Cruising the Mediterranean, my adventures around Europe

This is the well-overdue overview of a two-week Mediterranean cruise with my mom and dad. Spain, France, Italy and Croatia— all places I’d never been. Here’s the day-by-day play-by-play.

DAY 1: Barcelona, Spain (Monday, October 15, 2012) A crazy travel day that began at 10am the day before (Sunday) when I was called out of bed in a panic. “OUR FLIGHT’S BEEN CANCELLED, WE HAVE TO LEAVE NOW!!!” Our flight out of Raleigh wasn’t supposed to be until 5pm, but when it was cancelled, our only other option was an immediate one. On this leg of the trip, we had no time to spare. Our adventures in Barcelona were planned for the end of the trip, and this leg we were flying all day and all night Sunday and were going straight to the ship Monday morning from the Barcelona airport. Thank God we had already packed our bags. We were out of the door in 15 minutes and were able to make the only other flight to Spain that day. DAY 2: Cannes, France (Tuesday, October 16, 2012) Our first port of call was Cannes, France (the French Riviera), home of the Cannes Film Festival. We walked the waterfront with cafés to our left and yachts to our right. We went along the winding roads uphill, headed for the market. A beautiful market—not like any of the third-world markets I am used to—where everyone was selling fancy cheese, plump grapes, and other goods. It was a beautiful sight. I was especially taken by a cute elderly couple at their stand. We kept trucking along uphill, and we eventually made it to the crest of the hill and our main destination: a  fortified tower and Chapel of St. Anne that houses the Musée de la Castre and has beautiful panoramic views of the city and the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, with our huge cruise ship tendered in the Sea. Dad and mom had their espresso drinks and then we went to the ship for lunch and to grab my bathing suit. When we went back into the port town, I headed to the beach to find some peace of mind. I wrote in my journal and then set the timer on the camera to get a shot of my butt on the beach.



DAY 3: Livorno, Italy to Florence, Italy (Wednesday, October 17, 2012) On this cruise, I’m not sure if it was an unsaid pact that mom, dad and I agreed upon, but we unanimously decided to not take any cuise-offered “excursions.” We were going to do adventurous tours on our own, which was by far the best thing for us to do. We packed much more into our schedules doing only what we wanted to do when we wanted to do it, and we did it for much cheaper. We didn’t hang around the Italian port city of Livorno this day (the Tuscan region of Italy). Instead, we followed the precise directions of our Italian waiter from the cruise’s lunch buffet the previous day in the Windjammer Café. According to him, we were to take the cruise-offered shuttle bus to the center of Livorno, then walk a few blocks to a bus stop and take public transport to the train station. From there, we would buy tickets to Florence and an hour later, we would arrive in perhaps my favorite city in Italy. Florence is a photographers playground. I took so many pictures. I saw the world’s second largest church (only after Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Cathedral (The Basilica) in Rome, which we saw later). The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore took 140 years to complete, and it is capable of holding 3,000 people. It’s green and while striped, very unusual and very photogenic. I’ve seen a lot of churches traveling and I’m hardly ever impressed (sad, I know, it even sounds sacrilegious). I just think that churches always seem to look alike. But this church was so original: the stripes made it look like it could belong in the game Candyland (another reason why I probably loved it so much).



We passed the Baptistry, famous for its three bronze gates (doors) known as the “Gates of Paradise.” Then we went to Piazza Della Signoria, Florence’s largest square that represents its historical and commercial center. Here we found Neptune Fountain and a copy of Michelangelo’s statue of David.



Then we walked across the famous bridge Ponte Vecchio, which was beautiful despite the murky-colored water beneath it. This is the oldest bridge remaining in Florence and it’s lined with goldsmiths’ shops. The bridge itself looked like it was straight from a painting with these old shutters over the windows that spanned all the way across the river on the bridge… I had gelato (2 flavors: coconut and hazelnut), it was ok. I had pizza (to-go to avoid the cover charge for sitting at a table), it looked American.  I really enjoyed the full day of walking (more than 12,000 steps!). The train was fun to navigate too. The whole day was quite exhilarating! And exhausting!

