Jerusalem Journals

Eastern Mediterranean Cruise and Tour with Madrid Extension

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An October 2010 trip to Jerusalem by Mark Gokingco

Photo of Rome, Italy More Photos
Quote: I'm documenting my trip for my Eastern Mediterranean Cruise and Tours on the Celebrity Equinox. The trip included stops in Rome, Ephesus (Kusadasi), Athens (Piraeus), Haifa and Ashdod (Jerusalem) Israel, Alexandria (Cairo) Egypt, Sicily, Naples and including my stop over at Madrid, Spain.

PREPARATION

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PREPARATION - 13-Night Holy Land Cruise on Celebrity Equinox (Oct. 5 Sailing)I’m not a rich guy and even though I work for one of the largest online travel agencies in the world, the common misconception is that we go on these trips for free. Well, that is simply not the case. We have to pay for all our personal trips and though you hear we get discounts, the majority of the discounts are off the RACK rates or the highest available retail rates so in most cases, the internet sale rates that any consumer can get online tends to be cheaper. I had to save up for more than 2 years for this trip and like any major investment; I wanted to make sure my entire trip is as flawless and as enjoyab...Read More
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A couple of things I did for security before I left the U.S. to protect myself in the unlikely event that something happened like I get pick pocketed or I lost my passport.1. I took my smartphone and its camera and took photos of my credit cards that I was bringing (both sides so you have the collect call number of each credit card company) and emailed it to myself. 2. I took a very legible photo of my passport on my smartphone both the outside and the first page (where my photos and details are) and again, emailed them to myself.Why my smart phone camera as oppose to a regular camera? I signed up for an unlimited plan on my phone before I left. My smart phone ...Read More

A note on how I decided to travel

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Story/Tip

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For my 13-Night Holy Land Cruise on Celebrity Equinox (Oct. 5 Sailing), you're not just going to hang around the ship or just grab cabs from the port. Going to harder to reach places like Israel and Egypt tends to be a bit scary at first so I took the easy way out and decided to purchase a fairly luxurious cruise and arrange for organized tours. It isn’t the cheapest way but it is a "safe" way to go at the time I booked it. What I mean about "safe" - if you are reading this and you carry a U.S. Passport, the things you worry about is security, terrorist attacks, getting kidnapped, killed and so on. In fact, I was planning to take this cruise with a few of my friends but they backed out because the...Read More

Options on Tours from Cruises

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ORGANIZED TOURS OR ESCORTED TOURS IN GENERAL - Now I’m one of those people that like organized tours for several reasons but the main reason is because one of the positions I held in Travelocity was to work with Escorted Tour operators like Trafalgar, Collette, Globus, Cosmos, General Tours etc. and knowing each company and how it operates including how each of these organize tours for destinations across the board plus personally taking about a half dozen of them in the past, I believe until today that it is the most economical and overall easiest way to see the city or destination for the first time without wasting time. Now I know some of you like the idea of doing things on your own which is fine...Read More
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– Booking it is very easy. If you want to book it ahead of time prior to boarding, you can do so online or over the phone if you prefer. Online is easier… simply go through the cruise company website, pay the full amount and guarantee yourself a seat in the bus. Yes, you have to pay the entire amount of the excursion and if you need to cancel, you can cancel 48 hours prior to the excursion and you will get a credit back to the credit card you booked it with or a credit in your shipboard account. Doing it online will guarantees you a seat on the bus. Some popular excursions sell out and won’t be available online once a certain amount of seats are sold. For example, the tour I wanted to book in At...Read More
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PORT PROMOTIONS – The online travel agency I work for offers shore excursions which is sponsored by a company called Port Promotions. Basically, the company offers pickup and return to the ship for each destination and guarantees your return to the ship on-time or they will arrange for you to catch up to the ship on their expense. (Either they fly you to the destination and put you up on hotels etc. to get you back on board the next port of call). They offer the same or similar popular organized tours for each destination. http://www.portpromotions.com/tvl/index.phpADVANTAGES: 1) the biggest advantage is that they tend to have small group as oppose to the big buses of 50 people or so. ...Read More

Option 3 - Arrange a Private Tour

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You may have to do some research and Googling but PRIVATE TOURS – My opinion is that it is the BEST way to go. You combine the flexibility of independent traveling with a guaranteed itinerary with the comfort of personal service. Private tours typically pick you up and drop you off at the cruise terminal with either a private car or van, with just a driver and a personal tour guide. ADVANTAGES: 1) having a private tour guide is PHENOMENAL and the most recommended way to go. The guides are not only knowledgeable of the destination but will have everything pre-arranged for you before arrival from purchasing tickets in major sites to the hotel accommodations (if needed) and of course, sin...Read More

