient stone wall. It was so interesting to see them in action. Afterwards, it was an easy ride back from Thissio, though the walk along the port was now getting hot as it was noon. We didn't go to the Plaka, but felt that we saw everything we really wanted to see and then some.
Santorini - We got to sleep in a little later (9am) since we didn't have any big plans in Santorini. It's really the kind of place where you just enjoy the views and shopping anyway, and although we had an "at-sea" day the day before, I thought we needed to rest up for the crazy week ahead. The ship docks in the center of an old volcano, and it's really cool to see the old walls of it more than half way around. After having breakfast on the ship we got on the tender and headed to the base of the hill (Skala.) Instead of riding the donkeys up, we opted to take the cable car which gave us a great view going up the side of the hill (only $4e per person each way.) When we got to the top we could look out over the hill and see an amazing view of the sea, and around the city of Thira with its whitewashed buildings (hotels, restaurants and shops, mostly, with one church) all perched along the top of the cliffs. We originally had plans to visit Oia (pronounced Wee-Ah) which you could get to by taking a bus to the other side of the island, but we got lost in the maze of little streets and never found the bus station. It was a lot of fun going into the shops though, so we didn't mind just hanging around Thira for the day. Even though it was a hot day (high 80s,) there were awnings completely covering the little alleys so we felt pretty comfortable. Bill found a lot of little souvenirs there, I bought some Ouzo (Greek wine) and the boys got a laugh at some of the risquE European humor found on the t-shirts and souvenirs. They certainly get away with a lot more here than at home! Also, I noted that they were selling lots of rip-off designer bags, especially Gucci. I did not buy one here but I can't guarantee I wouldn't. So if you see me with one when I get home, you can ask me and I will confess. : ) So after shopping awhile we stopped at the Kapoe Bar and had soft drinks and milkshakes for only $16e, not too bad. Around 5pm we were bored so went back down the cable car to the tenders. After talking to some people on the boat who took fun ATV tours and catamaran rides, and others who said Oia was the most beautiful place they'd ever seen, we thought we probably missed out somewhat, however with the crazy itinerary we've had it was nice to just hang out for a change.
Naples / Capri - What a glorious day! The high was only about 78, and Bill had heard that Italy was experiencing a cold spell for this time of year. Wonderful for us because it had been so blazing hot in Greece. Naples is the type of port where you can go in many different directions. Some cruisers were going to Naples, some to Sorrento, some to Pompeii, and others to Positano. However we had always known that we wanted to spend the day in Capri. The kids wanted to do the Blue Grotto tour, which is where you take a boat ride to a little cave and ride a little canoe inside to see the blue water reflecting on the cave walls. Bill and I wanted to ride the chairlift up to Mount Solaro at AnaCapri (at the top of Capri.) We got up early, had breakfast and headed to the Hydrofoil station. We had never heard of a hydrofoil, and assumed it might be like a vaporetto in Venice. WRONG! A hydrofoil is a HUGE boat, more like a small jet plane. The seats inside are on two levels, and they are like airplane seats, going four, six and four across. The thing really cooks across the water going out to Capri, and we got serious airtime on those waves. Several people had to be handed seasick bags, as it was too much for them being stuck on there for 45 minutes. I loved it, but then I love roller coasters. Bill said he did okay, which is surprising since he hates coasters and takes Dramamine before flights. I don't know how, but the boys slept all the way over. That's just as well because a lady got sick next to him and we didn't want him getting flashbacks to the show from last week. : ) We got to Capri around 10am and found that the water was too rough for the Blue Grotto tour, so we decided to do the chairlift first. We got on a bus up to Anacapri (only $1.40e each) but they only come once an hour. So we had to wait 50 minutes for the bus to pick us up at the Marina. The bus ride was so picturesque with all the views down around every corner. It's a very small island, and the roads are extremely narrow. Two buses can only pass if there's a driveway to pull into. Most everyone takes a motorcycle or a smart car (glorified golf carts, if you ask me) or else walks. Once we got to the top we were at a shopping plaza, which reminded me of Longboat Key in Florida (a little circle in the middle with upscale shops all around.)
