I will begin with a warning: I am very detail oriented, and so is this review. If you are looking for a quick glance, keep looking. This review is LONG, really LONG.
I have dreamed of visiting Greece and Italy for as long as I can remember. This year, my husband gave me this trip as a very special birthday present. Unfortunately, as we booked the trip, a work conflict prevented his accompanying me. So, our "Romantic Mediterranean Getaway" became "Judy and Stacy's Excellent European Adventure", as a friend decided to join me instead, and a girl's trip was born.
The "Adventure" began for me on October 26th with my departure from the Nashville airport. I flew from Nashville to La Guardia airports, took New York Airport Service's bus ($13) from La Guardia to JFK, and then from JFK to Milan, arriving early on the 27th. Following information I received on the Cruise Critic Message Boards, I disembarked the plane, proceeded to baggage claim (even though I traveled with only carry-on luggage), and then followed the "Treni" signs to the Malpensa Express (11€if you have correct change you can use the machine for tickets and save time—be sure to validate the ticket in the yellow machine PRIOR to boarding). The Malpensa Express takes you to the Cadorna station, which is also a major Metro stop.
I took the Metro Red Line three stops to the Duomo, then I changed lines and took the Yellow Line 4 stops to the Centrale station, a major stop on the Metro AND the main Train Station. Since I would be taking the Eurostar Italia train from Milan to Venice at 1pm, I went to the train station first to drop off my luggage in baggage storage. Once I had lightened my load, I got back on the Metro and took the Yellow line back 4 stops to the Duomo. The Milan Duomo is surrounded by the Piazza del Duomo. The Duomo is free to enter, and is not to be missed, it is filled with beautiful art and stained glass. (A website on the Duomo with photos: http://milan.arounder.com/milans_duomo_cathedral/ ). Also in the Piazza is Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a shopping arcade built in 1864. This building is far, far to beautiful to be a shopping mall, but a shopping mall it is. This arcade houses many top of the line shops, like Prada. I spent a couple of hours exploring the Duomo and the Galleria, as well as having a cappuccino, before heading back to the Metro. Once back at the Centrale station I collected my luggage (not cheap 3, 80€, a bag for up to 5 hours), got a sandwich and Coca-Cola Light (Diet Coke) and boarded my train for Venice.
The Eurostar Italia is a clean comfortable train. It takes 2 ½ hours to go from Milano Centrale to Venezia Santa Lucia. I booked a first class seat using ItaliaRail.com two weeks prior to leaving the US. Tickets were sent to me via Federal Express and I was able to call a US number with any questions. Having concrete plans made going solo from Milan to Venice less daunting. The train pulled into the Santa Lucia Station which is on the island. It is a very short walk (grab a luggage cart they are scattered all over the train station) from the station to the water bus stop. I bought a 72 hour vaporetto pass and waited for the next vaporetto to San Marco. Look at how much water travel you really plan on doing before buying the pass...I took ONE ride in my three days. The 6€ for one ride would have been all I needed, but I bought the 31€ because I thought I would "save" money. Also, the ticket counter only took cash, be sure to plan ahead for this expense. The vaporetto ride was beautiful. I managed to take the "long" route to San Marco, but I am so glad I did since I got a great overview of the Grand Canal. When we pulled into the platform, it was a short walk to the Piazza San Marco. I wasn't really sure how to get to there but I just followed the crowd. I took a moment just to stand open mouthed in awe, before I was able to look at the directions the hotel sent me.
Based on recommendations from Cruise Critic Message Boards and Trip Advisor, I chose the Locanda Orseolo for our hotel. From Piazza San Marco, it was about a 2-3 minute walk to the hotel. This property received rave reviews, mostly for its outstanding service. This proved correct during our stay. I was greeted promptly and warming upon arrival, and shown to my room on the 3rd floor. There is NO elevator in this inn and if stairs are a problem consider asking for a lower floor (although ALL rooms require at least some stairs). Our room (#36) was large by European standards and immaculately clean (though the shower curtain could use replacing). It had a desk and chair, a king bed (the next night it was split into two twin beds), two side tables, a mini bar, a flat screen tv and a side chair. The bathroom had a toilet, bidet, sink and shower/bath combination. There was a mural painted on the wall of Venetian Comedia dell'arte character Balazone. (There are a number of photos on tripadvisor.com of the Locanda Orseolo and its rooms). In all, the inn and our room were delightful and our hosts were wonderful. We were greeted warmly and enthusiastically each and every time we saw them and they strove to make sure they helped us in any way they could, whether it was carrying our luggage, making dinner recommendations or reservations, giving directions or making us drinks. Breakfast was a bountiful spread with a buffet of European items like cured meats, cheeses, rolls, pastries and fruit, as well as juices. Barbara would bring you a choice of beverage, like cappuccino or espresso and ask if you cared for eggs, pancakes or crepe. Take my advice, get a crepe. The chocolate crepes looked amazing, but I could not resist the lemon crepes and had one two of the three mornings.
After arriving at the Locanda Orseolo, I got cleaned up and unpacked a little. Soon it was time to get some dinner. The hotel recommended Antico Dolo, which was just past the Rialto Bridge. I will admit it, I got lost finding the restaurant and wandered for 10-15 minutes before finding it. The restaurant was small but charming. I was not hungry enough for a big Italian dinner, so I tried to order just pasta. Unfortunately, between my Italian and the waitress's English, I could not convey this. I ended up with a pasta dish (scallops and mushrooms with wide pasta noodles) and a sautEed John Dory with Radicchio. Both were delicious. However, with a ½ carafe of wine (I could not get her to understand that I only wanted 1 glass), mineral water (the BIG bottle), pasta and fish, I was VERY full and dinner was quite expensive (58€ for one). I got lost on the way back too. This time I was lost for about 30 minutes. The "streets" are not brightly lit, and I was very tired, so I was not at my best navigationally. Once I found San Marco, it was a breeze. I slept VERY soundly, the bed was very comfortable, though the pillows were flatter than I am used to using (luckily there were extra pillows in the closet).
