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First Cruise on the Med with the Solstice
Europe - Western Mediterranean
Cruising was a lot more comfortable than taking trains, planes, and other methods of rushing across Europe, trying to get to different places. The Solstice was a beautiful ship and I was glad to go AquaClass, because it gave me access to Blu, a restaurant I'll solely miss, now I can no longer go there. The dining area was modern, but a lovely kind of modern, with walls carved in the shape of a rose and windows looking out at the sea. I could eat healthy, beautifully prepared food there. The other specialty restaurants didn't capture my heart the same way, although I did have a very lovely meal at Murano's. Everyone on the ship was courteous and attentive to my needs. Arthur, the attendant to our cabin, found out I preferred cheese to canapes and I got cheese every afternoon in my room.
The shore excursions were excellent, especially Florence on Your Own, Rome on Your Own, the Kusadasi/Ephesus excursion, and the Malta walking tour.
On the ship, I really enjoyed the More
lecture/presentations of both Miriam and Gordan. They gave us a lot of information relevant to the ports we were visiting in an interesting fashion that was easy to absorb. The shows were also excellent. There was a wonderful circus performance with acrobatics and contortionists, as well as an extremely talented magician. A lot more was going on that I didn't go to, but I was mostly interested in events that had to do with the ports we were visiting. Our cruise director, Lisa Richards, was very attentive to my questions and needs, pointing me in the right direction when I wanted to know more about the places we'd be passing by on our voyage. If I had one complaint, it was that things got crowded at times. It was hard finding a place to sit in the buffet and we missed one of the shows, because there were no seats. The buffet was, however, excellent, and I'll miss the pizza maker who made such wonderful pizza every day. Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
We pulled into Terminal B at Pireus, so we needed to take the shuttlebus to Terminal A, where George the Famous Taxi Driver was waiting for us. He took very good care of us for the day. First, we went to Acropolis, where we got tickets for most of the things we wanted to see. It was a long, cold hike up the stairs. When we reached the top, it was so windy, we felt like we'd be picked up and tossed off. One side of the Parthenon was windier than the other, we discovered as we moved around it. It was covered with scaffolding, of course. Too often have I seen something famous for the first time to find it covered with scaffolding. The Erechtheion was magnificent, even though it was covered with scaffolding and I couldn't get too close to it. There were swarms of crowds and tour groups all over, in spite of the cold. We had to mill through them to make it to the bottom of the hill, where George waited for us. He took us over to the Agora, where we saw the Temple of Winds and the Roman ruins. Mom waited for us, as Dad, Don, and I hiked up the hill to the Greek Agora, where Socrates once lectured. It was also covered with scaffolding, but the view from the top of the hill was magnificent. We walked down and met Mom at the Agora museum, which we took a quick look at. Nice museum, small, but very nice. We went back the way we came to meet George, who took us to the Temple of Zeus. The sight of it brought tears to my eyes. There's something about this simple ruin that sums up everything classical for me. It was hard to walk away from the pillars, reaching out towards the heavens. It was a good thing I did, because next was the Archaeological Museum, one of the most magnificent museums I've visited on this cruise. It was hard to remember I was on a time limit. I kept wanting to linger and admire the lines of each statue, to note the changes in their expressions from happy to wistful, as the styles changed with time. Eventually, I managed to drag myself out. It was time for lunch. George took us to a restaurant he was familiar with that had nothing I recognized as Greek from the Greek food I'd had in the U.S., other than mousaka. (The mousaka was very good.) The food was decent and reasonably priced. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant, but I'm not sure if the place would have been that easy to get to, if we hadn't had George guiding us and taking care of our transportation. After lunch, we went to the plaka, where there were a lot of touristy shops and hawkers. It was very cold and we couldn't find a place to sit and have coffee. We decided we wanted to go back to the ship and have coffee where it was warm, so we went back to find George. He returned us to Terminal A, which was open. We were able to safely board our ship, where we were greeted with hot chocolate. Afterwards, we went down to Cafe Bacchio to have coffee, before we returned to our decks, to watch as we pulled out of Pireus.
Barcelona was where we set sail from. There had been a virus on the ship previously, so the Solstice was being disinfected. We had to wait before we went to our rooms and every common area was mobbed with people and their carry on luggage. This was the lowest point of the cruise for me, other than disembarking. It was a surprise when we pulled out of Barcelona, which I went scurrying outside to watch. Unfortunately, it was cold and foggy, so I didn't see much. I'd been staying in Barcelona before boarding the Celebrity Solstice and found the city very beautiful. I love the Modernistas and the work of Gaudi, but I had great fun just walking down the street with my head craned to look at everything. To the credit of those on board the Solstice, the staff were very polite and attentive to us, in spite on the crowds. We had a very nice meal in Bistro 5, while waiting to get to our rooms.
