This review includes information on our November 3, 2018, Mediterranean Passage transatlantic cruise on the Crown Princess. We combined this cruise with a 5-night precruise stay in Rome, with side trips to Ostia Antica and Orvieto.
CRUISE ITINERARY: MEDITERRANEAN PASSAGE (14 DAYS)
Civitavecchia, Italy; Genoa, Italy (canceled); Livorno, Italy (added); Toulon, France (canceled); Barcelona, Spain; Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal; Port Everglades, FL;
One reason we booked this cruise was that it featured two new ports for us: Genoa and Toulon. However, 11 days before sailing, Princess informed us that they had been “advised by the port authority of port congestion in Genoa” and we would no longer be calling there. This was a major disappointment for us as we had planned to go from Genoa to Milan and view Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” Also, the morning we were to call in Toulon, the Captain canceled that port due to high winds that made attempting to dock unsafe. Alas, port changes are a risk of cruise travel.
Our reviews of previous port calls in Civitavecchia, Barcelona and Ponta Delgada can be found here:
Ponta Delgada: www.cruisecritic.com/memberreviews/memberreview.cfm?EntryID=515984
John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our late sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. On this itinerary, I would not need to acquire any flags.
We enjoy both cruises and land tours; often our trips combine the two. We have cruised to or toured all seven continents, primarily in the Americas and Europe. On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, towers, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up for a good view.
We are Elite members of Princess' Captain's Circle loyalty program, with over 650 days cruising on Princess. We have also sailed with Celebrity, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Costa, Viking River and Commodore.
ABOUT THE REVIEW
Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, food etc. Our reviews are not like that; they are primarily a journal of what we did in the various ports, including web links to tourist information sites and maps. In general, we prefer DIY port tours, private tours with other Cruise Critic roll call members or shared public tours. However, we will take a Princess tour when the logistics or cost make that a better option. Tour operator contact information is included in each port review.
Rome and Mediterranean Cruise Ports
“Mediterranean Cruise Ports,” by Rick Steves (available on travelstore.ricksteves.com or www.amazon.com)
“Toms Port Guides,” by Tom Sheridan (www.tomsportguides.com)
“Rome for Visitors” (europeforvisitors.com/rome/)
“Rome Toolkit” (www.rometoolkit.com)
Although there are myriad sources available that provide insight into the history, art and architecture of Rome, John and I found the following particularly helpful in preparing for our precruise stay:
“Rome Guidebook,” by Rick Steves (available on travelstore.ricksteves.com or www.amazon.com)
“Europe 101,” by Rick Steves (available on travelstore.ricksteves.com or www.amazon.com)
“Rome: Engineering an Empire" (www.imdb.com/title/tt0465589/?ref_=nm_flmg_slf_20)
“Art & Architecture Rome,” by Brigitte Hintzen-Bohlen (available on www.amazon.com)
“Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling,” by Ross King (available on www.amazon.com)
“The Agony and the Ecstasy” (www.imdb.com/title/tt0058886/), staring Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison
Those who are not familiar with the dining experience in Italy and/or do not speak much Italian may find the information on the following web sites helpful.
Budget Travel: Italy Menu Decoder (btsrv.budgettravel.com/bt-srv/misc/0812_ItalyDecoder/italy_menu_decoder.pdf)
Restaurants in Italy: Complete Guide to Etiquette, Ordering, and Tipping (www.fodors.com/news/story_3483.html)
Italian Language Lessons: Going Out for Dinner (www.slowtrav.com/italy/language/lessons/restaurants.htm)
REVIEW OF THE CRUISE
SUN, 10/28/18 IN ROUTE TO ROME, ITALY (FCO)
We chose to fly from Raleigh-Durham (RDU) to Rome (FCO) via Toronto (YYZ) on Air Canada, so that we could sleep more on the longer second leg to Europe. To ensure a more comfortable flight on that leg, we paid an additional $100 pp for Preferred seats above Princess' EZAir price ($288.19 pp). Our previous experience flying Air Canda to Budapest was not the best. John had to spend hours on hold trying to submit our Global Entry and frequent flyer numbers and to confirm that our passport numbers were correct. Also, we were never informed about changes in our flight itinerary; we only discovered changes when checking the Air Canada website. [Note: Those changes caused our flight to Toronto to arrive after our flight to Budapest left! We were able to change to other flights but were left with a seven-hour layover in Toronto.]
This time we received notifications regarding changes to our original air itinerary but could not view our flight details on the Air Canada website. We originally had nearly seven hours in Toronto before the flight to Rome. We decided to purchase a pass for the Plaza Premium Lounge (www.plazapremiumlounge.com) through LoungeBuddy (www.loungebuddy.com). Our plan was to relax and snack in the lounge so that we could skip dinner on the plane and go to sleep as soon as possible after taking off for Rome. Even though our flight from RDU to YYZ was delayed by 2.5 hours due to mechanical problems, we still had ample time in Toronto to enjoy the lounge, which was very convenient to our departure gate.
MON, 10/29/18 ROME, ITALY—FIRST OF MANY CHURCHES, WALKING & FOOD TOUR OF TRASTEVERE NEIGHBORHOOD
The flight to Rome had a bit of turbulence but we both got a lot of sleep on the plane. Once at FCO, we at first thought that we were experiencing a repeat of our 2008 arrival, where the airline lost John’s suitcase for two days. This time, the luggage carousel stopped and John’s bag had not appeared. Then there’s that sad feeling when almost everyone has left the carousel area. We waited awhile and were just about to report his bag missing, when we heard a clunk and his bag popped out. A few other people also appeared to be missing bags and hopefully theirs emerged shortly after John’s.
We had pre-arranged a private airport transfer through the hotel for 45€ total. We waited by a sign with our surname that was taped to the wall at the exit; our driver soon scurried over to greet us. Shortly after, we were on our way to the Hotel Mimosa (www.hotelmimosa.net) on Via di Santa Chiara in the Centro Storico of Rome. Even though it was only 11 a.m. when we arrived at the hotel, our room was already available. Check-in was very quick; in addition to our room key and the WiFi password, we were given a key to the street door and the code for the lobby door so that we could come and go on our own schedule. This was our second stay at this tiny and exceptionally affordable hotel; in 2008, the hotel staff was extremely helpful in dealing with the lost luggage department at FCO for us. As on the last visit, the staff was a great help to us before we arrived (by securing the airport transfer and restaurant reservations) and during our visit (loaning a plug adapter).
Because we intend to do little more than sleep and shower in a hotel room, our criteria are: clean, comfortable, inexpensive and in a great location; an included continental breakfast (served from 8-10 a.m.) and Wi-Fi are bonuses. The Hotel Mimosa fits the bill perfectly. The hotel has an elevator and air conditioning and provides amenities such as shampoo, soap, shower cap, sewing kit, toothbrush, razor and slippers. Some additional notes: the bathroom is modern, the towels are great, sometimes the water could have been a little hotter and the breakfast pastries are exceptional. However, the best thing is the excellent location: it is only 330 ft (100 m) from the Pantheon and a 5-minute walk from the Piazza Navona. Most of Rome’s major sights are within walking distance and public transit is also nearby.
John and I had not only slept well on the flight but also we had advanced our internal clocks three of the five-hour time difference by gradually going to sleep and getting up earlier in the weeks before the trip. After getting settled in our room, we were ready to start sight-seeing. We had toured the Vatican, the Forum area, the Colosseum and other must-see sights on our previous visits. This time we would be seeking out other must-sees as well as some slightly less crowded attractions and looking, in particular, for works by Caravaggio and Bernini.
On October 21 (a week before we left for Rome) Rome experienced a severe thunderstorm, followed by a freak hailstorm that dropped the temperature 18° F (10° C) and covered the streets with knee-high drifts of hail. The resultant flooding closed several Metro stations. The weather during our five days in Rome was also quite unsettled, with strong winds, heavy rains and flooding throughout Italy from Storm Adrian (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018%E2%80%9319_European_windstorm_season#Storm_Adrian). Today we endured high winds and intermittent showers and thunderstorms. Despite our rain jackets and umbrellas, our shoes and pants would be drenched several times during our stay. Throughout our walks, we saw a number of uprooted trees (reportedly, 300 were downed in Rome alone), large broken-off branches and lots of debris—smaller branches, leaves and pine needles. Oddly enough, our jackets and glasses were pelted with mud drops! Apparently Adrian caused dust storms in Africa and directed a plume of Saharan dust over Italy that mixed with the rain. We were also unaware that schools in Rome and even the American Embassy had been closed today in anticipation of the severe weather. We were ignorant tourists! At least 11 people died in Italy this week as a result of the storms.
We had hoped to visit two nearby churches with Caravaggio paintings today but the first was already closed for the midday break. The second, San Luigi dei Francesi (St. Louis of France), was still open and we were able to admire the three fine Caravaggio paintings in the Chapel of St. Matthew. I expected to have to pay 1€ to illuminate the paintings but some other Caravaggio-lover had already provided the light. After that we walked over to the Tourist Office in the Piazza Navona to purchase Roma Passes (www.romapass.it/en/home/). It was nice to finally see the three fountains in the piazza—del Moro, Neptune and Bernini’s Four Rivers—free of the scaffolding that surrounded them in 2008.
The Four Rivers Fountain includes an ancient Roman copy (named Agonalis) of an Egyptian obelisk. Although we were not specifically on an obelisk scavenger hunt, we would encounter many of them on our rambles. Rome has more obelisks than any other city—eight from ancient Egypt, five ancient Roman copies or imitations and many modern ones.
The 48-Hour Roma Pass (28€ pp) includes free entrance to the first attraction visited, reduced admission to later attractions and use of public transportation for two calendar days. The person at the Tourist Office said we were supposed to validate the Pass in the machine on the bus with its first use; perhaps I misunderstood because the Pass would not fit into the machine. We did write our names and the date of first use on the Passes (as required) but no one ever asked to see them on any of our bus rides. In any case, we did not have any trouble using the Passes at the attractions or on the Metro. Although we still needed to buy a few Metrebus tickets for the days before and after the pass was valid, our total cost was less than paying á la carte.
From the Piazza Navona, we walked through the Campo de’ Fiori open-air market towards the Piazza Mattei to see the “Turtle Fountain” (the turtles were added by Bernini). This piazza is on the edge of the Jewish Ghetto neighborhood, which contains a number of interesting Roman ruins and monuments. Rick Steves has a walking tour of this area in his guidebook and we followed part of that. We walked past the Portico d’Ottavia, Teatro di Marcello and the three remaining columns of the Temple of Apollo and Bellona. Closer to the Tiber River, we viewed monuments in the Forum Boarium: the temple of the port god (Portunus), the circular Temple of Hercules Victor and a fountain with Tritons. From here we could also see the Arch of Janus, closer to the Palatine Hill.
Across the street from the park with the temples is the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The church’s portico is the home of the “Bocca della Verita” (Mouth of Truth), which was popularized in the 1953 film “Roman Holiday’”as an ancient lie detector (it’s probably really an ancient sewer cover). There was a fairly long line of people waiting in the rain to pay for the privilege of being photographed with their hands in the Bocca; we didn’t see any hands getting bitten off. We did manage a photo of the Bocca from outside the portico, in between people posing.
The church is very near to the north end of the Circus Maximus, so we made a short detour to see the famous racetrack and views of the palaces on the Palatine Hill. From there, we returned to the Tiber River and crossed the Ponte Palatine. Looking back at the cityside bank, we could see an outlet of the Cloaca Maxima—Rome’s ancient sewer system—which is still in use. On the other side of the bridge is the lone remaining arch of the Ponte Rotto (broken bridge), Rome’s first stone bridge built across the river. There is also a view of the Isola Tiberina, the only island in the Tiber.
We were now in the Trastevere (across the Tiber). This working-class neighborhood is a tangle of narrow cobblestone streets, some named for the type of business or product (e.g., Via del Salume or Cold Cuts Street) that once predominated there. The neighborhood is now a trendy area to live and is noted for its restaurants and nightlife. Today, however, the rain-swept streets were mostly deserted, except for determined tourists!
We roughly followed Rick Steves’ Trastevere walking tour, stopping to buy some gelato (chocolate and melon) and Metrebus tickets. Three of the churches we wanted to visit were on lunch break, so we headed up two sets of stairs behind the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere to the Church of San Pietro in Montorio. There is a locked gate on one side of the church that allows a peek through its bars at Bramante’s Tempietto, his prototype for the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. This courtyard was once thought to be the site of St. Peter’s crucifixion.
We followed a belvedere alongside the church and up the Janiculum Hill. This route passes a memorial to those who fell in Italy’s Wars of Independence (1849-1870) and finally reaches the huge Acqua Paola fountain. After Pope Paul V Borghese restored the Trajan Aqueduct, he had this fountain built at its terminus. There is a terrace across the street from the fountain with great views over the city.
We decided to continue up the hill to the Piazzale Giuseppe Garibaldi. There is an equestrian statue of Garibaldi, a military leader in the Italian unification movement, and, farther along, a monument to his wife, Anita. The large Janiculum Terrace here provides more panoramic views of Rome. There were very strong gusts of wind on top of the hill and it looked like more bad weather was coming, so we hurried back down to avoid being hit by any falling branches or roof tiles. The wind was so strong that it was hard to descend some of the stairs back down to the Basilica.
The piazza in front of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is thought to be the site of the oldest fountain in Rome (8th century). Over the centuries it has been renovated and restored many times (e.g., by Bramante and Bernini, among others). Its water comes from the same source as the Acqua Paola fountain.
The Basilica is the oldest in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary; the original structure dates to the 4th century. The facade of the church features a gorgeous 12th-century mosaic of the Madonna (nursing Jesus) and ten women, representing the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The wall inside the portico is covered with stone fragments from the earlier church, bits of sarcophagi, memorial floor-slabs and covers of burial niches from the catacombs.
