It seems that we were planning this trip for AGES! Actually, we booked both halves of this cruise in late April 2008 and began serious planning in May. We had originally been looking for a cruise that included a two day stop in Egypt and were only planning on doing the 12 day cruise, so booked that cruise first. We were fortunate to have saved up Sky Miles for our flights, and when we started investigating and booking our Delta flights discovered it would be very feasible to add the 9 day cruise to our agenda and be able to use the same (almost) free flights. Due to the availability of our award flights, we added one night pre cruise and two nights post in Barcelona. The morning we were at the airport ready to begin our flight to Barcelona I kept having to pinch myself, checking to make sure I was truly awake and finally embarking on our dream-come-true voyage!
We tried hard not to have overly high expectations for this Jade cruise. We had been reading all the reviews over the months of planning, but we were so excited by the itinerary, and as it turned out, most pleasantly surprised by the wonderful staff and crew of the Jade. These B2B cruises far exceeded any of our expectations. Originally we had booked a guarantee inside cabin, but as the cruise date approached and there were more and more price reductions, we moved up to a partially obstructed oceanview stateroom mid-ship that we were able to book for both legs, plus we had more onboard credit than we had ever received on a cruise before. We proved up to the task, and spent every cent of it, however, and a few dollars besides. The refund of the fuel supplements was a wonderful bonus that paid almost all our service charges.
We arrived in Barcelona very early the morning before embarkation.We purchased a T-10 ticket and caught the Renfre train all the way to Franca Station where it was a short walk to the Hotel Oasis. Enjoyed touring the Barri Gotic, visiting the Picasso Museum, enjoying a late afternoon repast of tapas and wine, and then walking to Barcelona's Park of the Ciutadella and seeing their version of the Arc de Triomf which was built for the 1888 Universal Exposition. Since we had booked a hotel not very far from the Colon Monument (that is Christopher Columbus' name there), on the morning of embarkation we got up early to scout out our exact route to the ship. We actually talked to folks disembarking from the previous Jade cruise to learn exactly where the port bus picked up, and how they had liked the Jade and the ports. Lots of thumbs up, so we took that for a great sign! We spent a couple hours that morning enjoying Las Ramblas and its wonderful market, La Boqueria, before going to our hotel to collect our luggage and head to the Jade. We were within walking distance so rolled our bags along the wide walk to the place where the port bus picked up. While we were riding to the port we met some guys we had been talking to on our Cruise Critic roll call that were also going to be on both legs of the Jade with us. We were all chatting away, not paying close attention, so when the bus stopped the four of us all got off. Porters rushed up to take our bags and we were all excited to be starting our adventure. However... a few moments later it dawned on us that we were getting in line to go on the Brilliance of the Seas at Terminal A - not the JADE at Terminal B!! All four of us had to go get our bags back from the porters (they were in the process of being loaded on the Brilliance!) and then drag them down the LONG block to Terminal B. Finally, we met the correct porters, got in the lines we needed to be in, and our adventure began in earnest.
After a speedy check-in we boarded the Jade, received our welcoming glass of champagne, deposited our hand luggage in the Medusa Lounge and headed to the grand Pacific for a sit down lunch. There were very few tables occupied and we got one right by the back windows. Delicious start to our days on the Jade! Just as we finished dessert the announcement was made that the cabins were available for occupancy. We collected our hand luggage and headed to our stateroom on deck 8. Except that we had a window and not a balcony it was very like the cabin we had a few years before on the Pride of America. Love the wood details in the cabins, gives a very "rich" look. We were prepared for the Hawaiian decor, since we had seen her as the Pride of Hawaii on one of her first voyages over in Hawaii while we were on the Pride of America. The beautiful glass flowers on the ceiling in the atrium and over some of the elevators is very reminiscent of the Murano glass ceiling in the lobby of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. The new duvets are really a nice addition, and we both knew we would enjoy sleeping on the comfy bed. We also liked the extra partition in the bathroom, so that the toilet area is separate. Not long after we got to our room our luggage arrived. Lots of storage space - even though we had packed enough clothing for all of our 21 days on board - plus pre and post days. I did not want to have to wash more than a couple items in the sink and we did not have to use the ship's laundry service. This took some careful planning and a printed wardrobe chart for me, plus I vacuum packed four or five complete outfits in space bags and then stacked them in my suitcases. I ended up wearing the same black pair of dress sandals every single night for dinner (VERY unlike my usual!) but I had plenty of variety in my planned-in-advance wardrobe. More importantly, all our bags came in under the required weight for the airline, and we did not have to pay anything extra. I almost finished putting everything away before the life boat drill. The drill went by fairly quickly, we returned to our cabin, finished unpacking and then walked around the ship for awhile before heading to dinner, also in the Grand Pacific. After dinner at the Welcome Aboard Show we met our Cruise Director, Julie Valerian, and sampled some of the entertainers and their acts. We were very impressed with the quality of the entertainment all cruise long. The production shows were very well done and there was great variety with magicians, jugglers, comedians, an opera singer, violinist and a trio of Spanish flamenco dancers. OLE!
We found the food to be good to excellent in both the main dining rooms, Grand Pacific and Alizar, The Blue Lagoon, and the Garden Buffet for breakfast, lunches and late night snacks, with only a few dishes which fell flat. But there were always plenty more choices, and we certainly never went hungry! We especially liked the Blue Lagoon for breakfast because our cabin was located very near it. Just steer clear if there are lots of people there, as the service can be poor when they are too crowded. That only happened to us once, and I was glad we gave the place another chance because perhaps it was just that one server. A great "secret" on the Jade is that Papas is used as overflow seating for the Garden Buffet during breakfast and lunch times, and we loved taking our food to a window seat there where it is much less hectic and free from noise. We also enjoyed dinners at several of the specialty restaurants: Salsa's (enjoyed the free margaritas!), Teppanyaki (fun times, good cooking with a "show"), Le Bistro and Cagney's. We took advantage of the 2/1 offer during one port night at Le Bistro. For us, our night at Cagney's was the absolute BEST! Service was top-notch, the jumbo shrimp cocktail divine, perfect caesar salad, our filet mignons cooked to perfection, and the bite of Larry's chocolate dessert (all I could fit in after the great meal) - incredible! We also enjoyed a delightful Australian wine with our meal.