Things started out fine. We got a taxi from Souda to Chania. Chania was a very pretty port. The water was so blue and clear we could see the fish swimming in it. First we went to the archaeological museum, which was small, but had some very nice artifacts in it. There were kittens in the garden of the museum, which were three of the most adorable fluff balls. Chania is filled with cats, wandering here and there, stopping by to see if you're willing to give them some of your lunch. They ate most of Mom's. I wish I could remember the name of the place we stopped for lunch at, so you could know to avoid it. It was on the water and had a hawker in front of it. Beware of restaurants with hawkers, for your luck isn't likely to be good at a place that has to lure people in like fish on a reel. We were told they accepted credit cards and told at the end of the meal that they only accepted euros. They took nearly all our money, so we barely had enough left for the cab ride back to the ship. Happily, our taxi driver, who'd agreed to meet us in front of the archaeological museum at three o'clock, was more honest than the waiter/hawker had been. He showed up at three to take us back to the boat and we were relieved to go. The prospect of being stranded without euros made up all nervous and none of us had an ATM card, because we were trying to be careful of pickpockets. We managed to walk by the archaeological dig and sat for a long time in a church, because it was free. However, being ripped off for lunch did put a damper on an otherwise very pleasant port on a very pretty day. When we got back to the ship, we were greeted with water and fruit punch, since it was earlier and warmer than it had been in previous ports.
This journey to Florence was lovely. We actually docked in Livorno and took a Celebrity bus to Florence. Our guide was a Dutch woman married to a Florentine, who was a lot of fun, telling us a lot of stories to while the time away as we traveled to the city. Along the road, Tuscany was experiencing a lovely, golden fall of trees covered with yellow leaves, which was a pleasure to behold through the window. When we arrived at the city, we were free to go where we wished. My mother kept stopping to look in shop windows and I kept stopping to look at the various gelato stands. We had a quick look outside the Baptistry, then had to rush to get to our appointment at the Uffizi Gallery. The Gallery was a delight to stroll through with its many famous paintings, include the wonderful Botticellis and one of my favorites by Caravaggio. After we'd explored the Uffizi, we went to lunch at a very pretty restaurant called Paolo. The food was excellent, although I ordered way too much. After lunch, we headed back to San Croce, where there was an event taking place outside. We met with our tour group after visiting the church and went back to our bus. We visited some of the beautiful places on the hillside, before we drove back to our ship. When we boarded the Celebrity, the staff was waiting for us with hot chocolate. It was a great way to spend a day in Florence.
We were very pampered on our tour from Kusadasi to Ephesus back to Kusadasi again. Mom and Dad took a different tour, but had just as good a time on theirs. We were given a bag of souvenirs, including something a friend had asked me to find for her in Turkey, 'evil eye'. Our guide always called us 'dear guests', treating us with the greatest courtesy, as he told us various anecdotes and stories about the places we visited. Our bus took us from the ship to Ephesus, where I saw some of the most fantastic Roman ruins I've ever seen. We were able to go inside an archaeological dig and view the frescoes they'd unearthed. Afterwards, we came out to see a pageant with 'Caesar' and 'Cleopatra', which began with an Egyptian dance and ended with a gladiator fight. Afterwards, we were taken to the Ephesus archaeological museum, which we had a half hour to explore on our own. I barely made it out in time, I kept gawking at everything. The Aphrodite room was as wonderful as our guide promised, but I loved the room of statues as well. We drove past a couple of monuments, before we were taken back to Kusadasi for lunch. We were dressed as Romans and sat down for a Roman feast. I really liked the vegetarian items we were served. After lunch, we were taken to a place where Turkish carpets were made. I was a little uneasy about this, thinking I'd be pushed into buying a Turkish rug, but we had a great time. We learned a lot about how Turkish rugs were made and were offered local beverages as a courtesy. I got to try Turkish coffee and my husband tried a hot beverage that tasted like apples. The coffee tasted like a very rich, dark chocolate with no milk and very little sugar in it. It was quite delicious. The rugs were beautiful and we were tempted to get one, although our cat would have probably made short work of it. :) As it was, we had a lot of fun. Getting back to the ship was a little difficult, as we wandered through the fish market, trying to find the entrance for the cruise ships. There were even more cats in Turkey than there had been in Crete. Eventually, we made our way back to the ship. I bought some Turkish delight at the port and took it back to our rooms on the ship. We were greeted with water and punch as we boarded. My husband and I returned to our rooms and our deck, which adjoined with our parents. They had already returned from their excursion. We shared adventures, champagne, Turkish delight, and the cheese Arthur had brought us, enjoying the view of Kusadasi, until we pulled out of the port.
