‘vacation’ Category


  • on July 21, 2007 -
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Barcelona, Day 1

Very early Friday morning the Emerald Princess sailed into Port Vell, Barcelona. We were assigned to disembark at 8:15am but since we knew our hotel wouldn’t let us check in until after noon, we relaxed in one of the lounges for an extra hour until most of the other passengers were off. After saying farewell to the ship we took a short but very circuitous taxi ride to Hotel Principal. The hotel wouldn’t have a room available for us for about two hours, but had free wi-fi in their lounge so we caught up on e-mail and news. Once we checked in, we took a walk down Les Ramblas, the touristy pedestrian strip, only a couple blocks from our hotel.

Walking Les Ramblas

At the southernmost end of Les Ramblas is the monument to Christopher Columbus. We took the elevator 50 meters (150 feet) to the top (Mike couldn’t believe they fit an elevator in there!) and got a nice view of the city in all directions. Realizing we were hungry, but wanting something very different than what we’d been eating the last two weeks, we stopped into a Chinese restaurant along Les Ramblas. Unfortunately, it was the worst Chinese food we’ve ever had, and we left only slightly less hungry than when we arrived.

Christopher Columbus monument

After a short siesta back at the hotel, we headed out and walked to the Gothic District (El Barri Gòtic) to follow the walking tour in our Frommer’s Guide Book. Barcelona began as a Roman city, and although it’s completely changed over time, there are still a few remnants of the Roman city. One of the highlights of the walk was — surprise — the Cathedral of Barcelona. We were getting pretty tired of cathedrals, basilica, and churches at this point, but they do seem to represent the pinnacles of each civilization’s architectural achievement.

Starting our walking tour of the Gothic quarter

We were able to make it only about halfway through the tour before the directions and map became so confusing that we had to call it quits. In this case, the fault fell squarely on Frommer’s: the landmarks didn’t match up with the numbers and names in the book, the book would often tell us to take a left instead of a right (or vice versa), and some roads didn’t even show up on the map! So we just walked around the rest of the district and headed back to Les Ramblas to wander around. The crowds had thickened significantly as the evening progressed, which is apparently normal in this area. We wanted to find something for dinner, but the awful lunch made us a bit cautious, and most restaurants in Barcelona don’t open for dinner until 8 or 9pm. After wandering a bit, we grabbed Barcelona’s version of fast food at two places, Pita Inn and Pan & Company. Dinner was significantly cheaper than lunch and much better.

The back of the cathedral in Barcelona


  • on July 20, 2007 -
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By the time we arrived in Marseille, France, on day 14 of our trip, we were pretty worn out, and decided to spend the day relaxing on the ship. We knew going in that Marseille would be the city we would be most likely to skip, as there aren’t any major tourist attractions nearby. By staying on the ship, we did get to witness some French civil security forces practicing air maneuvers right off the side of our ship. It appears they may have been practicing putting out fires — the planes would skim the water’s surface, then moments later release a torrent of water that they scooped up. It made for an entertaining distraction for a half-hour or so, as they circled over and over again repeating the maneuver.

Three of the four planes coming around to scoop up some water

One of the planes dropping its payload of water

Close-up of one of the planes


  • on July 20, 2007 -
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Florence and Pisa

Shortly after arriving at the port of Livorno, Italy at 7:00am, our ship’s tour to Florence and Pisa began. Our tour guide, Anja, was excellent, despite not being a native Italian (she is Dutch). The drive to Florence took about 90 minutes and we passed through the Tuscan countryside, and some mountains with marble quarries that make the sides of the mountains glisten white, almost as if they were snow-covered.

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

Once in the city of Florence (Fiorenze in Italian) we began a long walking tour. We first stopped at Piazza del Duomo, home to Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo) and the Baptistery of Florence. Santa Maria del Fiore is the third largest cathedral in the world (after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London). Anja pointed out there is only one cathedral per city, since a cathedral is where the bishop lives, the rest are churches. We did not have time to go into the church but the outside is quite impressive with Brunelleschi’s famous dome, Giotto’s bell tower, and the exterior covered with white, green, and pink marble. The dome dominates the entire skyline and is a symbol for Tuscany. The dome’s size caused no amount of architectural grief until Brunelleschi came up with a revolutionary solution to support the dome — until recently, the largest dome in the world.