Right before the start of the second leg we were offered a move to a mini suite for an extra $400., but we declined as we were very comfortable and did not want to incur the extra expense or the hassle of changing staterooms, especially since we had planned an all day excursion to Montserrat for the changeover day. We were very fortunate to have excellent stateroom attendants who took extra good care of us during our stay. We had chocolate mints on our pillows each and every night, as well as towel creatures several nights. Our cabin was kept spick and span and well-supplied with everything we needed for a very comfortable stay. Absolutely no complaints about service from us. We also rarely experienced any delays in dining room service, and most every dinner was completed in one hour or less. I believe there might have been a few nights it went longer, but we usually dined with at least one other couple and had wonderful company and conversation, so it was not a problem. We ate between 6 and 6:30 most evenings and were always able to attend the 7:30 show in the Stardust Theater.
The hotel director, Armando Silver, was especially kind and helpful to us. I asked our cabin attendant and we were given bathrobes to use for both legs of the cruise. At the start of the second cruise we were given a menu asking us to pick a choice of treats to be delivered to our stateroom every evening. (I am not sure why we warranted these in our lowly window cabin on deck 8, probably because of the Meet & Greet sign-up and organization we undertook, but I DO know that the extra treats helped contribute to the five pounds I gained on this trip!) We also were offered the services of two concierges, Ruth and Danielle. We ended up only using Danielle to reserve tables by the window in the Grand Pacific for dinner a few times, and a special table for 12 for the last night of our cruise. We tipped her separately the last night for all her help. We did not use the VIP disembarkation as we just walked off the ship at the end of our cruise with all our luggage and caught the port bus to Colon monument and then walked to our hotel on Las Ramblas.
The Meet & Greets for both legs of our cruise that I organized through the Jade's Event Coordinator at Le Bistro on the first Sea Day were very well attended and informative. For the first cruise we had almost 60 Cruise Critic folks in attendance and the captain, hotel director, cruise director and several other staff members greeted folks, spoke to us, and answered questions. For the second cruise we had participation of over 130 people and were definitely overflowing our venue at Le Bistro! The captain could not attend this time, but we had even more other staff present. People who had planned tours together finally got a chance to chat, face-to face, and it was great to finally put faces to names.
We took advantage of several of the lectures being offered. I particularly enjoyed Lenny Windsor's talk on Benny Hill and the series on philosophers, like Aristotle, Socrates and Plato. We both really enjoyed Second City and the various lounge musicians, especially the pianist in the main lobby. My husband and I participated in the Murder Mystery Dinner and had a blast! Larry ended up being the 'murderer', and he fooled me completely (and all but one lady next to him who SAW his script when he first got it!). I just thought he was being a bad actor and flubbing up his part! You have to look sharp at the daily activities in the Freestyle Daily so you don't miss the sign-up in the Library for this fun event. You should never be at a loss of something to do if you just plan out your time using a highlighter to mark your Freestyle Daily. We also enjoyed using the library and the Latitudes lounge for quiet reading time and to get a cup of coffee or tea and a cookie or pastry. I used the gym regularly for the elliptical trainer and had some great workouts with an ocean view! Our three weeks on the Jade just flew by, and we were sad to have to say farewell.
PORTS - We visited a total of 10 in our 21 days:
CASABLANCA, MOROCCO - Larry and I planned to just do this port on our own, walking to the Hassan II Mosque and to see Rick's American Cafe, but ended up joining a pre-arranged tour, Jamal Tours, with six other folks from our roll call at the very last minute. That morning someone got sick and there were two openings so we took the spots. It was more like just a taxi than a real tour because the young man, although very nice, did not have the greatest command of English - or else he just didn't like to talk much. At the Mosque we paid our own admission charges with our Capital One credit card (requesting to be charged in Moroccan dirhans). Very expensive, by Moroccan standards- a true tourist trap at 120 dh pp! The mosque provides their own tour guides. Gorgeous place, built right next to the sea, but we were a bit turned off when they showed us the Hamman (steam baths) and the guide told us they were were never used and built just to show the tourists! I believe the cost for our 4 or 5 hour taxi tour around Casablanca was about €45 pp. We drove quite a ways up the coast to a little village on the sea there, then drove through the wealthier section where the big homes are located. Here is a tour description for the rest of the tour: MarchE CENTRAL-SOUKS and HABBOUS QUARTER( Markets for Shopping) and the ROYAL PALACE . ANFA's residential quarters and the CORNICHE of AIN DIAB . The ARAB LEAGUE PARK and both the magnificent MOHAMMED 5 TH and UNITED NATIONS Squares. Visit the CHURCH OF Our LADIES OF LOURDES, the SYNAGOGUE, and to top it off, the imposing HASSAN 2ND MOSQUE , built in a breathtaking setting on the Shores of the Atlantic Ocean (did this first) . We ended our day with a stop to visit RICK 'S AMERICAN CAFE." While we were on our tour near United Nations' Square we witnessed a pro-Palestinian protest march that Larry went and videoed up close! We stopped for lunch at a downtown restaurant but Larry and I chose not to eat and just walked around, buying sodas and candy bars from a street vendor, first finding a bank ATM to get dirhans to use that day and also for our excursion in Agadir the next day. We again saw the protesters being bussed back to the main part of town and took more photos. We also had a nice long stop at Rick's Cafe. Some folks got drinks there and others bought some souvenirs, like bar glasses etched with Rick's Cafe logo.