After getting our tickets (round trip for $8e each) we hopped on the chairlift that takes you up to the top of Mount Solaro. I heard that you can walk down, but it takes an hour and you miss such a great view. I can't believe people do that! That was such a fun ride, exactly like a ski lift except it's a one-man chair. It's so peaceful riding up there looking at everything. We went over lots of grape vines and orange and kiwi trees going up, and also some crazy gypsy lady's farm who collected all manner of weird objects and had them strewn all over her yard. At the top was a little park where you could see all sides of the island. We were able to take some great photos and videos from here. They also had a little gelato shop, and while we were cultivating a newfound love of the stuff, we knew we would be eating lunch soon. : ( So back down the chairlift, where we found a great little restaurant for lunch. Tyler and Bill got pizza because we heard that pizza was invented in Naples. I got a ham and cheese Panini, and of course, Kyle went for the burger and fries. Sigh. We all tried each others food and it was so awesome. The pizza here is made with a very thin crust that is foldable. As Bill said, here the crust is the star. At home it's the cheese. This restaurant was also an internet cafe and we were able to hop on their computer, after a very nice Italian lady showed us that you go to the @ sign by holding in CTR ALT and 2. That gave Kyle a chance to hop on Facebook, since he has been feeling homesick for his friends. After lunch we shopped a bit then went back down to the Marina to find that the Blue Grotto tour still wasn't running. We were going to just take a boat ride around the island, but it just didn't work out well with our timing to get back to the cruise ship. So Tyler and I did a little wading in the water at the beach (giant smooth rocks, no sand) before we got back on the hydrofoil to go back. This time we rode out on the back in the open air. And while my hair braided itself into knots, it was worth it for the view of Sorrento and Mount Vesuvius as we raced by. Did I mention the hydrofoil was expensive? 12e per person each way. But that's okay, because I got to spend the day at Capri, which I had only seen in People magazine (tee hee.)
Rome - Wow, the city I've always dreamed of and I'm finally here! It was going to be another gorgeous day, only 74 degrees. We thought we were being so good being up at 645am, but after getting ready and grabbing breakfast we still didn't get downstairs until 815. The ship had a free shuttle waiting to take us to the port entrance. We hopped off the bus, took a right and walked down the street about 8 minutes to the train station (we were docked in the town of Civitavecchia, pronounced Cha Velia.) After buying 24 hour passes, we had to stand on one of those outdoor platforms to wait for the train. Luckily it was rush hour and they came every 30 minutes, so we didn't wait long. The ride into Rome took about an hour and a half, but at least we could sit and look out the window. The boys slept the whole way because they had been out late playing basketball on deck the night before. I spent the ride guarding the backpack because of all the stories I'd heard about pickpockets. I had also mastered the money belt, so I felt reasonably safe. The view going in was not at all scenic, as half of it was dusty, weedy farmland, and the rest of it was nasty looking buildings nearly covered in graffiti. What is it with these people and graffiti? It is NOT that bad at home. And it is in every language too. Hmmm. So we get to the main station Roma Termini around 1100, and have to find the local metro trains, as we have been traveling on a regional one. It feels much like an airport in there, and we follow the metro signs til we get to the blue line. We hope on and go two stops to the Colloseo station. As soon as we stepped out the Coliseum is looming right in front of us. It is hard to take in that we are standing right there, and as we looked for a crosswalk to go over, we looked next to it and there is a HUGE arch (Arch of Constantine) to the right, and then further right all these other ruins are standing there, it is just amazing. We decide to start from the right, which is the Forum, and working our way left. That turns out to be the right choice, as we see later that the line to get at the Coliseum gate is at least an hour wait. I had a guidebook with me to help navigate the Forum, but it was so hard to figure everything out. There is just so much to see. There are about 30 old buildings, arches, pillars, temples, etc in there and there is hardly any method to where things were placed. There are also pieces of columns and statues that are just lying around where they were dug up. This is still a dig site, as people had areas roped off where they were still uncovering stuff. It was so cool to see that each Caesar basically had to outdo the one before with mightier columns and bigger statues. They must have had an abundant supply of marble, as they used it for just about everything, including the floors