 Once we got back to the ship, we turned the TV to the prerecorded cruise channel that tells us about our ports of call— sights to see and things we should know. Too bad we didn’t turn it on BEFORE we left for Florence, because we learned nearly everything the TV warned us about in Italy, only we learned them all the hard way. For instance, riding the train, we got a fine because no one told us buying our train tickets was not enough, you have to VALIDATE your ticket with this automatic machine by the platform that stamps the time on the ticket for you. We also learned that Italian restaurants charge a cover fee for eating at a table in the restaurant. If you take your food to-go, no cover. Lucky for us, our waitress told us about this in advance since we all weren’t even eating. I was the only one ordering food (pizza), and all three of us would have to pay covers which would double our bill. The only thing we did not learn the hard way would have been the most devastating lesson to learn. There are a lot of illegal knockoff Italian-made designer items on the street (Gucci, Prada, etc). If you are found purchasing any of these fakes (which my mom did), there is a 10,000 Euro fine to deter the black market and keep people buying the REAL stuff. That was a good lesson to NOT learn the hard way. Needless to say, mom kept the purse in her luggage til we got back to the States.
DAY 4: Civitavecchia, Italy to Rome, Italy (Thursday, October 18, 2012) We took a shuttle to the port town of Civitavecchia (ie: “old city” in Latin — civita=city, vecchia=old) and were greeted by a tour guide service to Rome just as we had hoped. We agreed upon a 6-person private van to tour for the entire day (because, when in Rome….). I befriended 3 Peruvian ladies on the shuttle bus that joined us. I’ve actually been to city where the Peruvian girls are from: Arequipa, with views of the beautiful snowcapped volcano El Misti and a convent that I photographed for hours upon hours. The girls and I became instant friends and I was speaking Spanish all day long. Lucky for all of us, our Italian tour guide was fluent in both English and Spanish so he translated everything he said for both groups. Duccio was an amazing guide that wore us out taking us to nearly all the sights in Rome and amazing us with all kinds of historical facts. We went to the Basilica in Vatican City (apparently, the Vatican is its own country). There was an enormous line that wrapped all the way around this huge square in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral (ie: St. Peter’s Square, which is surrounded by massive white columns). There may have been 4,000+ people waiting in this line to get into the basilica. But we had a tight schedule, this was only our second stop of the morning. We had no time for a 4,000 person line, so Mom and I kind of weaseled our way in toward the first half of the line (per suggestion by our guide Duccio who was waiting at the van for when we were ready to hit the next sight). It only took us 10 minutes to get in! The sweet Peruvians didn’t cut in line and didn’t get inside. When in Rome, is all I have to say… Inside St. Peter’s Basilica, I saw the famous statue of Mary holding Jesus after he was crucified, all limp in her arms, which is the only piece of art that Michelangelo signed. He apparently murdered someone and was friends with the pope so instead of being put to death, the pope said Michelangelo could live and work (ie: make art for him) for the rest of his life. Later we went to Michelangelo Square where there were soooooo many sculptures he made, all these David-like naked men at the tops of buildings, etc.
Michelangelo Square with all the David-like naked man sculptures on top of the building
The Basilica: inside and out
The group: me, the 3 Peruvians (Rossyn, Roxana, Silvana, mom, dad)
Our awesome tour guide, Duccio
Rome was so crazy. I mean, I definitely don’t pretend to be a history buff because I don’t know nada de la historia, but Rome was this crazy ancient city of “ruins” that look so completely developed, more developed than our architecture today. It was insane.
I saw the Colosseum, perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the power of the Roman Empire (providing violent amusement and entertainment for the people of Rome.) Its construction started in 72 AD, can you believe that? Over 9,000 wild animals were killed during the inaugural games of this iconic amphitheater.  It is estimated that no less than 700,000 died through the course of almost 450 years for this “entertainment.” So sick. It’s weird taking your smiling picture in front of something with such a horrific history, but that’s what all the tourists do, including us.
Trevi Fountain is another recognizable sight in Rome. Commissioned by Pope Clement XII in 1730 by a competition, the Roman architect Nicola Salvi won the contest and constructed the fountain in the Baroque style. I forgot to toss a coin in the fountain, which I’m told means I’ll never return to Rome.
After snapping a shot by the fountain, we got gelato again, this time pistachio and this time much more delicious.
