Cruising the Mediterranean

Travel from Rome to Venice with stops in Monaco, Pisa, Naples, Santorini, Mykonos, Athens, Olympia, Corfu, and Turkey.

If you want to experience the major sights on your own rather than through the windows of a crowded tour bus then this journal is for you!

Santorini Viewpoint - A Hike Along the Caldera

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Two For the Road on September 8, 2009

When we first considered taking a Mediterranean cruise, Santorini was one port that just had to be on the itinerary. We have made a decision to fill our home with photos of our travel experiences and high on our list of "must haves" was a shot of the blue domed churches of Santorini with the Sea of Crete in the background.

Santorini is a located in a group of islands called the Cyclades. The landscape of the island is considered by many to be the most spectacular in the world with wonderful beaches to the east and incredible sunsets on the western side of the island.

The first evidence of humans inhabiting the island dates back to the 3rd millennium BC. Excavations have confirmed that this continued until approximately 1500 BC when a volcanic eruption buried the island. The island remained uninhabited until the end of the 13th century BC. At that time the island was called Thera. It wasn’t until the 4th century AD that the island’s name was changed to Santorini.

Santorini survived Frankish rule and later Turkish dominion and in 1830 became part of the independent Greek state. A huge earthquake in 1956 resulted in a large decrease in Santorini’s population and the economic disaster that followed lasted until 1970 when tourism began to develop into a major economic contributor.

Today, Santorini is a Mecca for tourists looking for serenity, sunsets and breathtaking views. If you are able to imagine glimmering white painted villages perched on top of 300 meter high cliffs facing the sea below, then you have arrived at one of the most beautiful places in the world.

There are two main towns on the island of Santorini; Fira (Fear –a), located in the north-central part of the island and Oia (EE-Ya), on the northern tip of the island. Each town is cut into a cliff with the squared white washed buildings stacked in tiers to the highest point imaginable. Our day in Santorini included a 7 mile hike from Fira to Oia along the caldera, lunch in Oia, and of course, our search for the famous blue domed churches of Oia. I have created a MS Word document that details the trail we took with photos of landmarks noting where to turn etc. as this trail is not easy to follow. If you would like me to send it to you, just post a message to me at IgoUgo.

Our first order of business was to get from the ship to the top of the cliff and the town of Fira where our hike would begin. There were three options available but only one of them was practical for us. The cruise ships use tenders to transfer passengers to a dock area at the base of the cliff. There is a cable car service that is available for a one way fare of 4 Euros per person. This service is very efficient although you may have to wait 20 minutes on the way back down at the end of the day. You can also walk the 500 steep stairs to the top for free…but… there is a catch with this option. The stairs are also shared with a donkey service that incidentally is option number three. Those that rode the donkeys smelled like them afterwards – a lot! The walkers had to negotiate donkeys and their excrements the entire way. In addition, the donkeys would push the pedestrians against the side of the wall and although we never saw anyone get their foot stepped, this would be very difficult to avoid. The walkers that encountered the donkeys along the way smelled bad too. I have posted a photo of the donkey service that I took from our cable car. For us, the cable car service was worth the modest expense.

There are several car rental services available in Fira as well as a public bus that runs between Fira and Oia. There are very limited roadways on Santorini and you will undoubtedly be sharing them with scooters and ATV’s.

The magic of our hike was that it took us on a quiet cobblestone pathway through the northern part of Fira and through the villages of Firostefáni and Imerovígli.
The quaint whitewashed hotels and private residences that lined the walkway had brightly painted shutters and doorways that added a splash of colour brought to life by the rich blues of the sea of the caldera. The hotels here were small perhaps three rooms each and every one of them had a wonderful view. We left Fira at 9:30 am and as we walked through these villages we encountered less then 10 people along the way.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and with a temperature soaring to 95 degrees, we were glad to have our hats and plenty of water. This hike is not through a main tourist area so it is difficult to find any water for sale until you reach Oia which is 3 hours away. Sunscreen is a must. I would also recommend taking an extra shirt with you. After hiking in the heat, it was nice to change into a fresh shirt when we sat down for lunch.

Once you leave the main villages, the trail turns to a dirt one. There are several chapels along the trail and we spent a fair amount of time taking pictures. This added another 30 minutes to our hike and like always, I found myself climbing to obscure vantage points in search of a unique shot.

You will see Oia throughout the hike and the views of the caldera are beautiful. There are also a few larger scale hotels currently being built between the two towns that look very nice. For us though, staying in a small whitewash hotel in Oia is more alluring.

