Port and Shore Excursions
You might think I never have anything critical to say... I also loved our day in Barcelona. I had originally booked a bus tour through HAL but decided that it would involved too much walking for the moms so I asked HAL to book us a 1.2 day with a driver/guide and HAL came through with a lovely young lady, Marisella, and her equally capable driver. They took us past las Ramblas (would have liked to ramble along the Ramblas but i didn't want to tire the moms out...) to Parc Guell first because it was cooler in the a.m., and they took us to the TOP of the Parc so the moms could walk DOWN instead of UP. Again we did everything slowly -- but what a great way to enjoy the sights! I had not done much reading about Antonio Gaudi prior to this trip, but I thoroughly enjoyed his intriguing approach to art and architecture. After parc Guell we went to the famous and still-unfinished cathedral -- La Sagrada Familia -- to see more of Gaudi's fanciful, interpretive work. has to be seen to be believed and understood. So go, and spend enough time to really study the sculptures that decorate the outside of this massive structure! Bring binoculars (or a camera with a telephoto lens!) so that you don't miss anything! Our final stop with up on top of the hill overlooking the city, at the site of the 1992 Summer Olympics. A great vantage point to see the city and the port.
I opted for a private car/guide (booked on my own through Customized Italy -- see contact info above)) and went to Lucca, Pisa and Viareggio (coastal seashore town) instead of Florence because I thought there would be too much walking for the moms in Florence. After a nice drive through some quaint hill towns, we arrived in Lucca -- a very intriguing little city with an oval-shaped center. Being a walled city (you can walk or bike on top of the wall itself!), our limo driver could not take us around Lucca, so we hailed a local taxi driver (Giuseppe) who was just great and spoke beautiful English. He drove all over Lucca, down some impossbily narrow streets, past lovely churches -- letting me hop out any time I wanted to snap pictures...) -- he even found us a great restaurant for a nice relaxing lunch (Trattoria Da Leo), and took us to Giacomo Puccini's home and monument before driving us back to the entrance to the city to meet our limo driver. Pisa was interesting -- of course there is not much to see but for the famous Tower, Baptistry and Church on the square. But that's enough! We even poked through the stalls that line the square -- mostly touristy items for sale but fun to look nevertheless. And Viareggio was lovely -- a little seaside gem where we walked in the sand and ate gelato (actually, we ate gelato everywhere...!) There is a very moving monument in the center of town, "Monument to Resistance & Peace" -- a testament to WWII when Viareggio was devastated by bombings... really makes you think... All in all, it was a very nice day and not rushed at all!
I had read that many people didn't care for Monaco. i LOVED Monaco. Again I booked a private driver/guide (through my T.A.) -- Eva met us dockside and we bonded immediately. She took us to Eze so we could tour the Fragonard Perfumery (touristy but worth it because it was such an interesting process), then we went to the Oceanographic Institute and we strolled through the gardens on the grounds, right alongside the cliffs to the sea. The gardens are GORGEOUS!) We ended up at the Cathedral where Princess Grace and Prince Ranier were married, and where they are now buried -- very beautiful church, very moving grave sites. Then we watched the Changing of the Guard at the palace (hoping for a glimpse of the Prince...!) -- the views back to the sea from here are spectacular... Eva stayed with us the entire time, giving us both a history lesson as well as a peek into the Monagasque culture. The highlight of our day with Eva was lunch at the Hotel du Paris -- the hotel itself is breathtaking; imagine the dining room on the top floor! We were treated like royalty by the staff; I invited Eva to join us for lunch so we could continue to learn as much as we could about the area. We had a table by the balcony; the floor-to-ceiling windows were open and there was the most beautiful breeze... I had Sea Bass; the moms had Chateaubriand; Eva had a great-looking salad entree'; and we enjoyed some lovely French wine... and, of course, a yummy, decadent dessert! NOTE: do not even THINK of booking a lunch reservation in the Hotel restaurant unless you are willing to dress up a bit. We dressed appropriately and enjoyed ourselves tremendously. After lunch we walked across the street into the Casino -- we paid the EU 20 (I think!) and walked around the Casino itself, watching people making all kinds of bets at all kinds of gaming tables -- I kept looking around for James Bond...! There is no photography allowed in the Casino which is a shame because I saw at least a dozen great potential shots. Oh well! Eva said we should see the place at night when things really get rolling! Our last treat of the day was strolling around the square in front of the Casino, looking at all the incredible cars -- Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Jaguars, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, etc. etc. etc.! Eva took us back to the ship and we reluctantly parted, promising to one day return. It was SO MUCH FUN to live for a day as if we were in an episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous" !!! If we'd had more time in port I would have asked Eva to drive us along the French Riviera or perhaps down to Cannes... She was just TERRIFIC! (Contact Eva at Provence Sightseeing: email@example.com. Tell her Marylu & "the moms" sent you!)