The next day, my friend Stacy arrived. We planned to meet in San Marco Square in front of Cafe Florian. It should have been easy, but some things conspired against us. The square flooded overnight so walking around was challenging, in addition, there were 1000 or more people in the square protesting for school reform. Luckily, Stacy found me quickly and we hiked up our pants and waded back to the hotel to drop off her luggage and let her get freshened up. We spent our day at the Basilica and wandering around the shops. The Basilica is free of charge to enter, but the museum/gallery charged 4€ to enter, and downstairs there is a 2€ charge to see the golden screen, both are worth the fee. We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant off the Piazza and had pizza. I had a pizza Marguarita and Stacy had a ham pizza. Both were really delicious. For dinner, we asked the hotel for a recommendation on a restaurant where we could just have pasta or soup, not 3 courses. The recommended a great little trattoria called Amina Bella. We had a small salad and risotto for me and soup for Stacy. Just right. We found our way back easily and packed up since the next day was cruise ship day!!!
In the morning we found out that the water was high again so our water taxi would not be able to come to the water door until later than our 10am reservation. Gigi rescheduled it for 3 p.m. At first I was disappointed because I wanted to get our luggage to the ship and come back and then explore the city some more. Instead, the inn held our luggage and we went out for a gondola ride. Stacy and I wanted to find others to share the gondola (and the expense) and luckily we found a young couple with their daughter who wanted the same thing. We were able to get one for 80E for all of us, and off we went. If my husband had been with me, I would have wanted it to be just the two of us, but in this case it was perfect. Our gondolier was not the most outgoing, in fact he talked on his cell phone for part of our ride, but it was THE iconic Venetian experience, and now we had done it. During our ride it started to sprinkle, but luckily never really rained. As soon as we finished it started to rain in earnest, so we popped the umbrellas and did our last minute souvenir shopping, grabbed a last slice of pizza and a gelato, and scrambled back to the Locanda for our ride. It was so fun to leave the Locanda from water door. The water door is a small short "door" in the breakfast room wall. In order to get to the water taxi you duck through the door and into the boat. Only in Venice. Our water taxi was a vintage Chris Craft. Very cool. The six of us sat in the cabin and our luggage sat in the rain. We were all worried about that, but in the end nothing got too wet.
In no time we arrived at the Grand Princess and the embarkation process. As always, Princess knows embarkation. Granted we arrived well after the early crowd, but still, the entire process took about 10 minutes or less to get through and then we were in our mini-suite. I have traveled in a mini-suite on Princess all but once. I usually travel with my daughter and husband and we like the extra space it provides us. For this trip, traveling with a friend for 12 days, I knew the extra space would help us stay friends. It also allowed us to enjoy the amazing views as we sailed in and out of each port. This time we were pretty far aft (D721) and we definitely felt the vibrations of the thrusters as we docked. I was very worried the first morning, but we got used to it quickly and it did not happen often.
The Grand Princess: The Grand is now 10 years old. In many places she is showing her age. I noticed spots of rust here and there and many of the soft goods (upholstery, carpets, etc.) had wear and soiling. Our cabin's soft goods, especially the sofa, could use a good cleaning. Of course, 10 years mostly in the Caribbean wear passengers are coated in sunscreen is hard on upholstery. Our balcony had some significant rust and our bathtub had some fairly deep gouges in the bottom. On the upside, the bathroom was extremely clean and with the exception of the gouges did not show its age. The walls and furniture were in good shape, with minimal dings and scratches. The new bedding was clean and comfortable. Love the duvets. We had egg crates on our beds, so I cannot accurately judge the hardness of the new mattresses, but WITH the egg crates we found the beds very comfortable. The common rooms looked well cared for, as did the pool areas. In all, she is still a beautiful ship, and since she will go into dry dock next month, I am sure she will be restored to her former grandeur (every pun intended). To clarify, we saw NO shows. So we cannot speak to their quality personally. We heard very good things about the pianist in the lounge. He was a French gentlemen ( I think) who played, sang and amused the audience. The comic juggler was supposed to be excellent as well. Many of our shipmates thought the production shows were excellent.
Back to the trip, since it was now raining fairly heavily and almost 5pm, we decided NOT to go back into Venice. Instead, we unpacked and got ready for dinner. We dined in the specialty restaurant, The Painted Desert. We had the sweetest waitress, Elena, who gave us excellent service. Our dinner was delicious. We both started with the scallops and foie gras appetizer, I don't normally like foie gras, but this appetizer changed my mind. Outstanding. I had the Black and Blue Onion Soup and my friend, Stacy, had the Shrimp and Pancetta Bisque. I loved my soup, Stacy was less enthusiastic about hers. For entrees, I had the Ribeye and Stacy had the Filet, both were cooked properly and very tender. For sides we shared asparagus, creamed spinach and sautEed mushrooms. I skipped dessert (after all I ate half a cow) and Stacy had the Seven Layer S'mores Stack. I think she was too full to really enjoy it and only ate half. It was a very satisfying meal, with excellent service. What a way to start a cruise.
Sea Day: The next morning was sail away. Stacy slept in and I went up to see Venice one last time. It was a brisk, breezy morning, but the sky was clear as we sailed off to Andrea Bocelli. Simply breathtaking. Stacy and I spent the rest of the day doing a little laundry and a lot of relaxing. We read, wrote in our journals and watched movies....oh yeah and napped. Stacy enjoyed the napping so much she missed dinner, our first formal night. I dressed and went to dinner without her. We had anytime dining, so I simply went to one of the two Anytime dining rooms, Da Vinci, and asked to be seated. They asked (as they did every night) if I minded sitting with others. When I said I did not mind, I was immediately escorted to a partially full table. Dinner was good, if not memorable. I had no meal in the main dining room that really wowed me, nor did I have a meal that I really did not like. Each dish was served hot and cooked to the proper temperature. I found the quality of the meals to be above average, better than banquet or wedding food, but not as good as my local fine dining restaurant. Of course, my local fine dining restaurants is not preparing food for 3000. After dinner, I went back to the room to find Stacy had woken up and had room service for dinner. We watched a movie on TV and went to bed early to prepare for Dubrovnik.