The cathedral’s tall bell tower

Walking a short distance, we reached the Battistero (Baptistery) dedicated to St. John the Baptist. It is believed to be the oldest building in Florence and well known for it’s three sets of artistic bronze doors. The baptistery has eight equal sides to symbolize the “eight day”, the time of the Risen Christ. The first set of doors (South Doors) finished in 1336 depict scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist with the lower panels picturing the virtues. In 1401, a competition was announced to design the North Doors with Ghiberti winning the commission. It took him 21 years to complete those doors, 28 panels depicting scenes from the New Testament. After the completion of the North Doors, Ghiberti was considered a top artist in his field and was commissioned for the East Doors of the Baptistery. Ghiberti threw himself into his work, taking 27 years years to complete the doors. These doors contained panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament. Michelangelo referred to these doors as fit to be the “Gates of Paradise” and they are still referred to by this name today.

The doors of paradise

After Piazza del Duomo we walked to Piazza della Signoria, the political hub of the city since the Middle Ages. This square is filled with statues and various works of art, including a copy of Michelangelo’s David (the original is at the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts), Fountain of Neptune, and Cellini’s statue Perseus with the Head of Medusa.

From Piazza della Signoria it is a short walk to Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), the oldest and most famous bridge across the Arno. The bridge has been lined with overhanging shops since the 12th century, and until the 16th century it was home to butchers and tanners. When the duke moved into the new palace built across the river, the stench as he crossed the bridge daily was so awful he evicted the butchers and moved in the gold and silver smiths who still occupy the stores today.

The Ponte Vecchio

Our next stop, Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) was located at Piazza Santa Croce. While this square is dominated by the basilica, it is also filled with shopping opportunities for the tourist (really nice leather goods, clothes, souvenirs, etc). We were given the choice to either shop or enter the basilica (shoulders and knee covering required), it wasn’t a hard choice for us, though more than half the tour group opted out of visiting the basilica. It is the principal Franciscan church of Florence — legend says that Santa Croce was founded by St. Francis himself. The interior of the church is not as opulent as others we had seen on the tour. The gothic interior is tall and dark, rather reminiscent of a barn with its huge stone arches and wood beams, but filled with frescoes, funeral monuments, and tombstones. It is the burial place of some of the most illustrious Italians such as Michelangelo (his body had to be smuggled out of Rome to Florence when he died), Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini, so it is also known as the Pantheon of the Italian Glories.

Tomb of Galileo in the Basilica di Santa Croce

After an enormous fixed-meal lunch (two main courses per person, though we skipped the second) at a pre-arranged hotel, we drove back to the coast by way of Pisa. Unfortunately the tour we selected allowed for very limited time in Pisa, especially considering it was a 15 minute walk each way from the bus depot to the Field of Miracles. We took a few pictures, walked to the restrooms, and it was already time to return to the bus. The leaning tower is a very odd sight, especially since construction was altered to compensate for the tilt after the first three levels were built. The fourth level has longer columns on one side, to bring the rest of the tower closer to vertical, which makes the entire tower look bent in addition to crooked.

The leaning tower of Pisa and Duomo (Cathedral)

Our drive back to the ship was supposed to only take 30 minutes or so, but due to an accident in the port involving a tanker truck (we saw the truck laying on its side) we ended up being stuck on the on-ramp to the port for over an hour, along with many other tour buses and cargo trucks. We arrived back at the ship 45 minutes after the “all aboard” time, but of course the ship waited since all their tour passengers were in the same situation.


  • on July 19, 2007 -
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For our full-day tour of Rome on June 19th we were picked up by our driver, Roberto, at Civitavecchia Port just outside the ship. Due to the high cost of tours in Rome, we arranged in advance to share our tour with a family we met on CruiseCritic.com. which worked out great! The drive to Rome was almost an hour and there wasn’t much to see along the way.

The Arch of Constantine, in front of the Colosseum.

