This is a revised version of my "Live From the Ruby Princess." Accordingly, some of it is written in the present tense, as it was just happening. Before each cruise, I always learn so much from folks here on Cruise Critic. This time, however, I have to point out a particular member. If you are planning a trip that includes Italy, and plan to use the trains, you must search for GPSLover and read his or her information on Italian trains. No, do not read it. Study it. Print it all out and take it with you on your cruise. The information is invaluable to negotiating the trains, the ticketing and the schedules.
I=ll add one thing that I learned about the trains. I tried to maneuver the English language version of the Italian Trenitalia website for quite some prior to this cruise. Then I discovered www.RailEurope.com It contains all the same information except its user friendly and all in English. I was even able to pre-order several of our tickets that I=ll discuss later, and have them shipped to our house prior to our trip. It really wasn=t necessary, as I=ll explain, but it was nice have them in hand prior to leaving the US.
LAX to Rome
We booked Continental after a great experience last February for our first trip on CO. This one was even better. We flew coach to Newark, and then cashed in a ton of AMEX points to do Business/First to Rome. It was well worth it. Excellent service. Incredible food. And we arrived in Rome at 7:30 a.m. ready to hit the streets on the Thursday prior to our cruise.
We had planned to take the 30 minute train from FCO to the Termini Station, one Metro stop away from our hotel. However, as we were approaching the train station at FCO, a man approached us and offered transport directly to our hotel with some other people for $15 Eu per person. As the train was $11 Eu per person, this seemed like quite a deal and we felt safety in numbers (there were 6 of us). The trip into town was quite quick and scenic. We met another nice couple from Houston that had also flown in on our flight.
Within 40 or so minutes, we were at our hotel, the Hotel Napoleon, which was recommended here on Cruise Critic. The Hotel Napoleon is a small (75 rooms) 3-star, family-owned hotel in an "ok" area of Rome. At $99 Eu per night, it was hard to complain. The rooms are nice. A little small, but you are not in them much other than to sleep. The bathroom was newly renovated and spotless. The A/C ... one of the best we had in Europe. The Metro Station for Vittorio Emanuelle is literally just outside the hotel's front door, and our room was ready at 10 a.m. (which may not always be the case) upon our arrival! All-in-all, a good choice. We heard from another couple that they had gotten a great deal at the St. George through priceline.com, which is a 5-star hotel. I've only started using Priceline, and will probably do that in the future. We have to plan our vacations so far in advance, it's hard to leave pre-cruise lodging up to chance, but in this economy, we probably could have done better hotel-wise by waiting. Nonetheless, the staff at the Hotel Napoleon is wonderful. Roberto the Managing Director greets you by name and hosted a little get-together with lots of wine, cheese and dried meets on Friday evening. Nice touch.
Thursday - Rome
The Rome sub-way system, while not the cleanest, is very easy to maneuver. There are two lines. Red and Blue. The self-service ticket machines are just before the turn-styles. Select English and it will walk you right through the process. You can purchase passes for single trips ($1 Eu each way), the day and I believe you can purchase a 3-day pass through the machine. Just don't lose that ticket. We purchased passes for each of the two days, which allows you to jump on and off the Metro and the city bus. We never felt our safety was compromised, as there are always people around. Just keep your wits about you, wear a money belt (got a great one from Magellan that attaches to the belt and tucks inside your shorts or pants) and you'll be fine. Just be sure to make sure which direction you're headed. You can print a quick map online of the subway system, and iPhone has an application for the major Metros of the world.
After a quick post-flight shower, it was off to the Vatican. The Metro stop at the Vittorio Emmanuelle is on the Red line, and the trains on the Red Line are air-conditioned (yea!). The stop for the Vatican is Ottaviano - San Pietro. We made the mistake of going to the next stop, Cipro, as it is marked "Musei Vaticani." But the walk from this station is up a huge flight of stairs. The walk from the Ottaviano station is much easier.
I had pre-reserved tickets to the Vatican Museum through a ticket broker, goporta.com. You may be able to book directly with the Vatican, but for a relatively small service charge, goporta arranged for the tickets, e-mailed the confirmation and we went straight to the head of the line at the Museum. When you approach the Museum, there is a long, long, long line to the left. At the right, we saw some official looking people in blue shirts. We approached them, showed them our vouchers and they showed us the line (or no line, that is) for entrance to the Museum. We literally walked right in.
Be forewarned, signage in Italy is TERRIBLE. I think even if you read Italian, it would be hard to figure out. But do not be afraid to ask questions. We had stopped in the Gift Shop on the way in, made some purchases, and the ladies there were very helpful. They explained that the actual entrance was two more flights up. We had taken a self-guided tour, and they explained we could purchase listening devices just before the entrance, which we did.
The Vatican Museum is extremely overwhelming. And if you have issue with crowds, August is not the time to go. There really is too much to see. I had purchased a book on Italy from the "Top 10" series, so it was good to have a point of reference to see the important works. Otherwise, especially with some jet lagged, it all starts running together.
Obviously the big draw at the Museum is the Sistine Chapel. It was amazing. But the crowd in the room was overwhelming to me. You literally were shoulder to shoulder with very little room to even turn around. Not that I'm paranoid, but it did make me think, if there were an earthquake or fire, there would be a lot of dead people in the Sistine Chapel because of the inability to move anywhere close to an exit. I really would have appreciated a bit of a wait in line, if they had limited entrance to the Chapel and cleared it every 15 minutes or so. But we got to see it.
Here's a trick we learned too late. After viewing the Chapel, go back the way you came in and there apparently is a door that will take you right into the Basilica. The person who informed us of this said she just asked a guard and they showed her right where to go. Apparently, it is for guided tours, but as long as you have your ticket to the Museum, you have access to the Basilica as well. We did not know this beforehand. So we exited the Chapel with everyone else, walked the remainder of the Museum, which is quite long. We exited the Museum into the hot sun, and walked the perimeter of the Vatican wall to the front to the square. The square is magnificent, but the line to St. Peter's was even longer than the one to the Vatican. We were simply too hot and too tired to endure that line. If only we had known that we could have exited the Sistine Chapel through the back and gone right into the Basilica. I hope that helps someone else.
We went back to the hotel, took another shower (in this heat, you take about 3 a day) and took a nap for a couple of hours.
We got up and back onto the Metro to go see Fontana di Trevi. The Metro took us to square very near the fountain at the Barberini Metro stop, which is also on the Red Line. We had to ask questions as to which way to head from the Metro stop. If you have an iPhone, download a compass or take a small one with you. Otherwise, maps are almost useless.
Trevi Fountain was crowded in the hot summer evening, but that made it part of the fun. We sat and enjoyed the fountain for a while and of course threw a coin in before leaving. We strolled the streets nearby and found a small restaurant and had a great dinner. We crossed back to the Metro station walking by the Fountain, now lighted in the night. Back to the hotel for that 3rd shower and fell into bed.
Friday - Old Rome
I had to get up early to finishing a nagging work project. WiFi is free in the hotel and quite fast. Be sure to bring an adapter for your dual voltage appliances. Make sure they are dual voltage, otherwise you will also need a voltage regulator. Most laptops are dual voltage, but I probably should have brought a small power surge adaptor. But no problems at all. I sat in the Hotel's "parlor" for lack of a better word from about 6 a.m. to 7:30. It was very quiet and I did not disturb Glenn who was still sleeping.
The Hotel Napoleon offers a nice breakfast in the morning, including some hot items. This is included in your room charge. We had breakfast there all three days.
We headed down to the Metro to the Colosseum (Colosseo). The Colosseo is on the Blue Line, so you have to take the Red Line one stop over to the Termini and change trains. The Blue Line is one flight up from the Red Line, but the trains are not air-conditioned. However, you are not only the train but for a few minutes. We later learned that the Hotel is about a 10-minute walk to the Colosseo, but in the heat of August, I'd still do the Metro, even though it takes about 40 minutes.