Dubrovnik, Croatia: We ordered room service breakfast and watched sail in from our balcony. We did not have an organized tour for this port, so we did not hurry. We went down to get a tender around 9am. We were to tender into town and around noon the ship would move to a berth at the dock. The tender dropped us off about a 10 minute taxi ride from the city walls. The ship offered a shuttle to the city walls for 5€ per person each way. We found another couple from the ship that wanted to share a taxi for 10€ each way for all four of us. When we arrived all four of us went to the Franciscan Monastery to tour it and the apothecary, which is the third oldest European pharmacy (1317) and the only one still in operation. The Monastery was interesting but the pharmacy was, to be honest, a let down. There was not much to it. After the Monastery, we walked around town for awhile and then decided to "walk the walls". The view from the walls was breathtakingly beautiful, especially with the day's crystal clear blue skies. The day had warmed up quite a bit and after walking up and down and up and down, we were hot and hungry. We found a little restaurant on a side alley called Dominoes Steakhouse. Interestingly, the menu we got had NO steak on it whatsoever. They had lunch specials that included soup, salad and entrEe. Stacy had seafood pasta and I ordered fried calamari and fries. The waiter arrived with our soup in little pitchers which he poured into our bowls tableside. It was a chicken broth with vegetables and was VERY tasty...the highlight of the meal. The salad came at the same time as the entrEe and was very good with a tasty dressing. The fried calamari was tender and sweet. Stacy's enjoyed her pasta too. After lunch, we did some souvenir shopping and then looked for dessert. Our port lecturer, Rusty Wilson, held port lectures the day prior to each port, in his Dubrovnik talk he mentioned there were pastry shops all over Dubrovnik. Well we walked and walked and walked looking for a pastry shop. Just when we had about given up, we decided to look at the menu at a cafe along the main thoroughfare. Low and behold pastry. We both had the sour cherry strudel. Excellent, slightly sour filling and sweet crust, delicious. On a side note, the public restroom was the stand up variety, a metal plate with a place for your feet and a hole. When you flush, it rinses the plate, toilet paper goes in the waste basket. Very different, but quite an experience. Please note however, that both the restaurant and cafe we visited had regular toilets.
Corfu: Again, we had no organized tour planned. This time we were docked. We got off the ship around 10 a.m. and walked through town. We found lots of souvenir shops, but little else, so we looked around for awhile and then returned to the ship.
Katakolon: After a room service breakfast, we went into town. The town area is very small, but the shops were nice and we found a lot of items we had not seen before. Since it was about 11:00am we decided to see if we could take the train to Olympia, which is not something we had intended to do. After reviewing the schedule posted on the train station, it appeared the train takes about 1 hour to get to Olympia, which would get us there at noon. The return train options were at 12:30 and 1:40. The 1:40 train would not get us back until 2:40, only 20 minutes before sail away...too close, and the 12:30 would not give us anytime to see the sites. Stacy wanted to risk the 1:40 and I was about to agree when another couple asked if we were going to take the train. We both agreed it was risky and decided to ask the nearby taxis what they would charge to take us to Olympia and wait to return us to the ship. We got a driver to agree to 70€. We decided the extra money was worth it. Our driver got us there in about 30 minutes, and agreed to meet us in 2 ½ hours to take us back. We needed every minute. We spent about 2 hours wandering around the ruins, taking in the enormity of the place. It is hard to imagine how large and sophisticated the facilities were, and how incredibly huge the temples were. After wandering the ruins, we rushed to the museum to see the "treasures" removed from the site for their protection. From the outside, the museum looked tiny and unassuming. In reality, it was filled with amazing statues, pottery and glassware, much of it in near perfect condition. We did not have enough time to really give the museum the time it deserved, but we were very glad we visited. We got back to our taxi to find the other couple and the driver waiting for us. Our driver brought us back with plenty of time to get back to the ship at a relaxed pace. We got back early enough to put on the swimsuits and head up on deck. Pool drinks and MUTS (this is my first time with MUTS and I LOVED it) and we were relaxed and happy. One downside, the hot tubs at the MUTS pool were not working right, one was not hot but had working jets, the other was nice and hot but none of the jets worked. I got all wet for nothing. Oh well. We made it back to the room early enough to get ready for dinner and a movie in our room afterward.
Athens: We docked in Piraeus, a short drive from Athens. We met David and Janis (also from Cruise Critic) for this tour at 7:45am. Janis arranged this trip for the four of us with Spiros from Athenstaxi.net. When we arrived outside the dock we were met by Fotis. He explained that Spiros was unable to meet us so he asked Fotis to look after us. We were led to a beautiful, new, clean, yellow Mercedes sedan. I sat in the front with Fotis and Janis, Stacy and David sat in back. As we drove into Athens, Fotis explained that there was going to be a planned transportation strike at noon, so we needed to do our city center tours first and then progress to the outskirts to avoid traffic jams. We thought this was great advice. Janis had hurt her ankle a few months prior to the trip, so Fotis brought us right to the main entrance of the Acropolis. Taxis are not usually allowed this far, but because Janis had her handicap sticker, we were allowed. Janis and David were also allowed to enter without charge and were escorted to an elevator to the top. (This sticker allowed her to enter most of the sights without charge, and allowed us to drive right to most entrances). Stacy and I walked to the top. It really was not too strenuous (Janice said that there were still a fair number of steps for her to climb even with the elevator). Like many of the sights on this trip, the ruins were awe inspiring. The detail, the scope, the size of each and every building is staggering. The doors on the Parthenon really are beyond giant sized... they are "god" sized, as if they truly expected the gods themselves to walk through them. The views from the Acropolis are magnificent. Athens is really a sprawling city and you get a 360° view. As you look down, it is so interesting to see ancient ruins sitting in the middle of a neighborhood. In every direction there was evidence of the ancient world.
To follow up this incredible site, we went to the Acropolis Museum. There used to be a small museum on the top of the hill, but a few years ago the artifacts were brought down to the new building. The museum is newly opened but not yet complete, so we only saw part of what will be a large museum. As you enter the walkway has patched of glass so you can see the ancient ruins beneath the building site. Our driver told us that anytime you build anything in Athens you must make a choice. There are so many layers of civilization that you WILL find something when you dig a foundation, so you have to decide (or a government agency has to decide) if what is uncovered is significant enough to stop new construction. So the museum excavated what they could and built glass walkways to allow viewing of the ruins AND allow for construction of the museum above. The museum was filled with statues and vases from the Acropolis, but some of the items we thought we would see here were absent, such as Zeus (from the Temple of Zeus) and the Vestal Virgin Statues. Down the street, we walked to the Theatre of Dionysus. The theatre is HUGE and the front row seating is unique. First of all, the seats in the front row are engraved with name of the reserved patron. These seats are much more ornate than the other more stadium like seating (with the exception of THE seats for the ruler of the time...this seat was very ornate and elevated, right in front of it also elaborate was the seat of the Priest of Dionysus who officiated the event). Lastly, the seats had a small hole in the seat that went through to the front of the chair. We were told that since many of the plays of the times lasted all day (or longer) these holes we used for urinating during the play. After all, it was only men at these events. Whether this is myth or fact, I don't know, but it is an entertaining story.