AGADIR (TAROUDANT & OASIS of TIUD TOUR), MOROCCO - Our guides with Saharitours were waiting for us with two vans. Unfortunately we were short one couple, the same two from yesterday, as he was still ill that morning. Nine of us ended up making up the tour group. We had pre-contracted a price of 400 dirhans (approx. $49.) per person for the full day tour which included lunch on the kasbar at Tiout. First we set out for the drive to Taroudant stopping to see the tree climbing goats with the picturesque background of the snow-capped Atlas mountains. Amazing sight to see those goats climbing the Argan trees to eat the nuts. Because of how precariously some of the goats seemed perched on the upper branches, it made us wonder a bit if they had been 'planted' up there by the handlers! We continued on to the medieval walled city of Taroudant, touring the souk and markets. We had a rug demonstration while being served apple tea. No rugs were purchased by anyone in our group, but we all enjoyed the experience as they threw out a wide selection of styles and colors. Then we visited a business run by women that produced beauty and health products made from Argan nuts. They had two women in the front of the shop grinding the nuts into a paste (for tourist purposes, I am sure!), and then we had a demonstration of the products in a room in the back. Most folks purchased 1 or 2 items, like hand creams and massage lotions. I bought some black eye kohl (that I can not figure out how to apply!) The streets in Taroudant have to be seen to believed. First of all so many of the people look like they are dressed in costumes for a movie set, but this is what they really wear every day! The younger folks tend to favor western style dress: jeans, t-shirts, and ball-caps. But they were many in the traditional Berber robes with the peaked hood, called a djellaba. Shop keepers throw dishes of water out the door to keep the dust down. Produce and other food stuffs, like butchered meats, are offered for sale openly beside the dusty streets which are teaming with pedestrians, donkeys and carts, bicycles, motor cycles, cars, trucks and tour buses - all at the same time! Our van driver had to be very skilled to negotiate though the streets there. One time a young man on a bike actually ran into the side of our moving vehicle. Our driver just kept going. Just outside the gates of Taroudant we had prearranged a stop at the Palais Salam. It was once a sultan's palace and is now a lovely resort with cool tranquil gardens, fountains. and lovely mosaic tile work. Then we drove 40 mile further to the Oasis of Tiout. Tiout boasts of an ancient Kasbah which was used as a decor in 1952 for the Hollywood film, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. This has been turned into a restaurant now, where we had lunch. Before lunch donkey rides were 'offered' (actually we had little say in the matter - by a local guide who attached himself to our group of nine. It was soon evident that giving these donkey ride in the palmaraie is a major source of income for the village families who offer their donkeys for hire by the visitors. Half the group chose to ride the donkeys, the other half to walk. One gal in our group took a fall and twisted her ankle on the walk down. She continued on for a donkey ride and lunch, but after we returned to the ship she was unable to go ashore for the next two ports as her ankle was black and blue and she needed to stay off it for several days and use a cane. Lunch at the kasbah was truly delicious. We were served Tagine (pronounced: tay-jean) cooked chicken and couscous with flat bread. Tagine is a special clay cooking vessel similar to a wok. The chicken was deliciously cooked with olives and the meat was falling off the bones so we were not concerned about getting ill from the food. Most of us purchased sealed bottled water to drink, although they had a mint tea available as part of the meal. For dessert we had some incredibly sweet and juicy tangerines (or clementines). Delightful day, with the only misstep being the one twisted ankle, and the fact that the ride back to the pier was longer than we thought and our two van loads arrived back with very little time to spare before the all-aboard was called! LAS PALMAS, GRAN CANARIA, SPAIN - Enjoyed NCL's NATIVE GRAN CANARIA tour. After a short bus ride we began a walking tour of the historic district of the old town of Vegueta where we first walked to Pilar Nuevo Square to see and tour Columbus' house on the island. The museum commemorates America's connection with the city. After a fascinating hour or so there we walked on to view the facades of the buildings around Santa Ana Square -.the cathedral, the Bishop's House, and the Town Hall. Also learned from a statue in the square where Gran Canaria get its name. Not from the birds as most think, but wild dogs - perhaps an extinct type of sea dog. But the original canary birds are also from these islands. Next we visited the Canarian Museum which had exhibits designed to explain the way the early Aboriginal inhabitants lived over a period of time from 500 B.C. to the 15th century, when the Spaniards conquered and colonized the island. The skull and mummy exhibits were amazing to see. Very little is known of these people as they had no written language. After a wonderful repast at a local restaurant of wine (from Monte?), potatoes with a special garlic dipping sauce, and cheese we reboarded our tour bus traveling along roads that crossed vineyards where the famous Wine of Monte grapes are grown. We then arrived at the amazing Crater of Bandama, which is 1.867 feet in altitude. At the top the views were amazing, but I was chilled to see a fresh spray painted wall of graffiti in English that had not been painted over yet stating: "Israel is a criminal organization. Must be destroyed and Judaism manifestation extinct if we want future for humanity." All I could think was that this was the kind of garbage spouted forth in Hitler's Germany. It is really scary to have this kind of anti-semetic speech reemerging in Europe again... That kind of took away some of the beauty of this spot for me, so got back on the bus where we proceeded to the Jardin Canario, the largest botanical gardens in Spain to admire a vast variety of tropical plants and cactus of all varieties. FUNCHAL, MADEIRA, PORTUGAL - Here on the capital of the Madeira Islands