One element of a Mediterranean cruise that is quite different from a Caribbean one is the pre-planning involved. For most, the Mediterranean itinerary is less familiar, more expensive to visit ports, and, for some, anxiety provoking to spend days in unknown ports that could be hard to navigate, especially when the native tongue is not one's own.
After looking through Disney's shore excursion offerings, as well as considering friends' recommendations, we arranged for private drivers in three of the eight ports (Naples being the first) and booked them several weeks prior to our trip. Today we discovered a few unexpected benefits of this plan.
Naples has so much to offer, from the city itself to nearby Sorrento, Capri and the Amalfi Coast, as well as Pompeii and Herculaneum. We knew we couldn't see it all, however, by hiring a driver here. We thought we'd get to see more of the Amalfi coast (stopping when and where we wanted too), as well as Pompeii, at our own pace. We found Adriano, our guide, from Cruise Critic's boards -- thanks to all who made the recommendations.
As we began our tour in Naples (Italy's third largest city after Rome and Milan), we got a quick history lesson from our guide, Adriano, about all the different groups that fought and/or reigned over this region -- Greeks, Bourbons, Byzantines, Turkish, Spanish, Romans and Normans (although probably not in that order, but I do recall -- because the kids weren't fighting over who had the best seat during this part of the discussion -- that the Spanish had quite a long period of domination, from 1502 - 1707). And that was it for Naples, pretty much, as we merely passed through on our way to the Amalfi Coast. Next trip -- we'll check out the city.
On the way, we knew we had at least an hour in the car until our first stop -- yet the time flew. Adriano told us about the history of Naples while we peppered him with questions about life in the city today. I asked Adriano about something I’d read that said the people of Italy don't think of themselves as Italian first, but by their region instead, i.e. Milanese, Neapolitans, Bolognesi, etc. He said that is very true, so I decided to ask his opinion about the following statement in the book we'd brought along, Pick Your Brains about ... Italy, by Jez Mathews:
"It is jokingly said that the Bolognesi (people who come from Bologna) are self important; Florentines (people who come from Florence) think they know it all; Milanese (people who come from Milan) have no sense of humour; Neapolitans (from Naples) are extroverts.”
Neapolitan Adriano certainly seemed to fit that bill. He laughed and confirmed some of the above (we'll keep the rest of what he added private) then shared how he and his extended family, mother, siblings, nieces and nephews gather together each Sunday. Everyone talks at once and no one listens, except him, so they call him "the Englishman." And that's because? From the Neapolitan point of view, English visitors are quite reserved. And since Adriano's not talking ... well you get the picture.
I’m glad he's telling me this story, not just because it's entertaining, but because it also distracts me from the cliffs we're driving along as we make our way toward the town of Amalfi. I’m afraid to look out the window, which would mean straight down, by thousands of feet in some places. At this point I’m immensely thankful we're not seeing Amalfi by bus where I would have the same feeling I do now, but because of a buses' height, would be suspended even higher (and feeling as if I could tip over at any moment).
Aside from a few of those tight turns, the views are stunning. I imagine that the Neapolitans take day trips out here away from the city chaos, (in much the same way people in Los Angeles head out on their coastal roads to quieter oases in Santa Barbara or La Jolla) to gaze out at the explosion of fuscia-colored bougainvillea, olive trees, cherry tomato plants, stone walls and beautiful wrought iron balconies in white, black and orange.
We continue along, going through tunnels cut through rock, passing vertical villages, exclusive hotels perched on cliff-tops, and a series of white arches fronting the ocean. Adriano explains that this is a burial place for the dead, and says, "We say here that when you die you go from one paradise to another."
