S: Western Mediterranean Cruise ~ September 2011
FC: Western Mediterranean Cruise ~ September 2011
1: Day One - a travel day to D.C. Flights were good, stopping in Minnesota really broke up the flight nicely. When we arrived in DC we met up with Danny, had a bit of time to ourselves at his place, and went walking around his neighborhood that night - ending up eating at an Ethiopian restaurant that a Taxi driver recommended. Awesome - we just wish we took a picture of the food before we devoured it. Very fun and delicious. Day Two - Joanie and I spent the day as D.C. tourists, and it was a blast. We took the city bus to the National Archives where we saw the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Incredible - to see these original documents that created such an incredible form of government. Too bad we are messing it up these days. We also saw this very cool exhibit on the Governments' role in our food system. Then we went to the Air and Space Museum which was also very cool. The highlights were the Apollo and Gemini capsules and the Moon Lander. Truly amazing how these men spent days in these tiny capsules, and blasting off on top of a 36 story rocket. Whew. Lots more there of course, including a photo of Joanie's Grandma Ida as one of the earliest flight attendants. We then had lunch at a place north of the Mall called Merzi - an Indian style Chipotle-type restaurant - it was really good. We then rented two Capital Share Bikes and rode around around the Mall - stopping off at the Capitol, the National Botanical Gardens, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln, the FDR, the Thomas Jefferson and to me the highlight was the brand new Martin Luther King Monument. As part of the Monument they had about 10 or so of his quotes - all were incredibly inspiring. Turns out the bikes were a great way to see these sights. We finally returned the bikes and took the bus back to Danny's. For dinner and entertainment that night, we went to the downtown Bus Boys and Poets Restaurant for dinner and met and heard Bill McKibben talk about the Tar Sands pipeline project that they are working hard to oppose. Great to be a part of something political - in a small way - while in DC. A very fun, inspiring (and in a good way) a very exhausting day. A great start to our vacation.
3: Sept 3rd - Today we rented a car and drove with Danny, first to Baltimore, where we visited the Museum of Visionary Arts. Here there were all sorts of very wild, creative and fun art pieces. It was also fun just to get out of the city and drive through the countryside. Got to drive by the Baltimore Ravens new stadium, and Camden Yards as well. After the museum, we drove south to Annapolis. As we approached town there was a lot of traffic. We realized we were driving right by Navy Stadium where a college football game was about to begin. And the reason why traffic came to a stand still soon became apparent... we had to stop for (what seemed like) every single cadet marching to the game in their Navy white uniforms. It took at least 5 minutes for them all to cross the street. We then Googled "best crab cakes in Annapolis" and the clear favorite was Davis' Pub, so we GPS'd our way there, which ended up being this very hidden, fun little place full of locals with very good crab sandwiches. Afterwards took a short walk along the Annapolis Old Town harbor area then drove back to D.C. After a brief rest up back at Danny's house, we walked about 1/2 a block to Stoney's - where we watched the Boise State game, and enjoyed their clear victory over Georgia. A fun day on the road, exploring the area.... and a very satisfying end with that Boise State win. Next stop - Rome and our Holland America cruise ship!
4: Basically, a travel day – a very long travel day. After after a very nice breakfast with Danny, we heading to the airport with our rental car. But first we stopped at the Air and Space Museum facility by the airport. There we saw the Enola Gay, a Concorde, the Blackbird spy plane and the Space Shuttle Enterprise. Pretty impressive. Then we boarded our Air France plane which was also pretty impressive – the Air Bus 380 – I believe it is currently the largest passenger airplane in the world – holding up to 538 people on two “decks”. They did have some very cool features – a TV monitor at each seat with video-on-demand movies and games, and even on-demand cameras from the tail, the nose or the bottom of the plane. Was able to watch both the takeoff and the landing. However, it was a long and cramped flight – yes, that large of a plane without a single inch more of legroom rrgghh. We had to transfer in Paris, which was a real hassle, with an Air France employee dragging a large group all around the airport, only to then get on a bus to the gate. But finally we landed in Rome, where it took about another hour from the time we got off our plane until we got onto the bus for our cruise ship. When we finally got on board, it was nap time, as I had about 15 minutes of sleep the previous night (or was it still the night?) Either way, after a 2 hour nap, we both felt much better and walked around the ship a bit, eating at the Canelleto – a great little Italian restaurant with an ocean (or port) view. Very good food and wine, and service. We have already made reservations here for 3 more nights on our cruise! When then ended our time in public that night with a sunset hot tub and then back to our room for our long awaited sleep time. The Holland America ship is very nice, and definitely has some very nice features, but Joanie and I have both grown accustomed to the Royal Caribbean and miss certain things. But we’ll see how/if we grow accustomed to Holland America over the next 10 days. But the last day – day and a half has mostly been traveling, with a very little bit of sleeping and a dash of zombie walking around the ship. Looking forward to getting a good nights sleep tonight.