After exploring the theatre, we hurried to the Parliament building to witness the changing of the guard. I don't know if it was because it was a Monday or if it was due to the strike, but there was only a small crowd there, so we had a good view. Before the ceremony started we were able to get our picture taken with a guard. The ritual/ceremony involves the changing of the guards protecting the tomb of the unknown soldier; it lasted about 10 minutes and was very regimented. There was a soldier who was clearly in charge, he took care of crowd control and inspected the uniforms of the guards and made adjustments during the routine. The guards moved in precision steps that were very dance like, but performed at a slow motion pace. We really enjoyed getting to see this patriotic and symbolic ceremony.
Now it was definitely lunch time. We were all hungry and we relished the chance to sit down for awhile. Fotis took us to a restaurant in a residential area. He told us it was where many local workers ate, so it would be authentic and affordable. I am never sure how "local" a guide recommended restaurant is, but we encountered very few English speaking patrons in this small restaurant. At this type of restaurant, you order by going to the counter to see what was made today and choosing from this "visual menu". Stacy and I chose Pasticcio, and I got us a small side order of veal meatballs in a lemon sauce. Both were really delicious. The lemon sauce on the meatballs was really wonderful. We all left incredibly full and our bill was 11€ each, which included our drinks and tip.
After lunch we went to the National Archeological Museum and Lycabettus Hill. The Chapel of St. George sits on top of this "hill". It is quite a hike up this hill and while the view is breathtaking and the chapel lovely, I am not sure I appreciated it, since I was breathless. Lastly, Fotis took us to the Plaka. None of us really wanted to go at this point, but we were all afraid that if we did not we would find we missed the highlight of the trip. We wouldn't have. It was another narrow alley'd shopping area with cafes and restaurants and souvenirs abounding. We stayed only 20 minutes, found the car and headed back to the ship. By now, Fotis felt like family. He gave each of us a book on the Acropolis and a magnet of the Parthenon, and told us when we come back to visit him as friends. I think he meant it.
Mykonos:From the minute we arrived I finally felt like I was in Greece. This was the Greece of movies, pictures and my vivid imagination. The weather was cooler than Athens (or any port so far) and there was a strong breeze all day. Our lofty goal for the day was to see the windmills. Of course our path was lined with shops, so it was a slow journey. After our warm days, Stacy was unprepared for this cool breeze, and sweater shopping topped the list. Luckily, they are plenty of options available. The shops line the narrow streets that wind through Mykonos town, and charming cafes line the waterfront. Most of the shop owners are willing to haggle somewhat on prices. Even if you are not interested in buying anything, it is interesting to wander the streets and enjoy the architecture unique to Greece. Beautiful whitewashed buildings with blue and red doors and shutters. Lovely little staircases lined with flowering plants leading from the street to apartments above. Streets flow into little squares centered by small churches. We happily wandered along the way in the direction of the windmills. At one point, we lost view of them and stopped for directions and a coke at a small grocery. I thought we followed her directions correctly, but when I looked for the windmills I realized they were behind us. We had gone too far. Fortunately, in order to get back to the windmills we walked along water's edge past a few lovely hotels. The windmills are very picturesque and very photo worthy, so I took about 50. Thank goodness for digital photography and large memory sticks. We found our way back to town very easily by walking through Little Venice. By now we were hungry and found a cafe to satisfy our appetites. I had a delicious Greek salad with a huge hunk of fresh Feta cheese. Stacy had a bruschetta type dish with a tapenade topping that was also very good. After lunch we shopped our way back to the dock and a relaxing afternoon on the ship. We had a nice relaxing dinner with two of the people I met on Cruise Critic that would be spending our Naples port day with. Ron and Gaye are from New Zealand and were wonderful dinner companions.
Kusadasi: Janice and David from Cruise Critic planned our outing in Kusadasi (she also planned Athens above). This time we had Ray and Shannon (also on Cruise Critic) along. We met our guide and driver outside the custom building. We had a large van capable of seating 12, I think. So we were all very comfortable. Our guide, whose name I sadly never was able to understand, was VERY knowledge and proud of her country. We were to spend our morning in Ephesus, and return to the dock area for some time to browse the bazaar. However, the plans changed some. We did start by heading to Ephesus, which took about 30 minutes, I think. During our drive, our guide gave us a lot of information about Kusadasi, Ephesus and Turkish history (with a microphone so all could hear easily). When we arrived we walked through a small market place, and then into the archeological site. Our guide provided us our tickets inside the van, so we were able to walk right in. The site is enormous and parts are in extremely well preserved. We began at the ruin of the public baths. The engineering of this place was well ahead of its time. The baths had hot and cold running water, hot pools, cool plunge pools, steam and saunas, a gym and massage rooms. Locals returning home from traveling or visitors stopped here first to cleanse themselves from the dust and dirt of the road. Next to this is the parliament/senate building. Since the walls of the building are not up, the senate looks instead like a amphitheater. Seating exists for all the senators AND for spectators. Citizens were invited to watch the government at work. Further in we saw a temple to victory, with reliefs of conquering warriors and one of winged Nike with an olive wreath in hand. It is from THIS relief that the Nike shoe company took their swish logo.
Our guide told us that in Ephesus citizens passed through many arches and gates when going from one area to another. Pedestals are all that remain of most of these gates, on these pedestals were engravings and reliefs marked what area you were entering. One gate we passed through was marked on one side with the symbol of Hippocrates, identifying a medical center. On the other side was the symbol for pharmacy. I never thought of there being a medical center and pharmacy where citizens would go, I guess I thought of medicine being more "house call" style and medicines being homeopathic. This public center really amazed me. Other shops and vendors had markings directly on the pathway, including a foot symbol leading the way to houses of ill repute. We passed one ruin of a shop with a wagon wheel symbol carved in the stone in front. The next gate we passed was Hercules' Gate, a tribute to the god. We had to stop and get Stacy's picture trying to push the gate's pillars apart...and blocking traffic.