eight of us had pre-planned a tour with Madeira Seekers to see the western part of the island. Madeira reminded us so much of Hawaii! Gorgeous cliff views, waterfalls, green mountains, and black sand volcanic beaches. Began with the amazing view from the majestic sea cliffs of Cabo Girão. This absolutely amazing sea cliff is the highest in Europe and second highest in the world (589m). We drove all the way across the island to Porto Muniz known for its natural swimming pools on the coast. The sea was in full turmoil that day and the waves were splashing clear up onto the sea walls! Visited several small idyllic villages, sampled some Madeira wine, purchased a few souvenirs on the return trip where we went a different way back through the mountains to Funchal. Excellent day tour and we are looking forward to returning to Funchal on our May transatlantic cruise. MALAGA (GRANADA) SPAIN - We had a sudden change of plans for this port. Six of us had pre-booked a private excursion to Granada to see the Alhambra and several other sites, including a couple of the white villages and the Caves of Nerja, if time permitted. The day before one of our group received an email from the man in Spain who was to give us the tour that he had to fly to the USA because his father was dying. So, we had an impromptu meeting and all decided to take the ship tour to Granada. Twice the cost, but at that late date we did not have any assurance of any other way to see Granada or to be able to procure timed tickets for the Alhambra once we got there. The tour of the Alhambra was excellent, but the long stop the bus made at a souvenir shop with restrooms on the way to Granada was such a waste of time. As was the L-O-N-G lunch at a buffet restaurant after our Alhambra tour, plus the annoying noise from several old men snoring on the bus ride back to the ship! As you can tell, I am not a big fan of most bus tours. However, this was an extenuating circumstance, and the Alhambra built by the Moors with a sultan's palace complete with rooms for the harem was an incredible site filed with rich mosaics tile work and beautiful interior architectual flourishes. However we did NOT get to see the Capilla Real, the chapel with the graves of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that we had planned to see on the private tour, so that was a disappointment as it is considered by many to be the highlight of a visit to Granada. Wedid get to see the caves, with facades that make them appear just like regular houses, where the gypsies in the region have lived for many generations. MONTSERRAT, SPAIN - This was disembarkation day for the January 16-25, 9-night Morocco & Canary Islands Cruise. Because we had scheduled B2B cruises in the same cabin we completed all our paperwork and got new keys the night before, Therefore, we were free to leave the ship anytime we pleased in the morning. We ate breakfast and left the ship, watching all the disembarking passengers getting into taxis with their luggage. Since it was a nice crisp morning and too early for the port bus, we decided to walk to the closest Metro station, Dressanes, to catch the Metro to Placa Espanya. Once there we finally figured out how to use the ticket machines, thanks to a kind Spanish gentleman, to purchase our 8:36am R5 train and then cable car tickets to Montserrat. We had heard in advance that the rack railroad was closed due to needing repairs after a landslide, but also found out that morning both funiculars at Montserrat were not operating. So we saved a few €s on the necessary tickets. The train ride to Montserrat, 30 miles from Barcelona, took about an hour and was very interesting. Very few other tourists were on that train. It was a Sunday morning and there were mainly locals about. The cable car up the cliffs to the monastery at Montserrat was a thrilling adventure. Once we got to the top I was the very first person off the car, and I believe it was the first carload for visitors that morning. We immediately made our way to the Basilica and had a look, first outside. As we faced the doors to the sanctuary looking high we saw that Mary is the centerpiece of the church's facade. St. Benedict is below her to the left. There are five arches that line the base of the church. The far right one is where we walked along the ornate passageway on the right side of the church to get our first glimpse of the Black Madonna. We appeared to be the very first visitors to her that day and had several minutes alone with her for photographs, etc. before anyone else showed up. She sits high above the main altar. While called 'black' in English, the Spanish call her La Moreneta which means 'tanning'. The statue was originally lighter, but tanned over the centuries - perhaps from candle smoke, humidity, or the original varnish darkening with age. Mary is in a protective glass case, but we were able to touch the exposed royal orb. The tradition, and I did this, is to touch the orb with one hand and hold the other hand up to show acceptance of Jesus. Newlyweds particularly seek this blessing, but it is for "oldy" weds, too. Then we went into the lovely prayer chapel behind the virgin for continued prayer. The ceiling paintings in the chapel are very sumptuous and done in the Modernist style in 1898 by John Limona. We then walked along the Ava Maria path on the other side from where we entered, viewing thousands of votive candles, personal objects and messages left by pilgrims seeking healing and other prayer requests. Since the funiculars were all shut down for the season we took several long hikes around the cliffs. The first hike led us to a huge wooden cross on a promotory point. After walking uphill there (phew!) we walked back downhill in time to join the mass in progress in the Basilica. Unfortunately the Boys' choir did not perform that morning due to the big windstorm that had blown through Barcelona the day before. We had seen some of the wind damage to buildings, roofs and solar panels, as we were riding there on the train. The boys were home with their families until the 6:30 Mass that night. Unfortunately we had to be back onboard the Jade before 5 PM, so missed their performance. After another long invigorating hike up into the cliffs, and a visit to the gift shop, we caught the cable car back down to the train and headed back to Barcelona to begin the second half of our Jade adventures.