and steps. It is really a sight to see. My favorites are the arches, which are still in great shape with intricate carvings all over them. But some of those four story pillars are pretty grand, too. I also enjoyed something that was quite simple, basically a stage on which the Caesars would stand and give their speeches to the people. About halfway through Kyle's OCD kicks in and he starts asking me when we are going to be ready to go. What? I am treading the path of Julius Caesar here! Tyler at least seems interested, taking lots of photos and reading the signs. Bill enjoyed it the most, as it was hard to keep him moving along so we could see the rest of Roma. Right behind the forum was Palatine Hill, which was basically a row of what had been ancient mansions where the rich people built their houses so they could look down on the masses. It was interesting, but just can't compare to what is down in the Forum. Then finally we get to the Coliseum, which is about the size of our US Bank arena (used to be the "coliseum" in Cincinnati,) and built around 67 AD. It could hold 50,000 people, however all the seats are now gone. The supports and steps are all rock and brick, but the seats and main floor had been wood. Under the floor was so interesting as it is a maze of little "cells" and pathways down there. They used to keep all the animals and props down there until it was time for the fights. They even flooded it sometimes for sea battles. It's amazing they could've done all that back then. We took a bunch of pictures, but I think the boys were a little sick of ruins by then and wanted to move on. Our next stop was the Pantheon, which took about 20 minutes to walk to. We almost didn't go because of time, but we decided to anyway and we were so glad we did. The Pantheon is just an absolutely gorgeous, amazing building that was not damaged by earthquakes or WWII which did so much damage to other historical sites. The details on the walls, ceiling, trims, and even the floors, plus the statues and frescoes are just incredible. I love that it has a hole built into the ceiling for when they used to have burnt offerings in there. Of course rain comes in, but the floor is sloped away so the rain runs off. There are two Italian kings buried in there, along with the painter Raphael. Now it is about 2pm and we still haven't had lunch. Kyle wanted McDonalds and the rest of us wanted to grab pizza to go, however I could not find an ATM and all the fast food places wanted cash. The first two gave me a message that they were out of service, the third was just unplugged. Finally the fourth one worked, thank you Banco Sicilia! We grabbed a bite in Burger King, OMG yes Mickey Ds and the King reign over here as well! I guess I can't complain as lunch only cost $24e. After that we walked another 15 minutes to the Trevi Fountain, which was definitely an impressive site, but I wasn't prepared that it was squished in between four buildings. I thought it was on a big square. Nonetheless, we all threw in our coins to insure we would come back to Rome in the future. I think it would've been even more amazing after dark when it was all lit up, but hey, I'm doing the whistle stop tour, right? After that we head to the Spanish steps, which we all agreed was a little disappointing after all the amazing sites we had seen today. Because we were able to pick up the pace a little, we decided to be renegades and walk to the San Pietro (Saint Peter's) train station by cutting through the Vatican Square, instead of going to the main station. This would cut our time a little closer (we had to be back on the ship by 6:45) but we really wanted to see it. After another 15 minutes of walking and a few wrong turns, and we ended up in Vatican square. Wow, another absolutely amazing site! St Peter's domed cathedral is covered in gold, and statues of Peter and Paul stand out in front. There is a circular wall all around you that has I think 130 statues of saints up on top. There are also the papal apartments (I saw floor to ceiling windows on the penthouse) and the Vatican museum. We wished we had time to go in and see the Sistine Chapel, but we were just out of time. We take a few photos and videos and head out the other side towards the train station. It's about two blocks, and when we finally found it the next train was picking us up at 505pm, arriving back in port at 6pm. Unfortunately it was rush hour, so we had to stand squashed against the doors almost all the way back. An old Italian gentleman was getting comfortable almost laying on Kyle, and between that and the jokes about the heat and the pickpockets we were laughing so hard we were crying, except there was no room to lift your arms to wipe your eyes. We never laughed so hard this whole trip. Fortunately that kept Kyle from worrying about being late and having to take the train to Florence to meet up with the ship the next day. We arrived back at the station at 6, walked back to the port and caught the ship's shuttle and were back on board by 6:30. Cutting it mighty close, but worth it for a glorious day in Bella Roma!