 
We got lost and had to call our guide with the cell phone he provided us with. We drove past the Spanish Steps but decided not to get out because you couldn’t even SEE the steps because there were so many people there standing on them. The Pantheon, a temple to honor ALL Roman gods. It has an open dome inside and nearly 1,500 years after its construction, Michelangelo was impressed by the Pantheon, which I guess says a lot. I filled my water bottle from a constant-flowing artesian well in a parking lot. We had homemade pasta for lunch. We did it all.
On our hour-long drive back to the port city of Civitavecchia, I tried taking pictures of the amazing landscape from the van’s third row seat: olive trees, grapes/vineyards (HUGE grapes), tall cypress trees and colorful Tuscan houses on the rolling hills. Gorgeous.
Cruise life: at this time in the trip, we had not yet taken advantage of all the things the ship had to offer. But of course we HAD taken part in the food. We enjoyed (some more than others) our breakfast buffet at the crack of dawn and all of us adored our fancy three-course dinners with our nightly tablemates: a British family of three (mom, dad, son) and young Australian couple. We finally went on a tour around the ship  to see what the heck it had to offer. We found putt putt, the rock climbing wall, a “solarium” pool that’s inside glass and so warm, an outdoor pool, the nightclub on the front of the ship on the top (13th) floor with all glass windows/walls, among some other amazing things. So this night, I dragged mom and dad to the solarium pool and we relaxed in the hot tub. It was SO nice! We all enjoyed it after another long day of walking and exploring.
DAY 5: Salerno, Italy (Friday, October 19, 2012)
After taking a shuttle from the ship to this beautiful port city, we were greeted by people offering tours and open air chu-chu train rides for tourists around downtown.
I immediately spotted the word FREE on one of the posters a young girl was holding: “We are volunteering for our city. Free walking tour.” We asked them for directions to the market; they hesitated. “The market? That’s not really what we’d suggest as the local life here, but we can take you there if you wish.” We decided to take these 2 girls up on their free walking tour, and we also let the destinations up to them, since they’re the locals — born and raised. And good thing we did.
The girls about died when I told them (actually mom told them, as she does to everyone we meet) that I am a photojournalist. Not only do I have my dream job, but I apparently have both of their dream jobs too. Their names were Meri and Giulia (Julie). Giulia had miniature camera earrings (they were so cute!). They spoke impeccable English and took us all around Salerno, gems we would have never found on our own. And we walked all day long.
First we walked down the waterfront boardwalk, which was a beautiful sidewalk that still had grassy railroad tracks flush with the sidewalk and a line of palm trees on either side.
They pointed out the absolute best place to get ice cream (ie: gelato). This was right after breakfast so we held off on getting gelato til our way back to the ship and boy was that a learning experience and a treat! They also told us to get pizza for lunch, as Salerno is one of the best places to get the freshest mozzarella. Those details to come later too.
We walked down the narrow streets of the old town, with lots of beautiful Christmas decorations that just got put up (the mayor of Salerno loves Christmas, just as my experience in Nicaragua where the president had Christmas trees set up all around Managua year-round). I love Christmas too!
I bought two articles of clothing, mom and dad got their espresso fix. We went to a gorgeous church where St. Matthew was buried (ie: the book of Matthew). Downstairs, we went to the crypt, which was even more beautifully ornate than the main level of the church.
Oh, these narrow streets and building facades were incredible, every time I turned my camera off, I’d just have to turn it back on to take another. We kept walking up, up, up. Eventually we got to some botanical gardens that had a very minimal fee to enter. Once we did, we were wowed by great overlooks of the city and the very blue Mediterranean Sea. The botanical gardens were spread out over four stories. Very beautiful.
After walking back down to the main road, we said bye to our wonderful tour guides (this is after several hours of sightseeing with them) and they left us at the downtown park, which was being decorated with recycled artwork/sculptures for Christmas. Nearly everything was made out of colored plastic soda bottles, but colors we don’t have in the States: pink, green, red…
Louie, what are you doing in Italy???
After the park, we had three objectives: pizza, espresso and gelato. For lunch we had margarita pizza (fresh mozzarella, basil and tomato sauce). It was yummy, and only 5 euros fed us all. But then dad wanted just one more slice and orders a whole other pizza and we couldn’t finish it.
