Today's shore excursions promise to be the most grueling of the trip, but well worth the effort. Livorno is an industrial port with no more interest for the cruising visitor than is Izmir. But in the way that Izmir provides a gateway to Ephesus, Livorno provides entry to the medieval and Renaissance jewels of Pisa and Florence. Though there are half-day tours -- mostly either Pisa alone or nearby Tuscany sightseeing -- most excursions last in the eight- to 10-hour range. Florence is a solid hour to hour-and-a-half bus ride away. (It doesn't take the record in my personal experience as far as point of interest furthest from the port honors; that goes to the Mayan ruins at Tikal, which require four bus rides and a roundtrip on a Boeing 737 jetliner to experience.)
Carnival has bundled basic Florence with a number of individual elements to come up with a series of varied shore excursion opportunities: Florence and the Uffizi Museum, Florence and the Leonardo Museum, Florence and shopping, etc. "Florence on Your Own," basically a shuttle service to and from the ship, was also offered. This is the most popular option in Rome, but generally speaking not a good choice for Florence if visiting the city's museums and galleries is high on your agenda. The reason is that there are two lines for most museums, and those accompanied by a licensed guide get preferential admission; those waiting in line independently, during times of peak traffic, can expect a wait in line of up to two hours.
However, if you are one of those cruisers who likes to do homework and preplan before leaving the States, it is possible to plan a day in Florence successfully on your own. There is a reservation telephone line you can call to get a scheduled entry appointment at the Uffizi, Accademia or Pitti Palace. The reservationist will give you a number, which you take to the entry at the appointed hour, and, along with an extra 3 euros, you immediately get your ticket and enter the museum. The phone number to call -- given here with Italy's country code -- is 39-055-294883. One other caveat for those wishing to tour Florence on their own is that these museums are all closed on Mondays.
I chose the Florence/Uffizi combination, as I had been to the Leonardo as well as the Accademia (where the original of Michelangelo's David is on display).
I have come to realize over the years that whether you call it luck of the draw or a crapshoot, there's no guarantee of getting a quality guide when you book a shore excursion, and not even my Turkish good luck eye had any effect on the outcome. To be fair to Carnival the Uffizi excursion is new to their inventory, so they may already be fine tuning their choice of providers and guides, but our guide, Remo, was in way over his head.
Some of the issues with which we would be dealing qualify as mere foibles, some as language or presentation problems, but some turned out to be major logistical, operational or organizational bungles. In the foibles category was our 90-minute ride into Florence when despite the fact that the bus had a perfectly functional P.A. system, Remo spoke to us over the "whisper" receivers (those individual radios that pipe the guide's spiel directly into your ear through an ear bud), but he kept, um, forgetting to talk into his mike.
The real issues of the excursion cropped up the moment we stepped off the bus. It has been seven years since I last visited Florence on a cruise. In 2000 the number and size of ships calling at Livorno were fewer and smaller. I have written articles on the effects of radically elevated cruise passenger volume in the small island ports of the Caribbean, but I hadn't really considered the same effects as an issue in the Mediterranean. The sight greeting me as I stepped off the bus was startling. It was literally a mob scene with Florence's narrow streets crammed curb to curb, wall to wall, with a marching mass of humanity, all of whom, judging from the signs on sticks hoisted overhead by the troop-leading guides, were from the ships in port.
We found ourselves among six tour groups from our ship alone, and that's not including those from RCI's Brilliance of the Seas and Oceania's Insignia, also in port. One of the problems with the Carnival touring groups at this location is that the signs carried by the guides were so similar as to be interchangeable. In other ports the signs were clearly identifiable by color code and number. Carnival gives a color to each individual excursion, and a number for each bus assigned to that tour. In this case we were Orange Two, meaning bus two of "Uffizi Museum and Florence" excursion. However, neither our color nor our number could be discerned at a distance from the sign.
As we moved into the narrow street leading to central Florence, the crowding and noise level increased geometrically. It was now impossible to see Remo at all, but that didn't stop him from blithely rattling on at a breakneck pace, saying such things as, "Over there is the school of sculpture, where Michelangelo studied, and on that side of it are the offices of the university." Never mind that we couldn't see where he was gesturing or even be sure we were on the same block. In fact, there were times I had trouble spotting fellow tour members, much less Remo.