Arriving into Oia we could see several of the blue domed churches that dotted the cliff. As we approached them however, obtaining a vantage point high enough to get the photo we wanted was going to be difficult. There were several churches and residences higher up on the hill however, each had a padlocked gate that prevented us from climbing the stairs to get the perspective that I needed. We were becoming despondent that the photo that we were looking for was going to elude us.

Hunger set in and we decided to stop for lunch. Our three hour trek in the 90 degree heat was draining us and a shaded view of the caldera was definitely in order. There are no shortage of restaurants and cafes in Santorini. As you walk down the main shopping area, you will encounter many menus posted at the top of stairways that lead you down (or up) to magnificent views of the sea below. The food here is reasonably priced and the menus from restaurant to restaurant vary little.

After looking at several menus and just before the shops began to overtake the number of restaurants, we stopped at a restaurant called Seagull. As we were led down the stairs to one of the two seating areas we were stunned to see perfect views of the blue domed churches that we thought would be unattainable! There are two pictures that I attached to this story that were taken sitting down as we enjoyed our lunch. The service at the Seagull was slow and that suited us just fine. We sat in the shade, enjoyed a couple of drinks and took in the remarkable view. We had budgeted 80 Euros for lunch and spent only half of that on our lunch which included a couple of drinks.

The public bus that runs between Oia and Fira departs every twenty minutes or so. In Oia, you must walk away from the shopping area to the vehicle road that is a block away. The bus stop in Oia is at the end of the road at a large turn around area. A one way bus fare is only 1.40 Euros per person and I would recommend taking the bus if you do not have the desire to hike between the two villages. The one way trip takes approximately 15 minutes however, every cruise ship anchors in Fira so the afternoon busses from Oia are very crowded. There are no points for politeness on boarding the bus and passengers push through both the front and middle doors to claim their seats. It is a good idea to have some coins available for the fare as it is collected as the bus travels down the road and making change may be difficult on this short trip.

The bus stop in Fira is located in the center of town and there are an abundance of signs that will point you to the cable car service.

Santorini and the village of Oia were magical and will forever hold a spot in our hearts as one of our favourite places we have visited.

Next stop… Mykonos.

Exploring Naples, Pompeii and Sorrento on Your Own

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Two For the Road on August 25, 2009

Naples offered us many choices for our day trips. We wanted to avoid the one dimensional cruise ship tours and see as much as we could, so after a lot research and planning, we chose to walk through Naples, visit the ruins of Pompeii, explore the enchanting city of Sorrento and cruise the Bay of Napoli – all in less than eight hours and without feeling rushed.

The port in Naples can accommodate large ships providing us with easy access to our adventures ashore. With the help of other online contributors I have created a "Pompeii on Your Own" guide in MS Word format that will help you to navigate travelling to this spectacular site on your own. It features pictures and step by step directions to easily navigate walking to the Naples train station from the cruise ship docks and how to take the train to Pompeii. I would be happy to send it to anyone who would like it – just send us a line on IgoUgo.

Naples has a reputation as being a little rough around the edges, unrefined and well…pushy and within our first few steps outside of the Port Authority we understood why. The taxi drivers in Naples are very aggressive. In walking the 200 yards to the main entrance road, we weren’t harassed but it wasn’t too far removed from it either. As we walked to the train station we were shocked at what we saw. Naples was so different from Rome and Pisa. There was garbage everywhere. From old billboard posters dropped onto the sidewalks below to household garbage tossed onto the median of a busy street by a resident as we walked by, Naples did not make a good first impression. I would not recommend walking alone here– especially at night. We weren’t uneasy, but we were aware that the areas around the ports may not be the best parts that a city has to offer. We were thankful that we were not spending our day here.

Then there are the drivers. You will read that in Naples, traffic signals are merely suggestions, loosely interpreted by only a few motorists. This statement proved to be very accurate. You are able to cross safely at intersections with traffic lights however you should not take it for granted that everyone will stop for you. The complacent become speed bumps!

Getting to the train station took approximately 30 minutes and once inside, we purchased our tickets to Pompeii. We planned on stopping at Pompeii for a few hours and then continuing on to Sorrento so we only purchased a one way ticket. The cost for each ticket was only 1.40 Euros. The train you take is a local commuter train with many stops. We were certain that it was the Naples version of the NY subway as it was filled with graffiti and in need of a little TLC!