Next, we found Neptune’s, the best place with the best gelato that the walking tour girls pointed put to us in our first five minutes together. Dad befriended the jefe of Neptune’s, a big man in a striped apron standing by the espresso machine. Though neither of them spoke a lick of the other’s language, they were smiling and laughing the whole time. Dad had a double espresso (explaining DOUBLE expresso is always difficult to begin with) and then Dad sees an Italian walk in, order a shot of espresso, and take it like a liquor shot—all in one quick swig. Dad was amused so he orders another single shot in a shot glass and tries to take it like the other man. Too hot, but the crema on top of the espresso was beautiful and taller than I had ever seen.
Oh, did I mention that the gelato was divine? As we stood and ate our gelatos, the Italians started pouring in (I guess they all just woke up from their siestas). They all ordered the same thing: a huge round hamburger bun filled with a TON of gelato. I guess that’s the Italian’s version of an ice cream sandwich! We couldn’t believe our eyes– hamburger buns with gelato spread inside. Crazy!
The big espresso man saw our wide eyes and decided to teach us another Italian tradition. He just smiles at dad as he plops a spoonful of gelato into Dad’s empty espresso cup and then pulls a few drops of espresso from the huge silver machine and signals for dad to taste the mixture. This place, and man, were good finds.
By this time, it was time to head back to the ship, so we said “ciao” to Salerno and hopped on the shuttle. What a great day!
Since the next day was a day at sea, everyone was ready to partayyy! The next day, we could sleep in for the first time! But after our fun day in Salerno, we got to our room and were pooped and we had just enough time for a nap before dinner at 6. Mom, dad and I laid down, but I felt like we were probably going to miss out on some fun ship activities. So I went on our balcony and looked at the schedule of ship events. Fun dance class, rock climbing… Hmmm, I decided to push through my sleepiness. When I told mom and dad I was going out, they decided to do the same. Dad went to the gym and mom and I decided to go learn some line dances (the electric slide, the wobble, cupid’s shuffle and the cha cha song). It was a fun workout, then dad met us at the rock climbing wall. I was ready to conquer it too. I did four different courses, out of ten or so, and it was really fun and even more of a workout than the dancing. My shoulders and forearms were sore— I even had trouble cutting my steak later.
Fun on our private balcony at sunset just before dinner…
Just be warned. The back of this shirt says SUCKS.
New pants, new scarf (from Salerno, Italy)
Dinner in the fancy dining room was delicious as always, and our waiter Alvin hilarious as always. The entertainment in the theater for the night was an incredible pianist from Transylvania who played the piano with his whole body. He was a crazy character who also played an instrument he invented, which I cannot even begin to explain… It involved an outfit with balls and whistles near his joints that he would squeeze between his elbows or kick his shin to squeeze the balls which would inevitably blow the whistles. If that makes any sense. I assumed that description wouldn’t make any sense, so I shot a video of it (not posted on this blog though).
After the show, we danced all night long to 50s and 60s music in the centrum, which is the center of the ship, a circular open lobby with a dance floor where bands play periodically and other events take place. This is on the fourth floor, where the dining room is, but all floors above it (up to deck 13) are open and overlook the centrum (including the clear elevators). We didn’t get to bed til 12:45am (yes, including dad) and we didn’t wake up on Saturday until 10:45am (yes, including dad).
DAY 6: At Sea (Saturday, October 20, 2012)
Even though sea days are supposed to be relaxing, I barely had time to eat between the pool, the sexiest man competition, three different dance classes (line dances DJs always play at weddings, ballroom rumba and salsa). I didn’t eat lunch til 4pm so there was no way I could go to our normal dining seating at 6pm. Instead, we went to the first showtime at 7pm, which was incredible. The show was called “Vibe•ation” and the cruise staff’s dancers, singers and costumes were so impressive. The show was basically an overview of the music age from the 50s til the 90s. I wish I had taken my camera… I was taking pictures and videos on mom’s tiny digital camera the whole time.
After the show we hung out in the centrum where our British dinnermates were participating in another “name that tune” competition called “if you know it sing it” or something. They’d have to race to the microphone in the center of the dance floor and say the name of the song that they’d play. Then if they got it right, they’d get extra points for how many people would get up and dance to the first 30-45 seconds of the song. It was entertaining.