There are so many fascinating ruins, speaking individually about each would take pages and pages. Suffice it to say, this is a MUST see. Also, don't neglect to add the Terrace Houses. These ARE an additional charge to see, but so worth it. These houses were the residences of the wealthiest citizens of Ephesus, and the most recently excavated. The interior of these houses are very well preserved, you can see intact mosaic floors and walls covered with frescos.
After exiting Ephesus' archeological site, we stopped at the restroom (keep in mind the restrooms are only at the entrance/exit) and went back through the market place. I picked up one of the highly touted overlay books. This made a great souvenir for my 9 year old daughter. All the posts I read said that they were 12€, but we found them to now include a DVD and were marked 16€, I think I paid 14 after some hard bargaining.
Next we stopped at a carpet shop. We were asked if we wanted to do this, we decided it would be interesting to see. It was VERY interesting to see how they are made. However, the sales pitch afterwards, I could have done without. Stacy did buy a rug so I guess it is worth it. We had lunch here too. Lunch was very good, with appetizers of green beans, olives, bread, and eggplant and then a lunch of grilled chicken breast, keftas (a lamb or beef meatball/patty) rice pilaf and potatoes. We had tangerines for dessert, picked right from trees in the courtyard.
Our next stop was the Virgin Mary's House, this required a 30 minute drive. We entered a wooded area, which was lovely and peaceful. There is a small house on this site that is reputed to have been the last home of the Virgin Mary. This has not been confirmed but has been considered a holy place in the area for many hundreds of years. There is a wall on the way out that is covered in paper. These pieces of papers have been left pushed into the wall by people leaving prayers and wishes for Mother Mary. Of course, it is rumored that many of the prayers have been answered.
Our last stop was a leather shop. I think we hoped to find great deals on purses. We did get to feel some very soft leather, but there were NO bargains to be had. They claimed that the jackets and purses were made for famous design houses and some bore their names but none of us really believed that they were authorized designer bags, even if they did carry designer prices. We were then brought back to the dock. We had all thought this was to be a half day tour and that we would be back by 1 or 2 p.m. It was now 4:00pm and we needed to get back on the ship in 30 minutes. Stacy and I almost literally ran through the bazaar looking for a small Turkish flag for Stacy's son. We made it back in time, but just barely, flag in hand.
Having had a tiring day, Stacy and I ate dinner in the Horizon Court. It was German night. Most of the food was not very appealing. I tried the roast pork, but it really tasted strange. I ended up eating a hot dog like sausage and fries. Neither of us really liked our dinner, but we were WAY too tired to sit through a 2 hour dinner. Again we went back to the room tucked into our jammies and watched the port lecture for the next day and then a movie.
Rhodes: Since we had no tour to meet or transportation to worry about, we had a relaxed morning breakfast and then followed the port lecturer, Rusty Wilson's, advice and walked into old town. Rhodes is located near Turkey but is a Greek island. Rhodes' old town is more medieval than ancient or modern. Ramparts and towers surrounded the city and made it look like a fairy tale town. Inside, the medieval feel remains. Little shops carried wears similar to those available in Turkey, rugs, tapestries, linens and leather goods predominated. We found many beautiful items to tempt us, but first we wanted to find the Palace of the Grand Master. We came across a small fortress with a museum...this must be it we thought. Nope. It was an archeological museum, but not the Palace of the Grand Master. We went in anyway. This museum was 3€ to enter, quite a bargain. There was room after room of fascinating artifacts and statues. One room had the most amazing architecture, with arched ceilings and doorways. Very reminiscent of Hogwarts, for your Harry Potter fans. It was full of short doorways leading to very small rooms. There was no signage explaining the rooms (well at least not in English), so we were left to imagine. Were they the bedrooms of the knights? Their offices? Or their tombs? The room was filled with grave markers, so at first we thought they might be tombs. In the end, since they were all off a large room, we figured they were the knights quarters off the grand hall. Who knows if we are right? When we left this museum we continued down the cobbled streets where offices sit in what was a castle, and small courtyards full of flowers wait beyond gates. We found the Palace of the Grand Master and followed a large tour group inside. This museum was 6€ to enter and there were a good number of artifacts to see. We were both glad we went in, but both preferred the smaller, less expensive museum.
We were pretty hungry when we left and headed back to town, we knew we were headed in the right direction, but we also knew we had walked further than we should have needed to. After making several turns, and walking down many deserted and obviously residential streets, some which looked deserted for the winter, we stopped for directions. Turns out we were one block off. One more right turn and we were in town. It just goes to show how quickly you can get "lost". Once in town, we decided to eat at a cafe in a pretty square. All the tables were full on the patio, but they led us upstairs where several more tables were on a deck. We ordered gyro plates, which were delicious, but were pork instead of the beef/lamb I am used to having. After lunch, we decided to shop a little and head back to the ship....but not before a gelato. We were definitely getting hooked on gelato.
Back on the ship, Stacy went to check her email and then take a nap. Since I am a platinum member with Princess, I received a 250 minute internet package for free. Stacy and I used it to check our email and check on things at home. While we heard many people complaining about the speed of the internet, we experience no problems, and found the service to be very convenient and helpful. I went back to the room and got on my swimsuit, took my book and went to the deck in search of a hot tub and a pool drink. The drink was easy to find. The hot tub again proved elusive. Neither was hot this time; though both had working jets. The MUTS was showing a movie and I enjoyed a few minutes of watching it, while reading my book (I know it is weird to do both at the same time, but it was a movie I had already seen). I was happily enjoying the sun until the band came to play, The volume of this band (and any other band at this location) was unbearable. Many, many passengers left shortly after the band started. It was not pleasurable even if you liked the band. It was SO loud, it hurt your ears. You could not have a conversation or read, so I was forced to leave. This was really our only complaint on the whole cruise and the only thing we mentioned on our Princess survey.