The Metro stop for the Colosseo is literally across the street from the monument. Again, we had pre-booked reservations through goporta for an English speaking tour. We were early, and walked around the grounds for a bit. Then we approached the entrance. We forewarned, there are "guides" outside that look like they're from the Colosseum Museum asking for tours. They are not with the Museum. They try to convince you that you check in with them and pay the entrance / tour fee to them. If you already have reservations, take your voucher straight to the ticket windows. We obtained our ticket, were given a 9:30 tour sticker to put on our shirts and were told to go to a waiting area under the "red"sign ...again, a signage problem. We went through the turn-style and walked toward what appeared (and was) the entrance to the tour. We waited with another gentlemen, and waited and waited. Finally, at 9:45, Glenn went back to the tour window to find out what was going on. Turns out the "red" sign which we and the other gentlemen had missed was really "brown" and was just past the turn-style and to the right. Had we not asked, we would never have seen it as it is tucked away behind a column. We were given new stickers for the 10:15 tour and settled in for a few more minutes late.
Personally, the Colosseum was the highlight of Rome for me. I have dreamed of seeing it as a child and it is spellbinding. You cannot appreciate the size of it until you are standing on the second level looking down to the floor and across to the other side. The tour was very informative and the guide responded to all of our questions. Truly an excellent experience and for very little money. There is no reason to pay for a high-priced tour or excursion. The Colosseum sells itself.
Your ticket to the Colosseum includes the Roman Forum. We left the Colosseum and studied the poor signage for a bit, figuring out where the entrance to the Forum was. Once there, we saw the huge line, but since you already have your ticket, you by-pass the line and go straight to the turn-styles ... and right in you go. (Probably could have done the same thing at St. Peter's, but didn't think about it until the Forum.) By this point, it was HOT! We took small totes umbrellas in our day packs, which really helps. There are parasols for sale all around, but a same-sex couple with parasols would have been a bit much. Nonetheless, many people commented what a good idea it was to have a small umbrella. A hat is a good idea too, as well as a bottle of water for the hike through the Forum.
The Forum was very interesting. We had not rented an audio-tour, and that was just fine. Sometimes it's better to just walk, look and imagine what it was like. At the end of the Forum is a long staircase up to the Capitol building. There's a large piazza up there with a cold fountain to splash your face. The Capitol Museum is right there, but we were getting tired and wanted some lunch. I dug out the Top 10 book and saw that the Capitol Museum has a cafeteria on the second floor overlooking the city. What a find! We had a delicious lunch overlooking the city. Even in the cafeteria, signage was lacking. If you serve yourself, the seating is inside near these huge windows. If you want waiter service, it is on the covered deck outside. We had already gotten our food cafeteria-style, so we sat inside next to one of the large open windows where there was a great breeze. It was splendid. After lunch, we strolled out onto to the adjacent deck for some of the best views of the city.
Rejuvenated after lunch, we struck out from the Capitol to the Pantheon. We had almost skipped it ... what a mistake that would have been. The building is magnificent. Words cannot describe it. Very near the Pantheon (on the side across the street) is a Minerva Cathedral. It is nothing to look at on the outside, and we basically stumbled into it. BE SURE TO GO IN IT. Stunning. And Michelangelo's "Risen Christ" is there, immediately left of the altar. The square in front of the Pantheon was packed, but there was literally NO ONE inside this beautiful church just next door off the square.
From the Pantheon, it is a short walk to the Piazza Novano, one of the most beautiful piazzas in Rome. We took some pictures there and, as the heat of the day was increasing, we decided to head back to the Hotel for shower #2 and a nap. There is no Metro station near the Pantheon, so we grabbed a cab for about $5 Eu straight to the hotel.
Later in the early evening, we stopped by Roberto's wine tasting party, which was very nice. Then we headed out to the Spanish Steps, which is also on the Red Line at the Spanga Metro stop. The Spanish Steps is in the heart of the high-end shopping district, and is quite a scene. It was fun just to sit there for a while and enjoy the sights. Some folks had gotten a bottle of wine, some cheese and bread and were enjoying it on the steps. After a while, we strolled down the streets and found an outdoor restaurant literally in an alley. The food, as usual, was wonderful.
I had wanted to see the Colosseum at night. So we got back on the Metro, switched to the Blue Line at the Termini, and we were at the Colosseum in no time. What a sight all lit up. No crowds, and people just sitting along the wall across from the entrance quietly enjoying the view and the warm night air. I'm glad was saw the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, but this was the Rome I had read about as a child. I'll never forget this day.
Saturday -- Embarkation
OK, despite GPSLover's excellent train advice, getting to Civitavecchia by train ... not so much. We got up early on Saturday, and wanted to get to the ship just shy of noon before the heat really set in. We checked out, took our bags down the Metro, got to the Termini (remember, one stop away) and got up to the train station with no problems whatsoever. I had pre-ordered our tickets to Civitavecchia online and they were delivered in a matter of days via UPS. Probably did not need to do that, as the automated ticket stations are everywhere, but I had them in hand before leaving Los Angeles, which I liked. At GPSLover's suggestion, we spent the extra few Euros for 1st Class, as there is more room for luggage. The scheduled platforms are listed, but they are changed often and the train to Civitavecchia was no different. When purchased, tickets are good for months, so in order that they are "valid" for travel, you MUST validate them in the little yellow machines you see everywhere on the train station. You put each ticket in, and you hear it print the date and time on the ticket. Make sure to validate your ticket at the little yellow machines, as there are ticket checks sometimes and the fine is hefty! (The Metro is different. The Metro tickets are only valid a short time (like 90 minutes) from purchase, and they do check from time to time to see that you have your tickets.
The train was about 10 minutes late getting into the station, and it was difficult to figure out which compartment we had been assigned to. (Again, signage is TERRIBLE). We finally figured it out, and our compartment was at the very front of the train all the way at the end of the platform. We scurried down there through all of the smokers catching their last puff before getting on board (ugh) and finally found our compartment. No sooner had we gotten on board than the doors slammed shut. Thinking this was GPSLover's reference to the quick train stops, we thought, "Whew! We made it." (GPSLover really covers everything ... even how to get luggage on and off the train, which was helpful. One person gets on the train, the other hands the luggage up. Sounds silly, but it helped to visualize it before we got there.) What we hadn't yet realized, the slamming doors was due to the train losing power.
We made our way into the so-called "first class" cabin, which was OK, save for the lack of A/C. We found our seats, which were not together, but made due with another woman who was traveling to the ship with her two small children. So we got settled and bought a couple of bottles of water from a boy who was obviously not an employee of Trenitalia. We sat in the heat. The A/C would come in intermittently, but would not stay on. Our train was due to leave at 9:35. At 10:30, people became quite upset. We had no word from anyone. Finally, a train conductor came through and announced in both Italian and English that the A/C in that compartment was not working. We would have to leave our luggage there, and stand in another compartment. Well, pandemonium broke out. Much screaming and yelling in Italian. There were no other trains left in the station, as all the morning trains had pulled out. We figured, by the time they got everyone off this car and onto another car, plus trying to get back into the car to get our luggage at the stop and then get off ... we quickly made the decision to get off the train now and get a cab. The other person from the ship agreed, so the 5 of use (3 adults and 2 small children) grabbed our luggage and dashed. We got the front of the station and negotiated a cab far for 2 cars at $150 Eu for each cab. Ok, so much for trying to save money and travel like an Italian. But, had the train gotten off, it would have been fine. Just another bump in the road.
This was our driver's second day on the job and her first trip to Civitavecchia! But she was adorable and we actually have a fun time driving to the port. We got to the ship and were on board within minutes. We dropped our carry ons at the cabin and headed straight to the Sanctuary to purchase the cruise-long package. Much has been written about whether the Sanctuary is a "rip off," "waste of space," etc. For us, it is the best thing we've done on Princess second only perhaps to the Chef's Table. We used to get balcony cabins, but found we rarely used them. I know other people live on their balconies, but all it takes is a smoker nearby to ruin that experience (as has happened to us in the past). So we get a window cabin, and put the money into the Sanctuary without even thinking about it. We were there at 12:30, and there were already about 10 of the 20 or so cruise-long loungers available already booked. It is getting VERY popular. They only have 20 or so available for the whole cruise. The remainder are sold on a day-by-day, first come, first served basis.
We then grabbed some lunch, and then headed back to the cabin. Our luggage arrived a short time later. We unpacked, and headed up to the Sanctuary. Being in port, it was quite warm, so just before sail-a-way we headed back to the cabin. Civitavecchia is a major commercial sea port, so sail-a-way is not particularly scenic. We thought we'd nap for a bit and then get ready for dinner. I guess jet lag and the bustle of Rome had set in b/c we woke up about 8:30, went to Horizon Court, and back to bed.