We've been in the car for hours now, making stops to take photographs at scenic overlooks, getting lemon-flavored ices for the boys, and taking a break in Amalfi to wander around the village for half an hour. Even after the Amalfi stop the boys are still antsy and need to burn off some energy. Adriano was telling us about a beach up ahead that his daughter loves, and we ask to make a stop. It will steal time away from our afternoon in Pompeii, but we're feeling like a little flexibility will be worth it. The boys have no swimsuits and wade carefully into the shallow "end" of the sea so as not to get their clothes wet -- that is until a wave comes along and soaks the ends of Colin's shorts. When he exclaims -- in perfect "Adriano" -- "Mama Mia!" we all laugh. It was a memory -- one of those moments of joy and fun that happen when you least expect it -- and we'll take that one home, I'm sure.
After the swim, we head for lunch at San Giovanni, a restaurant Adriano has suggested, in a tiny village called Pontone (a fraction of land near Ravello). It's definitely one we'd never find on a bus tour (in part because a bus couldn't make this single-lane corkscrew road). The family-run restaurant is tucked into the mountainside high above the sea with a patio surrounded by a log fence and flowering vines. It is here that we sampled Pina’s (the wife) homemade pastas, a pineapple and prosciutto pizza (my boys will never rave about Papa John's again), along with "scamorza" -- smoked mozzarella baked on lemon leaves.
Tim and I wanted to ditch the rest of the day's plan and just stay here, but alas we had Pompeii on the list. So we got back in the car and took a different route back to the highway that would lead us to Pompeii -- not as scenic, but enjoyable because of our chat with Adriano about life, Southern Italian style.
We arrived at Pompeii mid afternoon. The plus side was that it wasn't overly crowded (Adriano told us that it was more typically congested in the mornings, when cruise ships offered their tours). The downside is that by this point all the boys wanted to do was go back to the ship and swim (not to mention the fact that Tim and I were feeling a little too relaxed after wine with lunch). Not exactly the right frame of mind to spend the two hours needed to get a sense of Pompeii.
But we persevered and headed into the open-air museum with audio guides in hand.
This ancient Roman town was buried along with its 2,000 residents in 79 AD when Mt. Vesuvius (a still-active volcano that you can see from your ship!) erupted. Here you can see one of the best-preserved specimens of an ancient Roman town in existence, with an extensive forum, lavish baths, frescoes, temples and patrician villas.
There are several ways to learn about and appreciate Pompeii. The least expensive is to learn by guidebook or by renting an audio tour. (For 8.50 euros, we rented a version for one child and one adult). You simply press the number on the audio guide (it's like a phone you hold to your ear) that corresponds to the building or set of ruins you're looking at. The difficult part is there are several places within Pompeii that say (for example) "#5," so you're never quite certain that you’re looking at the right thing. A fellow cruiser I met with a guidebook said she was having the same problem with her written guide.
If you want to get the most out of Pompeii, ask someone at the information desk about a tour guide. There are licensed guides available that get small groups together you can join for a fee. Other alternatives are of course taking an organized tour through the ship, which gets you to Pompeii and includes the guide, or, if you've hired a private driver, they too can coordinate to have a guide waiting to meet you there.
And if you're five, you don't need any of the above because your highlight will be discovering how many different types of stray dogs you can find roaming about the ruins and hiding in its alcoves.
Ultimately, despite the fact that we did pack a lot of sightseeing into one day (perhaps too much), and while it would have been less expensive to see Naples to share the tour with three more people (to decrease the expense), we loved our experience with Adriano for the flexibility, intimate look at the Amalfi Coast, and most of all, because of all we learned about the Neapolitans through his stories.
Back on the ship later on, I heard from a few other families about their days in Naples. One family took the train to Pompeii and then the hydrofoil (a high speed boat) to Sorrento and had a perfectly easy day getting around on their own. Two others took Disney's shore tour "The Hidden Treasures of Herculaneum," which was to include a treasure hunt. It turned out there was no treasure hunt, and instead a list of trivia questions that even some of the dads couldn't figure out, plus a guide that was less than kid friendly.
We covered so many miles today (and have many more to go in Rome the day after tomorrow), we've left tomorrow's call in Sardinia unplanned. We’ll let the weather, and the shore tour desk, be our guide for the day.
From Cameron's Journal
A 10-year-old's perspective (excerpted from Cameron's journal, with permission):
Second image courtesy of Christine Koubek