Our first stop was the Colosseum — originally called the Flavian amphitheater. It was built in 10 years, from 70 A.D. to 80 A.D, and seated more than 50,000 spectators ( 70,000 after the fourth level was added in the third century). It looked a lot different than in the movie Gladiator, mainly because the travertine marble stucco facade has worn away in many parts, exposing the brick inner structure. After it fell into disuse in the 7th century, the Colosseum became something of a “used parts store” as marble, iron, and other valuables were taken to construct new buildings, including the Vatican. The many small holes seen in the walls of the Colosseum are where the valuable iron bolts used to hold the marble blocks together were extracted from. Inside, we could see the underground cells where the gladiators and animals were kept and raised up into the arena during events. It was a very impressive building to visit — we wish we could have seen it in its original glory!

The Colosseum’s intact inner wall (right), and part of the remaining outer wall (left).

A short walk took us to the Forum and the Palatine. The Palatine was the palace of the emperors of Rome. It’s a very large place to explore, and made an equally impressive view as we drove by it on the highway since much of the exterior is still standing. On the way towards the Pantheon we passed Circus Maximus, the stadium for the chariot races. There is no structure left, only a large oval grassy area sloped on sides where concerts are now held.

Our next stop was the Pantheon, the best-preserved building of the Roman empire, probably because it has been in continuous use since being built in the first century. Originally used for Roman pagan religion, it was later converted to a Christian church. The building was in perfect condition, inside and out. The interior is completely circular and very beautiful. There is a large circular opening at the top of the dome, which allowed light and air in — there are no windows.

Interior of the Pantheon.

We drove past Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps. The Spanish Steps are simply a large stairway near the Spanish embassy. This area is considered very posh, akin to 5th Ave/Rodeo Drive. The Spanish Steps are used mostly as a social area where students hang out, especially at night. We couldn’t quite figure out why it’s a tourist attraction. We stopped at the Trevi Fountain for a brief, crowded, visit. The Trevi Fountain is a relatively recent addition to Rome, built in the mid-1700s, and is really large. Pictures don’t quite capture the scale of the statues, but you can see some people in the bottom-right of my photo to get some idea. The statues are intricate and very beautiful. Kathie would have loved to spend more time just staring at the Fountain but our schedule and the crowds made it impossible.

Trevi Fountain.

Next we headed towards Vatican city. Vatican City is the world’s smallest country with a population of 900. None of its citizens pay taxes but we suspect the tithing from Catholic churches around the world take care of the Vatican’s needs. The city is completely surrounded by a wall to mark its borders. Before starting our tour we grabbed a quick lunch in one of the small restaurants nearby.

Approaching the Vatican.

We met with our official tour guide before entering Vatican City. As with most of the European religious buildings we entered, shoulders and knees must be covered so we made sure to weat long pants and no tank-tops. The Vatican museum is an amalgam of all the works of art given to — or taken by — the popes over the years, including Roman relics that were excavated when the Vatican was built. The museum is immense – I have no doubt it would take a year to see all its treasures. To keep to our 2.5 hour schedule, our guide bypassed many pieces to show us the highlights. We were able to see gorgeous tapestries, statues that inspired Michaelangelo, frescoes, and paintings. Almost all the ceilings were beautifully painted, one room using a 3-D painting technique so the ceiling looked sculpted rather than flat. Much of the Vatican was built using existing marble from ancient Rome, including much of the original Colosseum.

The Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons being strangled by sea serpents sent by the Greek gods as punishment for attempting to warn the Trojans not to bring in the wooden horse. Early 1st century.

With the rest of the herd, we shuffled towards the Sistine Chapel where Michaelangelo worked for four years on the frescoes that described the story of Genesis in 9 scenes. He came back 25 years later to create the Last Judgment behind the high altar. The chapel is still used occasionally for baptisms or services, but only in special situations. The Chapel is quite breathtaking, the works of art are magnificent. Bringing binoculars is helpful in seeing the details of all the pieces but not a necessity. The chapel was extremely crowded and we’re all expected to keep a respectful silence. That’s almost impossible so the various guards were constantly shushing the crowds and making sure no one took photographs. It’s very easy to spend a lot of time at the Sistine Chapel just looking at each scene and all the details.

The Hall of Maps in the Vatican Museum

After the Sistine Chapel, we walked into St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. The dome was designed by Michelangelo, the bronze altar canopy by Bernini, and St. Peter’s contains Michelangelo’s Pieta, the marble statue of Mother Mary holding her sacrificed son, Jesus. Pieta is indescribably sad, the sorrow apparent throughout the entire piece. There are amazing mosaics that look just like paintings on several walls of the church.