Sunday - Monte Carlo
We woke up about 4:30 a.m., so at 5 we went up and had breakfast. Being in the Horizon Court that early was new to us. Virtually no one there, and all the fresh food for breakfast was just set out. It was great! Back to the cabin. We cat-napped until 7 and went to the gym for a work out. Here's where things get a little dicey.
Glenn finished his work out and wanted to grab a little nosh at the Horizon Court. I was still on the treadmill, so he went on his own. I got back to the cabin and he was not there. He came hobbling in a short time later, having fallen by the pool. Apparently, they wash the pool deck down around 7 (others have commented they have seen the same thing). Glenn slipped on the linoleum path immediately around the pool and went down. He did not hit his head, but badly wrenched and skinned up his knee and could not get up. Another passenger came to his aid, and security and the nurse were called. No need to go into it here, but Glenn reported that the nurse was basically scolding him for walking on the wet surface and inquiring whether he had a pre-existing knee condition. Huh? The nurse said he could see the doctor, but that, of course, there would be a charge. I understand that, but Glenn said she showed no compassion whatsoever, did not offer so much as a bandage for his bleeding knee cap, and it was the fellow passenger who went and got ice for his knee. Later we had to fill out an accident report, and a security office interviewed him. We're healthy and in our late 40s, but Glenn was and remains in significant pain, and I'm hoping he did not tear his ACL. The only person who has shown any concern was from the dining room (I think it must have been Generoso, the Maitre D' extraordinare), who called after we missed dinner that night and the next night and wanted to know if there was anything he could bring us. Oh well, another bump in the road.
We tendered in Monte Carlo, but when we left the ship (probably around 9:30 a.m.), all of the tours were gone and we simply walked to the tender deck and got right on a tender to shore. We had planned on walking Monte Carlo, but that was now not possible. Even able bodied, I would not recommend it. So, off the cuff we rented a car directly across the street from the harbor. We got a cute, brand new Fiat 500 for about $100 Eu. Why we can't build cars like these in the U.S., I do not know. Fast, fun and sporty. We ended up driving to Eze, France. Getting up into Eze with a bum leg was probably not the best of ideas, but we took it very slowly and got to see some of it. It was amazing. We had lunch and just took in the views.
We headed back to Monte Carlo and drove by the Casino (long line outside). We decided to go to the Palace grounds. Again, signage ... very confusing. We finally found a parking garage and escalators for the most part. One section we had to walk up, which was slow and difficult, only to later on find an unmarked elevator tucked back in an obscure corner. Boy, to be disabled in these countries must just be hell.
(Since writing this in a "Live From" another Cruise Critic Member posted some GREAT information on Monte Carlo. Search under the Princess forum for "Live From Ruby Princess" and you should see the information on Monte Carlo added by another member.)
The Palace grounds are incredible. The Cathedral where Grace and Rainier were married was exquisite. The Chapel just inside the front door to the left (which no one seemed to even see of stop by) with the Crucifix was unbelievable. Stunning. We saw Rainier's and Grace's tombs and then headed over to the Palace where the flag was flying indicating that Prince Albert was in residence. Very short line to tour the Palace. I'm not sure people even realized you could go in b/c it's not really marked. The tour is self-guided with a headset and is only 30 minutes. It is well worth it. You get to see the main courtyard where the Royal Family receives dignataries, as well as several of the Palace rooms. Well worth the time and nominal entrance fee. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed in the Palace. We would have liked to have spent more time on the Palace grounds, but time was running short. So we headed back down to the port, parked the car near the rental agency, and dropped the keys in the after-hours box.
We got back to the ship, some more Advil into Glenn, showers and settled down. Glenn did not feel up to going to dinner yet, so we just got something from the Horizon Court and turned in early again. Once again, we were up early the next day for a fresh breakfast in the Horizon Court.
Monday -- Livorno (Florence / Pisa) We docked in Livorno. Thanks to some other Cruise Critic members, we disregarded what was in the Patter, as to how the taxies outside the gate only ran to Pisa and/or Florence, and how you had to wait for the shuttle to get to town. Some misnomers ... some on Cruise Critic have chastised Princess for charging $8.50 Eu round trip on a shuttle to town. Princess makes it very clear in many places, it does not operate the shuttle. That being said, the Livorno port is a huge commercial port, and you cannot walk to the gate. So, you either have to take a ship tour, the shuttle or a taxi to get out of the port. However, we left the ship almost immediately after it docked at 7 a.m. We went out to where there was an army of taxies. For $20 Eu, instead of $17 Eu for the shuttle (which only takes you to the center of town), we were taken directly to the train station where we caught the 7:30 a.m. train to Florence. We were in Florence by 9 a.m. From the train station, we walked to a cafe and had some delicious pastries. Then we walked to the Duomo. As it was Monday, all of the museums were closed, so we basically walked around the Duomo and through the surrounding shops. We got in line to go into the Duomo, but the young lady who was just in front of us (who happens to live about 20 minutes from us in Los Angeles) informed us of the 486 steps, which was not possible with Glenn's leg.
We got back to the train station and headed back to Pisa. We bought a ticket for the bus and finally figured out which bus to take (again, no signage!). (As walk out of the train station, walk across the street to the ROSA (red) bus line.) A short trip away, we were at the grounds of the leaning tower. It is very impressive. We walked the grounds for about an hour (no climbing the tower this trip). It was very exciting and the duomo, cathedral and tower are beautiful. We headed back to the bus stop, which was packed. So we grabbed a cab back to the train station for $7 Eu. Made the 2:30 train and we were back to the ship around 3. A quick but fun day.
Napoli - Amalfi Coast
Today we toured the Amalfi Coast. I had found Fabrizio's tour (email@example.com) through Cruise Critic. If you search Cruise Critic, you will see that he has a good reputation here, and his company did not disappoint. We were met by Carlos promptly after the ship docked at just after 8 a.m. in Naples. I had met up with John and Joyce and Howard and Rachel (and Deb and John who had to cancel their cruise) here on Cruise Critic, and we embarked on what would turn to be a splendid day. At $500 Eu for the day's long tour, it was well worth it. Even though we were now down to 3 couples, it actually worked out better, as 8 in the van would have been tight. Eight would be doable, but 6 people is perfect in the mini-van.
Carlos drove us in a Mercedes coach from the port in Naples to the Amalfi Coast. As we approached the coast, we stopped at a roadside market high above the first city, Positano, for pictures from an incredible vista and some fruit, where we found lemons the size of your fist and larger. It is this area of Italy where the finest lemon cello is made. We then visited the small town of Positano, which was beautiful. Tough for Glenn to walk, but he endured and was quite a trouper. We did some shopping there, indulging in a set of oil and vinegar glazed cruets with bright lemons on them, and tasted some of the local lemon cello. From there, we pressed on to Sorrento. Carlos recommended we eat lunch at a local establishment, the Ristorante Bangi il Delfino, which was a family owned restaurant on a pier over the water, with a view back towards Sorrento. It has a website, so do a search and you should find it. More of a local place, rather than tourists. The service was incredible, as was the food and wine. And, as a promise to our fellow tour members, I sang Torna A Surriento in Italian. We polished off the lunch with a good sized lemon cello. What a day. As Rachel said, the best day yet ... and many more to follow.
We were so relaxed that time sort of got away from us, and we had very little time for shopping in Sorrento, but that was ok. Aside from the lemon cello stores, it was much of what we had seen before.
We headed back towards Napoli, with a slight detour to Pompeii. We had pre-arranged with Fabrizio to have a guided tour of Pompeii. We were met at the entrance by a robust Italian woman who obviously enjoys her job. The guide was an extra $100 (split 3 ways) and I would recommend it. I had no idea how large Pompeii was. It was a fairly major city, and with a guide you get the highlights and an explanation of what you are seeing. My expectations were set a little too high for what we would see at Pompeii, but we still enjoyed it. We had heard that Herculean is actually a better preserved site, but did not have time to stop there. Nonetheless, the view of Vesuvius from what was the town square in Pompeii is daunting. What those poor people must have endured prior to their deaths.
We were back at the ship in no time. After a long shower to wash off the dust / ash, which is still quite present when the wind blows, we got to the dining room for dinner for the first night (second seating). As a same-sex couple, the first night at dinner can be filled with a bit of anxiety. Turned out, we were assigned the exact same table we had on the Emerald in February of this year. We met our table mates for the first time and, as usual, ended up closing the place with very interesting conversation covering many different subjects, including religion as one of our dining companions is a obviously very intelligent and interesting pastor of a church in North Carolina who is in the midst of completing his PhD dissertation. We've yet to have a dud table on a cruise.