ROME, ITALY (CIVITAVECCHIA) - We got to Rome on a rainy day (the ONLY rainy day of our 27 day Med trip!) by using the local train from Civitivecchia. This was our second time using trains to Rome on our own from that port, as we had our first Med cruise in 2007. Unfortunately, this morning the train was late and we (plus many others from the Jade) had to catch a slower one, and then ended up being passed by the train we were supposed to be on! We had to make some alternate plans due to timing and got a bit confused as to which train station to exit at and directions within that station, so wasted some time before first going to see Michelangelo's Moses, his unfinished Leah and Rachel statues, and Peter's chains at San Petro in Vincoli church. Next we took a walking tour with a podcast we had downloaded of the Circus Maximus, then listened to another free podcast at the Mouth of Truth (happy to report neither of us lost our hands there!) Actually, before we got to Cosmedin Church to see the Mouth of Truth, we walked to and photographed St. Peter's Basilica through the keyhole at the Maltese embassy. By then we already knew and had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would have to forgo our reserved times at the Borghese Gallery due to the train being late and our very full agenda for the day. Oh well...we will just have to get back to Rome a THIRD time! As we were leaving Cosmedin Church it started drizzling a bit more, but we kept walking toward the Vatican. Foolishly, we were walking on the left of the Tiber River facing oncoming traffic. A simple walk across a bridge and we could easily have caught a bus, but for some reason we just kept walking.One reason is I really wanted to have a closeup look at the Vittorio Emmanuel II Bridge with statues all along it and a good look and photographs of the Castel Sant'Angelo. As we neared the Vatican we lost sight of it! That was a scary feeling, and the map we had was just confusing us at that point. At just the right moment a man wearing a clerical collar (I kid you not - it was like something out of a dream sequence...) appeared in our path and asked if he could help. We told him of our Scavi Tour appointment and asked him to show us the quickest way to Vatican Square and he kindly directed us through a parking garage.We were so close, but we never would have found the way without his assistance! At that point we basically started running. It was almost the time we needed to be there for the Scavi Tour and I still had my big black leather backpack on. We found the Swiss Guards, showed them our reservation slip, and they just pointed us to where the rest of the group was already assembled. This is where it got dicey. No problem with the backpack, BUT when we went to get our tickets using the reservation number I had been given over the phone by the Vatican office, as well as the receipt from our credit card company showing payment for the tour, the man at the desk kept insisting that OUR tour had been scheduled for November 2008! We kept cool heads and showed the man at the desk that we had not paid for the tour until December 8, 2008, so how was that possible? This had already been a very long saga pre-cruise, as I never heard back by email confirming we even HAD a Scavi tour, so had telephoned the Vatican Scavi office directly in early December, and sure enough, our name was on the list for this date, January 27, 2009. Finally, he just let us join the tour. PHEW!!
The tour guide asked me to put my backpack on the front or hold it by the handle. I gladly complied, although both Larry and I found it incredible that I was allowed to bring an unscanned backpack under and into the most sacred venue of the Roman Catholic faith! The Scavi tour was absolutely incredible. One thing I had not read about and that we saw was described to us by our tour guide as the very earliest pictorial depiction of Jesus Christ EVER found! It showed a very young, clean shaven man with a halo painted inside a known Christian tomb, and it is widely believed by church experts to represent Jesus Christ because he is surrounded by fishermen, fish, and other early Christian symbols. We were blown away as this would have been painted only 100-200 years after Christ's death and resurrection. Viewing a portion of St. Peter's purported original tomb that had been incorporated into the first St. Peter's church by the emperor Constantine was a treat too. At the end of the tour we came up in St. Peter's right at the tomb of John Paul II, which is right by the last resting place of St. Peter. Absolutely amazing! We spent an hour or so seeing and marveling at the treasures of St. Peter's again, this time making sure to visit the breathtaking Monstrance at the Adoration Chapel (long velvet curtains and no photos allowed). Then we got in a very short line to go up in the dome. We chose to pay the €7 pp to take the elevator part way as opposed to €5 pp to climb the stars all the way. Smart decision as there are STILL 300+ stairs beyond the elevator to get to the rooftop and fabulous views!!! After spending a glorious few hours at the Vatican (our second time as we had done the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel tours in 2007), we caught a very crowded #64 bus heading back to Termini station. First we got off to go see Bernini's magnificant fountain at Piazza Navone - the Fountain of the Four Rivers. It had been covered up for cleaning when we were there in 2007, and was JUST uncovered in Dec 08! Then back on the bus to Termini to catch the train back to Civitivecchia. We walked from the station back to the port entrance and were there a few minutes before 7 pm. Only bummer there was that the port bus had quit running at 7 pm (and we heard from others waiting there that the last bus had come about five minutes before we arrived, so they were sure there must be another tio come... Alll aboard was not until 7:30 (and actually ended up being considerably later), so eight of us chose to hire a ridiculously priced taxi for €20 for the one mile trip to the ship in the rain. But we were rather exhausted by that time already soaked and it was raining again, so the ride was real nice. We told the folks at the gangway that there were still over 50 folks back at the port entrance waiting for a bus that was not going to come, so they did actually send a vehicle to pick up the stragglers before sail-away, although many chose to just walk or get ripped off by a taxi driver like we did! ATHENS, GREECE (PIRAEUS) - We had determined beforehand that we would do this port on our own using the Metro. After an invigorating 20 minute walk around the harbor of Piraeus we found the train station and purchased all day passes for €3 each. We exited the Metro at Monistraki station and walked through the Plaka area and purchased our €12 entry tickets for the Acropolis and Agora sites at the ticket office, also asking for an English brochure. We saw the Tower of the Four Winds, the Ancient Agora, and the Roman Agora first, the excavation of Hadrian's