We booked a "cooking lesson" tour because none of the Palermo city tours sounded interesting. That said, the bus did stop briefly at a few sites in palermo (beautiful cathedral) before heading up into the mountains to an old villa where one wing is being turned into a bed-and-breakfast (still under construction). The owners were also the chefs. We all were invited to participate in the preparation of the meal, which included eggplant parm and several other dishes and desserts. We all took notes (it was a little difficult because our hosts did not speak English. The tourguide translated but I am not sure I would trust my recipe... plus of course everything there is measured in metric units... but I enjoyed watching the technique nevertheless!) While dinner cooked we wandered around the villa and took pix of the surrounding countryside (charming and bucolic). Dinner was 6 courses and unlimited glasses of wine -- we were all a little tipsy when we left but boy was it delicious! A different pace for sure -- but a nice break from touring. it was raining when we got back to the ship (our first rainy day!) so I think we picked the right excursion as it would not have been fun traipsing around in the rain in Palermo, which frankly did not look like the friendliest city... (but I did love the little souvenir shop in port; bought some beautiful hand-painted bottles of Limoncello, the national after-dinner drink -- OMG is it ever good!) And I bought 2 beautiful hand-woven scarves, and now i wish I'd bought twice as many!
OK, now you can read something a little less enthusiastic: i really wanted to see this island -- I had read so much about Valldemosa; knew that Michael Douglas had a home up in the hills... it just sounded like a magical place. SO... I booked a bus tour with HAL (Costa Nord & Wine Tasting). Unfortunately, after 3 ports with my own driver/guide, I was spoiled... the bus tour was too hurried to enjoy anything so we power-walked, power-shopped, and ended up power-drinking wine at the last stop, the winery! Due to technical difficulties, the orientation movie we were supposed to see in Valldemosa never worked (despite 6 tries by the Visitor Center staff...) which took up valuable time and threw us off-schedule for the rest of the day... hey, but the wine (and the olive oil!) was good!
I had originally considered staying on the ship when we were docked in Tunis. It seemed intimidating (3 American women, 2 of whom were elderly, in North Africa, etc.), and also none of the ship-sponsored tours seemed right for the moms (lots of uphill walking, and lots of warnings about how hot it could get here...) -- But the more i thought about it, the more I became convinced that this was another once-in-a-lifetime opportunities... so, you guessed it, I booked a private guide/driver and kept my fingers crossed. Our guide (Othman Ferjani, sent by Chris: firstname.lastname@example.org) was great, very kind to the moms and spoke wonderful English. We went to the Bardo Museum first and he gave us a great art history lesson. Then we went to the Souk where he took us through all the little shops and stalls and helped us "bargain" for our little treasures... just like we had done it all our lives. It was a wonderful sensory experience. And instead of being intimidating or daunting, it was fascinating! After sampling fresh figs and dates, we went to a great seafood restaurant for lunch; I invited Othman to be our guest for lunch and he helped us order, steering us toward dishes that would appeal to the moms (who are less adventurous eaters!) -- everything was delicious! We stopped briefly in the amazing ruins of Carthage and then toured the American WWII Cemetery -- such a beautiful, moving place, and so interesting to see the American flag flying. Othman was very anxious for us to see this hallowed ground -- looked a lot like Normandy and totally unexpected! It was a great day -- I even rode a camel (dockside) -- touristy, yes, but I don't think I will ever have the chance to do that again... so if you go, and you see my camel (named Caesar) please do tell him I said hello...