Florence - Florence, ahhh, a beautiful, beautiful city. Much more thoughtful, artsy, grand city than Rome. We got up and caught a taxi next to the ship, and for $20e we were at the train station in 20 minutes. We caught the 9:11 train and went all the way to the Santa Maria Novella station (the end of the line) in Florence, arriving around 1030. The beginning of the ride was pretty industrial, but after Pisa, the view of the Tuscan countryside was very picturesque, with all the farms and the little towns on the hill. We exited the station and headed to the Accademia as we had an 1145 reservation. On the way we passed some wonderful little shops where we bought some jewelry and scarves. We were SO glad we had reservations at the Accademia as the lines were endless to get in. The museum itself is small, with the glorious statue of David as the star. It was worth the $12e each just to see that amazing statue. Interesting that the David is slightly out of proportion, as Michelangelo originally meant for the statue to be placed on top of a building to be viewed from below. There were three or four other pieces that we wanted to see, then within an hour we were on our way. We dropped down to the center of town to see the Santa Croce, and got great photos of the Duomo, the Campanile, and the Baptistry building, with its wonderful brass doors. We were surprised that it was a bit grimy, but still impressive with its pink and green façade. Afterwards, we walked on towards the square with all the outdoor statues outside of the Uffizi, including the "fake" David. There are a few outdoor cafes there on the square, so we stop for lunch, enjoying some wonderful calzones, French fries, water and cokes for $90e including tip. It was worth it for the great Italian food and beautiful views of the square. A visit to the restaurant bathroom gave me a shock when I came out of the stall to see a man and his son washing their hands. Apparently this bathroom was co-ed! Other female visitors were a little wary about this, asking me to stay in with them until they were done. Pressing on, we are now only a block from the Arno River, where we take several photos of the Ponte Vecchio. After a stop for gelato, we cross the bridge to find that all the shops are selling jewelry. Since we aren't in the market for any, we enjoy a stroll on the other side of the river before crossing another bridge and heading towards the train station. We board the 4:27 train and make it back to the Livorno station by 6. No problem grabbing a taxi for $20e and easily making the ship by 6:20.