Day 1: Arrival at Rome, Italy

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The port which the ship leaves in is called Civitavecchia (pronounced Chi-tah-ve-kia) just in case you can't pronounce it and you get lost, you'll know how to pronounce it in Italian. We decided to purchase the Celebrity transfer because we didn’t want to get have the hassle of trying to figure out train schedules, taking an expensive cab ride or even a private company’s transfer. From my research prior to the departing, it was my understanding the cheapest way is to take the train from Rome Airport (FCO) to Rome Termini Rail Station then to Civitavecchia (approximately a 40 minute drive from Rome) train station. From there you must find your way to the cruise ship from the train statio...Read More
Celebrity Equinox Photo, Rome, Italy
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Again, the port city name of where the ship will depart is Civitavecchia (pronounced Chi-tah-ve-kia) just in case you can't pronounce it and you get lost, you'll know how to pronounce it in Italian.After our panoramic tour of Rome, my wife and I were taken directly to the port. It was very fast, easy and without incident. Checking-In is a breeze. RECOMMENDATION: Celebrity offers online express check-in that allows you to pre-fill out forms etc. online without all that hassle when you get to the cruise terminal. If you don’t, expect a 30 minute check-in process. We did online express check-in and we check-in within 10 minutes. One thing to mention during checking-in is tha...Read More

Day 2: AT SEA

1st of 4 Sea Days and also Formal Night

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Story/Tip

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Remember that the cruise itinerary is a 13-Day Holy Land Cruise which includes 4 Sea Days. This is the first of four of them and it is also the first formal night. The cruise was uneventful. We simply relaxed on-board to get prepared for the sites that we are about to see the next couple of weeks. DRINK PACKAGES – I normally purchase a standard soda package since my wife and I like diet sodas during the cruise. This particular cruise had several drink packages… soda only package, bottle water only package, a "classic" non-alcohol beverage package, "premium" non-alcohol beverage package, "classic" alcohol beverage package and "premium" non-alcohol beverage packa...Read More

Day 3: Athens (Pireaus)

Athens, Greece

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Story/Tip

Photo of Rome, Italy
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The closest port to Athens in Pireaus which is very close to the city itself.We purchased a full-day tour from the ship excursion desk called A Taste of Athens which is the only full day tour available. I did my online research including several sites like Port Promotions and they didn’t have the full day tour available for the date of arrival. Port Promotions did have a half day tour which you get to see the Acropolis etc. but not the full day tour which the ship excursion offered. BASIC INFORMATION: Most people do speak a good amount of English here. The currency of the city is the Euro though I hear some shops actually take U.S. dollars. As far as dress is concerned, I...Read More

Day 4: Ephesus (Kusadasi) Turkey

EPHESUS (Kusadasi), TURKEY

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St. John's Basilica Photo, Rome, Italy
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The port Kusadasi (pronounced Koo-she-da-see) is a fairly short drive away from the ancient Roman city of Ephesus (Eh-fe-soos) which was built and rebuilt 4 different times following the vital River front that connects to the Mediterranean Sea. The main sites of attraction are the house where the Virgin Mary lived the rest of her natural life after Jesus died. This site is a very popular pilgrimage for many Christians especially Catholics. The ruins of what was left of the ancient city of Ephesus are fascinating in an archeological standpoint and a lot of the place (though in ruins) is impressive to see especially the facade of the Main Library. This is also one of the cities Mark Anthony and Cleo...Read More

Artemis Restaurant

Restaurant | "Great Kabobs and Awesome Views"

Artemis Restaurant Photo, Ephesus, Turkey
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We went up the mountain a bit after our visit of the Ruins of the Roman City of Ephesus to a very nice restaurant for some local Turkish cuisine consisting of some kabobs of chicken and lamb, various cold side dishes and a salad along with some wine. The area reminded me much like Napa Valley in California.

Service was great, the view was awesome. I highly recommend eating outside.

Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 26, 2010

Artemis Restaurant

Ephesus, Turkey

Day 5: AT SEA (Preparing for Israel)

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After getting back on-board, you should receive a note in your cabin from the cruise staff that you will have an appointed time today to see Israeli immigration. My guess is that the Israeli Immigration and Custom enforcement officers came on-board in Turkey or earlier to check all the passengers Passports. You will receive a designated appointment time. Our appointment time was a 10am at the main dining room of the ship so we woke up, had some breakfast and went to the dining room at the designated time. There will be a cruise staff member with your passports. Collect them and proceed to the desk where the Israeli customs officers are there to greet you. They will examine your passports and wil...Read More

Day 6: Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee (Haifa), Israel

Nazareth and the Sea of Galiliee, Israel

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Angels visit Mary Photo, Rome, Italy
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SOME BASIC INFORMATION: REMEMBER to bring your Israeli Landing Card you received the day before along with your Sea Card (room key) and a photo ID. In fact, 1st, you will need to adjust your watch since you have lost an hour of time during the night from Turkey. So my 9am start felt more like an 8am start so it was an early day for me. Most people in Israel speak both Hebrew and English since the area use to be part of a British colony. As far as currency is concerned, Israel uses their local currency in Shekels. Check your current exchange rate but the Shekels to U.S. dollar were 4 shekels to 1 U.S. Dollar as a point of reference. However, most of the merchants do take U.S. dollars...Read More
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Now I have heard of people doing a 2-day overnight/overland to including Jerusalem. Basically stay at a hotel in Jerusalem as oppose to returning to the ship after the first day of touring. Personally, after comparing this 2 day tour with ours, what we saw versus what the overnighters saw was comparable if not identical in most cases. Remember that unlike Egypt, Israel is the size of New Jersey. Seeing sights in one area and then going back to the ship to sleep and head back towards the Jerusalem for the 2nd day is as good as any itinerary as the overnighters. Bottom line is that don’t waste your money on a hotel room spending overnight there. You won’t save that much time doing it, ...Read More

Day 7: Jerusalem (Ashdod), Israel

Jerusalem, Israel

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Mark and Priscila in Jerusalem Photo, Rome, Italy
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Here it is. My Pilgrimage reaches its peak today. Again, remember to retain your ISRAELI LANDING CARD you received in Day 6 along with your Sea Card and photo ID. Basic information and recommendations are the same here as it is for Day 6 in Haifa in fact they are strict in the dress code especially in the old city of Jerusalem. Additionally, on Jewish holy places, you have to cover your head with a cap (opposite the Christian Church’s I know it is confusing but you have to simply remember where you are visiting and adjust accordingly).Also, if you didn't notice, this day is Sunday and though at first I was concerned that there will be many holy sites closed because it is Su...Read More

Day 8: Alexandria to Cairo, Egypt

Ramses Day Tours

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Attraction | "Ramses Tours is the real thing. "

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RAMSES TOURSFor these two days, instead of arranging a trip with the cruise shore excursion desk or Port Promotions, I went ahead and found through the internet, a well reviewed and highly recommended tour company in Cairo called Ramses Tours. Now, I found them in Cruise Critic and Trip Advisor with glowing reviews… like hundreds of them. I’ve worked in the online travel business for 10 years and I never see a company with this many glowing reviews. They were so good that I actually felt it was all bogus. First of all, out of hundreds of reviews, I found 1 or 2 bad reviews (which in hindsight comforting). Their website, though easy to navigate is a bit archaic. You don’t really book ...Read More

Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 27, 2010

Ramses Day Tours
102 Talaat Harb Street
Alexandria, Egypt
002 0105759364

Our Guide Mohamed and My Wife Priscila Photo, Egypt, Africa
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In Alexandria, we got a quick city sightseeing orientation tour. We really didn’t stop but a couple of places to take quick photos; right outside the Alexandria museum and nearest the seaside fortress and where the old Lighthouse use to be. Other than that, we proceeded to Cairo for our visit of the Pyramids of Giza. The trip to Cairo was about 3 hours and the city traffic was horrendous! This is another reason why one should spend the night. You waste 12 hours in traffic alone over two days if you go back and forth from the port of Alexandria. Anyway, the highlight of the afternoon was the Pyramids of Giza. We purchased optional tickets to enter and see the burial chamber of the 2nd...Read More

Fairmont Nile City

Hotel | "Great but could have been better"

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Now remember that we are spending the night in Cairo as oppose to driving back to the ship in Alexandria.After our first day in Cairo had come to an end, Mohammed dropped us off at the Fairmont Nile City in Cairo. One of the best hotels in Cairo, many locals believes it rivals the Four Seasons in service and amenities. The room was spectacular. Immaculately clean, very modern and the bed was so comfortable that we slept extremely well. Too well. In fact, we were suppose to begin our 2nd day tour and be at breakfast (which was included) by 7:30am for an 8:30am start. Unfortunately, the hotel forgot to wake us up even after we called the front desk for a wakeup call and rec...Read More

Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 27, 2010

Fairmont Nile City
Nile City Towers, 2005 B, Corniche El Nil
Cairo, Egypt 2466
20 22 461 9494

Day 9: Cairo (2nd Day)