As we entered the church, we looked for the ornate 15th-century repository for sacramental holy oils, the “Olea Sancta.” This church is also known for another kind of oil, petroleum, which allegedly flowed from this site, down the Via delle Fonte dell'Olio, to the Tiber River in 38 BC and was thought to foretell the coming of the Messiah. This miracle is indicated in the Nativity mosaic in the apse by a small building labeled “Taberna Meritoria", an old soldiers’ home, which formerly stood on this site. The Epiphany mosaic also shows a building with oil flowing from its door, although the olive tree in that mosaic suggests it was olive oil. Whatever, there is a plaque in the altar rail to the right of the main altar that marks the source of this “Fons Olei.”
The highlight of the church is its apse mosaics. The depiction of the coronation of Mary, enthroned in glory at Christ’s right hand, in the half-dome of the apse is said to be the first of its kind. This and the frieze below, with Jesus represented as the Lamb of God and the Apostles as sheep, both date to the 12th century. The lower mosaics that portray six scenes from the life of Mary (including the Nativity and the Epiphany) were added towards the end of the 13th century. All of the mosaics are partially blocked by the huge altar canopy; we had to go to both sides of the altar to get good views.
In addition to many other mosaics and frescoes, other gorgeous aspects of the church interior include the gilded coffered ceiling and the floors, decorated with intricate Cosmati-style geometric mosaics. The huge granite columns that line the nave were repurposed from the Baths of Caracalla and other ancient buildings. The “Madonna di Strada Cupa” once graced a vineyard gate. That painting enjoyed a brief reputation in the early 17th century for its miraculous powers; it now resides in the Chapel of the Winter Choir in the transept. A more down-to-earth note is struck by the statue of St. Anthony of Padua near the exit: the base is surrounded scraps of paper bearing prayer requests from the locals.
It was around this time that my “windproof” travel umbrella proved that it was indeed not “windproof.” Fortunately, after returning home from the Apocalyptic weather in Rome, the company that sells them sent me a free one to replace it.
By now the Church of San Francesco a Ripa Grande (www.sanfrancescoaripa.it) was open. The sacristy contains the cell where St. Francis of Assisi stayed when he visited Rome and the main altar features a wooden statue of St. Francis in ecstasy, supported by angels. The church itself contains numerous tombs and memorials of various holy men and women of the Franciscan orders and of others associated with the history of the church. The most famous work of art here is one of Bernini’s last masterpieces, the funerary monument of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. The statue depicts the saint on her deathbed, as her death throes merge with the religious ecstasy of her impending union with God.
Next we backtracked to the Isola Tiberina, which once housed a temple to Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. Now part of the island is a hospital and the site of the temple is occupied by the small Basilica di San Bartolomeo all'Isola (sanbartolomeo.org). We had hoped to descend to the plaza in the back of the church for a better view of the Ponte Rotto but the access stairs to the riverside were blocked off (probably due to the recent heavy rains and flooding). The church was originally dedicated to St. Adalbert of Prague. It was rededicated to the Apostle Bartholomew in the 12th century; the saint's relics are contained in a porphyry sarcophagus under the main altar. As part of the Great Jubilee of 2000, Pope St. John Paul II established the Basilica as the Memorial of the New Martyrs of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The final church on today’s agenda was the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, reportedly built above the home of the 3rd-century virgin-martyr. Maderno’s noted statue of the saint is in a case under the high altar. The sculptor was present when her tomb was opened in 1599 and saw her perfectly-preserved body before it crumbled to dust upon contact with the air. Thus he was able recapture her appearance moments after her martyrdom. The archaeological area under the church is also well worth a visit (2.50€ pp) to see the remains of earlier structures, fragments of ancient sarcophagi and patches of mosaic floors.
It was just starting to get dark as we returned to the Piazza di San Bartolomeo to join our 4-hour walking food tour of Trastevere (www.eatingeurope.com/rome-food-tours/twilight-trastevere/; 95€ pp). We were surprised to learn that we were the only two people signed up for the 5 p.m. tour, whereas there were about a dozen on the 4 p.m tour. Our guide, Toni Brancatisano (tonibrancatisano.com), has many years of guide experience in Rome and was an outstanding guide, providing plenty of background and commentary.
We walked back across the Ponte Cestio into Trastevere; parts of our route would duplicate the Rick Steves walking tour that we had already done. Our first stop was Da Enzo al 29 (www.daenzoal29.com/en/), which had also been recommended by an acquaintance back home in NC. Here we sampled two classic Roman dishes—Jewish-style twice-fried artichokes and Burrata with fresh tomatoes—with a glass of prosecco. This must be popular spot: several groups that saw us inside had to be turned away because the trattoria did not open for dinner until 7:30 p.m. The place is very small and I expect reservations are essential.
Rick Steves’ tour had directed us to stop at the location of an ancient Jewish synagogue and notice the Hebrew letters carved into the columns. Toni had quite a bit more to say about the history of this building, which is now the location of Spirito di Vino (www.ristorantespiritodivino.com). Excavation for the wine cellar here revealed Roman ruins that are 150 years older than the Colosseum. Here we tasted Pork Mazio Style, a stew made with a recipe from Julius Caesar’s cook (www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/gaio-mazios-pork-ancient-recipe-from-giulio-cesares-time-recipe0-1913249). Spirito di Vino’s Chef was a student of the Nobel prize winning biologist Rita Levi-Montalcini (we’re scientists and so love details like that!).
Next we visited Innocenti (www.facebook.com/BiscottificioInnocenti/), a family owned and run cookie factory, where we tasted three varieties of traditional biscotti. The century-old bakery has an enormously long oven; the cookies bake as they travel through on a 52.5 ft (16 m) conveyor belt. The building was actually constructed over the oven since it would have been too large to fit through any opening.
We next visited La Norcinaria di Iacozzilli (www.facebook.com/pages/category/Grocery-Store/La-Norcineria-di-Iacozzilli-145989095809711/), where we sampled mouthwatering Porchetta (roast pork) and amazing cheeses. Then it was on to I Suppli (www.suppliroma.it/?lang=en) for a taste of that classic Roman street food and Roman-style pizza.
On the way to our next stop, we passed through Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere; the church and bell tower were now beautifully illuminated. At Casa Mia (www.casamiaintrastevere.com/ristorante-casa-mia-in-trastevere/), we indulged in outstanding Mezze Maniche (short tubular pasta) Amatriciana and Cacio e Pepe, two classic Roman pasta dishes.
The final stop was at Fatamorgana (www.gelateriafatamorgana.com/web/index.php?ll=us), a local gelato chain. This gelateria is known for its “gourmet gelato” and features many unusual flavors, such as Black and White—black garlic with white chocolate. We decided to stick with more traditional flavors: Prince's Kiss (with whole roasted hazelnuts) for me and Zabaglione for John.
At the end of the tour, Toni pointed out the route to Viale di Trastevere and the #8 tram, which would cut our walk back to the hotel in half. We got tired of standing in the rain waiting for the tram, so we just walked all the way back. The tram finally passed us just before we reached the stop where we would have gotten off. Perhaps we should have taken this as an indication of the usefulness of the trams and buses in Rome. [Note: ATAC has a route planner on its website (www.atac.roma.it) that works occasionally; we got better results from Google Maps.] Today we walked approximately 9.5 miles (about 15 km).
TUES, 10/30/18 ROME, ITALY—CHURCHES, BATHS OF DIOCLETIAN, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ROME, AQUEDUCT PARK, VILLA DEI QUINTILI
This morning was forecast to be rainy, with better conditions in the afternoon. We decided to rearrange our touring plans in the hope of staying drier. After breakfast, we set out to visit the church that was closed yesterday, San’Agostino. On the way, we decided to take advantage of the early hour to revisit the nearly empty Piazza Navona and admire the fountains again. We also took the opportunity to duck into the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone; Bernini’s student, Borromini, designed its Baroque facade and it features his signature concave lines. Despite the large facade, the actual church is very small inside.
The nearby Church of San’Agostino has two main claims to fame: the “Madonna di Loreto” by Caravaggio and a fresco of the Prophet Isaiah by Raphael. The Caravaggio was controversial in its time because it showed Mary and Jesus as ordinary people, like the two dirty-footed pilgrims worshiping them, and not in majestic glory. It is definitely worth the 1€ coin needed to illuminate this painting for a good look. This church also contains the tomb of St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica.
From San’Agostino, we walked a short distance to Largo Chigi, passing the Palazzo Montecitorio (designed by Bernini), the Egyptian Obelisco di Montecitorio (Solare) and the Column of Marcus Aurelius (with a spiral relief of his military campaigns). Thankfully, the bus stop there has covered waiting areas because we endured several short downpours in the half hour that we waited for bus #85 towards Termini. Truly, we could have walked the distance to our next destination much faster, although we might have gotten wetter. Buses in Rome, unlike in many other major European cities, do not indicate upcoming stops in any way. That makes it hard to know when to get off, especially when the bus is crowded. And do they get crowded, especially in the rain! On several occasions, they were so packed that the doors could not close until the last to board were hauled or pushed farther into the bus.
We got off the bus at the Largo Santa Susanna, near the Piazza di San Bernardo. This piazza features the large, ornate Fountain of Moses (terminus of the Acqua Felice aqueduct) and the Church of Santa Susanna, noted for its elaborate Baroque facade. Also on the square is the Church of San Bernardo, circular in shape because it was built in one of the corner towers of the Baths of Diocletian.
Just off the square is the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, which holds Bernini’s most famous and amazing statue: “St. Theresa in Ecstasy”, depicting the nun swooning in rapture after being pierced by God’s fiery arrow of love. Observing the saint from balconies on either side of the statue are statues of the family that commissioned the work. The name of the church derives from an icon of the Virgin Mary located above the opulent main altar—it is credited with bringing about numerous victories during the Thirty Years’ War.
From there, we walked to the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian. These huge baths were the largest ever built in Rome, covering over 30 acres and accommodating over 3000 people. Water for the baths was supplied by the Acqua Marcia. Bits and pieces of the baths are scattered among the modern buildings and are part of the Museo Nazionale Romano; we could view some sections from the streets in this area. The best preserved part of the baths, the main hall, is part of the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Michelangelo converted the main hall into the nave of the church in 1561; as part of a later renovation, the nave became the transept. The transept is enormous—28 m (seven stories) high, 90.8 m long and 27 m wide (almost as large as an American football field)—and the eight original red granite columns are five feet in circumference. Going into the Sacrestia and the courtyard beyond, we could see more of the original brickwork and the niches that once held statues. An interesting astronomical feature of the church is La Meridiana, a long brass strip on the floor that marks longitude 12° 30' E and serves as a sundial and celestial calendar. Although we could see the small hole through which a sunbeam could enter, it was not bright enough today to read the time.
After visiting Santa Maria degli Angeli, we headed towards the National Museum of Rome. We passed the Piazza della Repubblica, which was once a garden in the center of the Baths complex. The original fountain here was the terminus of the Acqua Pia, a branch of the Acqua Marcia, which supplied the Baths. That fountain featured four lions, which were replaced in 1901 by four Art Nouveau water nymphs; it is now known as the Fountain of the Naiads. We also passed the Einaudi Gardens, a small park that is the setting for an Egyptian obelisk (Dogali) from the Temple of Ra at Heliopolis.
The Museo Nazionale Romano-Palazzo Massimo (www.museonazionaleromano.beniculturali.it/it/170/palazzo-massimo) was our first attraction using the Roma Pass and thus free (regular price 12€ pp or 7€ pp with the Roma Pass). The galleries around the central atrium of the museum feature busts and statues of Rome’s leaders (and their family members) and famous citizens from the Republic through the decline of the Empire. There are many Roman copies of famous Greek sculptures (Discus Thrower) as well as some Greek originals (Dying Niobid). An especially impressive statue is the original Greek bronze “Boxer at Rest”, where different metals were mixed with the bronze to form his scars and drops of blood. The top floor has beautiful mosaics and frescoes taken from Roman villas.
After this impressive museum, we strolled to the Piazza dell’Esquilino; its ancient Roman obelisk (Esquiline) once stood at the Mausoleum of Augustus. The piazza is at the rear of one of Rome’s four major basilicas, the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore. The column in the piazza in front of the church, which once stood in the Forum’s Basilica of Constantine, is topped with a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Inside the Basilica, there is a beautiful gold coffered ceiling. The nave, chancel arch and apse are adorned by gorgeous mosaics. Most of the mosaics in the nave and chancel arch date to the 5th century; the ones in the nave tell the story of Moses and the ones in the chancel arch depict the life of Mary. Underneath the main altar is a lighted niche with a statue of Pope Pius IX praying before an urn that contains the purported relics of Jesus’ Holy Crib. To the left of the main altar is the Pauline Chapel. Above the altar in that chapel is a bronze relief of the miracle of the snow. Pope Liberius dreamed that the Virgin Mary said to build a church where the snow would fall—the next morning, on the Esquiline Hill, in August! To the right of the main altar is a chapel with the tomb of Pope Sixtus V (he of Sistine Chapel fame), who reconnected the aqueducts and built the churches and boulevards that renovated Rome in the late 16th century. In the center of the chapel is a gilded monument showing four angels carrying a model of Michelangelo’s dome for the new St. Peter’s. Across from the chapel is a simple marble slab marking the tomb of Bernini—the man who did so much to remake Rome in the opulent Baroque style.
Santa Maria Maggiore is very close to the Basilica of Santa Prassede, noted for its Byzantine-style mosaics. However, it had already closed for the midday break before we could reach it (we would have better luck tomorrow).
After a morning of churches and history, it was time to head to the Roma Termini Train/Metro station to visit a site rarely on tourist itineraries: the Parco degli Acquedotti (Aqueduct Park). Before catching the Metro, we purchased train tickets for our day trip to Orvieto; that way we would not be so rushed on Thursday morning. John had already researched the train schedules and ticket prices, so it was relatively easy to buy the tickets at the self-service machines (we did need to use our chip-and-PIN credit card though).