Day at Sea
Today's the first day we have had a large block of time to spend in the Sanctuary. I'm sitting here typing up this entry on my chaise lounge with the Mediterranean sea at my feet. I will not be leaving this chair for the day! Tonight is formal night.
We had a beautiful day in Santorini. I had been here about15 years ago and it was everything I remembered. There were 3 ships in the caldera this morning, so the line for the cable car was so, so long. I finally convinced Glenn that at least once in life, everyone has to take a donkey up to Fira upon arriving on Santorini. At $5 Eu / person (the smell was no additional charge), we took to saddle .... with NO REINS! The donkeys know where they're going, though brushes with the walls can be a little scary. You just have to push them away from the walls when they get too close. We zipped by those that had chosen to walk up ... (Walk up?!!!!!). I felt sorry for the beasts (the donkeys, not the walkers), but they seem to be suited for the ordeal. We pretty much laughed the whole way up, despite the smell.
For fun, I had rented us a convertible Smart Car for the day. The Smart Car was cute and fine. However, we did not need to spend the extra for the convertible. The sun was just too intense to enjoy it. And, we had 30 knot winds today, as well. We sort of struck out on our own with no plan. The island is not very big and we headed to see the black sand beaches. We got a little off track and ended upon driving up, rather than down to the beach. We got to the top of the island (Mountain of Prophet Elijah), and then found our way back down to the black sand beaches. We found a little local beach tavern for a great lunch overlooking the Sea of Crete. We then strolled the beach at Vlihada Bay, with the huge cliffs and dunes that were described as Dali-esque. They do appear like something out of a Dali painting, with the sagging and drooping edges carved out of the wind and blowing pumice sand from the beach. We sat on the beach for a while, but the wind was pretty intense.
We headed back to Fira and walked around the shops, making a few purchases. We then found a restaurant that overlooked the town down to the shoreline. The view and pictures were amazing. We had a delicious Greek salad and just took in the view. We didn't make it up to Oia and that may have been a mistake. But we got to see much of the southern end of the island, and still had time for Fira.
I never seem to have enough time in Santorini, and this trip was no different. It is such a special place, and we just had a wonderful day.
Friday, Kusadasi, Turkey
As if reliving my memories of Santorini could not be topped, Turkey remains my favorite country in the entire world that I have visited thus far (aside from the U.S. ?). I came here in 1997 with no expectations. I knew nothing about Turkey, and that was before the internet put so much information at our fingertips. And, I was blown away at such a beautiful country, with dear, kind people, as well as so many historical and archeological treasures. So, I was a little apprehensive that either I might have been romanticizing my memory of Turkey, or the past few years of conservative leaning government had changed her. I am happy to report, Turkey remains my favorite country to visit ... and Glenn agrees!
We sailed into a bustling Kusadasi, which I had remembered as a sleepy little fishing village. But it has not lost its charm. Seemingly freshly scrubbed for our arrival, we docked at the pier and immediately found "Jingus" from Sammy's Travel for our tour. There were only 2 ships in port today, with the other being a much smaller (the "Ocean Queen") that appeared to be a former U.S. cruise ship. I'll have to look her up. Again, we had joined a tour organized by a Cruise Critic member who had to cancel her cruise at the last minute. So, instead of 16 of us, there were only 14 in our group. We boarded a newer motor-coach that was already chilled for a hot summer day and ready to go. We first drove to the House of the Virgin Mary, beating most of the tours from the ships, viewing the beautiful country-side along the way. Much like California, except without the clay-tiled developments everywhere. We were there for about an hour and were able to take our time through the beautiful grounds and the House of Mary.
Next, we traveled to Ephesus, which is only a short distance from the House of the Virgin Mary. I tell everyone ever considering coming to Turkey that a trip to Ephesus cannot be missed. Sometimes I think I "over sell" it, but Glenn (his first trip) assured me that I had not. He agreed that Pompeii, while interesting pales by comparison.
When you first arrive, the first ruins, while not much, are impressive. But it is that turn of the corner, when you are standing at the top of the hill staring down into the town of Ephesus to the library and the valley beyond that simply takes your breath away. For me, the presence of the former inhabitants of Ephesus is palpable b/c so much of it remains. The streets, the remnants of the buildings, and everyone's favorite, the public lew, which shows how advanced they were.
New for me were the Terrace Houses, which have only been excavated in the last decade. The structure built to protect the Houses is an engineering marvel in and of itself. Viewing the mosaics, friezes and frescos is just incredible. Jingus did a great job and describing what we were seeing.
Not to give short shrift, but it's difficult to describe Ephesus and do it justice. We walked to the library and then down to the amphitheatre that used to seat 25,000. We saw the agora (marketplace) and the street that used to lead to the sea. The river has since filled the valley with silt and debris, which was the downfall of Ephesus when the sea "moved" away from the town and destroyed its significance as a port city. I had forgotten this part from my last trip. The fall of Ephesus was the result of Mother Nature, more than anything else.
After Ephesus, Jingus took us to a leather outlet ... "no obligation to buy." Ok, I know on every tour they take you somewhere to spend money. But this was pretty neat. We were treated to the customary sweet, apple tea upon arrival and then a New York-style fashion show with lights, music and live models of the latest leather fashions from the manufacturer there. The models even got a couple of the teenagers in our group to participate, which was fun. Then, they took us into the "show room," which was beautiful. It was hard not to get caught up in it, and Glenn and I are suckers for a good show. We each ended up purchasing leather jackets at "40% off just for us!" Yeah, right. And, they did throw in three leather baseball caps. Ok, did we get a good deal? I'm not sure. But working for Neiman Marcus, Glenn knows good stuff and we did get a substantial discount off the "list price" and have a great story, as well as beautiful coats. They're all leather, but the salesperson said this is new, New, NEW and is made from some part of the goat so soft and fine that they're calling it "silk leather." I'm not sure I want to know which part of the goat it's from, but it's water proof, wrinkle proof, and as my salesperson demonstrated on me with his lighter, fire proof. But is a lighter weight that is perfect for California. So, if you are soon seeing "silk leather," you read it here first.
From there, Jingus took us to a local eatery for lunch. This for sure was a good deal. We shared a Turkish salad (which looked suspiciously like a Greek salad), meat balls and lamb kabobs, and we each had 2 beers -- $14 Eu.
After lunch, we went to St. John's Basilica for more history from Jingus and finally we saw all that is left of the Temple of Artemis. We ended back in Kusadasi, just near the ship. Jingus guided us to a rug shop, if we wanted to go. Glenn had never seen them "throw" the carpets, so we went. Almost got hooked again ... (the last time I was here, I did come home with a carpet ... that my dogs ruined). The "show" was worth it, even if only a couple of us from our group went. I talked to one of the owners after they did their thing. He said they had been very busy, but few buyers. The economy's hitting them too. Even if you have no intention of buying a carpet when in Turkey, go to a demonstration. Show your interest and be nice and appreciative, and they will still give you a good show. And if you ever happen to buy one and carry it home, like I did, either hang it on the wall or keep the pets away from it!
Upon leaving Kusadasi on Friday evening, Captain Tony announced that he would have the pedal to the metal because he wanted to get to Mykonos by 1 a.m. He said it was because he wanted to beat the morning winds (as they can prevent getting in), but I think it was because the crew knows where the late night places are to have a good time. Captain Tony cautioned that while we were free to leave the ship upon landing, he did not recommend it b/c the area is not well lit and one could get hit by cars. By the way, his warning had nothing to do with crime b/c people here just do not seem to be wired that way. I'm sure it exists, but it does not appear to even be prevalent. Nowhere in the Patters are their warnings about going ashore, as we have seen with ports in Mexico and the Caribbean.
With a port intensive cruise, we have been early to bed and early to rise, so we did not partake of a late night outing in Mykonos. Though we did hear many of the crew were dragging their tails this morning. The town is actually quite nearby, though walking in the dark would have been treacherous. I assume, however, the local cabs know when the ship is making port early, and may have been available. Ah, to be that young again.