When Stacy woke up, we dressed and went to dinner. We met two lovely couples, Randy and Shirley and Daphne and Ray. Enjoying your dinner companions goes a long way to making dinner even better. The food this night was very good and as always the bread is excellent. I have told my husband more than once that he is lucky I did not meet Princess' baker first.
Santorini: We arrived to slightly cooler weather and overcast skies. We ate an early breakfast and hustled to make the first tender. We had heard that the line for the cable car can get very long, so we wanted to get there early. Stacy was determined to ride a donkey. She tried very hard to get me to join her, but since all my previous horse experience was negative, I did not think a donkey was a good idea. Stacy followed an old Greek man calling for donkey riders and I walked on toward the gondolas. I made it on the first set of gondolas with some friends we made on the ship, Annagret and Mike and Jergen and Joyce. The ride up on the gondola is a very quick 90 seconds. I waited at the top for Stacy. After a little while I saw Stacy's orange sweater coming up the hill. I could not wait to get a closer picture of her on the donkey. After about 2/3 of the way up the hill I lost sight of her, but saw a donkey turned sideways refusing to move. I thought the donkey must be blocking the way. Then I saw Stacy walking up the hill. I was very confused. When Stacy reached the top, she explained. At about 2/3 of the way up the donkeys just stopped. Stacy thought it was just being stubborn but then the guide started yelling "get off" "get off". They realized that this was the end of the ride, they would have to walk the rest of the way. Stacy said it wasn't bad (though to me it looked like they walked the steeped part). She thoroughly enjoyed her ride. I am still very, very glad to have NOT done it. Stacy and I now walked to the bus stop to get the local bus to Oia. We found the stop pretty easily, and the bus was waiting. For 1.40€ per person, we rode the 30-45 minutes up steep and winding roads to Oia. We were dropped off right outside a walking area full of shops restaurants and art galleries. The town is built up the side of a cliff, so as we strolled along the walkway we had an amazing sea view on one side. Much of this town had already closed for the winter and the remaining shops were closing within two days. Many advertised BIG sales, but most were offering modest reductions in price. We did find a number of unusual items and lots of art and artisan pieces. The view and the buildings stole the show however. The pure white buildings with blue doors and window shutters seemed peaceful and tidy. The whole place evoked a feeling of simplicity and ease. It made you want to slow down and breathe. We stopped at a cafe and had a fredo (a cold sweet coffee) for me, an ice tea for Stacy and some Tzatziki and bread. The sun was now very strong and it got quite warm on this deck of this cafe, so we did not linger long. We wandered slowly back to the bus stop. Imagine our surprise to discover a very long line for the next bus. It looked like we would not make the next one and would have to wait for the one after that. The could be 1 ½ hours or more. We decided to see how much a cab would be. We overheard one tell someone 40€. Wow. We found a one who would take us down for 20€. Another couple in line wanted to join us and we were off. 5€ per person was a small price to pay to not wait in that long line. We arrived back in Fira and decided to have lunch. We stopped at what we thought was a lunch counter, but it was a cafe. No problem we sat down and ordered gyro platters. Pork again, even better than the last. Once finished we decided to walk to the cable car and return to the ship. The line was immense. There was probably 1000 or more people in line, some of whom needed to board the Celebrity ship leaving at 3:00 p.m. It was now 1:30 p.m. The cable car takes 6 cars with 6 people each every few minutes. We figured that even if they took 36 people every 3 minutes, that line was HOURS long. It took about a nanosecond to decide to walk down the hill. (NO a donkey was NOT an option). It took about 20 minutes to walk down; my calves, thighs and bottom were feeling the burn; and at times we dodged donkeys, poo and fellow passengers; but it was all worth it. We at least weren't just standing in line. We got back to the ship and ordered a pot of tea and enjoyed drinking it on our balcony watching the coast and wondering if everyone made their ship. We went to dinner, did a load of laundry (our clothes from the donkey trail were sweaty, dirty and very smelly) and turned in for the night.
Sea Day: Today was a rest, relaxation and packing day. We did really well on the resting and relaxing. Very little packing was done.
Naples: This was a big day for me. This was the day of the first private tour that I arranged. I was a little nervous about it, since I felt that I was responsible for 7 other people's enjoyment of the port. Therefore, I woke up insanely early (4am) and tried and tried to get back to sleep. At 5am, I gave up and showered. Stacy woke up while I was in the shower and we were both ready for breakfast by 6:15. After breakfast we checked email quickly and met our other tourmates at the end of the gangway at 7:55 a.m. We found our driver outside the customs building. Our driver was Alex from Rome in Limo (www.romeinlimo.com ). We were led to a Mercedes van that held 8 passengers, 2 in the front with the driver, 2 in the middle row, and 2 in the back. There would have also been plenty of room in back for luggage. As Alex negotiated the Naples traffic, we discussed our schedule. We were all a little concerned about the traffic on the Amalfi Coast road (we all read the missing the ship horror story on Cruise Critic), so we decided to go to up the coast first and Pompeii last. Our first stop was Sorrento. Alex dropped us off in a town center and told us he would meet us in an hour. Being a Sunday morning, not much appeared open since it was 9am. So Stacy and I decided to walk to a small cafe and have a coffee and pastry. Sorrento is beautiful and the cafe was picturesque. We ordered at the counter and asked if we could sit. An adorable older man escorted us to a table and then brought us our items. We enjoyed our treats and decided we should use the restroom before leaving. What an experience. My very cute little waiter showed me into the little kitchen/bar area and pointed at a narrow, circular staircase leading underground. When I got to the bottom there were storage rooms and a kitchen. I found the tiny bathroom and on my way back up a counter person came to the top of the stairs and not seeing me threw an empty box down the stairs...right at my head. I caught it and threw it out of the way, but the poor man was SOOOO apologetic in Italian. It was pretty funny and a memorable moment in our trip. After our coffee, I decided to walk over to a little chapel to take a picture, as I did, I noticed that shops were open. We went to a small shop that had beautiful music boxes made of olive wood with inlaid wood tops. Needless to say, we each walked out with music boxes. It was now time for Alex to pick us up and there he was. We piled in and headed to Positano along the Amalfi Coast drive, a beautiful if harrowingly narrow and steep road to Positano.