The Metro station is inside Termini, so we caught Line A in the Anagnina direction for a 25 minute ride to the Gulio Agricola station. To use the Roma Pass in the Metro, you simply touch it to the yellow pad at the turnstile. From the station, we walked about 0.5 mile to the modern Church of San Policarpo.
From the church, we could turn either left or right and walk a short distance to find paths leading into the Parco degli Acquedotti. The park contains the remains of six of the eleven aqueducts that supplied ancient Rome with water from springs and rivers in the hills and mountains around Rome; a seventh aqueduct here was constructed during the Renaissance. This park is part of the Parco Nationale dell’Appia Antica; maps and brochures for the various sections and attractions in the park can be downloaded at www.parcoappiaantica.it/home/risorse-e-utilita/download and www.parcoarcheologicoappiaantica.it/downloads/.
The Aqueduct Park (www.parcoappiaantica.it/home/risorse-e-utilita/download/category/1-flyer?download=1:acquedotti-eng-2014, www.parcoappiaantica.it/home/risorse-e-utilita/download/category/4-itinerari?download=79:aqueductsrouteeng-pdf) is a popular open space for dog walking, jogging and bicycling. The large open area is crisscrossed with dirt paths and we could wander at will. Right in front of us we could see the Acqua Felice, built during the Renaissance over the courses of the older Marcia, Tepula and Julia aqueducts; this is the aqueduct that ends at the Moses Fountain We chose to turn right from the church to see some ruins of the ancient Villa delle Vignacce. The weather was improving but we could see uprooted and broken trees as a remnant of the storms.
After that, we headed in the opposite direction, walking between the Acqua Felice and a tall double aqueduct, the Acqua Claudio with the Acqua Anio Novus on top. Although the later are in various states of ruin, they are still quite impressive. A 12th-century irrigation ditch (Marrana dell’ Acqua Mariana) runs down the middle of the park. There are several spots along the Felice aqueduct with small fountains (not potable) and stairs to climb the top of the pipe for good views. We did not walk all the way to the southern end of the park because public transport to our next sight was too difficult from there. Instead, we left the park at the Via Claudia exit. After this point, the Acqua Claudio/Anio Novus is more complete and stretches off scenically into the distance. To exit the park, it is necessary to walk under the towering aqueduct; there is a tunnel of scaffolding to protect visitors from falling pieces of aqueduct.
Via Claudia is a narrow (but lightly trafficked) road that leads through residential neighborhoods to the Via Appia Nuova. The Via Appia Nuova is a busy highway but there are crosswalks and signals near the bus stops where we could cross safely. We could see our goal, the Villa dei Quintili, ahead on the right, atop a bluff overlooking the Archaeological Park.
Villa dei Quintili (www.parcoarcheologicoappiaantica.it/luoghi/villa-dei-quintili-e-santa-maria-nova/) was built by the Quintili brothers. This huge site extends from the Via Appia Nuova to the Via Appia Antica. It is so large that, when the site was excavated, it was originally thought to be a small village, Roma Vecchia (Old Rome). In addition to residential areas for the Quintili's many family members and servants, the complex included a theater, baths, stables, gardens and a branch aqueduct for water. It was so lavish in fact, that the Emperor Comodus had the brothers executed so that he could take possession.
Admission to the villa (5€ pp, 2.50€ pp with the Roma Pass) also includes admission to the Tomb of Cecilia Metalla on the Via Appia Antica. Although there are many "you are here" information boards throughout the site, it is helpful to pick up a brochure with a sugggested tour route (www.parcoarcheologicoappiaantica.it/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/folder_quintili_7_2_2017_stampa.pdf) at the entrance desk. First we checked out the small museum, then headed up the bluff to the extensive ruins, roughly following the tour route. After exploring the main villa site thoroughly, we decided to return to our hotel for a short rest before dinner. There is a stop for the #118 bus just across the street from the villa entrance; we took that bus to the Piazza Venezia and walked to the hotel from there. Bus #118 travels along part of the Via Appia Antica, along the Aurelian Walls and past the Baths of Caracalla, giving us a preview of sites we planned to visit tomorrow. Altogether, we walked about 8.7 miles today, with about 4.5 miles of that being in the Aqueduct Park and at Villa dei Quintili.
A week ahead of our arrival in Rome, I had asked the Hotel Mimosa to make dinner reservations for tonight and Friday night. All of the places we dined on this trip were mentioned in Rick Steves’ book and had four stars or better on TripAdvisor.
Tonight our reservation was at Da Gino Parlamento (www.ristoranteparlamento.roma.it), a tiny, cramped restaurant down a narrow alley (Vicolo Rosini) near Parliament Square. Although it is only 800 meters from the Hotel Mimosa, we missed a turn in the dark and were a few minutes late for our 8 p.m. reservation. And it was a good thing we had made a reservation: walk-ups were being turned away.
Although the restaurant had just opened, it was already nearly full with locals (there seemed to be only one other non-Italian table). This appeared to be the sort of place that people would bring their family, generation after generation. Despite the kitschy decor (walls and ceiling painted with vines and flowers, lots of memorabilia on the walls) the food is well worth the effort to find the place.
John started with an outstanding version of Spaghetti alla Carbonara—a beautiful golden color, thick with pancetta and much richer than any version we have had before. I started with Antipasto Misto—salami, cured meats, cheeses, stuffed pepper, stuffed tomato and zucchini pie. We split both of those generous dishes. For our mains, I had the Saltimbocca alla Romana and John had braised rabbit. You can’t beat the liter of vino rosso della casa for 10€; it was a really good, young Rosso di Montalcino. Da Gino is the kind of place that you’d like to go to as a tourist: mostly locals, quality food but inexpensive, and local color. Come here for authentic Roman cuisine! [Note: Cash only.]
WED, 10/31/18 ROME, ITALY—OSTIA ANTICA, CATACOMBS, BATHS OF CARACALLA, COLOSSEUM BY NIGHT
This morning we caught the #30 express bus in the Laurentina direction near the Piazza Navona, on Corso del Rinacimento. It was hard to count the stops to our destination, but we knew we had arrived at the Porta San Paulo stop when we saw the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius, the tomb of a 1st-century BC magistrate. During our ride, we got an unwelcome slice of Roman life: a man holding a beer paced up and down the bus aisle, ranting loudly in Italian. John said he could recognize some obscenities from “The Godfather” movies.
Our Roma Pass was valid for the 30-minute train ride from the San Paulo train station to Ostia Antica. From the Ostia Antica station, there is a footbridge across a busy highway and a short walk down Via della Stazione di Osta Antica to the archaeological site. The total trip (bus and train) took about an hour.
Ostia Antica (admission 12€ pp, 7€ pp with the Roma Pass) was the old port for Rome, at the entrance to the Tiber River. However, the river changed course, the port silted up and the city was eventually abandoned and became covered with mud. Being a prosperous ancient city, this is an enormous site. However, most of the sights lie on or just off the main street, Decumanus Maximus (Rick Steves has a walking tour in his guidebook).
From the entrance, we walked past the necropolis located, like all Roman cemeteries, outside the city walls. Entering through the main gate (Porta Romana), we walked past the warehouse area and the Baths of Neptune (with some nice mosaic floors), occasionally leaving the main road to explore the ruins. We turned off the main road again, just before the theater, to see the Square of the Guilds. That large open area had a temple in the middle and arcades of stalls (now in ruins) on three sides. Those stalls were the offices of the various businesses at the port; the mosaic floor in front of each stall illustrates, in words or pictures, the type of business. On the fourth side of the square is the theater, one of several buildings that can be climbed for a good view of the site. Farther down and also off the street are an ancient flour mill and a tavern.
Finally, we reached the Forum, the heart of the city. Here we found the large Capitoline Temple (dedicated to the state gods: Jupiter, Juno and Minerva). At the opposite end is the Temple to Roma and (Emperor) Augustus. Nearby are the Forum Baths and the latrine. We wandered around the buildings for a while and visited the small museum of statuary found at the site before returning to the train station. Altogether, we spent about two hours at Ostia Antica and walked about 3.14 miles.
Back at the Porta San Paolo station, we walked into the adjacent Piramide Metro Station and caught the Line B in the Jonio/Rebbibio direction to the next stop, Circo Massimo. From there, we walked down Via di Terme Caracalla to the entrance of the Baths, opposite the soccer stadium. The Baths of Caracalla (admission 12€ pp, 7€ pp with the Roma Pass) were only about half the size of the Baths of Diocletian. However, the remains of this huge structure are set in a park, not buried under modern buildings or incorporated into a church, so they seem more impressive. These baths are still used for concerts and exhibitions. While we were here, there was an aural exhibition (“All Rivers Lead to Rome” by Alvin Curran), with sounds of nature piped through speakers hidden throughout the ruins and grounds.
After spending about a half hour at the Baths (and walking about 1.3 miles), we returned to Via di Terme Caracalla to find the Terme Caracalla/Valle Camene stop for the #118 bus to the Via Appia Antica. Along the way, the bus passed under the Arch of Drusus, part of the Antoniniana aqueduct (a branch of the Acqua Marcia) that once supplied water to the Baths. Again, it was almost impossible to count the stops but once we passed the Catacombs of Callisto (closed on Wednesday), I knew we were close and managed to get off at the stop for the San Sebastiano Catacombs.
The San Sebastiano Catacombs (www.catacombe.org/uk_index.html) are not part of the Roma Pass program. We hurried over to the ticket office (8€ pp) and were happy to learn that a 40-minute tour in English was just starting. We went down a series of steps and through passages lined with burial niches. The guide described the different types of tombs and pointed out the remnants of Christian symbols and inscriptions. As we climbed up closer to the surface, there were three well-preserved 2nd-century pagan family mausoleums. Even higher, were the remains of an early church dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul. Finally we had ascended to the crypt of the church, where an altar and marble slab marked the original tomb of St. Sebastiano (the one always depicted as perforated by arrows). In the church above, the altar containing the saint's remains is topped with alleged relics: one of the arrows and part of the post to which he was tied. Another relic here is the original "Quo Vadis" stone, which is said to bear the footprints of Christ but is more likely a votive offering made at the end of a successful trip to Rome. Another noteworthy item in the church is a statue of St. Sebastiano, sculpted by a student of Bernini.
From St. Sebastiano, we walked cautiously along the Via Appia Antica, partway between the second and third mile stones (www.parcoappiaantica.it/home/risorse-e-utilita/download/category/1-flyer?download=3:appiaantica-eng-2015). The Appian Way was Rome’s most important road and stretched 362 miles (582 km) from Rome to Brisindi, on the Adriatic Sea. Although the road is inside the Archaeological Park, it is lined by high walls and fences and heavily trafficked; the pedestrian walkway is narrow and often used for parking. When we reached the first attraction, the Villa and Circus of Maxentius (free), we found the entrance gate locked even though the sign said it was supposed to be open. We continued on to the Tomb of Cecilia Metella (joint ticket with Villa dei Quintili), the largest and best-preserved tomb along the Via Appia Antica. During the 14th century, the tomb was used as a tower for the Caetani Castle; those ruins are also part of the site.
As the Appian Way continues farther south, the traffic diminishes, there are fewer walls and the road is line with cypresses, pines and crumbling tombs. Although this is the most scenic part of the road (www.parcoappiaantica.it/home/itinerari/appia-antica) and we had only walked about a mile from San Sebastiano, we did not have time or energy to follow more of it today. We decided it made more sense to find somewhere to eat near our hotel and rest a bit before the next event on today's schedule. We caught bus #118 at the stop on Via Appia Pignatelli (near the intersection with Via Cecilia Metella), got off at the Piazza Venezia and walked to the hotel from there.
It was now late afternoon and we wanted a casual late lunch near our hotel. Following Rick Steves’ recommendation, we found Miscellanea (www.miscellaneapub.com) on a street behind the Pantheon. When we entered, Minervini Michelangelo (Mickey), the owner, enthusiastically welcomed us. Mickey and his staff were busy hanging a giant American flag as well as Notre Dame, Penn State, Iowa, Iowa State, and John Cabot (an American University in Rome) banners. One wall is covered with framed bar towels and they have their own copy of the Bocca della Verita.
You can tell this place is aimed at younger American tourists. That’s not a bad thing. They serve inexpensive, good food. The menu is honest when it says their pizza crust is frozen but the ingredients are fresh. The four cheese pizza was outstanding and the Siciliano was covered with prosciutto, capers and roasted red peppers. The conto for two pizzas, water and a half-liter of of vino rosso della casa only came to 24€.
Mickey loves college students and the 400 little kids in the school across the street. He is a character! We loved talking with him. This was his birthday but he gave us the presents: two tiramisu and two glasses of his “sexy wine”, fizzy sweet stuff. His house Rosso di Montepulciano was much better!
After a short rest, it was time to contend with the Rome bus system again. We walked to Corso Vittorio Emanuele to wait for bus #87 in the Largo Colli Albani direction. The buses were packed but the Colosseum is easy to spot and we had no problem knowing where to get off. We made sure to arrive well ahead of time for our Colosseum After Dark (www.coopculture.it/en/events.cfm?id=177) tour with CoopCulture, the company that operates the Colosseum and other cultural sites.
Booking a tour directly with CoopCulture is less expensive than using a third-party tour company but it is quite an exhausting experience. Six months prior to our trip, I got up at 3 a.m. (when the booking window for today opened) in order to make our reservations. Although the CoopCulture website says they accept AmEx, it is not configured properly for that credit card and I had to use another one. Nevertheless, I was finally able to purchase two tickets at 20€ pp for my desired time. Out of curiosity, I checked later that morning and almost all the tickets for tours in English were sold out. Note that even if you wait closer to the date to book through a third-party tour company (at a much greater cost), the tour inside the Colosseum will be led by CoopCulture staff.