We had scheduled a car rental with Kosmos Cars (on the internet and very near the ship) b/c I had read that much would be closed in Mykonos for the Day of Ascension (August 15). Not so. With 2 ships in town, I saw little closed for the day. For those not of the faint of heart, a scooter or a quad would also be fun, but in August the sirocco winds are intense. So we were glad to have a small car. I had my confirmation printed out from Kosmos and called them when we were ready to leave the ship. The shuttle to the rental office was there in minutes. It took a couple of tries to figure out the country code, which you must use for a U.S. cell phone. It might be a good idea to look up the country codes for all cities you are visiting and have them with you for Europe (and that calling the U.S. is 00 before the 1).
We had planned for this to be a beach day, and had read about Elia beach. It was also the first beach the owner of car rental office suggested. It is on the south side of the island, and frequented by the locals, rather than tourists. We went out there for the day, rented an umbrella and two chairs and had a nice, relaxing day. We ate lunch on the beach, as there is beach service there. However, we should have walked into the restaurant and had lunch. We stopped there to use the restrooms upon leaving, and it was like something on South Beach in Miami. Everything in white, everyone in white linen, great music, etc., with an incredible view of the sea.
You can get by without a car in Mykonos, if you're not planning to go far from the ship. There is a paid shuttle into town (I think it was $7 Eu roundtrip). Walking into town would be a pretty good hike. There are also shuttles to Paradise Beach, which I had also read is very nice. We came back into town after our beach day and walked around town for a bit. Glenn had some baklava and I had some gelato before heading back to the ship.
We were so tired from our beach day, we decided to head up to the Cafe Caribe. We stopped by to tell Yani, our waiter, only to find that our tablemates had checked out on dinner too. Mykonos is a great day for relaxation in a port intensive cruise. In bed early for an early rise for Athens.
Sunday, Piraeus / Athens
Well, today was another lesson in mass transit. Having been to Athens before, I remembered the subway / train system as being fairly easy to maneuver, and it remains so. There are basically 3 lines: No 1 (Green), No. 2 (Red) and Line 3 (Blue). If I have not mentioned this before, iPhone has an excellent application for the Metros of the world, with maps and adjacent sites listed. Or, search the internet for a "map of Athens Metro" and you'll probably find one in color. I had a copy with us, and it was very helpful to pull out. If you are only going to the Acropolis and the Plaka, you really do not need to spend the money for a tour or a cab, unless you want commentary. The subway / train is quite fast and efficient, and cheap. $1 Eu each way.
Captain Tony likes to get places early, as he did in Mykonos. So, we arrived in Piraeus sometime in the very early morning. I believe he said it would be around 4 a.m. There are a limited number of large passenger ship docks in Piraeus, and apparently he again wanted to get the best parking spot. If you look for a map online of the Piraeus port, we docked immediately adjacent to the Port Authority at E11. The Piraeus passenger terminal is very nice, but nothing was open when we left the ship.
We decided to get in and out of Athens before the heat set in. We got up very early and left the ship before 7 a.m. We were at the gate to the Acropolis at about 8:15. The train / Metro station is located almost directly across the port from the passenger terminal between port gates E5 and E6. I had read it was about a 10 minute walk. It's more like 20-30. It was quite cool with a breeze, and the sun had not yet cleared the buildings so we were fine temperature-wise. And, since it is all flat surfaces, Glenn was ok, though still nursing his knee. He's still having issues with lateral movement, but going straight on a flat surface is not too bad. After having done the walk, we probably should have grabbed a cab to the Metro, though I'm not sure how much a driver would have appreciated getting out of line for those heading all the way into Athens only to drive us 5 minutes to the Metro. That early, however, a driver may not have minded zipping over to the Metro, and getting back into line. But in the early morning, walking it is not bad, and then taking a cab back from Metro in the afternoon ($5 Eu) worked well.
The train stations in Athens are MUCH cleaner than those in Italy. They're actually quite nice. As in Italy, we again had no sense that we were compromising our safety. Even on a Sunday morning, the trains were bustling with people. And, if you get lost, ask questions. People are very nice. You can purchase a one-way ticket either from a machine or from a ticket booth. As in Italy, your ticket is not time stamped upon purchase, SO MAKE SURE TO GO TO ONE OF THE LITTLE VALIDATING MACHINES AND STICK YOUR TICKET IN BEFORE GETTING ON THE TRAIN. THE FINES ARE 60 TIMES THE FARE IF YOUR TICKET IS NOT VALIDATED. When you stick it in the validating machine, you will hear it print a date and time stamp on your ticket. We were never stopped today, but a couple of times in Rome there were ticket checks when you got off the train.
Ok... I had read some older information, and hope to improve upon that here. From Piraeus to the Acropolis Metro stations, it is a short 20-25 minute train ride with 6-7 stops. The "old" way was to take the Green Line (No. 1) to the Monastiraki station. From the Monastiraki station, you walk south and approach the Acropolis from the north side, turning west to enter the gates near the Propylea. BE FOREWARNED - this is a very steep approach to the Acropolis with significant stairs near the base of the Acropolis to the entry gates. Thankfully, it's easy for Glenn to go up stairs than down. We were just a little worried about getting him down, but you'll see later the backside was much easier to negotiate.
We were at the gate to the Acropolis at around 8:15. There was hardly anyone there (it opens at 8:00 a.m. in the summer). You purchase your tickets from the little ticket booth and head into the gate just below the Propylea. You can hire a guide at the entrance, if you're so inclined. However, a good tour book will tell you most of what you need to know to tour the Acropolis. It's a bit of a climb up from there, but once to the top, it's relatively flat. Wear good walking shoes. It never ceases to amaze me to see people in flip-flops and even women in wedge sandals. The marble up there is very slippery, even dry. We even saw a security guard slip on the marble and take a tumble.
It was Sunday morning, and all the church bells started ringing in the city below as we walked the Acropolis. It was quite an experience. The weather was perfect. The sky was bright blue and the sun was still fairly low in the sky, with a good breeze. The views were magnificent.
I had read that the New Acropolis Museum had recently opened, so we thought we'd walk down the South side of the Acropolis towards the Dionissiou Areopagitou. I had purchased a good, laminated street map of Athens before leaving the U.S., and it came in very handy. However, be aware that the Greek spell things differently from time to time, even on their own maps. So, you sometimes have to look at a street name a few times and interpolate what various spellings may look like on the map you have in your hand.
A word about the dogs ...they're everywhere. I had forgotten about the dogs in Athens. But, they're all collared and tagged and quite sweet. I sort of remember that the government tags them and inoculates them, rather than rounding them up and exterminating them. Maybe I'm making that up in my head, but I sort of remember it. And, all the ones we saw were collared, well fed and tagged. At first Glenn was saying, don't touch them, they're mongrels. By the time we were on the Acropolis, we were petting them and taking pictures with them.
Now, I'm pretty sure the last time I was here this street at the base of the Acropolis was open to traffic. Now, it is a pedestrian only walkway, and while at an incline, a much easier approach to the Acropolis than from the Monastriaki station. So, here's how I wished we had traveled to the Acropolis, especially for someone with walking difficulties:
1. Take the Green Line (No. 1) from Piraeus to the Omonia station (1 station past Monastiraki); 2. Transfer to the Red Line (No. 2) to the Arkropoli station. You should not need a new ticket, and more than likely will not even enter the train station. Just look for the signage (which is much better than Italy!).
The Akropoli station is very near the New Acropolis Museum. So, from the Akropoli station, find the Dionissiou Areopagitou and walk west along the southern border below the Acropolis which will climb by grade rather than stairs. You'll walk past the Herodean Theater and turn to the right to find the same gates to the Acropolis we approached from the North. Much, much easier. After the Acropolis, re-trace your steps down to the Dionissiou Areopagitou and back to the New Acropolis Museum. We were at the Museum by 9:30, and again, no one in line. I thought we might need reservations, but we walked right in and bought tickets (an unbelievable $1 Eu) each. (Checking to see if they allow online reservations might still be a good idea. This was early Sunday morning, and another day might be more crowded). Be sure to walk over the glass walkway to the Museum and view the excavation underneath. The Museum itself is an amazingly modern structure, juxtaposed to the antiquities on display. Yet, it has an incredible use of light with homage to ancient times with giant cement pillars holding the roof up.