library, then passed Mars Hill where the Apostle Paul preached. We continued climbing up through the scenic hillside village of Anafiotika to the Acropolis. There is much construction on the sites, and unfortunately that day the new Acropolis Museum was closed. The Erectheion, Parthenon, and other sites were amazing to behold and photograph. Rain threatened, but held off. There was one loud clap of thunder while we were up on the Acropolis (perhaps Zeus expressing his displeasure at all the gawking tourists?) After filling our eyes and memory cards we headed down to see the stadiums and the Temple of Zeus area, Hadrian's Arch, and then heading to Syntagma Square in front of the Parliament Building and their Tomb of the Unknown Warrior to watch the changing of the guard (evzones) ceremony. These guards change every hour on the hour, and it was really a treat to see it up close and personal with very few people in attendance that day. This ceremony is truly not to missed, as it is a complicated intricate ceremony with much symbolism in the guards' outfits, like the 400 pleats in their skirts representing the 400 years of Turkish rule, and the pompoms on their oversized shoes representing tears shed. Then we caught the metro at Syntagma (interesting exhibits in the walls underground of ancient artifacts uncovered during construction) to go one stop further, exiting at the Evangelismos stop where we planned to go up Lykkabettus Hill for even more incredible views of Athens. However, Larry and I never did find the funicular to the top, so WALKED the whole way up to the little church where the views were incredible. Then after walking all the way back down, we retraced our way back to Syntagma and slowly walked back to the Plaka area, following Rick Steves' directions and his walking tour guide to the churches, like the Greek Orthodox Cathedral and other sites. We did some shopping at the Central Market for souvenirs including a shot glass and a small bottle of Ouzo - which tastes like licorice - and then we stopped to get our delicious €1.80 souvlaki (gyros) at the little shop right near the Monistraki train station before heading back on the Metro and walking from the station to the ship. EPHESUS (IZMIR), TURKEY - Twelve members of our roll call met our guide, Nejat Incedogan and his driver, right at the port of Izmir. Arriving in Ephesus we headed first to the Virgin Mary House. Enjoyed the lovely setting and Nejat treated us to a cup of delicious apple tea before we walked through Mary's House and drank some sips of water from the spring there. There were three spigots: for health, wealth and wisdom. I tried a taste from each! Visitors have left notes asking for healings, etc. and photos pinned to a wall at the site. There were vendors at the site and we purchased a nice full color guide on Ephesus as a souvenir. Then we headed to the ancient ruins of Ephesus. Nejat's tour was truly wonderful. We learned so much about the history of the area and how advanced their civilization was at the time in Turkey. The library at Ephesus restoration is such an amazing photo op. We had a visit to the Terrace Houses included in our tour. Nejat could not accompany us inside the Terrace House, as he was in a bad car accident several years ago and walks with the aid of two sticks. He is a wonder, however, and knows how to maneuver and position himself at each stop we made. The Terrace House really opened our eyes. These incredible restorations were only opened to the public a few years ago and there are workers still painstakingly reassembling mosaic floor and wall tiles. The ones they have completed are absolutely incredible! These homes were complete with indoor plumbing and many of the pipes from then are still able to carry water. After our Terrace House visit we rejoined Nejat where he explained about the library and how some believe there was a secret passage to the brothels so the men could say to their wives, "I'm going down to the library for a few hours, dear." The public toilets for the men were a very "cozy" arrangement to say the least. Then we saw where the market had been, quite near to the road that had led to the port of Ephesus. Over the years the port silted over and the current port is seven miles from the original location. We saw the spot where the market had been, the very same market where the Apostle Paul would have set up shop for his sail-making trade. At the amphitheater it was so great to stand on the stage where Paul used to preach and realize the place has such perfect acoustics that he would not have had to shout to be heard by folks seated in the top row of seats. As we were leaving Ephesus I purchased a couple boxes of Turkish Delight candy and got a free sample of saffron. After we left the ancient city we headed to the present-day town of Selcuk. Half the group decided to have lunch at a little cafe with Nejat, the rest of us just walked around the village. It was interesting observing the people going about their day to day lives and checking out their shops and produce stands. unfortunately, they would accept neither Euros or US dollars and we had no Turkish lira and couldn't find an ATM so couldn't try any of the yummy looking baked goods from a local street vendor. . Larry did talk one shop keeper into selling him a small chocolate ice cream cone for $1 USD. We ended up trying one bite each and throwing it away, as it did not taste right - might have been made from goat's milk. After the other group finished their leisurely lunch we got back in Nejat's van and headed to a ceramics studio. Nejat had asked if we would rather see a rug weaving demonstration or the ceramics place (no pressure). We all chose ceramics. One member of our group tried her hand at a potter's wheel. The technique must be harder then the experienced potter made it look, because her little jar did not come out so well! We had a short tour of the studio and watched some ladies hand painting the designs on the pieces. Most of us bought at least a small souvenir piece from the shop. We bought a "shot glass" - shaped more like a mini chalice - made of hand-painted pottery with a fish motif to remind us of the early Christian church in Ephesus. It is signed on the bottom. Our last stop was at the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - the Temple of Artemis. Nothing left except for one lone column and some rubble in a field, but it was a don't miss for us. On a hill overlooking the Temple of Artemis site are the ruins of the Basilica of St. John, which stands over the purported burial site of St. John. We only saw the site from a distance. The basilica is on the slopes of Ayasoluk Hill near the center of Selçuk, just below the fortress and about 3.5 km (2 miles) from Ephesus. According to tradition John took Mary, the mother of Jesus, and came to Ephesus .He wrote his Gospel in Ephesus and the Revelation in the Greek Island, Patmos in 96AD. The basilica - built in the shape of a cross and covered with six domes - had been completely destroyed by muslim raiders