The purchase confirmation gave virtually no information about when or where to meet for the tour—it merely said to present the confirmation email at the ticket office. We arrived well before our 8 p.m. tour time and were distressed to learn that the ticket office is inside the Colosseum and locked up tight until the night tours begin. Also, there was no signage to indicate where the tours were to meet. Fortunately, we eventually found some CoopCulture staff hanging around outside who told us to meet at 8 p.m. at the Group Entrance.
While we were waiting for the ticket office to open, we had the opportunity to walk around the Colosseum and get some nice photos of it and the Arch of Constantine all lit up. We had thought that the Roman Forum would also be illuminated, so we walked over there. However, we were disappointed to see that it was mostly dark, with only a few of the monuments lighted. We walked back to the Colosseum to wait for our tour, passing the time by watching the faux gladiators hustle souvenir photo ops.
Around 8 p.m., there was a flurry of activity around the tour entrance gate but we could not go inside until the security guard arrived. After he finally showed up, we all had to pass through a metal detector. The guard did inspect one woman’s purse but he didn’t even blink when John set off the alarm with his camera. Once we made it to the ticket office, I exchanged the confirmation email for two stickers and we were assigned to tour with a group of six other people who had booked through an outside tour company.
Despite all the hassles of booking and redeeming the voucher, this was a fabulous tour. You get to go into bowels of the place to see the locations of the elevators and trap doors and where the animals were kept. You get to see the small river that actually flows under the Colosseum. You also get to go to the second level of the structure to look down on the Colosseum when it’s empty. It’s quite a different sight than when the place is crawling with tourists during the day! Even though the tour started late, we received a full-length tour (1.25 hours) and were not rushed through the site. The CoopCulture guide gave a very thorough presentation at various points and was eager to answer all our questions. This is a must-do tour in Rome!
After the tour, we had planned to take the #87 bus back to Largo di Torre Argentina. For a change, the Colosseum bus stop had an electric sign that indicated when the next bus would be arriving. It was 20 minutes away! We decided it would take less time for us to walk back to the hotel. Along the way, we had the opportunity to see Trajan’s column and the Altare della Patria (Vittorio Emanuele II Monument) illuminated. I had thought Rome would be more like Paris, with many landmarks lighted at night, but most were not. Anyway, we were back in our hotel room before the #87 bus would have arrived at the Colosseum stop. With all the walking before, during and after the tour, we logged about 4.1 miles tonight.
THURS, 11/01/18 ROME—ORVIETO—ROME
When we were planning this trip, John explored the idea of a tour outside of Rome to the Ovieto wine region. However, the tours he found simply provided a train ticket to Orvieto and then met you at the station and took you around to some wineries. John started to think that we could take the train on our own and find local transportation to the wineries. However, after learning more about Orvieto, he realized that there were enough attractions in the town to spend the whole day right there. Also, if we caught the train on our own, we could take a later train than the tour required and still arrive in Orvieto just as the sights were opening for visitors.
This morning we left before breakfast. As we exited the lobby, we saw the box of pastries from a local bakery that were destined for the breakfast buffet. We were sorely tempted to swipe a couple to enjoy on the walk to the train station.
To get to Roma Termini, we walked along Via del Seminario and Via XX Settembre to the top of the Quirinale Hill, the highest of Rome’s seven hills. The 16th-century Palazzo del Quirinale (palazzo.quirinale.it/palazzo.html) was formerly the summer papal palace and is now one of three official residences of the President of Italy. The ancient Roman obelisk (Quirinale) in the piazza in front of the palace is the twin of the obelisk in the Piazza dell’Esquilino; both once stood outside the Mausoleum of Augustus. It is now part of a fountain that also includes statues of the Horse Tamers (Castor and Pollux) that once stood at the entrance to the Baths of Constantine.
We walked along one side of the palace down Via del Quirinale to Via delle Quattro Fontane; this intersection has a 16th-century fountain on each corner. We continued along Via delle Quattro Fontane to the Piazza dell’Esquilino and from there to the Basilica of Santa Prassede. The plain exterior of this church gives no hint of the exquisite Byzantine-style mosaics inside.
The small, cross-shaped Chapel of St. Zeno, was originally intended as a funerary chapel for Theodora, the mother of the 9th-century pope (Paschal I) who built the church. The mosaics above the chapel’s entrance are arranged in two arches of tondi (circular works of art). The inner arch features the Madonna and Child, flanked by various other saints. The tondi in the outer arch depict Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. The inside of the chapel looks dark and gloomy until you put a 1€ coin in the box to illuminate the glorious glass tile and gold mosaics that cover the walls and ceiling. A large tondo with an image of Christ dominates the vaulted ceiling; the tondo is borne by four angels, who stand on the gilded capitals of the columns supporting the vault. The walls depict various saints, including St. Prassede and St. Pudenziana (her sister), and allegorical scenes, such as Sts. Peter and Paul on either side of the empty throne that sits ready for Christ’s Second Coming. This chapel also contains a section of the pillar where supposedly Jesus was scourged before his crucifixion. The altar is much more recent; the altarpiece is a 17th-century mosaic of the Madonna and Child flanked by Sts. Prassede and Pudenziana. Because of these splendid mosaics, the chapel was dubbed the “Hortus Paradisi” (Garden of Paradise).
It’s worth another 1€ to illuminate the mosaics above the main altar; they also date to the time of Pope Paschal. The half dome of the apse shows Sts. Peter and Paul presenting Sts. Prassede and Pudenziana to Christ in heaven; St. Zeno and Pope Paschal (holding a model of the church) look on from the sidelines. The wall above the half-dome depicts a scene from the Book of Revelations: the Lamb of God resting on the book with seven seals and being worshiped by angels, the four winged creatures and the elders. The triumphal arch between the apse and the nave shows saints and martyrs being guided by angels to meet Christ in the Heavenly Jerusalem.
The church has undergone many renovations over the centuries in order to stabilize the structure and to add and remove decorative elements. The frescoes in the nave were added near the end of the 16th century, as were those in a funerary chapel designed for the Olgiati family. The Cappella Olgiata is practically a mini-Sistine Chapel—the ceiling is spectacularly frescoed with scenes from the New Testament and portraits of saints, prophets and sibyls. The altarpiece depicts St. Veronica wiping the face of Jesus along the route to Calvary. A table in this chapel was used by St. Charles Borromeo to distribute alms to the poor in the courtyard of the church. This morning, Mass was being celebrated in the late 18th-century Chapel of St John Gualbert, who is shown in the apse mosaic being venerated by angels. The mosaic in the apse half-dome shows monks and nuns venerating the Virgin Mary's Assumption into heaven.
After admiring St. Prassede’s mosaics, we headed over to the Termini train station to catch the 9 a.m. regional train (8.15€ pp each way) for the 75-minute ride to Orvieto (this is also the train to Florence). We allowed lots of extra time because today was All Saint’s Day (a national holiday); many people would be traveling and we expected the trains to be crowded. After we passed through the ticket-check gate, we looked around for the machine to validate our tickets. Unless you have reserved seats, it is crucial to have your ticket validated before the train leaves and the conductor comes around to check it—otherwise, you can be hit with a hefty on-the-spot fine. However, there was no machine to be seen, either here or on our platform. We boarded the train in hopes that we could spot a conductor to validate our tickets; no luck there either. Fortunately, we had lots of time before the train left because I eventually became so nervous about validating our tickets that I left John on the train and took the tickets in search of a machine. I had to ask three station agents before I finally found a machine near gate #1 (the only other one was by gate #12). Tickets successfully validated, I scurried back to the train. It was a good thing that John had stayed on the train to hold our seats because it did become quite crowded and people were going from car to car (hampered by huge rolling suitcases in the aisles) trying to find a place to sit. After all of that worry, the conductor never seemed to check anyone’s tickets—he spent most of the ride chatting with his friends seated across the aisle from us.
Once in Orvieto, we wanted to buy the Orvieto Carta Unica (www.cartaunica.it/?page_id=507), which would allow entry to all the sights we wanted to see today. During high tourist season, there is a kiosk selling the card; today we bought ours at the tabacchi in the train station. The lady at the tabacchi didn’t admit to speaking any English, but she had a hand-lettered sign that asked whether we were over 65 (the senior rate is 17€ pp, cash only). The card includes free entry to 11 museums and monuments, a round-trip ride on the funicular, public bus transportation in the city center and discounts at some shops, hotels and restaurants.
One thing that is confusing about the Carta Unica is that it needs to be presented at the box office at most sites to obtain a separate entry ticket but it serves as the entry ticket at other sites. Cards in hand, we crossed the street to the funicular station, where we had to show the pass to the ticket agent and use a particular turnstile.
The medieval section of Orvieto (www.orvietoviva.com/en/) sits on a volcanic tufa outcrop above a vast underground network of Etruscan-era caves and tunnels; it only takes a few minutes to reach the top by funicular. We didn’t wait to take the bus to the Piazza del Duomo because we hoped to secure a spot on the first Orvieto Underground tour at 11 a.m. When we reached the box office, we signed up for the English tour, received tickets and were told where to meet our guide. The English tour actually started at 11:15 a.m. so we had time to visit the Tourist Office to pick up a good map and to admire the exterior of the Duomo. Because it was a holyday, the Duomo would not be open for tourist visits until 2 p.m.
From the Piazza del Duomo, we could see the Torre di Maurizio. On top of the tower is a bronze statue of a bearded man, who marks the hours by striking a large bell with a hammer. The clock tower and its automaton were built in the middle of the 14th century to regulate the shifts of the men working to build the Duomo. This is documented as the oldest timekeeping automaton in the world that is still functioning.
Orvieto Underground (www.orvietounderground.it/index.php/en/) gives you a really nice tour of some caves in the volcanic tufa that the town is built upon. The hour-long tour takes you into two areas of the underground maze that consists of over 1,200 grottoes, tunnels, wells and cisterns. Our guide Isabel did a good job of explaining the history of the caves and how the Etruscans used them; then she explained about the relatively modern uses (e.g., as a factory for pressing olive oil). We also saw dovecotes where people once raised young pigeons for meat.
Although it had been raining lightly earlier, after the tour it was coming down much harder. John had researched two restaurant possibilities for lunch and we decided to try Trattoria dell’Orso (www.orvietoviva.com/en/trattoria-dellorso/), which is on a small side street near the Piazza Sant’Andrea. The place was nearly empty when we arrived at about 12:30 p.m. and we were quickly shown to a table where we could watch the rain. The restaurant filled up more later but there did not appear to be any other non-Italians. We decided to try the tasting menu, which was 30€ for two; we thought it would have been worth every cent of 30€ per person. This was kind of a “feed me” Chef’s choice. They surprise you with three courses: soup, pasta, main plus contorni, along with a liter of water and a quarter-liter of house wine. It was truffle season and our soup was faro with sliced anise and shaved truffles; the pasta was cingiale (wild boar) ragu over umbrichelli (local thick spaghetti) with truffles. The main was pan-fried chicken in tomato sauce, served with a side of chicory (tastes like collard greens) sauteed with olives and pine nuts. We shamelessly used our bread to soak up all the soup, ragu and red sauce. That should tell you all you need to know. Great food; great place!
After lunch, it was still raining heavily. Our plan was to climb the Torre del Moro (www.orvietoviva.com/en/torre-del-moro/) clock tower, for a 360º panoramic view of the town and the surrounding countryside. I’m sure the lady at the box office thought we were crazy to head up the 170 steps in the rain. However, by the time we reached the top, the weather momentarily cleared for some great views. We could see the rain clouds moving in again though, so we hurried over to the Duomo to try to get some photos in the sunlight.
The Duomo (www.opsm.it/duomo/duomo/index.html) is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It has many similarities to the Siena Cathedral. For example, the sides are constructed of alternating bands of local white travertine and blue-gray basalt stone. The Gothic facade astounds with its riot of bas reliefs, statues and bronzes which surround a beautiful rose window. However, the most impressive parts of the facade are the spectacular gold mosaics, which depict major events in the life of the Virgin Mary.
The Cathedral was the only site we visited where we merely needed to scan our Carta Unica for entry. The black-and white striped theme is continued by the walls and columns inside. At the beginning of the nave, there is an ornate late 14th-century baptismal font with a red marble basin. The windows in the nave are unusual: the tops are stained glass while the bottoms are thin sheets of alabaster. There is another beautiful stained glass window in the apse behind the main altar; the walls of the apse are covered with frescoes portraying scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.
The Cathedral has two important chapels. One relates to the Miracle of Bosena. Allegedly, a priest in that town had doubts about the doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts that that a consecrated host is literally the body and blood of Christ. During Mass, at the Consecration, the host began to bleed and the blood dripped onto the corporal, which is now housed in the Cappella del Corporale. The walls of this chapel are covered with frescoes that depict other miraculous bleeding hosts. When we visited, the doors of the reliquary containing the corporal were closed, so we could not see this miraculous piece of cloth.
The second chapel, the Cappella di San Brizio (www.travelingintuscany.com/art/lucasignorelli/sanbriziochapel.htm), is the highlight of the Cathedral. The overall theme of the chapel is the end of the world, from the appearance of the Antichrist to the final bliss of the just in heaven and the torments of the damned in hell. Fra Angelico painted the frescoes of “Christ in Judgment” and “Prophets” on the vaulted ceiling. However, the bulk of these magnificent frescoes were executed by Luca Signorelli fifty years later, at the beginning of the 16th century. The artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari claims that Michelangelo admired these frescoes and that they inspired his own “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel.
After visiting the Duomo, we went back out in the rain to find the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (www.opsm.it/duomo/museo/001.html). The museum is housed in the Palazzi Papali, the residence of three popes during the Middle Ages. Inside are many art objects that formerly decorated the inside or outside of the Duomo. The most impressive piece is the sculpture of the Madonna and Child sitting under a bronze canopy supported by bronze angels, which once stood on the facade of the Duomo (it has been replaced there by a copy).