The trip to Pompeii takes approximately 30 minutes as the train winds its way around Mount Vesuvius. Mount Vesuvius is on the coast of the Bay of Naples and only a short distance from the shore. Mount Vesuvius is best known for its eruption in AD79 that led to the destruction of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It has erupted 50 times since then, the last in 1631 and is today regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world due to the dense population of 3,000,000 people living nearby. Mount Vesuvius has a tendency to have explosive eruptions and with Naples less then 10 miles away one can only wonder what disaster would follow another eruption. Pompeii was long forgotten through history and only discovered 300 years ago when excavations and restoration work began after the last eruption of Mt. Vesuvius took place in the area. For nearly 1600 years, the city lay buried beneath the ground.

The admission fee to the Pompeii Ruins is only 11 Euros and if desired, you can negotiate a guided tour when you arrive for another 10 Euros however, while we were navigating the ruins on our own we heard three guides give three different explanations of the same area so buyer beware. You can also rent audio equipment for a self guided tour if you wish.

The ruins of Pompeii are unlike that of Rome as the architectural focus turns from political monuments to a resort village of the wealthy You will find that it is easy to distinguish the lavish residences from the modest ones. You will be surprised at how many colourful murals and artefacts still exist. I would recommend buying a guidebook if you don’t hire a guide so that you may fully appreciate the commercial buildings of the main street, including the brothel that describes the specialty of the house through its artwork! These books can be purchased at the entrance to the ruins.

The streets of Pompeii were designed to allow carts and pedestrians to walk comfortably. Stepping stones strategically placed at intersections allowed horses and carts to pass and pedestrians to stay dry as they crossed the street during rainstorms. The deep ruts that exist in the roads bring life to this magnificent site.

A typical home in Pompeii would appear rather plain from the outside, with only bare walls and very few windows visible. Once you were through the main entrance you would see a large atrium, open to the sky and lavishly decorated with colourful mosaics and statues. Small ponds and baths were characteristic of more elaborate residences.

There are several casts of mummified residents including the twisted remains of a dog on display at the site. As we looked up to Mount Vesuvius looming in the background we could only imagine the terror that the people of Pompeii must have felt as the lava encircled them.

Leaving Pompeii, we purchased another one way train ticket and continued south from Pompeii on route to Sorrento. This trip also cost 1.4 Euro each and took about 20 minutes. Sorrento is the gateway to the Amalfi coast and is in a word – beautiful. You will know you are getting close to Sorrento as glimpses of the Bay of Naples and homes with lemon trees full of fruit flash by on the right side of the train.

Sorrento is built into a hillside with dramatic views of the Bay of Naples and small winding streets brimming with local produce, souvenirs and of course Lemoncello, a tart liquor native to this region of Italy. Free samples are everywhere in Sorrento. There are several marinas that offer gorgeous views of the Bay of Naples and the tranquil beaches cut into the Cliffside below.

Upon leaving the train station we ventured out onto one of the main streets and picked up a local map at one of the Hotels nearby. Piazza Tasso is the center of Sorrento and a place where you can comfortably dine in one of the many outdoor cafes, catch a miniature train ride to tour the town (6 Euros), or simply to establish a meeting place if you are splitting up to cover this beautiful seaside city. From the Piazza and facing the Bay of Naples, we navigated our way south (left) and then west to the Bay of Naples towards Marina San Francesco. There is a lookout area near the Hotel Bellevue Syrene that is the best vantage point in Sorrento for looking down to the green waters and dockside beaches below. There are stairs located nearby that descend down to the water, winding down through the rock and ending at a boardwalk that runs along the beach. The boardwalk extends north towards Marina Piccola and the center of town. It was at this marina that we caught the Hydrofoil back to Naples. Tickets for the Hydrofoil are 11 Euros per person and you should allow 30 minutes of waiting time as the Hydrofoils depart for Naples every 45-50 minutes. In purchasing your tickets, make sure that you ask for the Hydrofoil specifically. The ticket booth is at the Marina Piccola and you will see it in a small half circle courtyard right at the docks. Vendors with standalone booths do not sell the Hydrofoil tickets and will put you on a "Metro del Mare" water taxi that makes several stops along the way. These vendors are unscrupulous and will attempt to sell you a water taxi ticket if you are not careful. We departed Sorrento at 4:25 pm and were back at the Port Authority docks in Naples by 5:05 pm, in plenty of time for our 5:30 on board deadline.

