2010 March – Mediterranean Cruise

Day 1 – Houston to London to Rome:

We flew from Houston to London – a trip of almost 8 hours! We arrived there all jet-lagged but the moment we set foot in the city (we had a few hours before our flight to Rome), all tiredness vanished and we ran from post to pillar soaking in London!

Planning a trip to London? If so, then Madame Tussaud’s is a must see, to admire and take pictures with your favorite celebrities (Politics, Sports, Hollywood AND BOLLYWOOD). After spending a couple of hours there, we went to see the Buckingham Palace even though it was brrrrrrrr cold outside! We missed the Changing Of The Guards, but it is a must see at 11:30 AM.

Need fast and convenient transportation covering all of London? Then use London’s underground trains! 6 hours just flew and we rushed back to the airport in time to catch our flight to Rome, Italy. Because we reached past midnight, the train service had stopped. We had to grudgingly take a taxi to our downtown hotel. Finding a Burger King at 1 AM to feed the family in an unknown city was no walk in the park, but we managed.

Day 2 – Rome to Port Civitavecchia:

Rome is so full of history …. we boarded a tour bus and the first stop (OF COURSE!!) was the Colosseum! We spent about 2 hours there and then jumped back on the bus. This time it took us to a different a country…Vatican City !!! Since it was past noon we missed the Pope, but got to see his residence from the inside and outside.
The visit to St. Peter’s Basilica was the highlight, but the walk up the 762 steps to the top of the dome left us drained (I wonder if that is the Stairway to Heaven? :-). The view, however, … absolutely worth it. Because it was a Sunday, the entrance to the Sistine Chapel/Museum was closed… This was something that we grossly missed.

The Pantheon was not too far… It was awesome seeing the ancient Roman Temple from inside. Our last stop on the bus was the magnificent Trevi Fountain … pictures galore!! No trip to Rome is complete without sinking your teeth into their awesome gelatto….of course we indulged.

Later in the afternoon, we caught the train to the Port of Rome, Civitavecchia and boarded our cruise ship, Costa Pacifica after a bunch of misadventures…late train arrival, missed port bus, lost luggage, crying kid, and an almost missed ship – but whew, we made it in the nick of time.
So glad we took the balcony room – the rest of the evening was spent looking at the reflection of shining port lights in the dark blue sea.

Day 3 – Savona, Genoa (Italy):

The first night sailing was a lot of fun and uneventful. But we were happy to reach our very first port. Glad we took the balcony rooms so we could see the city all along as we pulled into various ports. Since we had already spent some time in Italy, and we wanted to add more countries to our repertoire, we decided to take the ship’s excursion tour to Monte Carlo and Monaco.

The 1.5 hour bus ride was a dream as we drove through the Italian countryside and then passed through France.

Monaco is famous for its princely castles. We saw the Changing of the Guards here at the prince’s residence, since we had missed it in London. The whole ceremony was very grand, as was evident by scores of people watching it. Luckily, we were at a higher level so we could also see the awesome view of the rest of Monaco alongside.

Monte Carlo is world famous for its Grand Prix race tracks, but we used our time walking around the gorgeous city. This is a perfect place for window shopping for people on a budget like us. 🙂 The little boutique restaurants offer a variety of cuisines, catering to all tastes. Too bad we didn’t get a chance to step out of the bus in France, either from or to Monaco/Monte Carlo.

Day 4 – Barcelona, Spain:

Even though the ship had various activities to do once we got back on board, looking forward to the next port was always the most exciting part. As we approached Barcelona, we could see the hustle bustle of the big city 2 hours before we docked. Large cruise ships dock at the largely industrial area of the waterfront.

We decided to explore the city on our own by walking to the main part of town and then taking buses/trains from there. A city of contrasts, it is like no other in Spain … this is most evident in its architecture, a marriage of Gothic spikes and modern curves.

Our first stop was the La Sagrada Familia… Barcelona’s funkiest church that was designed by Gaudi. The most unusual thing about it? It’s not finished yet! He began working on it in 1883 and designed intriguing features such as the bell towers, covered in Venetian mosaics, and the nativity-themed facade, with doorways representing faith, hope and charity.It is supposed to be getting done in 2016.
From there we took the train to Parc Guell which is a pleasant public park overlooking the city … a maze of tropical flowers and colorful accents. The entrance is guarded by a mosaic lizard and two fanciful gatehouses (one of which houses a souvenir shop). Also designed by Gaudi.
Wish we had the time to do the Pilgrimage to Montserrat or “The Serrated Mountain” … over 4,000 ft. high – it is an exquisite setting for the monastery. Maybe next time!

A word of warning: Barcelona is notorious for pickpockets. Leave valuables in your hotel or cruise cabin safe, and carry credit cards and cash in a very, very safe place. We had a bad experience with that!