Then mom, dad and I went to the second dining room seating at 8:30. We still sat at our same table with good ol’ Alvin as our waiter but sat with new dinner mates: a different (older) British couple who were quite ornery and a nice South African Christian couple who also bowed their heads together to pray at every meal like us.
I don’t THINK we stayed out partying because the following two days were were going to be in Venice.
DAY 7: Venice, Italy (Sunday, October 21, 2012)

Our first of two days in Venice. A regatta (boat race) was going on  in Venice so our water taxi from the ship had to drop us kind of far from the center of Venice, and we had to walk to the center, which was supposed to take 20 minutes, but probably took us 2+ hours because we were stopping in every store and taking pictures at every bridge…
In the four foot wide allies, I passed a Murano glass ball ornament (everyone should know I collect hanging glass balls by now) that I fell in love with. It was super duper expensive, so I passed it up but at the end of the day, I found my way back and bought it.
We walked a ton, there are no cars in Venice. The streets are water, so we crossed lots of bridges including the famous one, Ponte Rialto. We bought lots of things and had a terrible, very expensive lunch.
There were moments of massive crowds, and at other times we were the only ones in the allies. We saw lots of gondolas, but did not take one. Just mainly took pictures of buildings, flower boxes in windows, cafes, gondolas going under bridges, colored doors, etc.
We barely paused all day. Since the ship had open seating for dinner our first night in Venice, there was no rush to get back by 6pm. We stayed til 8pm so we could see Venice in the dark. San Marcos Square in the dark was visually less impressive than I thought it would be. It was hardly lit, but the sounds of the church bells were enchanting.
San Marcos Square (Doge’s Palace) in the daytime. 
San Marcos Square at night = romantic
At 8pm we hopped onto the water taxi, now from San Marcos Square since the regatta was over. Mom and I went to dinner in the dining room just before closing but dad was tired and wasn’t interested in a 2-hour dinner production so he headed up to the buffet and then went straight to bed.
DAY 8: Venice, Italy to Burano and Murano (Monday, October 22, 2012)
After our first water taxi from the ship to Venice’s main piazza (San Marcos Square), we walked clear across Venice by means of narrow streets and bridges until we got to the place we could buy a 12-hour ferry pass (Fondamente Nove).
We took the ferry to the island of Burano, a picturesque fishing village where all the houses are painted different fun colors. The houses are painted neon colors, pastels, everything. The houses used to match the color of the household’s fishing boat. They painted them all different colors because the fishermen would come back at night in the fog and dark, and to prevent them from accidentally getting in bed with the wrong woman, they’d look for their house color that would stand out from the dark. It was a cute town. We ate much cheaper than our first day in Venice: panini, cannoli, free plums I pocketed from the breakfast buffet, cheap as dirt espresso, etc.
After the fishing village of Burano we got on another ferry/water taxi and went to Murano (where the best Venetian glass is made). I was in hog heaven with amazing blown glass shops and galleries in every storefront. I really enjoyed Murano more than Venice and Burano. It was much quieter and had less people. No mass crowds walking like machines from tourist destination #1 to tourist destination #2. The canal water didn’t smell funny, it was cleaner, and the buildings were gorgeous (well, I guess everywhere the buildings have been gorgeous). Plus, blown glass everywhere. It was incredible.
The sun became lower in the sky, and everything turned golden. The blue water canals turned pink as they reflected the sunlight. The shadows became long and exaggerated.
We came across another ferry stop in Murano so we didn’t have to backtrack to where we came from, which was nice. But then we got sucked into one final gallery, the cream of the crop. The glass plate in the window that drew us in looked African in color and design. Small glass sticks (the size of pencils) with patterns inside are sliced and then fused onto the plate, with hundreds of tiny circle beads making incredible spirals, etc. The price tag for this oversized plate/piece of art? 4,000 euro. A man in coat and tie approached us. He was the designer of all these works, and he offered to show us the back where his worker bees were blowing his designs. Then he took us upstairs, which was filled with chandeliers, lamps, vases, anything and everything imaginable. He would put these huge vases on a stand with a light inside and he would turn the lights off and show us how the piece changed in different light and he would rotate it all around so the projections would dance on the wall. Mom kept picking bigger and bigger pieces. Dad knew she was digging us into a deep hole.