As we departed Naples, we took advantage of our Starboard side room to catch a blazing sunset as we sailed by the island of Corfu. This spectacular sunset made us slightly late for dinner but we didn't mind. Chasing perfect sunsets is a passion of ours and when presented with a clear sky and fiery sunset we couldn't pass it up.

Next stop - Santorini

Relaxing in Pisa

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Two For the Road on August 24, 2009

Pisa (via Livorno)

Livorno is Italy’s third largest shipping port serving as a gateway to Pisa and Florence. Despite its diminutive size, Pisa was once the capital of a commercial republic and once challenged Venice and Genoa in the 11th century for Mediterranean trade and played an important role in the First Crusade.

Florence is arguably Italy’s artistic center and the jewel of the Renaissance, filled with majestic piazzas, sculptures and cathedrals. After spending three days in Rome exploring similar sights, we felt that we would not be able to spend as much time as we would need to in order to fully explore Florence so we opted to spend our day in Pisa and vowed to return to Florence for a longer stay on another trip to Italy.

We arrived at the Port of Livorno before breakfast and were looking forward to exploring our destination for the day – The Field of Miracles and its most famous monument, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Field of Miracles is the most popular attraction in Pisa and one of the most famous places in the world.

Most cruise lines offer an air conditioned shuttle bus to the town center. We paid 8 Euros (return) each on Princess and although the price seemed a little steep for the 15 minute ride, there is no other option as the port is very large and walking to the exit is not permitted. As we sat on the bus, I did a little math calculation…assuming that 2/3 of the passengers leave the ship for the day, that’s roughly 2,000 people each paying 8 Euros, that’s over 16,000 Euros in revenue for one day of shuttle buses – hmmm…we briefly contemplated moving to Livorno and setting up a shuttle bus business!

We were taken to a common bus drop off area (there were three other cruise ships in Livorno that day and they all had the bus companies stop in the same place) with an information booth visible immediately as you get off the bus. The information booth will be able to provide you with a very good map of Livorno.

We had read that there were a tremendous amount of pickpockets at the cruise docks in Livorno. The shuttle bus transfer to the town centre eliminated anyone entering the port area and the only nuisance in Livorno and Pisa were the street vendors selling their knock off purses and watches. My advice is to just say no and keep walking. Honestly, it wasn’t a bother and we never felt intimidated or unsafe at all in either city.

Finally living up to our IgoUgo alias - Two For The Road, we elected to walk to the train station instead of taking a public bus from downtown Livorno. Pisa and the Field of Miracles can easily be seen in a few hours and we welcomed a leisurely stroll to the train station. We also wanted to experience a different side of Italy that we felt would simply be impossible to experience if we were driving by in a bus or taxi.

Piazza Grande is only a block away from the information booth and would serve as the starting point for our 30 minute walk to the Stazione Centrale where we would catch the train to Pisa. The Piazza Grande is bordered by via Grande – the largest street in downtown Livorno. To get to the train station we simply followed it in a straight line all the way there. This is the main retail area of Livorno where you will find larger department stores and major retail clothing stores. The walk along via Grande will take approximately 5-7 minutes before you reach a large piazza. This is Piazza Della Repubblica. Here, you will need to cross the piazza to the right and continue along another street running in the same direction as you came (Viale G. Carducci) but this was fairly easy to navigate with our Livorno map. There are also signs pointing the way to the train station along the bordering streets of this piazza.

After passing through the main retail shopping area along via Grande, the shops changed from major retail stores to small bicycle and eclectic giftware shops. There was a distinct residential flair about Livorno that was refreshing to us after spending so much time in downtown Rome. The walkway to the train station was split into two wide pathways for pedestrians and cyclists. Both pathways were shaded most of the way, making our walk very comfortable.

The trains to Pisa from Livorno leave every 20-25 minutes and our fare for the train was only 7.20 Euros each for the return ticket. Validating our ticket which is a must in Italy wasn’t easy as none of the validation machines appeared to be working and we needed to try several of them before we found one that was operational.

Pisa is approximately a 20 minute train ride from Livorno with only a few stops along the way. The train stations in Livorno and Pisa announce the arrival of the trains in both Italian and English. There are also monitors at every track to make navigation easy.