5: Lucca, Italy Tuesday, Sept 6th - Yes, a great nights sleep was had by both Joanie and me and I think we have returned to normal (well, as normal as Joanie and I will ever get). But we’re feeling good and ready to start the day. Today our plans were to hop a taxi and then a train to the town of Lucca – a smallish Hill Town north of Pisa. But there is a general strike in the town of Livorno, so the public transit isn’t working. But with a little quick thinking and the internet, we were able to rent a car. So we took the cruise line's shuttle bus into town, walked about 3 blocks and picked up our little car (and most importantly, a GPS system) and headed about 30 kilometers to Lucca. Once there we parked the car and wandered the narrow streets and plazas of this ancient town. And when I say wandered, I mean it. This town's layout was incredibly confusing – much more so then Volterra which we visited last year. But it was fun to be so aimless – kind of reminded me of being a teenager again! Anyway, the town had very typical Italian architecture (like many other picturesque Italian hill towns.) So we just wandered around, taking pictures, watching people and finally stopped for some Bruschetta and water at a Trattoria in this really cool Plaza – one of the rare ones without a church centered in it. Very good food. Then we slowly found our way back to our car, and instead of heading straight back to our ship, we looked at the map and notice there was the town of Marina di Pisa – so we set the GPS and went there. It was fun – a little “beach” town with more Pizzerias, Trattorias and Gelaterias – which we of course felt slightly obligated to visit. Hmmmm. Biscotti gelato!!! (I put beach in quotes because it was nothing but rocks and jetty boulders.) After the stop off for some sun soaking and gelato eating, we headed back down the coastal road to Livorno, and returned the car and caught the shuttle bus back to the ship. Now we are about to head to dinner and a slow and easy night – maybe some reading, some scrabble in their very adult looking game room (a plus!) or perhaps a movie in our room. Either way – all is well – life is good.
7: As we approached the town, we made a right turn and visited their main produce and flower street market. It was awesome! The spices, olives, pastries, meats, cheeses, flowers – wow! Truly the most beautiful street market I have ever seen. We of course made a couple of purchases – a couple of small pastries and some amazing spicy olives. We continued walking through town, reaching this amazing very open plaza where the city’s new electric tram system came through. And we just kept on walking and taking pictures. We were in search of the building where my mother lived when she was 13 years old, back in 1930. We finally found her street, and although I thought her address was “1”, in turns out it was “6”. So I took more pictures of the “1” building, but we did see her building, and neighborhood as well. What a great place to live!!! Just a couple of blocks from the beach and boardwalk, with tons of restaurants and city life all around. We had lunch a couple of blocks away from my Mom’s place at a sidewalk restaurant called “Love”. Nice atmosphere and even service, but the food was only okay. After lunch we walked down to the beach again and strolled down the promenade. We then headed back into the main plaza and transportation hub and caught the bus back to Monte Carlo. I went directly to the pool and jumped in, as the day was long and fairly warm – so the dip in the pool felt great. Around 5pm, we went up to the Crow’s Nest, a very comfortable bar/lounge at the front of the ship, and had a drink as we sailed away from Monte Carlo down the French coastline. We met a few people up there – a couple from Australia and two women from Seattle. After having some good conversation, we ended up on a team with them in the bar’s trivial pursuit competition. We almost won, but it was fun playing. Then it was time for our dinner reservation at Canaletto’s and we had another great meal there, enjoying the sunset from our table. After dinner, we walked the upper deck to take in the last of the sunset – a very windy walk outside. We then “retired” to our room and watched the weirdest movie on the TV – it was awful but we couldn’t resist watching it and how bad/funny it was. I think it was called Last Summer with a very young Barbara Hershey. We wouldn’t recommend it unless you wanted to witness a car wreck of a movie. But we had fun with it. A great day in Nice, and we’re looking forward to Barcelona tomorrow | A Very Nice Day in Nice Wed, Sept 7th – Today the ship arrived in Monte Carlo – an incredible scene from the ship. Joanie and I both got up early to get to the upper deck to check out the amazing site of buildings on this beautiful coast. However, as amazing as it was to look at, it was also a turn-off to us – a crowded mess of elitism. But not to worry – our plans for the day involved taking a regional bus, for 1 Euro, to Nice – the “capital” of the French Riviera and a more working class city – if such a thing exists in this part of the world. Anyway, we found the bus after a little bit of confusion and hopped on for the 45 minute ride to Nice. Although the bus ride was hot, with the A/C barely on and the sun blasting through the window – it was a beautiful ride along the coast. When we arrived in Nice, we got off at the east side of their small harbor and walked along the harbor out towards the coast and around this large cliff when we finally saw this incredible view of Nice. It really was a beautiful scene, with the wonderul blues of the ocean, the white rocky beaches and the city all laid out before us.