CAIRO for the 2nd Day

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Giant Statue of Ramses II Photo, Cairo, Egypt
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Remember that we spent the night at the Fairmont Nile City Cairo as part of the Ramses Tour package. (See my review). Our days started out late and without breakfast as you know. (See my story in Day 8) We met Mohamed at almost 9am even though we said 7:30am for breakfast. He still waited and was not at all fazed by our tardiness. In fact, he became furious when he found out the wakeup call did not work and he was the one who initiated the conversation with the manager. He was pretty harsh at them but it is his tour company’s reputation and our valuable time wasted. Either way, it is another testament to Ramses Tours commitment to customer service. After getting back to the van, he ...Read More
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You maybe wondering why I didn't go back to a perfectly comfortable cabin on-board the Celebrity Equinox in Alexandria as oppose to staying overnight and spending more on a hotel room. Well let me tell you that it is absolutely necessary if you want to see the things you want to see.Unlike Israel, Egypt is vast and the port is not that close to Cairo. It takes at least 3 hours to get from Alexandria to Cairo because of the traffic. If you didn't spend the night, you would go to Cairo the first day (3 hours one way) then back (another 3 hours). Then the next day, go back to Cairo (another 3 hours) and then another 3 hours back. That is 12 hours (half a day) wasted in traffic ...Read More

Day 10 and 11: AT SEA

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Now here is the genius of doing this trip on a cruise. You just got back from touring 4 straight days. You have just taken 1,000 photos. Your feet hurt. (You may, God forbit, some intestinal issues from the local water or food). Two straight days at sea?? Now most people at first would think, "What a waste!". Wrong, wrong wrong!! Hang out in the pool. Dip your feet in the cool air and have a nice swim at the pool. Eat freshly baked Pizza or grilled burgers with the trimmings. Have a Margarita. Better yet, get a spa and a massage. Review your photos in your laptop and edit them. Write on your travel journal so the events are fresh in your mind....Read More

Day 12: Messina (Sicily), Italy

Taormina (Sicily), Italy

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Story/Tip

Photo of Taormina, Italy
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We purchased a ship board shore excursion for this since it offered a visit to the town of Taormina, lava river and wine tasting. Honestly, I found this tour lacking. The town of Taormina was good which has a quaint little town with good souvenir and antique shopping. There is a fairly preserved old Roman amphitheater there. My wife and I decided to eat lunch in the town of Taormina after our souvenir shopping. We chose this local place called Burrasca Ristorante and Wine Bar on top of some steps at one of the narrow streets and the food was excellent! We had an hour and a half in Taormina that could have been enough but we ate lunch so that took up a lot of our time. My...Read More

Taverna Burrasca

Restaurant | "Nice, local and honest food"

Taverna Burrasca Photo, Taormina, Italy
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This restaurant is at the top of some steps off the main pedestrian walkway in Taormina on the way to the Ampitheater.

We sat at an outside table beside the steps so we can still overlook and see the main walkway.

I had some pasta and tomato sauce while my wife had the lasanga. We topped it off with a nice cup of Italian coffee. It was honest, wholesome and good authentic Italian food. Really nice lunch here. $25 Euros for the both of us.

I spoke to a couple beside us from Sweden and they had the Pizza and they said it was equally incredible.

Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 27, 2010

Taverna Burrasca
Via D'orville, 6
Taormina, Italy
0942 24048

Celebrity Cruises - Equinox

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Hotel | "Celebrity Equinox: My Thoughts of the Ship"

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The best way to describe The Celebrity Equinox is like... think of the best Westin hotel you can think of. Think of the service, the staff etc. Then imagine that hotel floating in the ocean and going places. This is the Celebrity Equinox. Down to the wonderful sheik decoration and design. The service is bar none. Best service I had in all my cruising days. The way they designed the ship was definitely after years of experience. The Elevators for instance... unlike other ships, both aft and bow elevators go to all decks (for the most part). You don't know how many cruise ships I've been in which in order for you to get to the top decks, you have to use this particular set of elevato...Read More

Celebrity Cruises - Equinox
Eastern Mediterranean Cruise
Departs from Rome

Day 13: Naples, Italy

Naples, Italy

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Photo of Naples, Italy
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Again, my wife and I joined an excursion offered by the ship which was a visit of the National Archeological Museum of Naples and Pizza Tasting. Again, I found myself wasting money here. Now keep in mind I have been in the area before on a previous trip. The last trip, though we stayed at a local hotel, we went to Pompeii, visited Sorrento and had a scenic drive up and down the Amalfi Coast. If this was my first time in Naples, I highly recommend this itinerary instead of what we took. I ran into some of my Port Promotions friends that used them to go touring the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento and Pompeii and they said they were perfect and the trip was spectacular. Anyway, the visit to the M...Read More