The leaning tower is situated in the Field of Miracles and is another twenty minute walk through the charming town of Pisa. To get there, simply walk in a straight line as you exit the main entrance of the train station in Pisa. Within a few minutes you will be walking through the main shopping in Pisa. The shops here are smaller and the staff very friendly and willing to chat about life in Pisa and the news of the day. You will also notice more cafes then you saw in Livorno, each with a casual charm that is as inviting as the menus they have posted. Pisa is a small quiet city however, its lack of urban sprawl often creates a love it or hate it reaction from its many visitors. For the record, we loved Pisa’s quaint streets and residential atmosphere.

Entrance to the Field of Miracles is free. This will provide you with access to great pictures of the Leaning Tower, The Cathedral, and the Baptistery. The Field of Miracles is a large area and despite the numerous people there, it never felt crowed at all. You are able to enter each sight for a small fee however climbing the 293 steps of Leaning Tower is only available on a limited basis due to the size of the stairway itself, so if this is a "must do" for you, I would encourage you to arrive before 11:00 am. as the times available to make this climb fill up quickly. Some people we spoke to were able to book in advance on the Go Italy website for approximately 20 Euros. Please be aware that your tickets are for a specific time and if you are late, you will lose your time and walk away without a new time or a refund.

The tower was built between 1173 and the end of the 14th century. The tower began to lean once the third floor was completed. Over the next century attempts to correct the lean were made by re-shaping the new construction. The final result is a tower that leans at the bottom and bends slightly upward as the attempts to straighten it and prevent its fall were made.

I would recommend that you take some time to walk around the tower. Different vantage points will give you a different perspective on the lean. The grass area at the Field of Miracles is a nice place to sit and enjoy a picnic lunch if you wanted to stop in Pisa and grab a panini to go.

We retraced our steps back from the train station in Livorno to the shuttle bus pick up location. The heat of the day caused us to appreciate our shaded walk even more. As we approached Piazza Grande we stopped for a Gelato at a Gelateria that was on the right hand side of via Grande near the Zara store. This little hole-in-the-wall café turned out to have the best gelato we experienced in Italy and the most affordable too at 1.50 Euro for a double scoop.

We were back on board our ship before 4:30 pm and took advantage of a tranquil pool area for a late afternoon swim. Later, as we sat in the hot tub, we heard the daily announcement as the ship made a vain attempt to page the three passengers that were about to miss our departure sailing to Naples.

Next stop – Naples!

A Day in Monte Carlo and Nice

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Two For the Road on August 8, 2009

Our first stop was in Monaco. Although it is less than one square mile in size, Monaco is a sovereign state with Monte Carlo taking its place as the eastern gateway to the Riviera. French is the official language however most signs are in English too. The majority of residents speak English so communicating was never a problem. The average net worth of Monte Carlo’s 33,000 residents is $4.5M and in order to be considered for full time residency, at least half of that net worth must be in liquid assets. That clearly explains the number of exotic cars we saw throughout the city. Monaco is a tax free haven for the world’s rich and famous.

Our self guided itinerary for the day included taking the train to Nice and returning to Monte Carlo in the afternoon. We were eager to check out the famous Monte Carlo Casino and the lush grounds that surround it. To assist us we downloaded a map from It proved to be much better than the one that Princess gave us. We had considered going to Cannes, but we had read that unless the Film Festival was on Cannes, Nice would be a better destination.

We awoke early and captured a fiery sunrise as we approached Monaco. What a great way to jump start our day! After a leisurely breakfast on board, we left the ship around 8:30 am and headed for the train station. The Monte Carlo harbour is filled with large yachts and like the rest of the city – is exceptionally clean. The train station was a 15 minute walk that was mostly uphill – due north from the centre of the harbour. Monte Carlo is built on a cliff and may be difficult to walk for some. On our way to the train station we passed through a bright outdoor market that glowed in the warm rays of the morning sun.

Arriving at the train station, you will need to go up the main escalator to buy your train tickets to Nice. The automated machines are one of the few things that were not in English and we learned afterward that they were for only for monthly pass holders. The Monte Carlo train station was spotless just like the rest of the city. It was very modern and impressive. A round trip ticket for to Nice is only 6.60 Euros per person. There is a train that departs west for Nice every 15 minutes on Track C. The train cars are clean and very comfortable. If you sit on the left (facing the front of the train) you will have fantastic views of the coastline as you approach Nice. The one way trip is less than a half hour and there are 3-4 stops along the way.