14: Barcelona – Wow! Sept 8th and 9th - We spent two very entertaining and amazing days in Barcelona – a very beautiful, cosmopolitan, artistic and big city. On our first day, we took the HOHO (Hop-on, Hop-off) bus for a grand tour of this incredible city. The morning was spent touring the area near the beach and port – just some incredible sites – too many to list. The architecture is fabulous, both old and new. The planning of the city was also very impressive – with places set aside for cars, bikes and pedestrians. We got off the bus at Plaza de Catalunya, which was on the north end of Las Ramblas (more about that later.) We walked around, and a couple of blocks off of Las Ramblas we found a great little sidewalk restaurant and had some great tapas and sangria for lunch. After lunch we hopped back on the bus to continue our tour. One of the next stops was the incredible La Sagrada Familia – a church designed by Barcelona’s famous architect Antonio Gaudi. (although hard to capture in photos, check it out.) Construction on this glorious monstrosity began in the late 19th century and continues to this day. It really is an amazing site – from its details, to its out-of-the box design, to its immense size. The rest of the afternoon was spent driving all over Barcelona, continuing to see sites that were truly impressive – including the old art museum overlooking the city to the modern stadium for the 2002 Olympics. We ended up back at Las Ramblas, hungry for some more good Spanish food. Joanie went into a hotel and asked the man behind the desk for a recommendation for some good, authentic Spanish food, that was not catered to tourists. Without hesitation, the man said "Los Caracoles" and gave us directions. The restaurant, not far from where we were, seemed tiny from the front – just a little bar actually. But as we walked in the host greeted us, we told him we were a party of two and he gestured to us to follow him. He took us through the kitchen, walking right by the chefs and this incredible, ancient looking stove and then back into the restaurant – which winded left and right then up and continued beyond where he sat us. We had a very fun waiter (turns out he has been working at this restaurant for 39 years! He told us this when he also told us this restaurant has been in business for 197 years!!!) We ordered a local Spanish wine (delicious), Gazpacho and a chicken and seafood paella. Everything was great, although I just don’t care for paella. But it was a great experience, and the flan was the best I have ever had (sorry Mom). I think it’s because it had some coffee and chocolate flavors going on there as well – hhhmmmm – I want some more! We left the restaurant and wandered Las Ramblas a bit more. Came upon this incredible store, filled mostly with ceramics – some of the most beautiful ceramics I have ever seen. Finally hailed a cab back to the ship and didn’t get back to our room until about 10:30 at night, completely exhausted, yet enthralled with Barcelona. An amazing city – can’t wait until tomorrow for more!
19: Barcelona – Day Two Our plan for today was to take it a little easy and just enjoy Barcelona. We took a taxi from the ship to the bottom of Las Ramblas and just walked. Lots of people, bikes, vendors, flowers, birds and more. Fortunately for us, we stumbled upon this incredible public market, with an unbelievable amount of fruit, meats, cheeses, olives, fish – you name it. It was so much fun walking around and watching people and taking pictures. We didn’t want to spoil our planned Tapas lunch, so we didn’t buy much food – only a 1-Euro meat sampler skewer. Some of the meat was very good, other pieces were spit out by both of us. We continued walking north, past the end of Las Ramblas to walk by two more of Gaudi’s buildings, which again were very unique. We then used our 2 day pass on the HOHO bus to hitch a very crowded bus to Parc Gruell – another Gaudi creation in a park. Again really amazing stuff, but I think sometimes it gets a bit hyped. We then caught a cab, and thanks to Joanie’s ability to speak fluent Spanish, she got a recommendation from the cab driver of a good lunch spot – and it turned out to be very fun. First off – it was an outdoor restaurant (La Salamanca) down by the beach, which was fun just to be down there. We had a great outdoor table and a very fun waiter. There we had olives, jamon, a salad and calamari, with a huge pitcher of Sangria (which we were able to take half of back to the ship with us.) The food was good – but the time there was great – very relaxed, cool beach breezes and great people watching. After lunch, we walked down by the beach, and I even took a swim. Very refreshing. The beach was very crowded as this seemed to be a very popular, in-town (and somewhat topless) spot. We then began a longish walk, bus ride and taxi ride back to the ship, and said goodbye to Barcelona. As we sailed away, we sat on the upper deck, snacking on our day’s leftovers (including that Sangria). We both were really impressed with Barcelona – a very special city.