On the second floor (Floor 1), there is a balcony that allows you to look down on the main exhibit area. It is quite spectacular interior view, in and of itself. The Museum is not that large, and you can spend a short period of time, or as much as you want for just $1 Eu. Amazing. Be sure, however, to see the original Caryatids (from the Porch of the Maidens) which were removed for protection and placed in the Museum (replaced by replicas at The Erecthion) due to the city's pollution destroying them over time. They are on the second floor (Floor 1). One of the original 5 was removed (stolen?) from The Erecthion by Lord Elgin in the 1800s and is now in the British Museum. Her place on the Museum stands present but empty, hopefully to be reunited with her other 4 sisters someday. (The Brits should really give her back!)
From the New Museum, we headed into the Plaka, which again was an easier walk down than up. We stopped and had a light snack (having eaten at 5 a.m.) We walked around the Plaka for a while and were about to leave when one of the shop owners (barkers) said, "You must be from California." Boy, they're good here. He reeled us in, and before you know it, I had purchased a Greek necklace with the "long life" medallion on it. Glenn purchased a beautiful yellow gold on white gold crucifix for himself, and another one for his assistant. I told the shop owner that he was good at pulling people in. He said that folks from the U.S. are generally very nice, even when they do not want to come into the shop. He can usually tell when someone is from the U.S., and he knew a lot about California. I said that was nice to hear b/c we have a bad reputation around the world. That being said, there are a lot of other nationalities on this cruise, and the folks from the U.S., in general, are much more polite that the Europeans on this cruise.
We walked back to Monastiraki Square and back to the Metro station. Within 30 minutes were back in Piraeus. By this point, even with the breeze, the Mediterranean sun was getting pretty intense. So, we grabbed a cab to the ship and were in the Sanctuary shortly thereafter. The breeze up here is much nicer than at street level.
For those who have enjoyed the Sanctuary on the Ruby, Carlos just stopped by as I write this. I had previously told him what a celebrity he had become on Cruise Critic. He had not heard of Cruise Critic and was so embarrassed. The ship has connection problems in Piraeus, so I will bring my laptop up here tomorrow and let him read the greetings from those of you reading this. He asked me all about the Acropolis b/c he wanted to see it before the ship repositions back to Miami. He's seen a lot in Italy and in Turkey, but has not been to the Acropolis yet. He was shocked to hear that he could get there and back for $2 Eu. I showed him how to get there and gave him all of my maps and such that I have been writing this section on. He is very excited to schedule a day off for Athens before the repo cruise.
We chose to take it easy today and skip Olympia. I had read up on taking the train to Olympia and back and going to the little museum there, but we're getting a little tired and needed some R & R before returning home. We spent the morning in the Sanctuary and then walked into town for lunch. I have to say at this point, many of the Greeks and the Italians we have encountered on the ship are down-right rude. They refuse to wait in lines, cutting to the front without caring in the slightest. And, in port, service is lacking. We sat first in a beach front restaurant. When a waiter finally came over to us, he asked us for our order. We had yet to even see a menu. When I asked him if we could see the menu, he literally rolled his eyes and walked away. He returned only to literally fling one menu at us. We simply got up and left. The next place over was virtually empty. The waiter never even approached us. We continued down the stretch in front of the water and found one place that was completely empty. Presumably it was the owner who came out and greeted us and directed us to a table right by the water. We ordered and started to receive some decent service from him, but before we knew it a few more people sat down and he was overwhelmed. Mind you, there was the Ruby and an MSC ship in port both a stones throw away from these sea-front cafes, but they all seemed to have limited staff for the day. The couple that sat down next to us, also from the Ruby, eventually got up and left too, as they could not even get the owner's attention to place an order. Having said all that, however, we shared a Greek salad, mousaka, chicken souvlaky and some ouzo, and it was delicious. Getting the check, however, was another test of endurance and patience.
We shopped in the little town with no intention of purchasing anything, but we came upon a little shop that made and sold olive wood sculptures, kitchen utensils, pepper grinders, and such. It was all fairly unique and beautifully made so we purchased some things there for ourselves and as gifts. They have a leather goods store as well, directly across the street, that had fine pieces at very reasonable prices. We saw several people with bags from the same store where they had purchased bags and purses. People seemed genuinely excited about their purchases, and I'm happy we got the olive-wood pieces we did. The name of the store escapes me, but I will post it later in the review if anyone is interested.
Back on the ship, Glenn had a reflexology treatment and for reasons I won't go into here, the spa manager, Kirsty, got involved with Glenn's injury and arranged for Glenn to immediately see the doctor free of charge. Even though she is with Steiner, and technically not a Princess employee, she really took the bull by the horns and "Made a Difference." Shortly after Kirsty's entrEe into the fray, we also received a call from Princess Customer Service upon returning to the cabin wanting to make sure that everything was ok. The doctor examined Glenn's knee and took some x-rays (the equipment is all state of the art, digital developing with images on the screen - pretty impressive). By the way, security was hovering about the area the entire time Glenn was being examined. It is an ACL injury, but the doctor does not believe it's torn, for which we are thankful. He is going to do a full write up and give us everything today, and wants Glenn to get an MRI upon returning to LA, which we will do. Lesson learned, we're not complainers, but we really should have sought out assistance earlier in the cruise. There's nothing more that really can be done for his knee on board, other than an elastic brace which the doctor offered (we had already purchased the exact same brace while in Florence). But the ship's staff, other than security, is finally exhibiting some concern over his injury, which is appreciated.
Another note, Generoso is truly a consummate professional. We see him all over the ship just stopping by and checking with everyone making sure there's anything they need. We've had good Maitre d's in the past (Silvio on the Emerald was wonderful), but now I really see why Generoso is so highly regarded. He's the perfect host.
Another day of taking it easy. We walked into town to get some more Euros (we're going through them like water here) for extra tips for some of the staff. The town is pretty much the same as everything we have seen, but still quaint. We only spent about an hour in town. However, I have heard that the nearby beaches are beautiful.
Got in to a bit of a tussle with some Italians from another MSC ship that is also in town. There is a taxi station at the edge of town where everyone lines up at to get a cab back to the ships. It was very hot and most people were waiting patiently. One family of four in particular (they were not the only ones) kept trying to cut in the front of the line. The folks in front of us were very vocal about it. Then the family just started waiting in the street, hoping to cut off a cab before it even got to the front of the line. When it came to be our turn, a cab pulled up and we started towards it. They cut us off (the 20-something son shoving Glenn) trying to get into the cab first. I made it clear to the father that we had been waiting for almost 20 minutes. None of us even noticed that the cab already had two people in it, so the cab driver said he was taking us with the other fare and the family would have to wait. They, of course, started shouting as we drove away. Amazing.
Currently enjoying The Sanctuary, taking some time to write up a few "You Made a Difference" cards for crew members whom we have particularly enjoyed. I will probably do some packing today. May have to purchase another bag in Venice to get everything we hadn't planned to buy home! Tonight is our second and last formal night. The ladies are encouraged to wear their RUBY red gowns for this evening's formal night, in case anyone is interested in getting something in red for their upcoming cruise. There is also a New Year's Eve style party in the piazza starting at 11 or so. There was also a White Party on deck the night we left Turkey, but you can get some great white linen on this itinerary for that. No need to bring it.
If I haven't mentioned earlier, this cruise is always scheduled to arrive in Venice at 10:00 p.m. However, Captain "Pedal to the Metal" Tony has announced that he will be getting us in at 6:00 p.m. so that we can see Venice from the sea and enjoy the evening ashore. I don't know if this is a one-time thing that Captain Tony had to negotiate with the local port, but it is a real unexpected treat to have another evening in Venice. The folks that are leaving early Saturday morning are particularly excited. I'm thrilled, if only to get the lay of the land before we start making our way to the Locanda Sturion near the Rialto Bridge with luggage.
Wednesday, Venice, Italy
Last night was our last time at dinner, as everyone at our table was planning to get off the ship and enjoy our first night in Venice. We said our farewells, exchanged e-mails, and gave Yani and Pavel an extra gratuity, as they had treated us all so well. Once again, we lucked out on tablemates. We also said good-bye to Generoso … again, what a lovely person. We saw the new show, Once Upon a Dream. This was really the first show we had seen on the ship, given how intensive the port schedule is. The show is a spectacle, incorporating high-tech screens as backdrops. The technology is amazing, and the costumes were fantastic. However, I was disappointed to see that they have completely abandoned live accompaniment (at least for this production show). As a musician, the "click track" is way over produced (in my opinion) for the venue, but the four lead singers were good. The belt-soprano in particular was excellent, though she really only had a couple of featured numbers. The alto is the featured singer for this show. Our last day was basically a sea day, which was nice. We packed most of our large bags early in the morning, and then headed to the Sanctuary after breakfast for one last day of relaxation. As we approached Venice, the excitement began to rise. Realizing things were getting hectic, we took the time to say good-bye to Carlos, Bosco and Tongpool, and give them their extra gratuities. We had also turned in "You Made a Difference" cards for them, as well.