When we reached our first stop at the Piazza Duomo, there was a bit more space for us to spread out and wait for everyone to reach the group and gather up. Prudently, some passengers asked Remo where we would be meeting for lunch, so that if they got separated they would be able to reconnect with the group later on. Remo answered cryptically that it was a restaurant behind the Uffizi. When asked the name of the restaurant and the time of lunch, Remo refused to disclose either because, he stated, he didn't want people to go off on their own.
When Remo began talking about the Duomo, Florence's most famous landmark, his greatest strength and area of expertise became apparent. He was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about Renaissance art, and gave us tremendous insights into the details of the history, construction and artistic embellishment of the Duomo, more officially known as Santa Maria del Fiore, Our Lady of the Flower. From our perspective the emblematic dome was not visible, but the beautiful façade with inlaid red, green and white marble mosaics and sculptures by a number of Renaissance masters, including Donatello, was. The campanile, or bell tower, involved a number of famous artists as well, including Giotto. Finally, we moved around to the side of the cathedral facing the dome, designed notably by Filippo Brunelleschi. It was the largest built up till that time, constructed entirely without scaffolding. From our ground level perspective we could see people standing on the dome's balcony, but unfortunately, the scheduling of our tour allowed no time for a visit to the Duomo's interior. The smaller Bapistry, dating back to medieval times, is known for its elaborate bronze doors titled "The Gates of Paradise." The doors were designed by Andrea Pisano and Lorenzo Ghiberti to illustrate biblical events in bas relief, and they described in loving detail by Remo.
On the way from the Duomo to the Uffizi, Remo once more lost control of the group, which again began to stretch far beyond the span that could be kept track of by a single individual. When we reached central Florence, once the Jewish Ghetto and outdoor fish markets (now given over to shopping and al fresco dining), it was no wonder that we were short a half-dozen people. Remo set off to find them, but without giving specific instructions as to a meeting place and time, so that after 15 minutes or so -- during which time four of the missing six had shown up on their own, sans Remo -- folks tired of standing around and waiting wandered off (what's that expression about herding cats?). When Remo finally did return he had to go combing through the nearby leather shops to gather them up again.
Rather than continue to harp on these unfortunate time-wasting, frustrating shortcomings -- of which there were literally dozens that followed -- I would prefer to fast-forward to the interior of the Uffizi, where Remo was once again in his element. Proceeding from gallery to gallery he took us through Florentine history from the Byzantine through the Renaissance as documented by some of Florence's greatest artists. We started in the Hallway of the Statues of the Medicis, the family that both ruled and nurtured Florence over the centuries, discussing each individual Medici whose bust was on display, and his contributions to art, science, the city and to the Renaissance.
From there we entered the Gallery of Religious Medieval Art. The artworks at one end of this gallery, including those by the master, Giotto, were in the Byzantine style, devoid of detail, perspective or emotional features in the faces of the subjects. As one proceeded to the later medieval end of the room, the paintings gained perspective, landscaped backgrounds, shading of light and shadow, and recognizable human emotions in facial features.
Those scenic background landscapes were inherited from the interchange of ideas with the great Dutch masters, as were the influences of Protestantism, which during the mid-Renaissance, meant concentration on an increasingly greater number of secular, or even pagan (i.e., Greek or Roman mythological) subjects. Nowhere was the acceptance of "pagan" themes more apparent than in "The Birth of Venus," the Botticelli masterpiece so familiar from posters, prints and art history books and classes. To see it in the flesh (so to speak) is chilling. The nudity of Venus, while not erotic, was still a departure.
Michelangelo's "Holy Family," hanging nearby, was not so lucky for the artist. He had to repaint it three times to reduce the amount of nudity. We also got to see the Da Vinci's masterpiece, "The Annunciation," painted when he was only 17, which added another advance to the craft of illustrating perspective. Da Vinci felt that the foreground subject and distant background should not be painted with the same clarity, so he added a smoky haze to the background landscape, which greatly added to the sense of distance between foreground and background.