Positano is a town I have wanted to see for years, after travel shows and magazine extolled its beauty. Those shows and magazines did not lie. It was a beautiful town. Like Santorini, it is built up the side of a mountain, so amazing sea views are everywhere. Unlike Santorini, it is not all white buildings and clean lines. Positano is green and lush with flowering vines everywhere and many colorful buildings piled on top of one another like candy colored Legos. Also like Santorini, the season was over and many shops and cafes were closed, but many more were open and shopping and eating are readily available. I think I was about shopped out by this point and found the few things I liked were too expensive. I did get a few postcards and a lemon ice. Lemons are a very big product here and Limoncello is local product. The lemon ice was delicious, much better than Limoncello to me. We made it back to the van and Alex took up to a small restaurant in Piano di Sorrento. This restaurant was a local spot. I was a bit nervous at first because they only had 3 menus, all in Italian, and the wait staff spoke little English. My worrying stopped when the food arrived. We had the most delicious food. I had a pumpkin and sage risotto and green salad. They brought us out bruschetta as a treat. We all had MORE than we could finish. The waitress then brought us a treat of Limoncello. That is strong stuff. All of this cost us 15€ each. A pretty good deal.
We now travelled to Pompeii, all of us trying to stay awake on the ride after our large lunch. When we arrived we got our tickets, went to the restroom (the worst on the trip) and rented some audiotour headphones, and headed to the first stop on the audiotour. We only had 2 hours in Pompeii, in order to get back on time. (The Princess tours had the same amount of time here). We knew we would have to hustle, but what we did not know is how HUGE Pompeii is. Alex explained that Pompeii was a big city at the time, like Naples is today, but we really did not get it, until we entered. Two hours could not begin to cover this. We decided we want to go back someday and spend a whole day. We wandered through the ruins, not really able to utilize the audiotour in such a short time, but we tried. We passed lots and lots of spaces that looked like small kitchens. The audiotour let us know they were in fact small take out restaurants. The circular wholes in the counters were for putting pots in to keep the food warm. These counters were in great shape with mosaics and frescoes. There was a laundry with washing rooms, drying rooms and a rooftop drying area, and many other rooms of undetermined use and gardens and courtyards. We really wanted to see the few preserved victims and got lost a couple of times trying to read the map. We finally found them with time running out. It was really sobering to see the victims as they fell. One person is kneeling and praying and another is holding his head in fear. These people really brought home the reality of what happened here. Very sad. I do think I will be back to spend more time here, as well as visit Herculeam, another city destroyed by the volcano.
Our tour was over and Alex brought us back to the ship. When we got out and took pictures with Alex, he presented us with two bottles of Limoncello. We had such a nice day.
Back on this ship, this was our last night. We had to pack. So we had a quick dinner at the burger and pizza stands and got busy. I KNEW that I needed another bag, but having not found the one of my dreams in any of the ports, I decided to get the rolling tote from the gift shop. I got it and returned to the room and packed it FULL of my souvenirs. As I zipped it the zipper broke. I fixed it and it broke again. I unpacked it and returned it and got a different tote, came back and started again. This time it worked. Soon we were packed and tucked in for the night.
Rome: Up painfully early again, it is disembarkation day and Rome tour. At 4:40 I was in the shower, and laid back down to wait for either Stacy to wake up OR the alarm to go off. We were scheduled to disembark at 7:30. We were to meet our tourmates in the Da Vinci dining room at 7:25. We were showered and dressed by 7:00am and down to the DaVinci at 7:15am. We met Larry and Judy and Eve and Michael and disembarked.
We met our driver, Salvatore, with all our luggage, outside the luggage area. He packed us all in and away we went. We got an early start and he thought that would help, since there was a metro strike that day and traffic would be bad. Suddenly, traffic was bad, very bad and we were in stop and go traffic. Salvatore took this time to serenade us with Italian music getting us into the mood and then finally, we arrived in Rome.
Our first stop was the Coliseum, first we stopped at Palatine Hill to get our tickets, so we could avoid the line. This "trick" works very well. Salvatore recommended this (even though I already knew it from Cruise Critic). Salvatore was great about giving us tons of information regarding all the sites we were to see, as well lots of local flavor. There was NO line at Palatine Hill and the tickets are good for Palatine Hill, the Coliseum and the Forum. Once you get your ticket at Palatine Hill, you can skip the line outside the Coliseum, since the long line is to buy tickets. We had only 45 minutes here, so we did not get a guide. Since we were staying additional days in Rome we could come back. We took a number of pictures and soaked in the feeling of all the history. After that we visited the Pantheon (staggering in size with incredible art and a ceiling that is stunning), Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Fountain of Four Rivers. Then our guide took us the "the keyhole" in a small church. I won't tell you what you will see, but it is a wonderful little surprise.
For lunch we visited a small restaurant recommended by our driver. The owner took care of us with a pre fixe lunch menu. We started with vegetable soup, followed by pasta amatriciana (wonderful penne pasta with a bacon tomato sauce), and a lemon tart for dessert. We also got delicious bread and olive oil, wine and bruschetta. We got all this for 20E each. After lunch we took pictures with the owner.