Sailing into Venice was basically unbelievable. They played Andre Boccelli on the loud speakers as we began our approach to the canal at approximately 4:15. Small boats were riding along with the ship, blowing their horns with people waiving. The ship sounded her horn a few times to announce our arrival along the canal. Given that the horn is directly above the Sanctuary, you can imagine the shock waves it sent through all of us, but it was a source of laughter for all of us and just added to the excitement. The Sanctuary (starboard) is an excellent place to see the approach to Venice, as is the top of the flying bridge (which can be accessed through a door on Deck 14 we were told). But, earlier in the morning, I had ventured up to Deck 19 AFT, which is the Star Deck. We had never gone up there once during the cruise. It has the Princess Links and the small jogging track. Take some time on a sea day and walk up there. You can only get up there on one specially marked aft elevator. The views are incredible. You are right next to the funnel and have a great view of the entire ship in front of you. Even though we had great seats in the Sanctuary, I could only imagine what the view from that deck aft looking forward to the bow as it sailed into the canal must have looked like. If you do not book the Sanctuary for this itinerary, the front of the ship is where everyone gathers for Venice, but Deck 19 aft (starboard) would be the place I would stake out. It really was a magical hour or so during which we passed the Piazza San Marco at about 5:15-5:30.
A word about this itinerary … this is obviously a port intensive cruise. I personally could have done without Corfu and had another sea day to rest up. But we relaxed most of that day anyway. I am very happy that we did Rome to Venice, rather than Venice to Rome, as the "heavy lifting" sightseeing-wise is the first part of this cruise, in my opinion. Then you have Katakolon and Corfu to sort of rest up before Venice. Overall, it's a great itinerary, though I wish we could have stayed later in Santorini and/or Mykonos to experience some of the nightlife there.
Back to Venice, as we pulled into the dock, we went back to the cabin and finished packing, got showered and changed for our evening in Venice. The ship offers a shuttle ($15 USD / person round trip) to St. Mark's Square. However, that shuttle takes a short cut around the island, rather than going through Venice. If you are willing to walk a bit, exit the ship and the port (past the very long line for the ship's shuttle). Walk to the Piazzalle Roma, which is probably a 10-15 minute walk from the ship. The signage is actually pretty good, and there are port agents around if you need to ask. We did not see any taxis, but the ship's arrival was early, so perhaps they did not know it was already in town. There is a large public parking garage at the base of the bridge connecting to the port. It is actually visible from the ship. Across the street from the garage is the Pia. Roma vaporetto station. Vaporetti are basically the bus system of Venice. You can purchase 1-way tickets or round-trip tickets, or you can purchase 24, 48, 72 hour passes for the vaporetto. I had pre-reserved / pre-paid for 72-hour passes at Venice's official website, veniceconnected.com, but I had arranged for the delivery date to be 8/20, as we thought we would be arriving late on 8/19 and not going ashore. This was a mistake, and you really do not need to do this.
After paying on veniceconnected.com, you are given a PNR (Personal Number Reference) with your order (we also got the Museum Pass package) that allows you to obtain your passes from the ticket booths upon arrival. However, they could not advance the "delivery date" to 8/19. Sooooo, we reluctantly shelled out yet another $26 Eu for 2 roundtrip vaporetto tickets. We could have just as easily bought the 72 hour pass without a reservation at that time, though I think it is cheaper if you do so online beforehand. I should, however, have made the "delivery date" the date we arrived in Venice, no matter how late it was scheduled to be. The vaporetto runs at all hours, so even if you get in at 10:00 p.m., you may still want to get off the ship and enjoy Venice.
Using the vaporetto requires some patience, but it is a fairly simple system to figure out. Note, water taxies are available, but at 80-100 Eu, we opted for the vaporetto. Again, make sure to validate your ticket before getting on the boat. The validating machines here are scanners, so you just waive your ticket in front of the scanner near the entrance to the boat docks. Despite the added expense, I am so glad we opted for this over the ship's shuttle. We sailed all the way from the start of the Grand Canal near the ship to the end of the canal at St. Mark's Square. This allowed us to really get the lay of the land, as well as see Venice just as the sun was beginning to set behind the buildings. We passed by our hotel near the Rialto Bridge (Locanda Sturion … more on that after we get there), and finally arrived at St. Mark's Square.
The Piazza San Marco is spellbinding. We walked around for a while and then began looking for the restaurant Generoso had recommended to us, Centrale. We ended up having to ask a shop owner for directions, but she was more than happy to oblige. We found Centrale, which is very chic, very high-end, non-tourismo restaurant. I can see why Generoso says it's where he eats when he's in Venice. We had a lovely dinner with our table mates from the ship, Melissa and Leann, who also came upon Centrale.
After dinner we strolled the Piazza again, to find that the small chamber orchestras had started playing. We will be coming back on Thursday night, as it's enchanting.
As anyone who has sailed Princess knows, they have this down to a science. New to us was "Silent Disembarkation." You are sent to a particular lounge where you wait to be released from that lounge. There are no ship-wide announcements. Only those colors in your lounge are announced there. Being Platinum, we were in the Crown Grill and disembarked around 9:30. No lines, no waiting. Walked right off the ship and found our bags within seconds, literally.
This time, there were cabs aplenty outside. We grabbed one and headed back to the Pia. Roma, where we were able to retrieve our vaporetto passes and board the vaporetto to our hotel.
TRAVEL NOTE FOR THE FUTURE: We have yet to use the Princess Valet Luggage service. I believe it is rather expensive, and I do not know if they only do it one way or not, but we should have at least considered it for our arrival into Venice. It wasn't too bad getting the bags on to the vaporetto, but it sure would have been nice to send our large suitcases home with Valet Service, and just keep back our carryon rollaways for the next couple of days. It's not necessary for all disembarkation ports, but Venice is the one to at least look into it.
Hotel Locanda Sturion
The location could not be better. You are smack dab in the middle of Venice. No, you're not right at the Piazza San Marco, where the major hotels are. But you're only a few vaporetto stops from the Piazza and literally on top of the Rialto Market district. Be forewarned, the Locanda Sturion is four flights of stairs above the Canal with no elevator. It actually sits above another hotel. But, we have a post-card view of the Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge from our hotel windows.
The Sturion is very quaint with a nice sitting room, where I am currently writing this entry. Our bed chamber looks like something out of a period-piece movie, complete with fabric wall coverings, 12-foot ceilings and a Venetian chandelier hanging above the bed. The entrance to the building has a marker that it was built in 1290. The air-conditioning is not the best, but it's tolerable. We spent the morning before our room was ready looking around the Rialto Market. Lots and lots to see and buy.
We stopped by a little trattoria off the canal. The prices looked reasonable, but before we knew it, our lunch (one caprese salad, one order of tortellini, one margherita pizza and two beers) came to $45 Eu … that included a $4.00 Eu service charge for sitting down. As we are so centrally located, we stopped by the Hotel and decided to wait until later afternoon to continue on, as it is very hot and obviously humid here. If you come in the summer months, try to get out in the morning and back to your hotel for a siesta. Then you can venture out into the early evening and well into the night.
We're going to head out the Doge soon. I'll finish up later on.
On the way to San Marco, we stopped at the basilica Santa Maria del Salute (last stop before San Marco). It is very beautiful. We then got back on the vaporetto and went over to San Marco again. We walked along the waterfront and then into the Doge Museum (the entrance is on the waterfront). We walked through the Doge Apartments, but that was about as far as we could get. The heat indoors was just too much. We sat at a cafe in San Marco with a view of the water and enjoyed the evening.