23: Mallorca – A Day at the Beach Sept 10th – Today we planned a beach day, just to hang out and not sightsee. And we were successful. Although it would have been fun to tour the city of Palma and the island as well. It looked like a great place to live. Spanish culture on a Mediterranean island. with a little over a million residents. It was small, but not that small – it looked like it could be a peaceful, yet active place to live. Anyway, sticking with our determination to have a slower paced day, we grabbed a cab at the port, with a very nice woman driver. She and Joanie talked up a storm on the 10 minute drive to Playa Nova a little beach/tourist area on the island. It was very nice, with palapas and lounge chairs for only 10 Euros for the entire day. We basically just chilled, read, relaxed, swam and people watched. I took a walk down the beachside street, checking out the restaurants and vendors – all geared towards tourists. Although I did finally find a place to get a jamon baguette panini and a glass of sangria. (unfortunately, I didn’t see any tapas anywhere.) We ended up spending about 5 or 6 hours down at the beach. I later said to Joanie that I think that was the longest amount of time the two of us have ever spent at the beach – but it was great. It didn’t seem like a long time, nor short – just perfect. And the weather was great – hot and not really humid down by the water, but perfect under our palapa! And the water was the perfect temperature and again, the beach was scattered with topless women, of ALL shapes and sizes. One of the fun things about traveling abroad is to see how other cultures live. Anyway, grabbed a taxi back to the ship with a Russian couple from St. Petersberg and freshened up before another great meal at Canaletto. That night we rented a DVD from the ship (Last Holiday with Queen Latifah – thumbs down) but nevertheless, a very nice, beautiful, relaxing day.
24: Tunisia - By Ship and Bus and Camel Sept 12th – Tunisia was a trip! Today was the first time we did a shore excursion with the cruise line, only because we were heading into such a different world – one that had a revolution just a few months earlier. We boarded the bus and fortunately for us, we had a tour guide from Tunisia (as opposed to one from the ship). His name was Taeib and he was great. Very informative and very funny and very nice about showing his country’s gratitude that foreigners were visiting his homeland. Our first stop was the Bardo Museum, which was dedicated to ancient Roman mosaics from the 3rd century. It was fascinating to see how these ancient people told the stories of their lives through these very artistic and beautiful mosaics. The hawkers outside of the museum (and later to be found everywhere) are even more persistent then the street vendors you’d find in Mexico – but they were okay with getting our “no’s”. However, I did purchase an Arabic “headscarf”. (I think I might be able to pass as Arab with it on!) He wanted 15 Euros, but I ended up getting it for 2! Haggling, we were told, is a big part of the game they play. After the Bardo Museum we drove through the streets of Tunis to the Medina – or old town. Here we entered an ancient indoor “mall” – a maze of indoor hallways scattered with vendors. Our guide first took us through this carpet store/warehouse, where after describing how these carpets were made, they began to try and sell us on them. (Almost like a time share presentation for carpets. Kind of lame.) We began to leave this area early and our guide showed us where we could meet up with the group in about 20 minutes. We then proceeded to ramble through the maze of stores and almost immediately, we found a vendor selling, for lack of a better description, “Tunisian Tacos”. He used pita bread, then coated the insides with two different types of spicy sauces, then tomatoes, lettuce, olives, onions and some kind of “curried” chicken. It was very good, and fun to sample some Northern African cuisine. We then found a store that sold spices and haggled again with the vendor and made a purchase. Before we knew it, it was time to meet up with our guide and the rest of the group. As we emerged from the tunnels of stores, we saw a vendor selling cookies, so we purchased a couple of North African cookies as well – nothing too unique – basically almond cookies. The drive back to the ship was a pretty brief but fascinating look at this moderate Muslim country. The people seemed to live challenging lives, but they also seemed nice as well. When we got back to the ship, there were camels waiting for us tourists. This gave us a chance to ride a camel, and of course we couldn’t refuse! It was very strange, but lots of fun! They get up from their crouched positions so strangely – with the back ends rising first then their front legs bring them to a full upright position. As we took our brief ride on the camel, we could feel his (or her?) spine in our crotches (sounds fun, huh?). And after a few photos, we returned to the camels’ kneeling pad, where front knees go down first and it feels like you’re going to fly off of him, over his head. It was a gas. A fun day in a very exotic land. And the best part is that we now have logged another continent in our travel book!