Day 5 – Palma De Mallorca, Balearic Islands:

Who would have thought of going to Balearic Islands otherwise, but thanks to it being on the itinerary of our ship, we ended up there the next morning. Our cruise line offered a shuttle from the port to a central point in town near the Cathedral in Palma de Mallorca, the capital of Spain’s Balearic Islands. It was a delightful cross between the Arabian Nights and the Renaissance. Because there is so much history so close together, it’s a perfect port to explore on foot. The snaky, narrow streets hold many surprises — including the occasional dead end.

In the middle of the city, Sa Seu, Palma’s cathedral is a breathtaking Gothic structure that combines vastness and elegance. Viewed from below from the Parc de la Mar, it appears to rise mountain-like from its surroundings. This magnificent church is the center of the oldest and most historic part of town, and overlooks the Parc de la Mar, a picturesque seaside park with a small lake and panoramic views of the Mediterranean. For shopping, any locally made handicraft from the wood of the olive tree is recommended … these are unusual and unique to the area; but we chose some Majorca pearls ☺

Day 6 – Tunis, Tunisia:

Tunis is the major North African gateway to the Roman and Punic ruins of Carthage. We took a guided excursion to the city of Tunis, about eight miles from the port, that included attractions like Carthage and Sidi Bou Said.
Carthage, founded by the Phoenicians in the ninth century B.C., was destroyed by the Romans after three wars and then rebuilt to become one of Rome’s most intriguing provincial capitals. The ruins are scattered, and a modern residential neighborhood has been built over most of the area. It’s lovely with lush gardens and obviously expensive homes — one of the nicest places to live in Tunisia. We were awed by the city’s ancient Roman baths, cisterns, and basilicas. Be sure to visit the theater and amphitheater as well.

The village of Sidi Bou Said clings to the hillside above the blue sea, with it’s ultra-uniqueness of all charming white-washed and blue-shingled houses. No wonder it has inspired so many poets and artists. The village, which was once a major summer resort, features a main street/souk that is awash with small shops selling typical souvenirs like magnets as well as pretty ceramics, leather goods and bird cages. Souk shopping was confusing … haggling is second nature here and you should never pay the first price you’re given.

Day 7 – Valletta, Malta:

This tiny Mediterranean country is actually part of an archipelago of five islands, only three of which are inhabited (the other two are Gozo and Comino). But it’s the island of Malta and the port of Valletta (designed by a colleague of Michelangelo) at which our cruise ship called. The country, which has 7,000 years of intriguing history behind it, is fully modernized and contemporary.

Filled with shops, restaurants and bars, the Valletta Waterfront is a destination for local residents. On any given day there might be a festival of some sort or another, or musical performances: for example, a jazz band conclave or a classical recital. One of the main attractions there is the Upper
Barracca Gardens
… we took some time to explore the gardens located at the edge of the Valletta shopping and dining area. The bluff-side location offers an incredible vista over the harbor and across to the Three Cities on the other side. The gardens themselves are peaceful and beautiful, and offer shady respites from the Mediterranean summer heat.

The other main attraction in Malta is the making of the Gozo Glass… a specialty made on the island of Gozo but sold in better shops throughout Malta. These silky, swirly and opaque glass creations use centuries of artistic skills passed from one artisan to another. There are guided tours available where the artisan can walk you through the process of actually making it’s artifacts.

Day 8 – Catania, Sicily:

As we neared the end of our cruise, we made our final stop at this important port. From here, we took an excursion to drive up the coast to visit Taormina, with breathtaking views of Mt Etna (It has erupted several times since!)

First Greeks, then Romans used this as a place of worship and reward. The best part was viewing the temples and the theater, Mt. Etna in the distance, and taking a stroll along the beautiful city of Taormina.

A visit to the Greek Amphitheater, with the view of the foreboding Mt. Etna in the background, is highly recommended.
Enough of the sightseeing, let’s take a stroll to some pastry shops since we are in the land of Pastas, Pastries and Gelatto.

5 Favorite things about the trip:

  1. London – so much to do and see, so bustling with life! Not even part of the cruise, but we really enjoyed the city.
  2. Rome & Vatican City – plan for LOTS of time there
  3. Monaco and Monte Carlo – beautiful blue Mediterranean views and classy cities
  4. Barcelona – Amazing architecture, Las Ramblas street… a city full of LIFE!!!!
  5. Taormina, Sicily – for its beauty, food and Mt. Etna.

Some Don’ts or recommendations:

  • The availability of food on the cruise ship was a bit of a disappointment, especially having been on an American cruise line earlier, with food flowing everywhere at all hours.
  • The itinerary of the cruise ship was great – especially in that it touched countries like Sicily and Tunisia and Malta – none of which were on our bucket list
  • Definitely plan more time in Rome – it’s an awesome city. 1 day is nowhere close to doing justice
    to the city
  • The performances on the Cruise Ship were magnificent…. plenty of magic shows and dances, plays, movies and casinos galore.
    • For kids there is the Squak Club – kids get a chance to be kids there. They play games, watch performances and get to perform dances that are choreographed by the crew! 
    • For teens there is the Teen Club – not really sure what happened there because there were no teens in our group – YET!

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