Back in the teeming crowds outside the Uffizi, we began to wend our way to our lunch stop. By now it was pushing 2 p.m., and we were all just a bit hungry and a wee bit cranky, so there was no objection when Remo set off at a pace somewhere between a trot and a canter (alas, when he made a 90 degree turn at the River Arno, he neglected to ... oh, that's right, I wasn't going to pile it on).
At last we reached the restaurant, and reconnected with the balance of our group, who wound up accidentally marching with Orange 3, when Remo ... oops, sorry. Anyway, Remo told us that the room we were dining in was on the second floor, and asked us if we wanted to wait to go up in groups of eight in the tiny elevator, or to take the stairs. Second floor? We'll take the stairs, leaving Remo to wait for the less ambulatory to assist them into the elevator.
I know that I wasn't going to beat up on Remo anymore, but, well, what we had here was a failure to communicate. Since technically, without realizing it, we were on Floor Zero, and the dining room one flight up, actually on the ground floor mezzanine, had no idea who we were. Nor did they know on Floor Number One, or on Mezzanines 1A or 1B. In short, that second floor restaurant required climbing five steep flights of stairs! Lunch, when we found the right room, was uneventful and undistinguished, centered around a dish of cafeteria-style lasagna.
After lunch, a group of about six of us decided to abandon Remo, but alerted him that, rather than continue with the guided tour to its final stop at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (Santa Croce), we would meet him back at the bus, and confirmed both the time and location. Then we set off for some independent shopping and gelati. When we approached Santa Croce, and prepared to head for the bus for our meeting in 10 minutes, we were astounded to hear Remo padding up behind us, off schedule as ... oh, sorry.
Using the extra half hour we continued our independent exploration, winding up at the meeting point about 15 minutes early, so we decided to take a stroll along the Arno to kill time, which is when we discovered the bus, about three blocks away from where Remo ... darn, don't know why I keep doing that.
Facetiousness notwithstanding, on our nearly 11-hour excursion, the meat and potatoes of the guided tour amounted to about 40 minutes outside the Duomo, about an hour inside the Uffizi, and a one-hour lunch. This was much less than I had experienced in this gem of a city on my last Livorno port call, and, at that time I was on an excursion that included Pisa as well. A sign of the times? Perhaps. An issue of tour guide incompetence? Well, certainly if you added up all the wasted time that could have been devoted to sightseeing, even opportunities to get out of the bus for one of those patented panoramic photo-ops of Florence from the surrounding hills, the time on tour would have seemed more fruitful.
But on the long bus ride back to the port I decided to think in more positive terms, to come up with solutions for maximizing Florence. I came up with the following:
Travel during shoulder season. The Mediterranean can be very pleasant during the months of May and October, yet both the prices and the numbers of tourists on the ground are both far lower.
Monday through Thursday are the busiest days for Florentine tourism. Look for a cruise that calls at Livorno Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.
Do your homework, research and do as much preplanning and booking as possible before leaving home. Then you can book an "On Your Own" excursion that's tailored tightly to your own priorities.
Lastly, for many travelers one port or destination city is tops on their list of must-sees, and for them, it may make sense to invest in some "insurance" against the vagaries of guides and itineraries and unpunctual fellow tour guests. In other words, if visiting a certain place is a once-in-a-lifetime wish, it may be worthwhile to pick that one city in your itinerary to splurge on a private car or small van with driver and guide. Nearly all cruise lines offer these types of tours at varying prices, so it's hard to generalize. But I was discussing this very issue with a couple after returning from Florence, and they had made that small-van choice in Istanbul, and thought it was one of the best decisions they had made. Their 12-passenger van, had they filled it, would have cost little more per passenger than a standard tour. Given the current state of tourist crowding, the preferential treatment offered to those on guided tours, and the logistical problems of moving a group of 40-plus tour guests expeditiously, if there were one destination for cruisers that I would consider the best candidate for such a splurge, it would be Florence.
Back on the ship I began to think of my hypothetical "once-in-a-lifetime" visitor to Europe, and it was a reality check for me as I've traveled there several times. I decided to make it a priority to find, on tomorrow's tour of Rome and the Catacombs, just such a person or couple, and get their take on how they felt about the hit-or-miss quality of tours and tour guides, and of the inhospitable climatological exigencies of stifling heat or rain or other environmental discomforts that impact on the quality of the exploratory experience.