32: Sicily – The Good, The Bad & the Ugly Sept 13th - Our plans for Sicily were to get out of Palermo and to spend the “day” in Cefalu (pronounced Chay-fa-loo) – a small, seaside village about 60 miles to the east (The Good). We had booked this excursion with the ship again because when we checked with arranging our own bus or train out of Palermo, it seemed a bit too confusing. So, we took the tour bus. Turned out it wasn’t a great decision, although I’m not sure doing it on our own would have been any better. Palermo was beautiful on approach, but once we got into town it sort of reminded us of Ensenada, Mexico – a big city with hustlers galore – and supposedly a lot of pick-pockets (The Ugly). It was just crazy – even our tour bus had a hard time (w/ traffic) getting out of town. And we were even delayed on the ship because the local port authorities were late in giving our ship the “all clear”. Ah Mexico. I mean Sicily. So it took us over an hour to get to Cefalu in a very cramped bus, and the scenery was sometimes nice, sometimes not so nice. As we approached Cefalu, it really did look attractive. However, the excursion was supposed to include a guided walking tour plus 2 hours of free time. But our guide told us upon our arrival, when we told her we didn’t want to do the guided part, to be back in 1 hour. I didn’t give her any flack about this abbreviated stop, but it really was lousy (The Bad). So we sort of hurried through beautiful and charming Cefalu – this smallish village on the sea, with a beautiful beach, narrow streets, interesting shops and what seemed to be charming restaurants (the ones we didn’t have time to discover). However, here’s the good part – I decided to take a swim while Joanie did some window shopping, and we met about 30 minutes later. I really enjoyed my swim – the water was a perfect temperature and very clear – and it felt good to swim in the land of my Mother’s ancestors. When we met up, we realized we didn’t have time for lunch, but we did find this cute little market where we bought some tomatoes, salami, cheese, olives and bread, and ate some quickly before we had to catch the bus. We then ate a little more on the bus during the drive back to Palermo. Before we called it a day, we took a walk around the port area of Palermo, and the best part of that walk was finding a Bistro called Bristol, where we found some great looking Cannoli. And you know what Mom – this Sicilian Cannoli wasn’t any better than yours – which means it was great. We finally went back to the ship and are now on deck, finishing up our antipasto from Cefalu as an appetizer before dinner; enjoying it with a little Port we bought a few ports ago. Anyway to wrap up Sicily, Cefalu was really nice. It fact, according to our tour guide, it was the site of the very first Club Med. But Palermo was nothing to write home about; so I won’t. All in all, I’m personally very glad we had the opportunity to visit here – I just wish we really had a full day in the nice part of the island.
37: Capri – Hot, Hilly and Crowded Sept 14th – Well, Capri was probably incredible 30 or 60 or 100 years ago. But today it was a bit insane. The crowds of people, despite the fact that we got on the first ferry of the day, were a bit overwhelming and helped to make the place somewhat undesirable. However, we did make the best of it. After taking a very crowded funicular ride from the marina up to Capri town, and then after walking around a bit and not being able to lose the crowds, we decided to return to the main plaza, sit down with a map and come up with a game plan. Our stop at this café was nice; we had cold water, split an almond croissant and came up with our game plan. We first headed west to check out this recommended walk, but again, more shops, more narrow streets and not many views. So we put Plan B into effect – returning to the main Plaza, and then taking the pedestrian walkway (and roads) down to the marina. This was really fun – we had great views of the island and sea, as well as being able to see many beautiful homes and buildings. It was a very pleasurable stroll. As we got close to the shore we saw a very beautiful beach just east of the marina, and at the end of this beach was a very appealing looking restaurant and we were getting hungry for lunch. The restaurant was Lo Smerelda, a small, peaceful place right on the water. Aaah, we found our “home” on Capri. We sat there for at least an hour, enjoying a great meal with very friendly service (Linguini and Clams, and Ravioli with local cheese, tomatoes and basil.) It was perfect; cool, relaxing and delicious – all with a million dollar view. We finally tore ourselves away from the place and walked through the marina part of Capri for almost an hour before catching our 45 minute ferry ride home. Once back in Naples we decided to just go back to the ship as tonight is packing night. But before we take care of business, we headed back to the pool deck (where we are right now), to have a drink, have some nachos (from the nacho bar) and enjoy the “sail away” from Naples. We don’t want to go to the dining room tonight as it is the staff singing party, and we are not really up for that after our full day in Capri. So tomorrow is the end of our Western Mediterranean cruise, and tomorrow we bus to Rome, fly to Venice and spend the next day and a half there, before embarking on our Greek Island cruise with Royal Caribbean. We feel very lucky to have this tremendous opportunity. Grazie Holland America!