Ok, it is HOT here. Shame on us for coming in August, and the Locanda Sturion's air-conditioning is really not up to the task, at least in Room 2. Another time of year, where you could throw open the windows and enjoy the breeze high above the canal, would have been fine. Regardless, we have tried to see as much as possible, despite the heat. We got a lot of use out of our vaporetti passes, so I highly recommend purchasing a 24, 48 or 72 hour card upon arrival or through veniceconnected.com before you arrive. You can literally decide to jump off if there's something you want to see or stop at a museum, and then jump back on. You can even virtually circle the entire island. Last night we took the 41 line down from San Marco and there is a beautiful park at the Giardini Biennle stop (the Giardini della Biennale) well off the tourist strip of the Grand Canal. Don't be afraid to venture off … there is no sign of crime, and if you get a little lost (which is half the fun), just ask someone. Just be sure to keep your vaporetto pass in a safe place (like in your money belt). Glenn must have pulled something out of his pocket later in the day b/c he lost his (though I'm usually the culprit on these types of things). Luckily, by that point in the day, we only had one more trip from the hotel to the train station.
The breakfast at the Locanda Sturion is fine. Cereals, fresh crescents, cheeses, juice, etc. Enough to quell the hunger before you venture out. We made a pass through the Rialto looking for last minute purchases. If you have time, definitely look around before buying the first thing you see or think you'll want. You will see much of the same thing everywhere, and a mixture of prices. We then decided to make one more trip back to San Marco, which turned out to be delightful. We walked the shops on the perimeter of the square hoping to find that one piece of Murano glass that we just had to have. We saw some amazing pieces, but none we could justify purchasing at this point.
We decided to have a little lunch / snack, so we took at table at the Florian Cafe on the south side of the square, directly in front of the musician's stand. The Florian Cafe opened in the 1700s and the cafe is now also at Harrods in London. We spent about an hour in the shade enjoying the live music (violin, flute, clarinet, piano, upright bass and accordion) as well as a light lunch. Again, almost $50 Eu (which included a $6.00 / person Eu music charge) but it was worth it. It was simply wonderful to sit in San Marco Square with your significant other, people watch, enjoy beautiful music (the musicians were first rate) and some very good food. If only they didn't allow smokers! (or at least segregated them; sorry, but I had to say it). The time came that we had to head back to the Sturion to retrieve our luggage. Even though we had lunch, Glenn wanted one more slice of pizza. So, we grabbed the No. 2 vaporetto (fewer stops than the No. 1) to the Rialto stop (there are several, by the way, on either side of the canal before and after the bride). We stopped by the shop where Glenn had seen a mask (we must have looked at hundreds) that he finally decided on for one of his co-workers. If you are interested in masks, be sure to google the mask maker for "Eyes Wide Shut." His shop is off the Rialto and it is quite a place. We literally stumbled across it. The masks there are like no others you will see in Venice. Even if you're not in the market for one, it's worth walking through his shop.
We grabbed a slice of pizza for Glenn and the "self-service" cafe on the north side of the Rialto Bridge. You are not charged a service charge to eat here. A quick note about Venice; it is against the law to sit on the ground say, on the steps of the canal, and grab a quick bite of pizza or rest. It is not like Rome in this regard. You have to either pay a service charge to sit at a restaurant or find a place like a self-serve cafe.
We walked across the bridge and I stopped at a shop selling gondola shirts. The ones on the tourist kiosks have "Venice" written on them. If you want a real one, walk around the Rialto area. There are a couple of shops selling real ones there. I found a shop that had them, not logo wear from the carts. They come in various designs (boat neck, crew neck, with collars, sleeve-less) for $19 Eu. We made our way back to the Sturion and with Glenn's bad knee, I climbed the 4 flights of stairs 3 times to retrieve our luggage. It was much easier coming down with the luggage than going up, but it's still quite a work out. Oh well, there was no gym in Venice and my new shorts were getting tight around the waist.
We went to the Rialto Mercado station and grabbed the No. 1 to the St. Lucia Train Station. For the first time, the vaporetto conductor asked for our tickets. He got off with me at the next stop to make sure they were still valid. He was very nice, but he was doing his job, so they do check from time to time. He checked everyone that came on board with luggage, so it is probably just something they do as people are leaving town and maybe getting a little lax in purchasing or validating tickets (as we never saw them do that until now). By the way, if you are booking a train out of Venice, make sure you are booking the Santa Lucia Station (if you are staying on the island), rather than the Venice Mestre Station on the mainland.
If the Rome to Civitavecchia train episode was a bit of a disaster, the Venice to Rome leg is the complete opposite … so far, at least. We got our bags to the Santa Lucia Station (Princess Valet Service is looking even MORE interesting now). As an aside, we've constantly been astounded by some odd observations on this trip regarding movement through the cities. The Santa Lucia Station has a huge set of lovely marble stairs in front of it … perfect for lugging large pieces of over-filled luggage around in 99% humidity. We finally found a ramp up … well, almost … the ramp goes up to the last flight of steps just in front of the station at which point you have to take your luggage in hand and walk up the last flight of steps.
But the EuroStar high-speed trains are beautiful. We booked first class tickets for our almost 4 hour train ride to Rome and so far it has been lovely.
We arrived in Rome and walked to the Hilton at the airport through the multiple sky bridges. The FCO Hilton is quite a distance away from the train station, and if the enclosed connecting bridges were ventilated or air-conditioned, that would have made the trek a lot more comfortable. It's amazing how many places in Italy are enclosed with absolutely no ventilation … trains, buses, elevators. At the end of the bridges, we had to take an elevator down to the ground level as no stairs or escalator is available. Even though it was merely one floor, stepping into a small, heated, stifling box after walking 10 minutes even for a short period of time was mind-numbing.
The common areas of the FCO Hilton are very nice. The rooms, however, are merely adequate, which is fine for one over-night stay. The air-conditioning, however, was again not up to par. The sheets … horrible. Very uncomfortable. (By the way, this reminds me, the mattress, sheets, pillows, duvet on the Ruby … excellent. Finally, Princess is listening to its customers!) The price for the Hilton was $168.00 USD guaranteed with an online booking. Again, I probably could have taken a chance with Priceline, but I pre-arranged all lodging early on. After two room service burgers and two beers (at $70 Eu!!! - ouch, and no live music), we re-organized and re-packed our over-stuffed bags and collapsed into bed.
We checked out first thing in the morning. The desk clerk the night before had told us there is no airport shuttle and that the only way back to the airport was through the hotter than hell sky bridges. We asked the desk clerk in the morning, and sure enough, an air-conditioned shuttle was waiting just outside to whisk us to our terminal. When in doubt, ask someone else.
One last travel bump in the road … our flight from Rome to Newark on Continental was delayed by 5 hours!!!!! Even though we were traveling Business/First, the check-in agent said there was nothing they could do for us and that we'd have to just wait with the folks that had checked in just before us. They did say that they would put us up overnight in Newark if need be. Turned out, back at the ticket counter, they were re-booking everyone else on other available flights. Well, it helps to have an ex-airline employee (Glenn) with you who knows the federal regulations regarding flight interruptions. He had to get a bit riled up and go through a couple of agents to supervisors (and luckily did not get thrown in jail in the process), he was successful in getting us and the couple in front of us booked on Alitalia to Newark and re-booked on a later flight on Continental to LAX, which happened to also be their final destination. And, since Alitalia does not have business class, we're in first class with the new pod seats that fully recline and individual "on demand" entertainment systems. Awesome! Just watched Star Trek …. TWICE. Great movie.
Newark to LAX
We tried to purchase an upgrade at the gate to first class, but no luck. Boy, those last 5 hours in coach were brutal. Not because it was coach, but we were in an exit row that doesn't recline. I love the extra leg room, but with absolutely no recline, there's not too much you can to do change your position. The good news was, the movie was Star Trek, which I had really wanted to see. ? And, you know, it gets better each time.
Epilogue: It's been over a week since we returned from Europe. I'm already counting the days to the next cruise. Was the Ruby Princess perfect? No. But it was a great cruise, even if I don't feel rested. But that's due to the itinerary and jet lag. If I did not mention this before, we felt that the Ruby had "new ship-itis" in some respects. Everything on our prior cruise on the Emerald had just been about perfect, and the Ruby still has a ways to go. However, I'm sure Generoso will snap her into shape. I love looking at our pictures, and to some extent wish I had just taken a few extra moments here and there to just "take it all in." You kind of forget to do that when you're seeing so much and feel there is so much to see. So … just remember to take a deep breath and forget about taking pictures and just study what you're seeing from time to time.