We still had some free time, so we sloshed over to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Orvieto (www.archeopg.arti.beniculturali.it/?page_id=153). This museum organizes archaeological finds from this area in chronological order. The are many artifacts displayed, such as Etruscan pottery items and a complete set of Etruscan bronze armor (helmet, breast and back plates, shin guards and a shield). Highlights are the two chamber-tombs from the necropolis at Porano. The original frescoes were detached from the tombs for conservation purposes and reassembled here in their original positions. We were practically the only people in the museum and the docent had to scurry over and turn on the lights so that we could see the interiors of the tombs.
Our last planned site to visit was the Pozzo di San Patrizio (www.inorvieto.it/pozzo-di-san-patrizio/?lang=en), near the funicular. Although the entrance had an OCR, the Carta Unica doesn’t work that way at St. Patrick’s Well; we had to return to the box office in the funicular building for an actual ticket. Despite having to stand in line twice, a tour here goes pretty fast. There is no water in Orvieto’s tufa outcrop, so deep wells are needed; this one is 177 feet (54 m) deep. It is unusual because of its double helix staircase (1537): pack animals (and now tourists) could go down 248 steps on one set of stairs and up the other, without having to turn around. This staircase was inspired by the Bramante Staircase (1505) in the Belvedere Palace, which is now part of the Vatican Museums. It also reminded me of the “Grand Shaft” (1809), a triple helix staircase on the Western Heights at Dover, UK.
We still had a little time before we needed to take the funicular back to the train station, so we visited the Fortezza Albornoz (www.orvietoviva.com/en/fortezza-albornoz/). We had a nice view of St. Patrick’s Well but views of the countryside were hazy. Still, this was worth the few minutes needed to tour the grounds.
Back at the train station, we had no problem finding the machine to validate our tickets for the 5:25 p.m. train back to Rome. Of course, the conductor didn’t check anyone’s ticket this time either.
When the train pulled in on Track #1 at Termini, we couldn’t believe that this was where we were supposed to get off—we were at the very end of the platforms, a quarter-mile (400 m) from the main part of the station. At least we were out of the rain as we trudged along.
When we reached the station, we tried to find the exit leading to the large bus parking area in front. Naturally, we picked the wrong one and had to walk all the way around to the park in front of the station and back to the bus bays. We had three choices for a bus back to the Largo di Torre Argentina (#40, #60 or #85). The #40 was sitting in its bay, so we chose that one. When we tried to validate our bus tickets, we kept getting an error. Other riders were very nice, trying to help us get it to work, but no luck. People who came along later were also unable to validate. When the bus driver finally returned from his break, we learned that the validation machine was broken. The bus was already fairly full when it took off and more people crammed on at every stop. We barely managed to force ourselves off at Largo di Torre Argentina. Today we walked about 1.9 miles in Rome and another 2.5 at Orvieto.
FRI, 11/02/18 ROME, ITALY—VATICAN MUSEUMS & GALLERIA BORGHESE
This morning we had to get up before the crack of dawn for our early-entry tour of the Sistine Chapel. On our 1.7 mile walk to the Vatican Museums, we got some nice sunrise photos of the Castel Sant’Angelo, Bernini’s angels on the Ponte Sant’Angelo and St. Peter Basilica (with an Egyptian obelisk (Vaticano) in front).
We had previously experienced the sardine-can atmosphere of the Sistine Chapel when we visited there on a DIY shore excursion from Civitavecchia in 2012. In order to avoid the crowds, this time we booked the Express Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums Entrance tour (darkrome.com/vatican-tours/sistine-chapel-early-access) with Dark Rome, part of the City Wonders group. This tour (52€ pp) basically only provides you with first entry into the Sistine Chapel with some commentary. However, that is precisely why we signed up for it. Our guide Louisa made sure everything was in order and actually got us to be the first group into the chapel. Bravo Louisa! To be fair she gave us more than basic commentary and was quite helpful. We actually got to sit on both sides of the chapel in order to savor at leisure Michelangelo’s amazing ceiling and wall. After this, before the huge crowds appeared, we also got to view on our own a selection of the Vatican Museum’s treasures, including the incredible Rafael Stanze and the fantastic sculptures in the Octagonal Courtyard. We even had time to visit areas that we had not visited previously, such as the sections on Egyptian and Etruscan antiquities and the Bramante Staircase (the real one—not Momo’s 1932 homage at the museum exit), and to re-visit the Pinacoteca to see some favorite paintings (e.g., Raphael’s “Transfiguration”) before exiting. The Museums were closed yesterday, so the crowds waiting to get in were even more gigantic than usual. We later talked with people who had to wait in line for over an hour to get in, despite having “skip the line” tickets!
After our morning in the Vatican Museums, we walked to the Ottaviano Metro station and rode to the Spagna station. Usually there is an elevator in the Spagna station that takes you to the top of the Spanish Steps; today the elevator was not in service. Elevators/escalators at several Metro stations were out of order because of the flooding caused by the recent storms. From the Metro station, we walked around the corner to the Spanish Steps. As usual, the entire area, from the Sunken Boat Fountain (built by Bernini’s father, Pietro) up the steps to Trinita dei Monte, was full of tourists. The obelisk (Sallustiano) in front of the church is an ancient Roman copy of the Egyptian obelisk in the Piazza del Popolo.
From the fountain, we walked in the direction of the Piazza del Popolo and turned left onto Via della Croce. We were looking for the Grano Frutta e Farina Bakery (granofruttaefarina.it) at #49a but the street seemed to go on forever (maybe because we hadn’t had breakfast). We were about to give up looking for this place until there it was. Rick Steves’ guidebook said this might be a good place for a quick lunch. Good advice! It’s a tiny place on street full of such places but it’s worth seeking out. They sell pizza by weight. Point out how much of a pizza you want and they cut it, weigh it, heat it, then cut it into smaller pieces for easier eating (or sharing). These were really good, crusty pizzas! We had potato and truffle pizza (try it, you’ll thank us) and a roasted veggy pizza. We managed to snag a tiny table and chowed down. Fast food and really delicious.
After devouring the pizza, we continued on Via della Croce, turning right on Via del Corso; from there it is a straight shot to the Piazza del Popolo. The entrance to the piazza is marked by twin churches. An Egyptian obelisk (Flaminio) stands at the center of the piazza; the Fountain of Neptune marks the west side of the piazza and the Fountain of the Goddess of Rome marks the east.
I had hoped to visit the Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo at the north end of the piazza. However, I got the opening times confused and it was already closed for the midday break. Among other great art in the church, the Cerasi Chapel contains two paintings by Caravaggio. The Chigi Chapel was designed by Raphael, who died before it was finished. Construction and decoration continued sporadically for over 130 years until it was finally completed by Bernini. Many other famous artists also worked on the chapel over the years. I was sorry to miss this site but it gives us another excuse to return to Rome.
Along the south side of the church are stairs and paths that lead up to the Villa Borghese (www.sovraintendenzaroma.it/i_luoghi/ville_e_parchi_storici/ville_dei_nobili/villa_borghese). The Villa Borghese is a large public park atop the Pincio Hill that is comprised of smaller garden areas, museums (in particular, the Galleria Borghese), attractions, fountains and other art and monuments. We first climbed up to the Piazzale Napoleane I, which has great views of the Piazza del Popolo and the city. The Pincio Gardens, behind the Piazzale, are formal gardens lined with busts of famous Italians (roma.andreapollett.com/S1/romac23i.htm); these gardens also contain an ancient Roman obelisk (Pinciano) and a 19th-century water clock.
We had intended to roughly follow, in reverse, a suggested walking tour (www.rometoolkit.com/walks/villa_borghese_walk.html) of the park. However, when we tried to reach the Temple of Aesculapius, that whole area was closed due to downed trees and other damage from the storms. That was disappointing because the temple is set on a lake in one of the most scenic parts of the park. We wandered around looking at some of the other faux temples, such as the Temple of Antonino and Faustina.
After rambling about 1.6 miles in the park, we eventually reached the series of pavilions and gardens associated with the Casino Nobile (home to the Galleria Borghese). The first is the Meridiana (Sundial) pavilion, followed by the Uccelliera (Aviary) pavilion. Between the two pavilions lies one of the three “secret gardens”; this one was devoted to rare and exotic plants. The secret garden between the Uccelliera and the Casino Nobile is called “dei melangoli" (bitter orange); we could see some sort of enormous citrus fruits (probably citrons) growing there. The final garden is a flower garden on the other side of the Casino Nobile. In the back of the Casino Nobile is the Piazzale Scipione Borghese, a formal garden lined with statues and with a fountain in the center. The Piazzale dei Museo Borgese, in front of the Casino Nobile, is no longer a garden but two patches of lawn.
Admittance to the Galleria Borghese (www.galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it/it) is by timed ticket for a period of two hours. We had booked the 3-5 p.m. time slot online (20€ pp plus 2€ pp booking fee) and exchanged our vouchers for tickets at the box office in the basement. Although the web site says that tickets are often available on the day, a sign was posted announcing that they were sold out for the next three days. In addition to the obligatory gift shop, there is a cloakroom in the basement, where umbrellas, purses, backpacks, etc.—almost everything large except cameras—must be deposited before entering the museum.
Most people seemed to be waiting in the basement for their time slot to open. However, we were sitting outside in the piazzale and noticed that people were being allowed to leave through the doors at the top of the outside stairs to the ground floor. We decided to ask whether we could also enter through those doors; the answer was yes and we were among the first people to enter the museum at 3 p.m. We had at least 15 minutes practically alone with the fabulous art before people started trickling up from downstairs.
While the lavish villa—with frescoed ceilings and mosaic floors taken from ancient Roman villas—is an art work itself, the main attraction on this floor is the magnificent collection of sculpture. Although there was a special exhibition of Picasso sculptures (which we ordinarily would have made an effort to see) scattered throughout the rooms on this floor, the permanent collection is so spectacular that we barely noticed the Picassos.
Each room on this floor is filled with statues, busts, paintings or other works of art. The centerpiece of the first room is Canova’s famous 19th-century sculpture of Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Borghese, as Venus. Most impressive to us, however, are the four Bernini sculptures in Rooms II-V: David, Apollo and Daphne, The Rape of Proserpina, and Aeneas, Anchises and Acanius. Books have been written about Bernini’s incredible mastery of marble—suffice it to say that we were blown away by these astounding masterpieces.
Room IV also houses a rare 2nd-century Greek original: Diana the Hunter. Room VII houses six Caravaggio paintings, the largest gathering of his works in a single collection. Unfortunately, three of the paintings were currently on loan to other museums in Europe. Nevertheless, we were able to view his “Self-Portrait as Bacchus”, “St. John the Baptist” and “Madonna of Palafrenierri.”
There are many more paintings in the Pinacoteca on the second floor. The collection includes two Bernini self-portraits and several of his other sculptures. We thought it was playful to exhibit Picasso’s She-Goat alongside Bernini’s The Goat Amalthea with the Child Jupiter and a Faun. There are also major works by such important artists as Raphael ("Deposition"), Titian ("Sacred and Profane Love"), Domenichino (“The Hunt of Diana”) and van Honthorst (“The Concert”).
After walking through the museum twice, we left the Galleria Borghese and walked down the Viale del Museo Boghese towards the Porta Pinciana. Along the way, we saw more evidence of the storms’ destruction—downed trees and other debris. After passing through the city gate, we followed Via di Porta Pinciana along the Aurelian walls, eventually ending up at the Trevi Fountain, the terminus of the Acqua Virgo. This enormous and elaborate fountain is the definition of “tourist attraction”—it always seems that every tourist in Rome is there. Even so, John was able to gently elbow his way through for a good photo to prove that we were there too.
We couldn’t resist adding one more sight to our long day: the Church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola (santignazio.gesuiti.it/en/). Many of the decorations in the church were painted or sculpted by Andrea Pozzo, who seemed to like visual tricks. His huge ceiling fresco is an allegory of the Jesuits spreading the faith to all four corners of the globe; the actual 3-D pillars of the church merge into the 2-D pillars of the fresco. There is a mirror in the middle of the floor to help see the ceiling better but the lighting is rather poor.
One of Pozzo’s most famous trompe l'oeil is the fake central dome. As you walk down the nave, it looks like a real dome but as you pass under it, you can see that it is flat. Pozzo also painted the frescoes in the apse, which depict important events in the life of St. Ignatius. There are three Jesuit saints entombed in the church. The beautiful marble carving of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, above the altar containing the urn of his remains, was also done by Pozzo. The church also contains the opulent tomb of Pope Gregory XV, a work by students of Bernini.
It was about 1.8 miles from the Galleria Borghese to our hotel, or about 5.1 miles total for the day.
Tonight we had dinner at a local wine bar, Enoteca Corsi (www.enotecacorsi.com), which is only open for dinner on Thursdays and Fridays. Naturally, with a 7 p.m. reservation, we were the first customers. There were five or six tables in the wine shop area (all reserved for later times), where we could dine surrounded by the wine on offer. There seem to be another room or two in the back. You can pick a wine from the wine store shelves and have it with your meal for just a corkage fee; there were also good, inexpensive wine choices on the menu.
The menu is a list of specials for the day and offers an innovative spin on traditional dishes. For starters, John ordered calamari rolls wrapped in bacon with fresh tomato and arugula; I ordered eggplant balls in a cream sauce with black truffles. For his main, John selected the fresh sea bream with clams and mussels. But mine was the best course: Stracciatella cheese with octopus, tomato sauce and peppers. Tonight, we also choose chicory as a contori. Yum!
This enoteca was just a quick few steps from the hotel. We had good service and great food for a reasonable price. We even bought two bottles of wine to go after staring at them next to us throughout the meal. We ate in other Roman restaurants that were more rustic in their food styles and they were quite good. But the food here was ambitious and not expensive at all. And they take credit cards!