When you arrive in Nice, be sure to go to the Tourism Office that is just to the left as you exit the train station. You can go to the counter and get a free map of the town. With your map in hand, continue walking past the Tourism Office and turn right at the first set of lights. This street is Avenue Jean Medecin and it will take you to the beach and the impressive Promenade. You will pass the main shopping area of Nice so you will be able to quench your thirst for retail as you walk towards the magnificent colors of the Riviera. With a moderate amount of stopping it took us 45 minutes to reach the beach. If you are able to avoid the lure of retail it will only take you half that time to get there. Make sure that you take along a couple of Euros in change with you as most public restrooms charge a nominal usage fee.

Upon reaching the beach, you will be impressed with just how large the Promenade is. All morning it was busy with joggers, cyclists, rollerbladers and pedestrians with ample room for all. Our goal was to get up high enough to get a picture of the Baie des Anges. To achieve this, we went left (east) to the end of the Promenade (10 minutes), and crossed the street at the Ascenseur du Chateau Hotel (picture uploaded) as we heard that there was a great lookout area there. You will immediately see the stairs that lead up the hill. There is also an elevator available for a small charge if you do not want to scale the stairs. The stairs are shaded and provide many vantage points of the Promenade and coastline. There are also lots of benches and sitting areas along the route to enjoy a snack or simply to rest. We elected to pack some muffins and fruit from the ship as our snack and enjoyed it as we looked out across the Riviera from one of the benches along that stairway. I am certain that the view made the food taste better!

The views we experienced along the winding stairs were spectacular! Nice’s climate is arid, and you will see a variety of cacti as you walk up the stairs to the lookout area. We chose to go right to the top of the stairs and discovered a park that provided us with views to the east as well. The park has a small restaurant and lots of playground space for children and plenty of shaded areas for those wanting to beat the heat of a hot summer’s day.

As we walked back along the Promenade, we took time to check out some of the private beaches and restaurants that were adjacent to them. The cost for a bed and umbrella for the day is 12-15 Euros and should you wish to stop for lunch, I would recommend a budget of at least 60 Euros for two people. The beach is very rocky and although some local residents were quiet comfortable lying on them, I consider the comfort of a padded chair to be worth the expense. The water on the Riviera is shallow and has a rich turquoise color that is as inviting as it is beautiful.

We retraced our steps and took the train back to Monte Carlo at 2:30 pm. We left the train station and walked to the famous Monte Carlo Casino enjoying the view of the harbour and the distinctive roar of Ferraris and other exotic vehicles that you could hear shifting as they negotiated the winding streets of Monte Carlo.

The Casino does have a dress code. You may enter the casino as long as you are not wearing swimming attire or tank tops although any cameras and camera bags must be checked at the door. Not being a gambler and not wanting to pay 10 Euros to check my camera gear, we decided to walk the beautiful grounds of the casino and admire the number of exotic cars that were everywhere.

As we walked back to the ship, we noticed some stairs at the end of the dock that went to the road well above the dock area. At the top of the stairs we discovered a wide walkway that wound around the shoreline and decided to follow it. After a 10 minute walk, we ended up at the Oceanographie Museum founded by Jacques Cousteau. It is a spectacular museum that is built down from the street level into the cliff side and down into the water. Its profile was so large that I was unable to get a photo of it in a single shot from our vantage point. As we walked back along the paved pathway, we noticed an amphitheatre where swimmers could enter the water. It even had showers available to rinse off the sea water. There are some private beaches east of the Casino however these are near the harbour and the water isn’t as inviting. I would highly recommend that you travel to Nice or Eze by train to experience the tranquil waters of the Cote d’Azur.

We made a point to return to the ship 45 minutes before they wanted everyone back on board to avoid the lines and the disappointment and panic of being late due to a wrong turn or unexpected traffic. Princess left 3 people behind in Nice and would repeat this in each port, stranding the latecomers. If you do miss the departure, it is your responsibility to catch up when you can. Princess Cruises requires that you hand over your passport your first night, so negotiating travel to a different country can be a challenge. It’s a good idea to make a copy of your passport and keep with you. We also scanned ours and kept it in an email folder that we could access from the internet. We also entered the Canadian Consulate offices into my Blackberry for each one of our ports – just to be safe.

Our taste of the French Riviera was amazing. This port was one of our favourites.

Next stop – Pisa!

Arrivederci Rome - Transferring to Civitavecchia

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Two For the Road on August 5, 2009

The cruise ships dock at Civitavecchia which is approximately a one hour train ride from the Termini Station in Rome. After a spectacular summer thunderstorm in the morning we decided to take a cab to the station instead of walking uphill along via Cavour.