and the building materials carted off over the ages, so what stands is a complete recreation started in 1973. We headed back to our ship following a most incredible day in Turkey. CAIRO/GIZA (ALEXANDRIA) EGYPT - Met our private bus from Temo Tours at the dock in Alexandria. We had two incredibly knowledgeable young guides, Abdoulsaid and Ala Din, who took turns narrating at the various venues in excellent English, our own armed security guard, and a driver (ready for Nascar!). Our total price including room was less than half of what the NCL tours charged, and we did both the evening Sound and Light Show and went on a wonderful Nile dinner cruise - good food, fantastic belly dancer, whirling dervish, 'stick' dancers plus two bands - all included in our pre-negotiated price.Besides the pyramid and sphinx visits - even a climb down into a pyramid and an optional visit to the Solar Boat Museum , we also went to see the overall view from high up at Giza plateau for photos and then on to Memphis and Sakkara to see the Ramses statue and the Step pyramid, a tour inside some richly decorated tombs by the step pyramid, and good views of the Red and Bent pyramids before transferring to our pyramid view hotel rooms and then on to our two night activities. When I walked into our room with a balcony, I was blown away by the amazing view of the Great Pyramid! After just a short stop at the hotel we reboarded our bus for the Sound & Light Show, followed by our Nile dinner cruise on the Nile Crystal. We were definitely tired by the time we returned to our hotel, and had absolutely no problem falling immediately to sleep. Only noise I heard in our room at Le Meridian was the 5:30AM call to prayer, and I had left the curtains open all night for the great view. After a tasty and filling breakfast at the hotel's buffet it was time to head to the Egyptian Museum for our guided tour inside. King Tut's treasure were absolutely incredible - and to think those were all in a relatively small room in his tomb! A visit to the Mummy Room was included for us also. We could have spent a week in the Museum, but it was soon time to head to see Saladin's Citadel, Mohammed Ali Mosque and then half an hour or so time at the Khan Khalili bazaar to bargain for souvenirs. Mugs, papyrus bookmarks, t-shirts for our grandboys, a shot glass for Larry's collection and a small mother-of-pearl box were the items for which we successfully bargained at the Bazaar. We skipped lunch stops both days so we could see more. Some of us brought food and water from the ship, others had our guides stop at "safe" convenience stores or bought some foods items from a shop at our hotel. Traffic in Cairo is beyond anything I have ever experienced, very few traffic lights and lane lines are just a "suggestion". If there is room to squeeze a vehicle, no matter how close, it becomes a 'lane'. After our stop at the Khan Kahilili Bazaar we made a detour to pick up cartouche orders that some of our group had placed the day before. It took us more than 4 hours to get back to the ship from the bazaar area. I had asked in our original contract for a stop to take photos on the ride back to the ship of where the great lighthouse of Alexandria (another of the 7 Ancient Wonders) had stood. We only had time to drive past slowly, and Larry, to keep me happy, did get some good shots for our album. We made it back "BARELY" in time not to have our names read as being late over the ship's loud-speaker! As it turned out our ship was delayed from sailing a full two hours. At least one man's name kept being read over and over, but we never learned what the hold-up at the port had been. We had completed almost our entire dinner at Le Bistro before we finally set sail. MALTA - The entry into the port of Valletta has to be experienced at least once in your life. It was a gorgeous clear day and every square inch of good viewing area on the front decks was completely covered by passengers. Ten of us from our roll call had 1 PM tickets for the tour at the Hypogeum. We caught the bus the city provided (for a € or so) that was roundtrip from the port to the center of Valletta. We could easily have walked, and actually ended up doing so on the return trip, but the bus was a nice intro to the city sites. From the center of Malta, where many many buses start their routes, we took one going near the Hypogeum. The local people in Malta are extremely friendly and helpful, and many speak excellent English. We had one lady tirelessly search for a bus that would take us to the Hypogeum, another walked us from the bus to exactly where the Hypogeum entrance is located, and a gentleman on our return bus trip to Valletta from the Hypogeum give us tips about the rest of Valletta and tell us of his one visit to NYC to see a relative. The Hypogeum tour was completely fascinating. Afterward in Valletta we bought a book on it that has some great photos since photography was forbidden at the site (due to the effects of flashes on still-original paint in the caves.) We also walked to see the entrance to the Tarxien Temples, but did not take a tour there. We then headed on a city bus back to see Valletta. Toured the Co-cathedrals of St. John. The Knights of the Malta, otherwise known as the Knights Hospitaller, built the cathedral between 1573 and 1578. The cathedral is a most glorious and magnificent artistic expression of the High Baroque era. Priceless art treasures abound and include Caravaggio's, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, one of the finest paintings in the world. The cathedral also houses vast collections of sacred vestments, Flemish tapestries, a magnificent gilt bronze monstrance intended to hold the relic of the Baptist's forearm, and an important collection of illuminated choral books, plus many more priceless treasures. From the exterior it looks like a fortress and is very austere. Inside - the place is dazzling, covered in gold, every wall is intricately carved with flowers and garlands, and the vaulted ceiling is splendidly painted with frescoes by Mattia Preti. The marble floor is covered with richly inlaid tombstones. We wondered at what the skull and crossbones found on many of the knight's stones really meant back then. Now of course we link that symbol with piracy,and some of the latter day knight's may indeed have been pirates, but the legends go even deeper then that - back to the Search for the Holy Grail. According to some sources there is a direct link between the creation or use of the skull and crossbones by the Knights Templar and our modern day idea of it being a symbol of piracy. Our next stop was close by at Paul's Shipwreck Church. Again, it looked very humble and unassuming from the exterior. Inside it is sumptuously decorated and filled with priceless relics, most notably the treasured relic of the right wrist-bone of St. Paul, and part of the column on which the saint was beheaded in Rome. We had planned to go see The Grand Master's Palace, but it was closed to the public that day, as was The Armory. I read some