SAT, 11/03/18 CIVITAVECCHIA, ITALY (DEPART 6PM)
This morning it was not raining and the sun was actually breaking through the clouds! After breakfast, we wanted to visit two nearby churches before catching our shared transfer to the port. Although we thought it would open at 6:40 a.m., the Church of Santa Maria Supra Minerva was locked up tight. This church’s piazza is easily recognized by Bernini’s statue of an elephant, which is supporting an Egyptian obelisk (Minerveo). We hoped that the church might open later, so we proceeded to our next target.
The Gesù Church is the main church of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in Rome. The facade looks ordinary but it is the first church to be built that shows curved elements of the Baroque style. Stepping inside, the ceiling is a riot of figures surrounding a cross bearing the Jesuit’s motto “IHS.” Executed by a student of Bernini, painted figures segue into stucco statues in an interesting 3-D effect. Again there is a mirror in the middle of the floor to help see the ceiling better. In either transept is an altar dedicated to the most prominent members of the order: St. Ignatius Loyola (the founder) and St. Francis Xavier (the famous missionary). On the left of the main altar, St. Ignatius’ altar and tomb is flanked by two statues portraying religion overthrowing heresy. On the right side, the altar/tomb of St. Francis Xavier is topped by a reliquary containing his right hand. In front of the main altar are stairs down into the crypt, which houses the tombs of other leaders of the order. The rest of the church is a typical riot of Baroque decoration.
We headed back to Santa Maria Supra Minerva, hoping it had opened at 9 a.m. No such luck! We decided to continue on to the Pantheon, John’s favorite building in Rome. The original temple dedicated to all the gods was built by Marcus Agrippa (accounting for his name on the facade); however, it was later completely rebuilt by Hadrian. The dome is a marvel of Roman engineering—constructed of concrete that diminishes in thickness as it rises to the peak; the coffered ceiling and hole at the top (oculus) further reduce the weight of the dome. The span of this dome could not be surpassed for another 1300 years, until Brunelleschi's dome in the Florence Cathedral. Thankfully, the temple was later converted to a church dedicated to all the Christian saints, which accounts for its excellent state of preservation. Famous tombs in the church are those of the Renaissance painter Raphael and those of the first two kings of united Italy. It was a treat to see the sun shining down through the oculus: when we visited in 2008, rain was pouring in.
Despite the fact that we had not made any special effort to find obelisks, the Egyptian obelisk (Macuteo), in the Piazza della Rotunda in front of the Pantheon, marked the eleventh obelisk we saw on this visit to Rome. Of the 13 ancient Egyptian/Roman obelisks, we only missed two Egyptian ones: the first in front of St. John Lateran (Lateranense) and the other (Matteiano) at the Villa Celimontana. Yet another excuse to come back to Rome!
We returned to the hotel, checked out and waited in the lobby until it was time to meet our shared shuttle (70€ for two) to Civitavecchia. We used Roma Shuttle (www.romashuttle.com), the same company we used for transfers in 2008. We headed downstairs earlier than the scheduled pick up time of 10:15-10:30 a.m. and the driver was already walking toward the hotel door as we exited. The vehicle was a spacious van that easily held four couples and their luggage for the 1.5 hour drive to the port. Although a number of roll call members planned to take the train to Civitavecchia and taxi or walk to the ship, we thought the convenience (especially if it had still been raining) of door-to-door service was worth the extra expense.
We arrived at the port a little after noon. Besides the Crown Princess, the Star Breeze and MSC Sinfonia were also in port. Once inside the terminal, we quickly completed all the boarding formalities and were directed to the ship. Our cabin steward, Raul from Portugal, had just finished preparing our cabin, so John called the Dine Line to make dinner reservations for tonight, the Chef’s Table ($95 pp) and the Super Tuscan Wine Lunch ($100 pp). Then I called Room Service to exchange some of the items in the Elite minibar setup and request two wine glasses. We had originally booked a category BF balcony guarantee stateroom and, three months before sailing, we were assigned a category BB cabin on Aloha Deck 7 starboard near the forward stairs/elevators. It was nice to see that the robes supplied for use during the voyage were the thick, plush ones—not the skimpy, shrunken waffle ones.
Those tasks accomplished, we headed up to Slices Pizzeria for some pizza and Stromboli to tide us over until dinner. Although Princess’ pizza is very good, it dims a bit in comparison to the pizza we had in Rome. The Stromboli (cheese and salami rolled up in pizza crust like a jellyroll) is a nice addition to the menu but did not taste quite as good as it sounded.
Back at the cabin, Raul soon arrived with our luggage. We only have a few special requirements for our cabin steward: a steady supply of laundry bags and of bar soap for the shower. When Raul made up the bed later in the evening, the extra laundry bags were accompanied by a note that, due to the number of Elite passengers, we should expect the next day laundry service to take 72 hours. We had anticipated this delay and packed a few extra clothes. That was a wise decision because every batch of laundry did indeed take 72 hours to be returned. The Passenger Safety Drill (which no longer requires passengers to bring their life vests to the muster station) was held later in the afternoon.
For this cruise, we chose “Anytime Dining” instead of a traditional fixed seating. Regardless of our dining choice, we generally dine in a specialty restaurant to avoid the confusion of the first night in the MDR. Tonight’s dinner at the Crown Grill ($29 pp) included the Sterling Silver Beef Chop, Blackened with Mushrooms and Onions for John and the Madeira-glazed veal chop for me. With those, we shared a bottle of Oberon Merlot 2016. John was able to buy a 12-bottle Gold wine card without any problems. We were also able to use the two-for-one offer at a specialty restaurant on embarkation night, which was included in the coupon book we received on our last Princess cruise.
[Note: The wine packages offered were Silver (wines up to $31) 12 ($240), 10 ($210) or 7 ($161) bottles and Gold (wines up to $45) 12 ($336), 10 ($290) or 7 ($217) bottles. Note that a 15% gratuity is added to the price of each package. Also note that either package can be used to purchase more expensive wines: the list price of the wine is charged to your on board account (no gratuity added) and your account receives a credit for either $31 or $45.]
SUN, 11/04/18 LIVORNO, ITALY 7AM—7PM
When our port call to Genoa was canceled, we we first told that this was due to port congestion. The full story was that the Port Authority had assigned the Crown Princess to a berth that was too shallow; by the time that was discovered, no suitable berth was available.
Regardless of the reason for substituting Livorno, we did not have time to arrange an independent tour with other roll call members. Because we had spent a week in Florence in 2014 and had previously visited Pisa twice, most of excursions offered by the ship did not appeal to us. We had prebooked a ship’s excursion to Cinque Terre that included a boat ride along the coast. However, there were no tickets for that tour in our cabin when we embarked. Upon investigation, we learned that that tour had been canceled, along with a similar tour that did not include the boat ride. Cinque Terre (which had been devastated by storms in 2011) had again been badly damaged by the storms of the last two weeks. The storms had caused small landslides around the Cinque Terre villages, resulting in several road closures. The road leading to the historical center of Monterosso was closed, separating the village into two parts.
Disappointed, we managed to book a full-day ship’s excursion to San Gimignano, a winery and Pisa. With more time to plan, we would likely have arranged an independent tour to several wineries. Nevertheless, this turned out to be an enjoyable tour.
The drive from Livorno to San Gimignano (www.sangimignano.com/en/) took a little over 1.5 hours. Along the way, our guide Carla indicated points of interest such as a Vespa factory and the hometown of blind musician Andrea Bocelli. Once in San Gimignano, she turned us loose for 1.75 hours to explore on our own. Similar to Orvieto, the town was built on a hill atop an earlier (3rd-2nd century BC) Etruscan settlement. The Medieval walled city originally had 72 towers but, due to earthquakes, only 14 remain.
The bus parking was outside the Porta San Giovanni. We decided to walk along the main street from there through the center of town to the Porta San Mateo. Along the way, we passed the Piazza delle Cisterna (with the old city well) and the Piazza Duomo (with the cathedral). It would have been nice to visit the Duomo or climb the Torre Grossa but we would have to be back on the bus before their 11 a.m. opening times. Once at the Porta San Mateo, we tried to take the path along the bottom of the walls clockwise. We soon ran into a closure, so we retraced our steps and tried the other direction. We eventually reached the town’s high point, the Rocca di Montestaffoli fortress (1353). This is a very small fort but entry is free and we could climb up to the top of the walls for some good views. After that, we walked the cobblestone streets seeking out the various viewpoints. We also tried to find the Medieval fountain (with no luck) and, despite the map we had obtained from Tourist Information, we got a little disoriented. Nevertheless, we made it back to the bus by the appointed time.
It was only a 20-minute drive from San Gimignano to the Tentuta Torciano (www.torciano.com/en/), where we spent two hours tasting nine wines and four olive oils, accompanied by some sausage, bread and cheese. The only white wine we tasted was the local Vernaccia di San Gimignano. After that came a Chianti, a Chianti Classico, a Brunello di Montalcino and three Super Tuscans. Each of the Super Tuscan wines was paired with a flavored olive oil. The tasting finished up with a Vin Beato dessert wine and Prosecco. The Vernaccia was of particular interest since this grape is unique to San Gimignano. There are others grapes with similar names but this varietal has been shown to be genetically different. The reds were a collection of Italian standards and quite good. The Super Tuscans showed how the Italian soils and climate modify the classic French varietals into something really different.
It took about 1.5 hours to drive from the winery to Pisa (www.turismo.pisa.it/en/); napping may have occurred. Carla walked 10 minutes with us to the meeting point and then turned us loose for an hour. Although we had visited Pisa fairly recently, climbed the Leaning Tower and toured all the sights at the Field of Miracles (www.opapisa.it/en/home-page.html), it is always an impressive place. We considered buying a ticket to some of the sights but decided just to walk around enjoying the views and the nice weather. We did see some people walking on top of the old city walls but when we found the entrance, we were told that it was closed for the day. From Pisa, it was a 45-minute drive back to the ship.
[Note: For those touring independently, there was a cash-only shuttle for 5€ pp round-trip that that ran from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and dropped passengers in downtown Livorno on Via Cogorano, next to the Piazza Grande. Of course, taxis were also available at the dock; walking through the port area is prohibited.]
This morning John had made reservations for 6 p.m. in the Michelangelo Dining Room. It was Italian Night and we both enjoyed the Brasato (Italian pot roast) with a bottle of Ruffino Chianti Classico 2014.
MON, 11/05/18 AT SEA
Today we had planned to join an independent full-day wine tour around Bandol and Cassis that was organized by another Cruise Critic roll call member. However, as we were getting ready in the morning, Captain Lubrano announced that the wind conditions made it unsafe to attempt docking at Toulon; we would spend the day at sea instead. We had prepaid for this tour and I knew the tour company would only be refunding 90% of the tour price (which they did promptly). I stopped by the Passenger Services desk to request an official letter stating that Toulon had been skipped and the reason why; I would need the letter to submit a claim on my travel insurance. I received the letter a few days later, after the passengers had been issued a refund for the $7.17 pp Toulon port charge.
[Note: For those touring independently, there would have been a complimentary water shuttle that would have run from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. and taken passengers from the dock in La Seyne to downtown Toulon. The ride takes about 15-20 minutes each way.]
A bright spot for us was that the New Orleans Saints beat the Los Angeles Rams yesterday.
Our normal sea day schedule consists of waking up, showering and getting dressed, finding a spot to read that gets us out of Raul’s way so he can make up the cabin, having a slice (or two) of pizza for lunch, relaxing and reading on our balcony (when it’s warm enough), enjoying an afternoon drink or ice cream, going to a show, having dinner and reading until it is time for a good night’s sleep. Occasionally we vary that busy program by attending a port or enrichment lecture, watching a movie, going for a walk or participating in some other activity.
Because the first four days of the original itinerary were port days, the port lectures by Julio Delgado had been prerecorded and were playing on the stateroom TV. Now that we had an extra sea day, he gave a live talk on Barcelona. We attended that and picked up a few useful hints for independent travelers.
Today we enjoyed the pizza with some of the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo we had bought at Enoteca Corsi in Rome. I also tried a slice of the foccacia with meatballs; again this was something that looked better than it tasted.
To console ourselves for missing Toulon, we dined tonight at Sabatini’s ($29 pp). Often Sabatini’s offers daily specials that alternate during the cruise. Usually, there are only two—Osso Buco and Veal Milanese—but the Crown Princess has added Veal Saltimbocca to the rotation. Tonight the special was Osso Buco, known to all who read my reviews as one of our all-time favorite dishes on Princess. Of course, we had to have that plus a bottle of Giordano Barolo 2012.
TUE, 11/0/18 BARCELONA, SPAIN 8AM—11PM
Finally, a beautiful sunny day with mild temperatures! We needed to wear our wind jackets but felt safe leaving the umbrellas and plastic ponchos on the ship.
The Crown Princess was docked at Pier D, as far away from town as possible. The MSC Fantasia was only slightly closer (at Pier C) and the Azamara Pursuit had a prime position on the other side of the harbor, close to the city. Although the distance is walkable, we wanted to save our energy for more interesting strolls. There was a cash-only shuttle that was heavily touted at 5€ pp for an all-day ticket. That service would run from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and drop passengers next to the Tourist Office at the Columbus column. We chose another option: the blue Port Authority T3 Cruise Bus (www.barcelona-tourist-guide.com/en/faq/cruise-ship-terminals/shuttle-bus-barcelona-cruise-terminal.html) for 3€ pp one-way or 4€ pp round-trip, cash only. The Cruise Bus coordinates with the cruise ship schedules and the stop is behind the Maritime Museum, across the street from the Columbus column. The shuttle was in a more obvious location outside the front door of the terminal but the T3 bus stop was located a few feet from the terminal along the street.
