Port and Shore Excursions
Athens is both good and bad. We were in a rush to meet a friend, so took a cab. We agreed on 15 Euro to go to the meeting point in Thissio. Instead he took us to the Acropolis even after I repeatedly told him we did not want to go to the Acropolis. We got out and refused to pay. He attacked me. Hit me and tried to grab my camera. Threatened to call police. I asked him to do just that. He then chased us with the cab up and down the street, having dropped us off in a deserted area. Finally some other cabbies pulled up, intervened and protected us. I gave the nice one 10 Euro. Later we heard other people were also harassed by drivers trying to extort more $ from them.
We should have taken the train. It is a very long walk from the cruise terminal, especially since Navigator parked at Terminal B, another 800 meters farther down the line from Terminal A. They provided a shuttle from B to A, but it added more time.
Our friend showed us around the Acropolis and took us behind into caves and on streets most people don't see. It was great. The museum is quite good. Note that the Acropolis is also almost phony. Everything of any real antiquity is in the museum or was 'liberated' by the British and is in London. Everything you look at in the Erecthion or Parthenon is replica essentially.
We took the train back with no problem. We ate in a nice place behind the Water Clock at the base of the Acropolis. Try to find something away from the tourist areas and the food is much better and less expensive.
Make sure to try the yogurt with honey. It is delicious dessert.
Next day was Chania. Nice shops to browse. Nothing else there.
We used About Ephesus. $55 each. Same 6 people as in Messina. This tourguide was far less knowledgeable than Mario Astone family. She was young and simply recited facts from memory. She wasn't a local. We toured Ephesus and then she took us to a ceramic factory, Virgin Mary house, a rug factory and then dropped us in Kusadasi.
Ephesus is phony. People don't realize it, but the entire place was rebuilt in the style of what was there. Even the columns are simply recreated replicas. Everyone makes a big deal of the terrace houses. They are ok, but again nothing special.
The ceramic factory was actually interesting. The stuff is high quality. Bargain like crazy and the price comes down. They discount for cash and do ship it. They are honest. The stuff arrived today in excellent condition.
The rug factory is a joke. Nice exhibit and then they keep telling you no obligation but hound you like crazy. The first one they showed my wife that she expressed any interest in was quoted at 4,100 Euro. That was ultimately reduced to 2,900 Euro. They claim they are rare and handmade, but they have thousands of them. Not too rare. The price then dropped to 2,000 Euro. If I really wanted it, I would have gotten it for about 800 Euro. They are crooks.
We stopped at the Virgin Mary house, but I refused to go in. This is totally phony. The Turkish government concedes the chances Mary was ever here is less than 2%. But they charge about 8 Euro each for people to stand inside a chapel constructed in the early 1900's. AVOID this. It is an affront to Christianity and insulting to anyone else.
There is a shop inside the port for jewelry run by Haim Paco. If you want jewelry, find his shop and tell him I sent you. He is a master craftsman and the price was good. He is honorable. Do not buy jewelry in Kusadasi. They were trying to charge 850 Euro for a pair of earrings which at most were worth 125 Euros. (9 grams of 14k gold). Also, do NOT buy 925 silver. That is the lowest class of sterling and you are being ripped off. They probably get it from Mexico. It will turn your skin black.
Arrived Rome on 10/26.
Stayed at Hotel Napoleon for second time. This is a very good 4 star hotel. It is located on the Piazza Victor Emanuelle, which is the first train station past Termini. It is extremely well situated. Roughly 3 blocks from Maria Maggiore. Nice neighborhood, relatively quiet. The hotel has an elevator, concierge, small bar and restaurant. Full breakfast included and they do not skimp. It is a family owned hotel. On Friday evening they invite all their guests for free wine and appetizers for a full hour. Very nice touch. The rooms are well decorated and relatively quiet. Beds are comfortable. About 180 Euro per night including a pickup at the airport. Request an inside room on a high floor.
I strongly recommend using the car service and not fooling with the trains if you have luggage. Changing stations is difficult.
The hotel picked us up with no problem. The driver was excellent. We used him 2 more times. His name is Massimilliano (Max) Romano. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone is 328.1234961 in Italy. He also took us from the hotel to the port for 120 Euro. He also picked us up at port and took us back to the airport for another 120 Euro. Although it sounds expensive, it was $160 for a private cab and the cruise line charges $91 per person. So, for 2 or more people it is a bargain and you drive in comfort in a Mercedes. He was prompt, speaks excellent English and is very courteous.
We ate in the following restaurants we found on TripAdv: Taverna de Fori Imperiale (terrible food and bad service); Restaurant Tema (ok food, ok service); Trattoria Vecchia Roma (poor food; poor service). We finally gave up on TripAdv and found our own trattoria near the hotel on Merulana and it was superb. We have decided high ranking TA restaurants go down hill quickly. They become overwhelmed with Americans, Brits and Germans and stop caring about food and service. Sad because I ate in Vecchia Roma last year and it was very good.
We bought the Roma Pass right near Maria Maggiore. It was well worth it for 3 days. The metro cost is 12 Euro for that and it lets you in free at first 2 sites. Best value is to use it for Colosseo/Fora (12 Eur) and for Contemporary Art Museum (11 Euro)(closed through mid-Dec 2011). Nexst is Capitoline Museum (8.50 E). We did those, plus the Borghese (make reservations in advance 6 Eur reduced to 3.50), and the Museo Nazionale Romano combination ticket (7 Euro reduced to 3.50). Good savings with Roma pass and you skip all the lines. Not available online anymore. The cost is 25 Euro each.
Also reserved in advance for Vatican Museum. If you don't reserve, don't go there until after 11:30 AM. The lines are huge early and drop over lunch. Make sure you see the Borgia apartments. They are excellent.
If you go to St. Peters, get there early if possible. There is a long security line. Don't stand in it. Walk along the left side of the line ignoring the complaints of others. They are all standing in line for the right hand checkpoint. There is a left hand checkpoint nobody gets in line for and you can walk right in. This will save an hour. They just don't know there are two lines and all stand in the same one.
I am including MESSINA, Sicily here because there is not a separate entry for it.
We arranged a private 6 person tour with Mario Astone. His brother Ignazio picked us up and gave us the tour. He was wonderful. Do not go above 6 people. The comfort and ease of 6 is great. Once you hit 8, things slow down and you only save a few $. We did the combined tour 1 and 4 without Mt. Etna. It cost 55 Euro each plus lunch. This is expensive, but he gave us some gifts and treated us very well and knew his stuff really well. We went to Scalemora (?), the site of the godfather filming, and then to Castelmora above Taormina for lunch and a walk. Lunch was excellent and the small village is not overrun with tourists. Well worth the trip. Buy your gifts here. They are much less expensive than in Taormina, where he took us next. Nothing really there except shops. No need to go in the Greek theater since it looks like every other one and costs a lot. Then back to Messina for the sites. Spent 7 hours with us and did a great job. Highly recommend Mario Astone or his brother. Tell them Arthur Field referred you. Same with Max the driver in Rome.