This port was one of the most impressive to pull into, as we passed by stone fortifications and the great wall that surrounds Valetta. My parents, my husband, and myself took the Solstice's tour, which took us first to Valetta and next to Mdina. We found ourself on a lovely shopping street in the city, after our guide took us to a look out point, from which we could see the city. One of the major attractions in the city was closed, so we were taken to the archaeological museum instead. Nice museum, but it was a bit crowded with everyone from the tour group. Dad had a great time ducking into a small shop looking for a Christmas ornament. The owner gave him the ornament for free. Our guide took us over to St. John's. Even after seeing some of the most magnificent churches in the world, this one stood out. It walls were lined with gold or covered with ornamentation to the point that one felt dizzy looking upon them. There was a long wait to see the Caravaggio paintings, where we were let in to see in small groups. I wish people wouldn't take pictures when asked not to; I didn't, even though I want to photograph everything. Someone had to be escorted out, because she wouldn't stop taking pictures, even when asked not to again and again. I'm worried visitors may no longer get to see the paintings, if enough people ignore the visiting rules. Happily, we did get to see them. After we left St. John's, we walked back to the bus, which took us outside the walls Mdina. Beautiful city, filled with limestone, it was a pleasure to walk through it. We were taken to another look out point and another magnificent church, although not quite in the same league as St. John's. Afterwards, we returned to our bus, which took us back to the port, with a stop in Valetta for those who wanted to do some more exploring. We were tempted to go back, but we worried about getting down the hill with Mom's bad knees, so we returned to the ship. Once again, we were greeted with cold beverages as we got on board.
I was all prepared to be terrified in Naples. The traffic was terrifying, but other than that, I enjoyed it. There was more stress on our visit to Pompey, which was muddy and slippery. My mother took a fall there and sported a terrible bruise. Many of the best excavations were closed, because of the rain. Our guide did her best, but stopping for long periods of time to stand was hard on my mother. Also, when we were waiting to be picked up, we had to wait in a place where there were no seats available. You had to buy a drink in order to sit down. Eventually, I managed with my meager Italian to find a seat for my mom, but it was in an out of the way spot, where the rest of us had to keep running back and forth from to see if it was time to go. When we returned to our port, it was a long walk to the main part of the city. Castel Nuovo looked beautiful from the outside and I'm a little sorry we didn't go in. We had a wonderful lunch at Pizzeria Brandi of the best Pizza Marguerita I've had in my life. The staff treated us very kindly, putting up with my poor Italian, and taking my mom to a more accessible restroom when she couldn't make it down the stairs. Coffee at Cafe Gambrinus was lovely. Not only is the place beautiful, but I got to try Torrone di Morte. It was even more delicious than I imagined, a wonderful rich mixture of chocolate and nuts. We walked up Via Toledo, trying to find Santa Chiara. The walk was lovely, but it was too much for my mother. We got a little lost, but eventually found Santa Chiara, which had beautiful grounds, full of mosaics. I'm sorry we didn't make it to Gregorio Armeno, but we were running out of time. We took a taxi back to the dock, which was quite an adventure. Once again, we were greeted with hot chocolate when we boarded the ship.
Rome was experiencing a public transportation strike, so we were glad we took the ship's private train into Rome. Maximo, our guide, was very helpful in answering questions about where to go in the city, as well as where to find a good restaurant for lunch, since we doubted we'd make it to La Rampa. Once again, when we reached the city, we went our own way. My family and I were planning to go to Palatine Hill, the Forum, and the Colosseum, so we grabbed the first taxi we found. We started at Palatine Hill, which is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. I expected great ruins, but I didn't expect the walk among the 'Pines of Rome' to be so breathtaking. The Forum was filled with great ruins, but very hard to get around with its jutting stone walkways. I had to watch my step. The Colosseum is as fantastic as ever, but it's a lot harder to leave, with a new, winding exit that takes you on an extra walk you may not want. We were later than we expected, coming out of the Colosseum, but we found another taxi. The taxi took us to the Piazza Navona, where we took pictures. From there, we walked to a nearby church that was said to have a couple of Caravaggio paintings. Alas, the church was closed, so we made our way to the Pantheon. It was beautiful, but mobbed. After leaving, we headed to the area Maximo recommended for food, between the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain, outside of both areas, but not too far away. We found St. Ignacio's, named after the nearby church and had a fabulous lunch. After lunch, we visited St. Ignacio's, which was beautiful. We walked from there to the Trevi Fountain, to toss our coins in, take pictures, and just bask in the sight the fountain. We took another taxi to St. Peter's, hoping to take a quick look inside the cathedral. This was impossible with the huge line. We made our way back to our meeting place with Maximo by St. Peter's Train Station, stopping for gelato along the way. It was some of the best I've ever tried and it wasn't even close to the best in Rome. After meeting Maximo, we took the train back to Civitivecchia, taking a bus from there to our ship. Again, we were greeted with hot chocolate.