We caught the 9 a.m. Cruise Bus for the 15-minute drive to the drop-off point. There was plenty of time before we had to meet our 11 a.m. market tour, so we strolled up Las Ramblas, which was not crowded at this time of the morning. We ducked into the La Bouqueria, much larger and more touristy than the neighborhood market where we would have the tour. Nevertheless, it was fun to walk past the colorful fruits and vegetables as well as the delicious-looking seafood, cheeses and other wares. We continued on to the Plaça Catalunya, then turned left to pass through the University district to the Eixample district.
John had booked a three-hour, small group “Market Lover Tour” (foodlovertour.com/barcelona/tapas-lover-tour/) for 49€ pp. We had used this same company for an evening tapas tour when we spent several days in Barcelona in 2016. This tour was almost canceled because we were the only ones who signed up. Ultimately, we received a private tour led by one of the owners of the company (Zoltan). Although originally from Hungary, Zoltan is quite knowledgeable about the food of Barcelona and also writes books and articles about wine. He started with his normal presentation but then really opened up when he could see that we were excited to be trying the unusual foods and wines he offered on this market tour.
We met Zoltan at the main entrance of the Mercat del Ninot (www.mercatdelninot.com) in the Eixample district. This historic market (dating to 1892) was revitalized by a grocery chain, which now has a location in the basement. The grocery sells non-food items as well as out-of-season and imported foodstuffs. The independent food stands on the upper level sell seasonal, local produce, fish, meat and poultry. After telling us about its history, Zoltan led us through the market. Most of the food stalls have been managed for generations by the same families and have likewise been patronized by the same families for generations. The vendors freely share their expertise with their clients: you can tell them what you want to prepare for dinner and they will advise you on the best fish or cut of meat/poultry and then prepare your selection so that it is ready for you to cook when you get home.
We already knew that people in Europe usually shop for food daily or every other day. Zoltan explained that most people work from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. and again from 4-7 p.m.; they are able to shop during that two-hour break and also often have lunch at the market. A single person like Zoltan typically would purchase pre-made items at the market rather than buy all the individual ingredients and cook a meal.
Our first stop was at a Escofet Oliver (stalls #7-9), purveyor of a tremendous selection of olives. Zoltan ordered cups mixed with a number of different kinds—both black and green varieties. We snacked on these as we walked on the way to the next shop, Xarcuteria Alonso Andrés (stall #2), where we enjoyed a plate of chorizo, another smoked sausage (salchichón?), blood sausage (dry Morcilla), white pudding (Morcilla Blanca—no blood) and Manchego cheese. That was a lot to eat (even for us) so the seller gladly wrapped the rest for us to take away. When we were walking through La Bouqueria earlier, we had noticed paper cones filled with slices of sausages and cheese. Zotan explained that that was a typical Catalan breakfast.
At our next stop, Bar David del Ninot (stall #40), we sampled ham croquetas and a blood sausage (Morcilla) with rice in it, served hot; those were accompanied by a glass of Clos de Pinell Garnacha (Grenache). Our final stop in the market was at Barra Perelló (perello1898.com/barra-perello/, stalls #18-20), where we enjoyed several specialties—anchovies in olive oil on tomato-brushed bread, bacalao (salt cod) croquetas and bacalao cebiche with tomatoes and olives. This was topped off by wonderful octopus on boiled potatoes! We washed all this down with a glass of red vermouth.
Finally, Zoltan guided us outside to a sweet shop a couple of blocks away for a finale of sparkling wine and world-class desserts. The owner of La Pastisseria (lapastisseriabarcelona.com) was part of the team that won the Gold Medal in the 2011 World Pastry Cup. We enjoyed a seasonal treat, Caramel (cake with caramel mousse and caramelized hazelnut pieces), and the specialty of the house, La Cirera (cake with cherry mousse and cherry compote), along with a glass of cava (local sparkling wine). This was a totally satisfying tour and we will be looking forward to future tours with Food Lovers.
From the pastry shop, we walked back to the Barri Gòtic. This would be our second visit to the Barcelona Cathedral (www.catedralbcn.org/index.php?lang=en) and we took advantage of the fact that the 7€ pp entrance fee included not only entrance to the cathedral but also to the roof, museum and cloister. Going up on the roof gave great views of the Cathedral’s steeples and a panorama of the entire city; there was also a cute elephant rain spout. The museum was the usual assortment of art that formerly decorated the Cathedral and gold-covered liturgical paraphernalia.
The Cathedral is an outstanding example of Catalan Gothic architecture. There are at least 40 side chapels in the church and cloister; the handy brochure (in English!) that comes with the ticket identifies each of them. One significant chapel is that of St. Severus, a bishop of Barcelona who was martyred during the Diocletian Persecution by having a nail hammered into his head. Another important saint buried here is St. Eulalia, the co-patron saint (with Our Lady of Mercy) of Barcelona. For refusing to recant her faith, she was subjected to 13 especially gruesome tortures and finally decapitated. Her remains are kept in an alabaster sarcophagus, carved with reliefs of her tribulations, in a large crypt under the main altar. The flock of geese in the cloister recall the legend that a dove flew from her neck when she was beheaded; they number 13 in honor of her age and number of tortures. There is a fountain in the cloister that is dedicated to Sant Jordi (St. George), the patron saint of Catalonia.
We weren’t ready to return to the ship but decided against an earlier plan to hike on Montjuïc (irbarcelona.org/montjuic-mountain-park/). We decided instead to visit MUHBA (Museo d’Història de Barcelona), which is near the Cathedral on Plaça del Rei.
MUHBA is actually a scattered collection of museums and historical sites; the entrance fee (5€ pp, senior rate) includes all of the centers except Park Guell. We were primarily interested in visiting the main center, the MUHBA Plaça del Rei (ajuntament.barcelona.cat/museuhistoria/en/muhba-placa-del-rei). The archaeological area under Plaça del Rei includes the ruins of of an entire quarter of the ancient Roman city of Barcino, an area of over 4000 square meters. This is an extremely well done exhibition, with an excellent included audioguide (available in many languages) and informational signs in Catalan, Spanish and English. There are catwalks over the remains of houses, factories, shops, streets, walls—all aspects of daily Roman life. Of course, the area of most interest to us was the late 3rd-4th century wine making facility. The Romans used a gravity-flow system to move the grape juice from the large crushing tub, through ceramic pipes and stone channels, to clay casks for fermentation and finally to amphorae for storage.
A few blocks away is the MUHBA Temple Roma d'August (ajuntament.barcelona.cat/museuhistoria/en/muhba-temple-augustus). The only remains of the 1st-century BC Roman temple of Barcino, dedicated to Emperor Augustus, are four large columns. On the way back to the ship, I bought a small Estelada, the Catalan independence movement flag. All of our walking today totaled about 5.5 miles.
Back onboard, we enjoyed a pre-dinner folkloric performance by Flamenco José de la Vega. The troupe of a singer, a guitarist, one male dancer and three female dancers was quite energetic. I know that I could never learn to do a dance that requires me to gracefully kick my long skirt out of the way to avoid tripping on it! The female dancers could do that, however, and had lovely costumes.
Tonight we had reservations for 7:30 p.m. in the Da Vinci Dining Room. The menus on this cruise feature Mediterranean-style food and there is a special symbol marking the particular dishes. We selected the diver scallops with white beans, accompanied by a bottle of Hartford Court Chardonnay 2016.
WED, 11/07/18 AT SEA
During the day today, we would be sailing along the southern coast of Spain, close enough to see large towns and the coastal mountains. While we were in the Mediterranean, the sea was fairly calm. After exiting into the Atlantic, however, we had several days of rougher ocean conditions. Fortunately John and I have not experienced any problems with motion sickness in the past.
This morning we had a briefing for the Chef’s Table guests to sign the required health forms and to go over the rules for clothing and behavior in the Galley. We had to wait on one person who was quite late; his partner and another couple never showed up at all. The former couple was also very late for the actual dinner and had to be called in their stateroom to come down; then they claimed that they “got lost” on the way to the meeting point! There’s always somebody who thinks his/her time is more valuable than everyone else’s.
Tonight was the first of three formal nights on this cruise; the Captain's Welcome Aboard Party and Champagne Waterfall was held in the Piazza between the two fixed dinner sittings. Before the party, we attended a show in the Explorers Lounge. The comedian, Rikki Jay, was funny but we had heard at least half of his jokes before—some were real groaners.
After the party we again had reservations for 7:30 p.m. in the Da Vinci Dining Room. We selected the braised lamb shanks with artichokes and feta cheese, accompanied by a bottle of Vall Llach Embruix Priorat 2016.
During the night tonight, the clocks would be set back one hour to begin recouping the six-hour time difference between Rome and EST.
THURS, 11/08/18 AT SEA
This morning John went to a special interest lecture by David Wiemers, “When Hollywood Sails, It Sells,” about movies focused on the sea. Wiemers is former Hollywood writer and producer and an engaging speaker. We were sorry that we had overlooked the note in the Princess Patter yesterday about his first talk, “Rome and Barcelona in the Movies.” Unfortunately, it must not have been recorded as we never saw it repeated on the stateroom TV.
Meanwhile I went to the Cruise Critic get-together in Skywalkers. I had hoped to meet some of the people we would be touring with in the Azores, but none of them attended. We were a good-sized group (50-60 people) and eight officers (Hotel General Manger, Food & Beverage Director, Executive Housekeeper, Entertainment Director, Cruise Director, Assistant Cruise Director, Environmental Officer and one other) stopped by to welcome us aboard.
Later the "Most Traveled Passengers" luncheon was held in Sabatini’s Restaurant; as usual the food was great. We often say that we are going to choose the fish option and this time we both chose the Lemon and Lime Scallops as an appetizer and the Cannolo Striped Bass as a main course. The bass was encased in bread and fried so it looked like a cannolo—an unusual presentation. Both of those were excellent with a Puerto Viejo Chardonnay. Dessert was a scrumptious Almond and Red Velvet Chocolate Terrine. We felt lucky to be in the “top 40” because transatlantic voyages tend to have so many “Super Elite” passengers aboard. Nevertheless, we made the cut (638 days) and ended up sitting with the Environmental Officer, Domenico Sgroni from Bari, Italy.
Despite the filling lunch, we were ready to eat again at 7:15 p.m. in the Da Vinci Dining Room. We did limit ourselves to an appetizer, main and dessert. As the main course, we both selected the Peidmontese-Style Veal Scaloppine, which paired well with Silverado Sangiovese 2013.
FRI, 11/09/18 AT SEA
This morning we both attended David Wiemers’ lecture on “Tales of New York and Ellis Island.” As far as I have been able to determine, our forebears immigrated to the USA before the Ellis Island processing center was established. Most of John’s ancestors appear to have entered through the Port of New Orleans, while most of mine came in through various ports in the northeast.
We dined tonight at Sabatini’s, where we thought the special was going to be Veal Saltimbocca. However, it was the Osso Buco, which John could not resist having again. I had the Veal Chop instead. Those were enjoyed with a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino 2016.
The ship’s clocks were again moved back one hour during the night to put us on the correct time for our arrival in Ponta Delgada tomorrow.
SAT, 11/10/18 PONTA DELGADA, SÃO MIGUEL ISLAND, AZORES, PORTUGAL 9AM—5PM
Ponta Delgada (islandmadeira.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/map-sao-miguel-azores-big.jpg) is the capital of São Miguel Island, one of seven in the archipelago. John and I previously visited the Azores (www.visitazores.com/en) on a cruise in 2015. For today John had arranged a tour with the same company that we used last time, Amazing Tours (www.amazingtours.pt/en). We were joined by three other couples from our Cruise Critic roll call. The cost of this 6-hour taxi tour in an 8-passenger van is 400€, or 50€ pp with eight people.
As we approached São Miguel Island, the weather did not look promising. [Note: We later learned at the Captain’s Circle party that Captain Lubrano almost had to cancel this port call.] The forecast was for clearing during the morning, with a possibility of rain in the afternoon. By the time we docked, it looked like we might have a nice day. The temperature was very pleasant, in the low 60s F (16-18 C).
The ship arrived slightly late and our group was already gathered in the Art Gallery. As we exited the cruise terminal, our driver/guide, Abraão (Abraham) Brito, was waiting and ready to go. We had chosen Shore Tour #5, “Furnas & Fire Lake Craters,” which would visit thermal areas, a tea plantation and several villages and scenic viewpoints. Abraham was an excellent driver/guide, giving lots of commentary and pointing out sights along the way.
First we followed the south coast toward Vila Franca do Campo through the lush green countryside along roads lined with hydrangeas. Although most of the blooms were fading, they were still pretty and must have been spectacular a few months ago. There were many other flowering plants and large stands of the lovely, but invasive, ginger lily. Abraham pointed out other flowers and plants as well. We stopped along the way at a black sand beach for photos of the gorgeous coastline.
Vila Franca do Campo was the original capital of São Miguel Island before the village was destroyed by a huge earthquake in 1522; after that, the capital was moved to Ponta Delgada. Abraham parked and took us to the quaint town square, a historic church (unfortunately all the churches seemed to be closed today) and the small town market. The church, dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, is one of the oldest in the archipelago; the bell tower shows damage from an artillery shell when the town was attacked by corsairs in 1624.
Next we drove to a hill above the town to visit the chapel of Our Lady of Peace. There is a great view right from the parking lot but a few of us climbed up to the tiny chapel at the top of the hill for even better ones. The steps up to the chapel are divided into sections, each one featuring a large plaque with a scene from the lives of Mary and Jesus. The plaques are done in beautiful blue-and-white Portuguese tiles (azulejos). Part of the great view here includes an island just offshore that is actually the crater of an extinct volcano. Ilhéu de Vila Franca do Campo is a nature reserve and its lagoon, popular for swimming, is limited to 400 visitors per day.