We left lunch and headed for Vatican City. There we met our guide, Irena, who is a lovely, vivacious young woman, who really knows her stuff. We had 2 ½ hours to view this amazing place; we could have used much longer. The Vatican has so many works of art from all periods of history it is overwhelming. It made me think of the movie "National Treasure". It felt that every missing antiquity was here. We saw statues, and paintings; followed by the hall of tapestries, leading to the Sistine Chapel. After all the incredible art and history we had seen in the last weeks, I expected to be underwhelmed. After all, how could it compete with the beauty of St. Mark's Basilica, the majesty of Ephesus, or the raw emotion of Pompeii? Well...it does. I cannot describe the experience, but I will try. You enter the chapel in silence and are to remain silent while in the chapel. The quiet instills the sense of reverence of the place. It is hard to imagine that ONE man painted the entire work, never leaving his scaffolding for 4 years. The size of the work, the subject, and the sheer beauty makes it a "religious" experience (if you pardon the pun). When we entered the Basilica itself, however, it was the Pieta that brought tears to my eyes. After the Basilica, it was time to say goodbye to Irena, which was sad. She is a jewel of a guide, knowledgeable, interesting, and excited about what she does. And now, Salvatore takes us to our individual destinations. The six of us were heading to three different places; two different hotels and the airport. We got dropped off first at our hotel, Hotel Farnese. We said goodbye to our tourmates and our charming guide, Salvatore. (Salavatore was also went out of his way to bring my forgotten CPAP machine BACK to our hotel)
Exhausted, we checked in to our new home. The Hotel Farnese is a little gem. It is close to everything we needed, esp. via the metro, which was ½ a block away. Our room was on the 4th floor, and the most adorable bellman helped us with our bags and showed us our room. It was smaller (slightly) than our room in Venice, but had a surprising addition, a small terrace, with 2 chairs and a table. We also had two armchairs, twin beds, a safe, a mini bar and a sparkling clean bath with a tub/shower combination. There were windows in both the room and the bathroom that opened allowing in fresh air, but they both also had louvered shutters which allowed privacy and kept out the light. The room did have a slight musty smell, but the open window soon took care of that. The beds were comfortable. After we freshened up and rested awhile, we got up for dinner. It was early. Very early by Italian standards. It was 5:30 pm. We asked the front desk for recommendations for dinner, he informed us we were far too early for dinner as restaurants did not really open until 7:00pm. We could eat at a bar (in Italy these are coffee shops with light food items, like Panini) he said, but for a real restaurant we would have to wait. We were HUNGRY and TIRED, so we went out to find a cash machine and look around. During our wandering, we noticed a large Pizzeria sign. We decided pizza would be fine and headed that way. What we found was Pizzeria San Marco, a delightful pizzeria that served pastas, entrees AND pizzas, but was not the typical multicourse Italian fare. Stacy had simple spaghetti with marinara sauce and I had four cheese gnocchi. They were the best gnocchi I have ever had, like little pillows of heaven, so rich, creamy and light. They were however, very filling, so I could only eat half my portion. Thank goodness we had not gone to a real restaurant. We were full, happy and back in our room by the magical 7 pm, and asleep by 9pm.
The next morning, we got up early (remember how early we went to bed) and went up to breakfast. Breakfast is served on the 5th floor in a charming terrace room. We had tea and lemon tart with some fresh squeezed orange juice. There was also several other sweet options, eggs and bacon in a chafing dish, croissants, salami, cheese and fruit. There was more than enough selection for a busy day. We had the room to ourselves so we felt like we had our own little home in Rome.
We took off for our busy day, we jumped on the metro and went back to Palatine Hill. We were able to use our tickets from the day before, which was awesome. We spent quite some time exploring the ruins here, we had no guide and there is little signage here, so we explored and enjoyed the beauty for its own sake. We especially loved a fountain we found that was covered in moss. You could tell there was something under all that moss; it was exciting imagining what was hiding beneath. When we finished here we exited and looked for the Forum. Silly us, the entrance is IN Palantine Hill. So we reentered (we had to explain to the person at the gate that we had missed the Forum entrance), and explored the Forum. We got an overlay book before we went in, so we were able to identify many of the ruins. We actually heard a tourist (yes an American, I think) say "all this shows it that they were full of themselves (referring to the Caesars)". Seriously? Considering all that they accomplished in their lifetimes and the enduring presence they offer the world, how can someone seriously say that. I am sure they were pretty full of themselves, but even they could not realize the impact they would have. We even saw the spot Julius Caesar was cremated; it had several bouquets of fresh flowers on it. Wow.
As we finished, we went by the Victor Emanuel monument, called "the Wedding Cake". It is spectacular. It is home to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier; so you are expected to behave in a respectful manner, including not sitting on the steps. We looked at our map and decided we were not far from the metro stop so we walked. We it was farther than it looked. We stopped and ate lunch at a bar, walked, stopped for a gelato, walked, and walked. Finally, we found the stop at the Spanish Steps. We took the metro to the Vatican, so we could find the shop we saw yesterday. Due to our faulty memory, we walked by it a couple of times before we found it. At this point, our feet hurt badly and we were very tired. We bought our postcards and mailed them there so they could be postmarked Vatican City. This time we were very close to the metro, so we hopped on and went back to the hotel. We were again too tired for a real restaurant and headed back to Pizzeria San Marco. This time I had Pasta Amatriciana (like yesterday) and Stacy had pasta with a mushroom sauce. We both finished our dinner this time. Again, it was delicious.
Back to the room to pack we went. It was sad as this was our last night together. In the morning, we had to leave too early for breakfast, but that was okay. The hotel arranged for a driver for us at 7:00am. He was exactly on time and we were whisked to the airport in a Mercedes sedan. Our driver dropped us off at Stacy's terminal and we went in. We found her check in point after some confusion and she was checked in. I left her waiving goodbye at the security point. I made my way down to baggage claim and to the hotel shuttle stop. After about 30 minutes, the shuttle for the Hilton Garden Inn came and took us to the hotel. The hotel is not far from the airport, but it is among the hangers and freight areas of the airport, so it is near nothing else. I arrived at 9:30 a.m. I was surprised to find I could check in immediately. I went up to the room and dropped off my luggage and went down for breakfast. The breakfast buffet was very large and varied...an expensive, but luckily included in my rate (139€). Other than the scrambled eggs, it was very good. (Scrambled eggs were also odd at the Hotel Farnese). The cappuccino was delicious. After breakfast, I went back up to the room.
My room was modern in design, with a Scandinavian feel. It was bright and clean with a Herman Miller desk chair and a sleep number bed, which was oh so comfortable. The bathroom was spotless with a good sized bathtub. There was an alarm clock with an ipod dock, a big screen flat tv, and a electric kettle. I had looked forward to this last day, as a chance to recover from the trip a bit before going home. So I made some tea and took a bath. Then I settled down to read. The hotel has a small shop too, so after awhile I went downstairs and bought some chips and a diet coke and returned to my book. Soon I was napping happily. I woke up comfortably and read for awhile longer. I went downstairs to dinner. The restaurant was tasty and the service good. I was able to take the rest of my wine to my room to enjoy. I slept soundly and in the morning enjoyed breakfast and the airport shuttle.
Of course, in such a flawless trip, some rain must fall. I arrived to find my flight cancelled and they were rerouting everyone to other airlines. I was very lucky to be among the first in line, so I was able to be routed to another airline with a direct route to Atlanta. In 13 short hours on a plane I was in Atlanta, and my husband drove me home. It was truly a dream trip. Read Less