You should plan to arrive at the Termini station at least one our in advance even if you have pre-purchased your tickets online. The Termini station is very large and is difficult to navigate. We were unable to find an information desk to help point us in the right direction. The confusion exists because your train tickets are purchased to your destination (Civitavecchia) but the train you need to board is designated by the last stop. Unfortunately, the Trenitalia website doesn’t tell you this, nor is it printed on your ticket. In our case, we needed to board a train destined for Turin. The tickets were 12 Euro each including luggage.

After a little anxiety in finding the right track for our train, we were off to Civitavecchia and looking forward to boarding the cruise ship.
When you arrive in Civitavecchia, you must exit down a flight of stairs, walk under the tracks and then walk up a second flight of stairs to get to the sidewalk. This can be a slow process if you have a lot of bags or if the person in front of you has difficulty carrying their luggage up and down the stairs.

As you walk along the sidewalk towards the port entry (10 minutes) you will feel a little uneasy as you pass by the locals. Use this as your warning to know exactly where your wallet and passport are. We saw three teenage boys walking away from the dock with a wallet that was full of cash and was obviously not their own – someone is about to have a lousy start to their vacation!

There are shuttle buses that will take you from the port entry to the ship. They are free and clearly marked. If you choose to walk because you think it will take too long for the bus to leave beware, the walk is approximately 20-25 minutes and the bus passed us before we were halfway there! For the record, I was the one who suggested we walk the entire way. Ouch!!!

The check in process is very smooth with Princess and we were in our cabin within 15 minutes of arriving at the ship with our luggage.

Next stop (and story) – Monaco!

Rome at Night

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Two For the Road on August 5, 2009

Rome at Night

The magic of nightfall seems to awaken Rome, transforming the city. The tour busses and the heat of the June sun give way to conversations filled with laughter and the sound of music emitting from nearby restaurants. Even the sculptures and ruins appear to come alive as many are illuminated by floodlights offering those with a camera a unique photo opportunity.

I would recommend taking an evening stroll to see the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain. They are both truly magical at night. As we walked by the Forum, we were surprised to see a play being performed on the Forum site. Although we were unable to understand the actors were saying, we enjoyed watching it for several minutes from the sidewalk above. It was interesting to imagine that this is how theatre was performed so many years ago.

Even the maze of alleyways that were quiet during the day now had tables pulled outside giving visibility to cafes and restaurants that were hidden when we passed by them earlier in the afternoon.

If you truly want to experience and see Rome, I would recommend that you set aside an evening to see it at night. The warmth of the city and its many sights will whisk you away as you fall in love with this incredible city.

Rome Sights - Day 2

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Two For the Road on August 5, 2009

Our itinerary on day two included the Vatican, Vatican Museum, Piazza Navona, and the Pantheon.

Vatican City

We decided to walk to the Vatican. Our route took us by the Pantheon and although it was a longer walk from our B&B, the cloud cover made the day a little more bearable. The Vatican has a dress code so pants (or Capri pants for women) must be worn if you want to enter St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican museum.

St. Peter’s Basilica is free to enter and I would recommend arriving before 10:30 am to avoid the long lines. As we were leaving around noon, the lines were at least an hour to an hour and a half long. Inside St. Peter’s you are immediately in awe of the painted domes and ceiling detail. This was one of the most challenging lighting environments to take photographs when combining the bright light coming through the skylights and the large floodlights set up to illuminate the Basilica.

We did not buy our tickets in advance for the Vatican Museum so we did have to wait in line for approximately 20 minutes. If you are planning on getting to the museum in the afternoon, make sure that you bring a bottle of water. The area where you line up is sheltered from the wind and the heat reflecting off the pavement and walls of the museum was incredible.

Once inside the Vatican Museum we were very comfortable. I had to check my camera backpack but was able to take along my camera and a spare memory card. You are allowed to take photos of everything with the exception of the Sistine Chapel. We spent 3 hours in the museum exploring the many hallways and rooms throughout and easily could have spent more time there. The crowds that shuffle through the museum walkways come in waves, so if you wait a few minutes, you will be able to take some good photos without the presence of people’s heads or tour guide umbrellas spoiling your shot. The Sistine Chapel is a long rectangular room that is packed with people. You are constantly reminded to be silent although there is an ever present hum of people pointing out and discussing the intricate artwork that adorns the chapel. Those taking pictures are yelled at and if you do not heed the warnings, the security personnel will remove your camera in an instant. There was even a creative attempt by one guy to sit on the floor while surrounded by a circle of friends that did not get by the watchful eye of the security team! The restoration work that was done on the paintings has made them vivid and easy to see as you stare upward. The shear magnitude of the art display that Michelangelo created is awe inspiring.