online comments that these are tourist traps anyway as only five rooms in the palace can be seen and there is no guided tour. We shopped a bit for M'dina glass and a shot glass for Larry's collection and then walked to see the Upper Barrakka Gardens for a beautiful view out over the harbor. I had notice the arched colonnades as we sailed into Malta and I was so pleased to actually get to see the place. Barcelona, Spain - Pre-cruise - we explored the Gothic quarter (Barri Gotic), visiting Santa Maria del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea), the Gothic Cathedral where we took the elevator to the top for wonderful views of Barcelona, and our first look at the Sagrada Familia.We also enjoyed the cathedral's cloister which always has 13 geese. Then we explored the streets and alleys of the Quarter, finding the Temple d'Augustus with its four magnificent Corinthian columns which are all that remain of Roman Barcelona's main temple. It was once the most prominent feature of the Roman forum. Took in the Picasso Museum, which was fascinating. Enjoyed tapas and wine and then walked in the early evening to the Park of the Ciutadella and saw Barcelona's Arc de Triomf built for the 1888 Universal Exhibition. Our room at the Oasis Hotel, although quite small, had been newly redone. The bath had granite countertop and a raise bowl sink. In the morning, after a delicious breakfast which was included in our room cost, and before boarding our ship, we visited the Colon Monument and took an audio tour of the entire length of Las Ramblas. Post-cruise - We took our own bags off the ship and caught the port bus to Colon Monument. Because it was so early in the morning we decided to just walk and roll our bags down Las Ramblas to the Hotel Continental for our two night stay. To our surprise our room was ready and so we stashed our luggage and set out to explore more of Barcelona.We decided to walk to Sagrada Familia - Antonio Gaudi's still incomplete very modernistic cathedral. One side of the cathedral represents Christ's nativity, the other his Passion and death. There is a glaring contrast in the two styles. We purchased tickets to go inside and one audio-tour headset, which we took turns listening to. The interior of the cathedral is a long way from completion. Lots of workers and not a whole lot to see. In my opinion, a little Gaudi goes a long way.. We skipped the roof-top lift as we had done the one at the Gothic Cathedral pre-cruise and read that the views were far better from up there. There is a small Gaudi museum in the cathedral which had some interesting information. We walked from Sagrada Familia until we found a city bus to take us to the Montjuic area. Found out the funicular and the cable car were both shut down, but there was a special bus to the top, so boarded it. We got off opposite the Miro Museum and then just kept walking and walking, exploring some gardens along the way, until we reached the site of the 1992 Summer Olympics. Saw all the different venues, the stadium, the Olympic torch cauldron, the Olympic swimming venue, and so forth. From there we decided to walk to the Pueblo Español (Spanish village). Admission was rather steep, €8,50 pp(found out I had discount coupons someone had given me but forgot to bring them along) and there were very few visitors that day and mostly just shops and restaurants were open. Did enjoy the Collection of Contemporary Art museum and the nice sculpture garden. I also bought a small authentic hand-painted Spanish fan at a fan shop in the Village. Afterward we continued walking, first to view The Palau Nacional which was built for the 1888 InternationExhibition and now houses the National Art Museum of Catalonia Art. We were disappointed to find that the Magic Fountain was not operating as we had hoped to view it that evening. We did not stop to see the inside of the Catalonian museum, but continued on and walked all the way - UP - to Castell de Montjuïc which first was a fort and then became a castle. It is now a owned by the city and the admission is free. The views of the rest of Barcelona and the Mediterranean Sea from up there are amazing. We took the bus back to our hotel. The Hotel Continental has a wonderful 24/7 tapas buffet, ice milk and toppings, free soda, juice, coffee, tea, cappuccino, white and rosa wine - and at breakfast time there were cereals, hard boiled eggs, pastries, cookies, dried fruit and nuts, even sausage,. The hotel has free WIFI access and one computer near the food area for everyone to use. We found this hotel so convenient and our balcony overlooking Las Ramblas with two chairs and a table was so enjoyable. I loved taking a glass of wine out there and just "people watch". After eating we headed out the door acouple blocks to Placa Real, noting the Gaudi lampposts. We enjoyed an 8 pm Flamenco show for €6pp at Las Tarantos - the oldest Flamenco Bar in Barcelona. Loved the show which featured five Flamenco musicians, a singer, and an excellent female Flamendo dancer.
The next morning we headed to Parc Guell on a city bus to see this fairy-tale park and buildings designed by Antonio Gaudi. Very interesting and so different from anything we had ever seen before. Bought a Gaudi book to take home at one of the park shops, and then we headed back to the closest Metro station. That afternoon we made a trip to see the Hospital de Sant Pau. It originates from 1401, with the merger of the six hospitals that existed in Barcelona. With the growth of the city in the 19th century, the construction of a new building was planned. The new hospital is one of the most important civil buildings of Catalan Modernism. The building was planned and constructed by the architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Afterward we saw several more of Gaudi's buildings from the outside, Palau Guell (off of Las Ramblas) which is under renovation at this time, then onto the elegant street Passeig de Gracia where are located the Casa Batlo (designed to look like St. George's dragon or skull and bones), and Casa Mila (La Pedrera). We went into a gift shop in the building where at the back there was a window where you could see the roofline and the interior courtyard, plus a staircase. Very impressive afternoon viewing these famous examples of Art Noveau Architecture. That evening we again wandered through the Barri Gotic district, hoping to find folks dancing the Sardana Dance at 6 pm. We found a couple crowds, but they were for a juggler, and then some couples dancing, but wearing modern clothes so not the Sardana We wandered into an art shop and found a nice print of Picasso's Don Quixote that we took home in a tube and had framed as a wonderful souvenir of our time in Barcelona. Spent a few more hours on Las Ramblas, saying good-bye to a new favorite city.. We had scouted out where the Aeroporto Bus picks up on Catalonia Square, and so it was easy to roll our bags around the corner from our hotel the next morning with our heads and hearts full of the memories of an absolutely incredible trip.