Nice/Monte Carlo - The ship actually docked in the beautiful small town of Villefranche. It was only one of two ports (with Santorini) where we were tendered, but also where we had a beautiful view right from the port. (The other ports were very industrial.) From this stop we could choose between Nice, Eze, Monte Carlo and Cannes. We opted for Monte Carlo in the morning and Nice in the afternoon, for lunch and swimming. After sleeping in, we got on a tender at 10 and it was an easy walk to the right and up the stairs to the train station. We paid $2.50e each to go one way to Monte Carlo. It was about a 20 minute train ride to get there. The train station at Monte Carlo is huge, and under the city, and it takes forever to get to one of the exits. We made the mistake (the first of many this day) of exiting DOWNHILL instead of UPHILL. It is best to start your tour of the city at the top and wind your way down to the Casino and then down to the water, then up the other mountain to the palace. As it was, we exited by the water, so we had to go left up the hill to the casino, getting all turned around thinking the palace was further up the hill. So we backtracked down toward the water again, then up the other side. Although it was a much longer hike, we did get many beautiful photos, as everything there is so clean and grand, with yachts, country clubs, of course the grand casino, 5 star hotels, and designer shopping at every turn. We were lucky to escape a storm that seemed to pass beside us; however it did make the day a little overcast. The casino was so beautiful with a gorgeous manicured park and mirrored ball statue out in front. The Belmont Hotel looked like a palace itself, stretching out for an entire block. Almost every street had a view of the sea. We went back down to the sea and around rows of yachts in the harbor, passing the spectator stands for the Monaco Grand Prix and the upcoming Tour d France. We followed the steps up the other side to reach the courtyard of the Palace, too late to see the noon changing of the guard (it was 1230) but it was interesting to see the one guard going in and out of the guardhouse with three others passing in front. The palace itself was not that big, but interesting, with an old section and a new section. The Grimaldi family has been ruling Monaco since the 1200s. Off the same courtyard you can see the Oceanography museum, and around the corner the Cathedral, with its curved stone staircases coming down in front. Admission to the cathedral is free, with no posted dress code, and Princess Grace and her husband and several of his ancestors are buried behind the alter. It is a somber experience to walk past and note the flowers on her grave and his. After visiting the cathedral we took several photos, as there are several scenic views from this area. We backtracked down the steps and took a short cut left to get to a quicker entrance to the train station (GARE.) After missing the entrance several times, we finally found it and went to buy our tickets for the 1:20 train at the ticket machine. After several tries it wouldn't take our credit cards or paper money (only coins.) So we went to the ticket desk ALL the way across the station, and the computers were down. So we missed our train, and the next one wouldn't be coming for an hour. We didn't know what to do, so we inquired about a bus, which we were told comes every 15 minutes but takes 50 minutes to get to Nice. So we opted to stay and get our tickets. Once the computers were back up, Bill waited in line behind six or seven people who all wanted tourism advice in addition to tickets, so he was stuck in line about 25 minutes. In the meantime, the board showed that our train was now running 40 minutes delayed. So now figuring we had time for lunch, we stepped out of the station to find no restaurants, but a pastry shop where we got brownies and soft drinks. Back into the station where the train did come at 2:25. We arrived in Nice a little before 3. The train station is several blocks from the beach. The first several blocks were a little seedy, but once we were within four blocks of the beach the area was nicer, and there were many little shops and outdoor cafes and bars. The beachfront itself is gorgeous. It is along a stretch called the Anglais Promenade, which is a concrete walkway going along the beach. The water there is the most amazing blue, and the beach is a long stretch of light brown sand. There are several places where you can rent lounge chairs. This would be a fantastic place to come with kids, and we were looking forward to enjoying it once we found a place to eat. After backtracking to the area we just came from, we found a sidewalk cafe called the Bistro, where we had some French dishes that we couldn't pronounce and weren't too crazy about. Unfortunately, by the time we finished eating it was 5:45. Just enough time to go back to the beach for one last look and some photos, then into the taxi for the 20 minutes drive back to Villefrance. The train problem really screwed up my beach time, but overall we still had a great day. I would definitely recommend Nice to anyone traveling with kids.