Day 14: Rome to Madrid, Spain

Return to Rome and Onwards to Madrid

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Story/Tip

Palace Photo, Madrid, Spain
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Again, remember I purchased a round-trip transfer from the cruise back to the airport. Other than the early wake up call, the transfer went very smoothly and our luggage was transferred equally as smoothly. We arrived in Madrid around 2pm to begin our 4 day visit of Madrid.For Madrid, I purchased a two day pass on the Madrid Vision which is their hop on, hop off double decker bus to give us not only an orientation of the city but also a good idea of the major sites and monuments of the city. After collecting our bags at Madrid airport, we found ourselves hailing a cab no more than 10 minutes later. Remember that there is no immigration or customs to visit from one European Union countr...Read More

Hotel Principe Pio

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Hotel

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Our hotel was recommended by a colleague who lived in the city called Principe Pio. The cab ride from Madrid Airport to this hotel cost 40 Euros just so you know. The front of the hotel is fairly hard to find just so you know.The hotels location is awesome! About a 4 block walk to the Gran Via or Plaza de Espana and around a 5 block walk to Plaza de Mayor. The Hop on Hop Off bus tour picks up in the Plaza de Espana area which is a 5 minute walk. The hotel itself has the view of the Palace which was nice. Now the hotel isn’t very luxurious. I paid less than $100 per night on the room (try looking for that in Madrid… good luck!) but at least it was clean. It is a bit on t...Read More

Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 28, 2010

Hotel Principe Pio
CUESTA DE SAN VICENTE 16
Madrid, Spain 28008
34-91-5470800

Day 15: Madrid, Spain

Photo of Madrid, Spain
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Uneventful other than seeing the local sites like the Palace, Plaza de Mayor, Plaza de Espana etc. For dinner, we ate a local seafood restaurant in Gran Via called…. And ate the BEST Paella that rocked our world. Nothing like Paella with fresh seafood to top off the day.

Day 16: Toledo and Escorial, Spain

Basilica in Toledo Photo, Spain, Europe
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We booked a tour on Grayline Sightseeing tour at grayline.com that combined a visit of the medieval town of Toledo along with a visit of the Valley of the Kings before we left for our trip. The Grayline website said the tour included hotel pickup and drop off which was nice. The website asked us the name and address of the hotel online so they would know to pickup. However, as I read the voucher in my hotel in Madrid, it said to call 48 hours prior to the tour to confirm. So I did. Turns out, to my disappointment, the company Trapsatur which Grayline uses as the tour company in Madrid DID NOT include the hotel pickup or drop off AND worse, Grayline failed to mention that the VALLEY OF THE KINGS h...Read More

Museo Del Jamón (Museum of Ham)

Restaurant | "... and I didn't eat the Ham"

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The Museum of Ham is all over Madrid but the one I went to was specifically in the Gran Via. Though I pass-by it many of times on the first two days in Madrid, I never thought to eat there. I mean, ham is ham right? I see people coming out of the store with Ham sandwiches. Ok, granted there were like a thousand different kinds of hams, various meats cheeses but who cares??Well that was what I thought when we realized that inside, there was a full service restaurant. We sat down and realized they served all kinds of local cuisine including Paella. Whoa! One of the best meals I have ever had. The Paella was exquisite! So, a word to the wise. I ha...Read More

Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 28, 2010

Museo Del Jamón (Museum of Ham)
Gran Vía, 72
Madrid, Spain
915 412 023

Day 17: Going Home

Madrid to Dallas

Story/Tip

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We woke up fairly early, around 8:30am to get to the airport at least 3 hours early for our 1:10pm flight home.

I called for a cab to get me to the airport. Remember, the ride should not cost you more than 40 Euros.

Good thing we got to the airport as early as I did because in order for you to get to your flight, the Madrid airport would have you go through two security checks and wind you back, up and around the airport to your gate for about 25 minutes. I think a lot of people didn’t know this because my wife and I saw a bunch of travelers running past us to catch their flight.

So, a word to the wise, get to the airport EARLY!

Final Words

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FINAL WORDSAt every trip, I thank God for the resources I have to travel and see places I’ve never seen before. Best yet, I believe traveling opens your eyes to other cultures, other peoples, other countries and other possibilities. Sometimes, unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you see it), it makes you thankful for what you have today and what you have at home. Because sometimes, Americans tend to think that the entire world is there for their taking, all the worlds should cater to them and the entire world is ignorant unless they adopt the American way of thinking. Sometimes, I think, just because America is the #1 economy of the world that we know everything and everyone shoul...Read More