We continued north to Furnas Lake, a very large lake with white sand beaches. It also has steam vents on the shore because it is located in a volcanic crater. We each had to pay 2€ to enter the small Caldeiras da Lagoa das Furnas park where the caldeiras—hot springs and boiling mud pits—are more concentrated. There are boardwalks past the thermal features so that we could observe them more closely and also see the holes in the ground where “Cozido” (a stew made from a variety of meats and vegetables) is cooked. The holes are lined with cement and have openings to let in the steam. A pot with the stew ingredients is put into the hole, covered with a mound of dirt and left to cook for six hours. Although anyone can cook a meal here (for a fee), most of the mounds had marker indicating that they belonged to local restaurants. Naturally, Cozido must be ordered a day in advance and it is normally enough to serve two people. As we left, we saw the designated parking area for dropping off and picking up the pots of stew.
Next we descended to the Village of Furnas, inside another volcanic crater. A hot stream flows from Furnas Lake to here and there are a number of hot springs and fumeroles in the downtown area. We had a half hour to walk around the village, observe the thermal features and have a free sample of local fruit-flavored liquors. Both of these sites were fun to visit but once you have toured Yellowstone National Park, other thermal areas pale in comparison.
Back in the taxi, we drove up to the Pico do Ferro mirador on the rim of the crater. From here we had a panoramic view of the Furnas Valley, including the Village of Furnas and Furnas Lake.
From the viewpoint, we drove to the island’s north coast for a visit to the Chá Gorreana (gorreana.pt/en/), one of the last two tea plantations in Europe. Abraham walked us through the factory, showing us the machinery and explaining the process for converting raw tea (Camellia sinensis) leaves into black and green tea. We bought a gift box of several teas and tried some of the free samples. There was also a movie about tea production for those who wanted to know more. We later drove past the other (much smaller) tea factory.
The weather was cooler on the north coast and it looked like we would get the promised afternoon rain. Fortunately, it mostly held off for our next two sights. Just before Ribeira Grande, we stopped at the Miradouro de Santa Iría. Although we had dramatic views of the north coast, we could not see the Sete Cidades volcano or Pico da Vara (the island’s highest point) as is possible on a clearer day.
Our final stop was at Cidade da Ribeira Grande, Sao Miguel's oldest settlement. John and I walked down into the central garden, which is along a river gorge. We also viewed the town hall and the Church of Our Lady, the Star. The tour was also supposed to visit another nearby thermal area, Caldeira Velha (2€ pp to take the walking trail). We had stopped there on our 2015 visit and knew that sights inside include a hot spring with boiling water; water from a stream is warmed by the spring and visitors can soak in a pool there. There is also warm waterfall and the basin below is ideal for soaking. The path to the waterfall and springs is surrounded by luxuriant vegetation, including tree ferns. By now, however, it had started to rain and I don’t think anyone minded skipping this attraction.
We would be driving back to Ponta Delgada over the top of the Fogo volcano, to Pico da Barrosa, the second-highest point on the island. This was also part of our previous tour and we know there are a number of spectacular viewpoints along the way, including Fogo Lake. Today however, we only had views of rain and clouds. As we descended, the weather gradually improved and Abraham offered to drop us off in town if we wanted to shop. He got no takers, so he took us on a short city tour of Ponta Delgada before returning us to the ship. We passed sights such as the university, Forte de São Bras, churches, the town hall and the old city gates. We returned to the ship at about 3:30 p.m., with plenty of time to get cleaned up for dinner. We highly recommend Amazing Tours and especially Abraão Brito as a driver/guide.
Tonight was the Chef’s Table ($95 pp). This special meal, prepared by the Executive Chef, is limited to 12 people. This event would only be offered once on this cruise and the Maitre d’ said there were 50 people (maybe an exaggeration) on the waiting list.
The group (minus the tardy couple) gathered at Vines wine bar, where we were greeted by the Maitre d', Oscar Perego, and helped into white jackets or lab coats. Then we were escorted into the Galley, where we scrubbed our hands thoroughly. It was near the end of the first dinner sitting, so the Galley was not so busy as it had been earlier in the evening. We were introduced to the Executive Chef, Naveen Quadros; he and Oscar pointed out all the food preparation areas and explained how everything was organized to work smoothly. After that, we were moved to a table in an out-of-the-way corner, which was decorated with a beautiful ice sculpture and carved vegetables. There we were served Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne and five special appetizers prepared by the Executive Chef. After enjoying those, we were escorted to a special table in the Michelangelo Dining Room. Before being seated, a group photo was taken with the Maitre d' and Executive Chef.
The first course was Forest Mushroom Risotto served with Pinot Grigio Danzante from Italy. Next was a roasted orange sorbet palate-cleanser. The main course was a duet of meat dishes: flambeed roast veal shank and rack of lamb with a mustard and pistachio coating. That course was served with Caro from Chile. Next followed a cheese course of baked Camembert with candied walnuts and a port reduction. Dessert was a Limoncello parfait mousse, accompanied by Errazuriz Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Chile and Petit Fours.
Needless to say, this six-course meal and accompanying wines were outstanding and served with appropriate pomp and ceremony. After the meal, each couple received a copy of the 50th Anniversary Edition of Princess' cookbook (Courses, a Culinary Journey), the group photo and a souvenir menu; each lady was presented with a long-stemmed red rose. Wow! Great meal!
Today’s special interest lecture, “Tales of Hollywood,” was held in the afternoon due to a special service commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. The talk was an overview of Wiemers’ career path in Hollywood.
Tonight was the second of three formal nights on the cruise. The Michelangelo Dining Room served Surf ‘n Turf: filet mignon with two large prawns. John selected Segesio Zinfandel 2016 to accompany our meal. Towards the end of dinner, our wine was poured by Szenana from Croatia, who was the Food and Beverage Manager on the Pacific Princess and holds the same position on the Crown Princess. We were surprised that she recognized us and she was surprised that she had not encountered us earlier in the cruise (probably because she spends a lot of her time supervising the buffet). She and one of her waiters (Anastasia—currently between contracts) provided truly outstanding service in the two specialty restaurants during our May transatlantic cruise. It was really nice to be recognized!
After dinner, we went to the production show “DISCO—Blame It on the Boogie.” The sea conditions had gradually improved during the day and were practically calm by the time we went to bed. Tonight we set the clocks back another hour.
MON, 11/12/18 AT SEA
Today’s special interest lecture, “Thanks for the Memories,” was back in its normal morning slot. This talk was about famous people (including Bob Hope) whom Wiemers met during his Hollywood career and people he knew before they became stars.
The Super Tuscan Wine Lunch ($100 pp) is a special event we had only attended once before, several years ago on the Royal Princess with Maitre d’ Generoso Mazzone. However, that time the price was substantially lower so we were unsure what to expect from this one. Like the Chef’s table, participation was limited—this time to 16 people. We asked a couple of others how they learned about this event as it was not advertised in the Princess Patter or elsewhere. It was only mentioned to John as an afterthought on embarkation day, when he had called the Dine Line to inquire about any special dining events. Apparently, others had learned about it from their waiters in Sabatini’s.
We hadn’t received any sort of confirmation or reminder about the lunch but Szenana had checked on Sunday and reassured us that our names were on the list and that it would indeed be held today at 11:45 a.m. in Sabatini’s. Because of the lack of information, we were not quite sure what the event would be like. However, it turned out to be one of the best meals we have ever enjoyed on a Princess ship—with outstanding food prepared by the Sous Chef and magnificent wines selected by the Maitre d’.
We knew we were in for a special treat right from the start, with an amuse bouche of chocolate with Parmesan cheese. This was paired with Veuve Cliquot Champagne; this and the dessert were the only courses that were served with a non-Tuscan wine. The other courses were each paired with a different Super Tuscan wine. Super Tuscan is an unofficial name for wines that at one time did not meet the classification requirements of wine in the Tuscan wine area of Italy. Winemakers who wanted to experiment with grape varieties (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec) and blends not typically found in Tuscan wines had to label their wines simply as “table wine.” The title Super Tuscan evolved to describe these new Italian wines.
After the amuse bouche tantalized our palates, we were presented with a generous slab of foie gras with a pistachio balsamic reduction. It was incredibly rich and went beautifully with a 2015 Antinori Tignanello. Saffron risotto with veal ragout followed and was paired with a 2015 Argentiera Bolgheri. Two rather large duck breasts came out next, sauced with pumpkin, cauliflower, and beet root with chili caviar. Excellent flavors! Our server poured a 2013 Frescobaldi Giramonte di Castiglion with that. Not having seen a menu yet, we assumed this was an outstanding main course to end our meal. Not so! The duck was followed by sliced beef strip loin with a rocket salad and Parmesan chips along with a 2015 Frescobaldi Luce Della Vite 2015. An outstanding meal must end with a cheese course and this one was Castelrosso cheese from the Piedmont of Italy and truffles in flaky puff pastry. The wine was a beautiful 2015 Ornellaia. But not so fast! Dessert came next and was an orange-lemon flan with berries and honeyed meringue along with Petit Fours. By this point we were almost speechless with the number of courses, the quality of the food and the ingenious preparations. The wines were almost perfect matches and amazing in quality. A little post-cruise research has shown that the US retail prices of the wines ranged from $85 to $215. Maitre D’ Oscar clearly wanted to show off at this luncheon and literally spared no expense. This Super Tuscan treat was in no way comparable to our previous experience. We were fortunate to have gotten in on this one! Oscar later told us that this was not a regular event, but rather it was something he just wanted to try.
This evening as we still radiated from our lunch (and needing no dinner), we attended one of two Captain’s Circle parties in Club Fusion. Of the nearly 3000 passengers on this voyage, 2416 had previously sailed with Princess: 349 Gold, 295 Ruby, 846 Platinum and 926 Elite. No wonder the laundry was taking so long to be returned! The most traveled couple had 1404 days, the 2nd most traveled person had 1232 days and the 3rd most traveled person had 1083 days. One woman was recognized for attaining 500 days on this cruise.
TUES, 11/13/18 AT SEA
This morning’s special interest lecture was “The Struggle Years: 1977-84.” This was about Wiemers’ early career, especially when he was half of “The Fighting Couple,” hired to ruin parties with their bickering (!?!).
The temperatures have been increasing slightly and it was quite pleasant yesterday. Today it was warm enough to enjoy sitting on the balcony in the afternoon. John even saw flying fish!
We dined tonight for the third time at Sabatini’s and the specialty was again Osso Buco. John decided to pass this time and ordered the Veal Chop with Barolo Glaze and Mushroom Ragout. I decided to try something new (to me)—the chicken roll stuffed with eggplant, cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. With those we drank a bottle of Amarone 2015.
Tonight we set the clocks back another hour. Also, we were warned that the water would be off between midnight and 4 a.m. for maintenance.
WED, 11/14/18 AT SEA
The special interest lecture this morning was about Wiemers’ “Flops and Failures.”
This evening there was a short dance routine in the Piazza, “Can’t Stop the Feeling”, which we viewed before dinner. I forgot to write down what we ate, but we drank Saget Pouilly-Fuisse 2016 with it!
THURS, 11/15/18 AT SEA
This morning’s special interest lecture was about Wiemers’ “Adventures at the Walt Disney Company (1984-2002).” He is especially proud of his work on “DuckTales.”
After lunch I started packing some of the items we would not need during the last few days of the cruise.
Later one of three “Princess Grapevine” wine tastings were held. Several events were needed to accommodate all the Elite passengers, who receive a complimentary invitation. The five wines were: Asti Spumante, Rosemount 2014 Chardonnay, Duckhorn 2015 Decoy Merlot, Pacific Bay 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon and Giordano 2012 Barolo. Before the tasting started, the Maitre d’ had a little quiz, asking which is the smallest country in the world. John was the first person to shout out the answer (Vatican City) and was awarded a bottle of inexpensive sparkling wine that later made nice Mimosas on Thanksgiving morning.
Tonight was the last of the three formal nights. Dinner was three steamed lobster half-tails served over risotto. We also enjoyed one of our favorite appetizers—escargots. We always like sparkling wine with the lobster dishes so the wine for tonight was Nicolas Feuillatte champagne.
Tonight we set the clocks back another hour.
FRI, 11/16/18 AT SEA
The special interest lecture this morning was “From Hollywood to Florida”, about Florida in the movies.
We celebrated the end of the cruise by dining tonight at the Crown Grill. John chose the Filet Mignon and I picked the Sterling Silver Beef Chop, Blackened with Mushrooms and Onions. We had a nice bottle of Simi Landslide Cabernet.
Tonight we set the clocks back the final hour to EST to be correct for Ft. Lauderdale.
SAT, 11/17/18 ARRIVE FT. LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA (FLL) 6AM
Alas, it was finally time to disembark the Crown Princess after 14 days aboard. We had chosen the second disembarkation group for passengers with independent arrangements, which was scheduled for 8 a.m., giving us more than enough time to catch our 2:55 p.m. flight from FLL to RDU.
Disembarkation was expected to be slow because this was the Crown Princess' first port call in the USA in several months. That meant that every member of the crew would have to go through an immigration inspection at the same time as the disembarking passengers. There was a halt in processing passports when the CBP computers went down; that delay lasted over an hour.
Finally, our group was called and we proceeded to baggage claim, where we found our bags quickly. While we were waiting in the Global Entry line to be processed, a person next to us in the regular passport line asked us how we had managed to skip that humongous line (he had already been waiting 1.5 hours). I explained the Global Entry program (www.cbp.gov/travel/trusted-traveler-programs/global-entry) but I think the fee ($100 for 5 years) and the need for an in-person interview discourages a lot of people from applying. For those who travel outside of the USA several times a year, it is well worth the trouble and expense. In only 20 minutes, John and I went from the ship to a taxi for the short ride to FLL.
After checking in with Delta in Terminal 2, we walked to Terminal 1 in hopes of spending our waiting time at the United Club there. However, once we found the United Club, it was full and peons like us with one-day passes were not being allowed to enter. So much for that credit card benefit! We walked back to Terminal 2 and made ourselves comfortable near our departure gate.
Our flight to RDU was uneventful and we were home by early evening. This was another fantastic trip and we are looking forward to many more cruises and land tours in the future. Read Less