Barcelona - I basically wrote off the day as a time to relax and not rush around trying to see a million things, which is probably why we really enjoyed it. We were one of the last groups that would be called to disembark, so we slept until 7am and took our time at our last big breakfast buffet onboard. I must say I was really going to miss those waffles! We got off the ship without a hitch, and joined the queue for taxis outside. We had heard that they were not metered in Barcelona, but ours was, and 15 minutes and $20e later we were at our hotel, the Prestige Congress. Words can't even describe how oddly modern this place is. Bill said he was looking for the IV pole, because our room looked like a hospital room. Everything was stainless steel and extremely cold and minimalistic. We did, however, have a rockin Bang & Olufsen electronics system, although in 24 hours none of us could figure out how to use it. The lights kept dimming on a timer, it took an hour (and two scary trips) into the WC to learn how to switch on the bathroom light, and there was no wall, only a set of blinds that dropped between the bedroom and bathroom when you pushed a button. They also had free wifi and free minibar. Odd, that's just the best description. Fortunately we arrived at 930am and they let us check right in. So after resting a bit, we hopped on a nearby train and headed into town. We had a little trouble with their trains, because there were so many lines and we had to keep hopping off gray onto red, then from red to orange, etc. And you had to buy your tickets from machines (those dreaded machines again!) But at least this one would take my 5-3 debit card (although not our other credit cards.) Can't wait to see my fee per transaction this month! The first place we wanted to go was the beach. Tyler and I have been trying to get into the water for two weeks and today was finally going to be the day. After several transfers we arrive at the Barceleneta station. There were no "to the beach" signs, so we turned left, and finally figured out we could follow the people with beach towels. The path took us down a wonderful street, with a wide sidewalk and rows of outdoor cafes serving lunch, desserts and drinks on our left. To our right was Port Vell, which was a small harbor for smaller, personal boats. We had heard that this whole area had been revamped for the 1992 Olympics, and we could really see they had made an effort to make it nice for tourists. At the end of the street was the beach, which was so clean, and the sand and rocks were beautiful, having been shipped in especially to make this beach. They had a few bars where you could sit and have a drink, and also several fresh water showers. It was a Saturday though, and this place was packed! We picked our way through the throngs to get close to the water. I don't know who noticed first, I think one of the boys. I heard, "OMG" and looked up but I had already realized what it meant. This beach was topless. Okay, topless was optional. 99 out of a hundred opted for a top, thank goodness, but here we were already getting in the water. Bill and Kyle decided they didn't want to be salty all day, so they went off to collect rocks and shells, and probably get Kyle away from the situation. He is our modest one. Tyler and I got in the water and just played cool. To be honest, we stayed in the same place where there was the same two 20-somethings, two 40 somethings and two 60-somethings (Oy vey!) So it wasn't like a parade. Still, it was different! The water was freezing and took awhile to get used to it. Also, there were some pretty big boulders we kept tripping over. So after an hour we decided we were done. After we met up with Bill and Kyle, we backtracked up the beach to leave, with Bill in the lead. He took us too far, but we figured it would loop around and put us back on the street. This was an interesting area too, as we got to pass both the gym and the pool used for the Olympics. They had a cool statue out front to commemorate the occasion. As we're oohing and aahing over this, I turn back to notice there is a man and his son (about 9) crossing the sidewalk, both buck naked! A quick glance left to the beach and we all realized this part of the beach was for nudists. And the worst part is, the path we're on is now a dead end, so we have to backtrack through the section again. I wasn't even trying to be cool now, with my hand shielding my eyes on the right side. Europeans are something else! : ) So after a stop for gelato and a laugh about our beach experience, we hop in the train up to La Sagrada Familia, the most famous building in Barcelona. It was designed over a hundred years ago by Gaudi, and can best be described as a drippy sand castle. It does have some amazing things sculpted into its sides, biblical scenes, etc. It is truly a work of art. However, if you don't go inside it only takes about 15 minutes to see it, with another ten to enjoy the lovely park across the street with a running stream and fountain. Now we're off to enjoy Las Ramblas, which is the main street running up the center of Old Town. It is a very wide street with a median up the middle, and it is filled with locals, tourists, gypsies doing sleight of hand tricks, people dressed in freakish costumes with gold and silver faces, people selling birds or playing music...it's just a sight to behold. The street is lined with shops of every kind, souvenirs, clothing, jewelry, restaurants, bars, etc. After a crazy two weeks, we opted for our old favorite, Hard Rock Cafe! Since we didn't have to rush back, we were able to hang out and enjoy ourselves before we took the train back to the hotel. This vacation was the biggest adventure of our lives. So much fun learning the languages, meeting the people, and experiencing new foods, drinks and places. We all agreed that we have a newfound appreciation for people across the world who have their own wonderful cultures, and that we would have more empathy for people trying to communicate with us who don't know English!