Michelangelo’s Pieta, carved when he was 23 years old (1499).

After a very full day, we headed back to port and called it an early night!

Inside St. Peter’s Basilica


  • on July 18, 2007 -
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Few ancient cities are more famous than Pompeii. This bustling Roman city in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius was frozen in time when the volcano erupted in 79 A.D., killing all the inhabitants and burying the city under 30 feet of mud and ash. It lay relatively undisturbed until excavations began in 1748. While many of the buildings are in ruins like most other sites, what makes Pompeii different is that the infrastructure of the entire city is just as it was 2,000 years ago. Rather than seeing a fallen temple or a few homes, we got to see an entire Roman city, entering through the outer walls, walking the original streets, and picturing what life was like for the citizens there.

Detailed Pompeii excavation model created in the late 1800s. Now in the Naples Archaeological Museum.

We got up early (5:45am) so we could try to beat some of the crowds. Rather than book a tour we decided to visit Pompeii and the National Archaeological Museum in Naples on our own. After getting off the ship we started walking in the general direction of the Circumvesuviana train. We caught up to another couple doing the day on their own as well, so we joined them in search of the train station. We managed to purchase tickets, find our train (it runs every 30 minutes) and headed towards Pompei Scavi (excavation). The train was the loudest train we’ve ever been on. Listening to the constant screeching we were sure it was going to come off the tracks. Conversation on the train was impossible, but fortunately the trip only took about 20 minutes. When we got off and the train pulled away, it was almost completely silent from the outside — not sure how they managed that! We also noted that the graffiti on the trains and stations was the most beautiful, artistic graffiti we’ve seen anywhere.

Part of the Forum at Pompeii, with Mount Vesuvius looming above.

Once at the Pompeii site we used Rick Steves “Pompeii: A Guided Walk” to get an overview of the site and some of the more interesting areas. One of the disadvantages of viewing an entire ancient city is that not everything is particularly exciting – a 2,000 year old house is interesting… row after row of 2,000 year old houses lose their charm after a while! Approximately 75% of the city has been excavated so far and it’s quite extensive.

Porta Marina entrance to Pompeii

We entered through the Porta Marina, two large arched openings in the outer wall – a smaller walkway for pedestrians and a larger for chariots. Once inside, we followed the walking tour and visited the Temple of Apollo, the Forum, the roman baths, and the House of the Faun, Pompeii’s largest home with 40 rooms.

The Temple of Apollo and some of its 48 columns.

The streets of Pompeii, pictured below, were quite interesting. They had high curbs on either side, and water was continuously spilling into the roads from fountains at the highest parts of the city. The water would carry away any trash, keeping the city (but not necessarily the sea) clean. Tall stones were placed in the road at regular intervals to allow pedestrians to cross the street without getting wet, while chariots and wagons had large wheels that cleared the stones without difficulty.

The streets of Pompeii

Other highlights of the walking tour were the brothel, the Greek-built theater, the gladiator barracks, and the Temple of Isis with its shrine of holy water brought to Pompeii from the Nile to serve the Egyptian community of Pompeii. It’s expected that there was a Jewish synagogue in Pompeii as well, but it has not yet been uncovered. After a few hours of exploring, we needed to take the train back to Naples in order to spend some time at the National Archaeological Museum. We took the train to Naples’s main station, Piazza Garibaldi, then took the subway to the Piazza Cavour station. Once back on the street, Kathie asked a small store owner how to get to the Museum. He spoke no English (and why should he?), but we managed to figure each other out, and we found the museum with no problem.

“Statue Femminili” bronze statues from the 1st century A.D., in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

The museum holds most of the artifacts found at Pompeii and Herculaneum (a second city buried by Vesuvius’s eruption), as well as other historical items. The bronze statues and tile mosaics were most impressive, considering many are in nearly perfect condition. Not only is their condition impressive, but the mosaics are so detailed and the artwork is amazing. The museum also has a “secret” room showcasing the erotic mosaics, frescoes, and statues recovered from the ruins. We rented an audio guide system at the museum, which was very informative for those artifacts that had guide numbers posted, which was only about a quarter of the total. When we were finished for the day we walked the couple of miles back to the ship, getting a little bit lost but getting a good feel for the city of Naples.

Two of the many tile mosaics from Pompeii. Note the detail insert in the upper-right.