Finally, the three of us fell in love. “Would this work on our dining room table?” The man informed us this was no dining room table piece of art. “Can you put flowers in the vase?” dad asked. The man again informed us that this was not a vase, it was a piece of art. Indeed it was. It really was. The price tag was extra proof too. 3,500 euro (that’s like $6,000). It was lovely to look at, but I really didn’t understand why we were still looking at it. I guess everyone has the right to dream. The man cut us a deal: 3,200 euro. Then lastly, 2,500 euro. Maybe MAYBE $2,500, but not euros. When we said no, he quickly turned the lights off so we were in the pitch dark and he shooed us out. Out we went— ciao! We grabbed a cookie, espresso, and cappuccino (need I say who ordered what?) and we caught our ferry all the way back to San Marco Square. Our Venetian extravaganza finally to an end. And with good timing too. We made it in our cruise’s ABSOLUTE LAST water taxi offered, and there were only 3 other stragglers as late as us on it. Had we considered that vase—I mean art piece— five minutes longer, we would have been in deep Venetian you know what.
The sunset on the water taxi from Murano to mainland Venice…
Checking out my Venetian mask in our room on the ship right before the masquerade ball
DAY 9: Ravenna, Italy (Tuesday, October 23, 2012)
The city of mosaics and terrible complimentary maps.
We went on a stroll with no destination in mind, only any chance for me to catch a few bars of wifi to send/receive emails. Even with no destination in mind, we couldn’t find where we were on the map, we’d ask for directions and the locals would look at the map like “What is this?” We eventually made our way to some church/museum and got a better map with ALL the streets on it. Now we were talkin. I found a nice setting in the place and snapped a group shot of mom, dad and I (below).
We decided since we were in Ravenna, the city famous for its mosaics (found in the churches), we would head to one of them. When we got there, we realized you had to pay to get in to see the mosaics in the church. And you couldn’t pay to just get in ONE church, there was only one price, and that price was to get in ALL the churches. So, it was settled. We were on a church hunt, with hardly any time to spare since we started four hours later than the rest of our shipmates. We had a ticket that was good for four or five churches, and we needed to get all of them stamped to get our money’s worth! Finally, a purpose to our wandering!
In the end, I’m glad we got to see the mosaics in the churches. They were incredible.
DAY 10: Split, Croatia (Wednesday, October 24, 2012)
Split is a beautiful sun-drenched city on the Adriatic Sea.
Mom went around ooing and aweing at all things Czech-like. Every old lady with grey braided hair on her head mom would say, “She looks like my grandmother!!!” When we saw a sign for “kolache,” mom would talk about the delicious desserts she grew up eating. I had no idea Croatia was so close to the Czech Republic.
Croatia was much different than all the other places we visited on this cruise. The people seemed hardier, more weathered. The distant mountains looked arid. It seemed like another world, though there were Roman ruins. Apparently, the paradise of Split was no secret to the Romans.  Roman emperor Diocletian built a palace in preparation for his retirement in 305 AD. We walked around Diocletian’s Palace, and dad and I went up a LOT of stairs to the top of the bell tower to get a better view of the terra-cotta roofs and deep blue sea. Mom didn’t do the hike because of her recent hip replacement.
We found the market, which was fun for people watching and picture taking.
While mom shopped, dad got a massage. He said it was perhaps the best massage he’s ever had. This skinny girl had so much strength and really put his back and neck back into a good place. As he sipped on his espresso (lunch), his cheeks were signs of his relaxation. I messily ate my chocolate covered croissant (lunch).
Then we made one last walk down the waterfront, an impeccably clean walkway shaded by palm trees.
DAY 11 & 12: At Sea (Thursday & Friday, October 25 & 26, 2012)
Busy days filled with dancing lessons, eating, dancing, me judging the belly-flop competition, incredible shows, formal dinners, towel animal surprises from our housekeeper Leon, rock climbing, dancing, eating, rock climbing, sunsets, etc….
DAY 13 & 14: Barcelona, Spain (Saturday & Sunday, October 27 & 28, 2012)
What happened in Barcelona, stays in Barcelona. Just kidding. This will come in another blog post. Stay tuned.