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona is one of the largest piazzas in Rome and is a great location to have a lunch in an outside café or to simply sit and enjoy the large fountains after a morning of walking. Many of the surrounding buildings date back to 1644-55 and predominantly feature a Baroque style of architecture.

Colorful cafes line the sides of the piazza offering shade and great food. Those traveling on a budget should note that the pasta and panini offered in these prime locations are 30% more expensive than those a block or two away. You will also be charged as much as 9 Euros per person as a cover charge for dining outside. The total cost for two people having a simple pasta dish and a drink each could total more than 60 Euros ($88 USD) plus tip. We felt that an $88 lunch was a little over the top and decided to find something to eat on the way to the Pantheon and use our savings to treat ourselves with some late afternoon Gelato.

Entertainers and vendors selling their artwork and other souvenirs fill the vast piazza during peak hours making it a great place to people watch. There is always something going on at Piazza Navona. Please note that unless you are stopping here for lunch or a drink, you will not find any shade here, so be sure to bring a hat and your sunscreen.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon is one of the architectural marvels of ancient Rome standing strong for nearly 200 years in the heart of Rome’s financial district. The Pantheon was created as "the temple of all the gods" in 118-125 AD and immediately upon walking inside you are in awe of the design as much as you are the condition of the interior. The rotunda’s height and diameter are equal, measuring 142 feet. The dome is supported by 19 ft thick walls and was made by pouring concrete mixed with pumice and tufa over a temporary wooden framework. The ceiling was coffered to reduce the overall weight of the roof. Inside is the tomb of the renowned artist Raphael.

We walked by the Pantheon early in the morning on our way to the Vatican and we were surprised to see very few people on the grounds that surround the site. We didn’t stop to look inside until we returned in the afternoon and found the crowds at this free exhibit very modest. There were more people taking time to enjoy a late afternoon coffee or a gelato outside than there were inside this magnificent structure.

Adjacent to the Pantheon is a wonderful church that I would highly recommend taking the time to visit. The Santa Maria sopra Minerva boasts an impressive record of Italian art on its interior walls and ceilings. Dating back to the 13th century, the Minerva is one of the few examples of Gothic architecture in Rome. You may be asked for a modest donation upon entering so have some change ready. I was able to take some good photos of the church despite the dark lighting conditions and I have attached them to this journal posting.

Rome Sights - Day 1

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Two For the Road on August 5, 2009

After a great night’s rest and a taste of Rome fueling our enthusiasm, we emerged from our B&B armed with my camera as we set out on our first full day in Rome. On our itinerary were the Forum, The Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.

The Forum

The Forum was the center of political, commercial and judicial life in Ancient Rome. Dating back to the 5th century BC, the Forum evolved through a variety of expansions to keep pace with the growth of Rome. Archaeological excavations began in the 18th century and continue today with ruins uncovered that date back through the different period of Roman history.

It took us less then five minutes to walk to the forum and entered it at the intersection of via Cavour and via Dei Fori Imperiali. To avoid the 30 minute line at the Colosseum, I would recommend buying your entry passes at the Forum as there was no line at all. A single pass costs 12 Euros and this will get you in to the Forum, Colosseum and Palatine.

The Forum still has some substantial columns and arches still standing and we marvelled at the level of detail still present after so many years. There are guides available should you wish to hire one, but we found our DK Eyewitness guidebook to provide a substantial level of detail in looking at the ruins.

I would recommend allowing an hour and a half to adequately view the site.

The Colosseum

We exited the Forum to the east and walked across the plaza to the Colosseum. It was mid-morning and there were several hundred people already in and around the site. From the would-be Gladiators posing for pictures with you, to the umbrella stands and private tour guides looking for customers, the Colosseum was bustling with activity.

Since we bought our combo pass at the Forum, we bypassed the ticket line and walked straight in. You are able to rent audio tour equipment if you don’t want a guide and don’t have a guidebook of your own. We elected to walk around the Colosseum on our own with our guidebook in hand. There is a museum display on the mezzanine level and it is a great place to get out of the heat for a while.

You can freely explore the Colosseum on your own. Unlike the Vatican where people are herded through on a predefined path, the Colosseum is set up to accommodate those wishing to move about on their own schedule.

Looking closely at the architecture and design of the Colosseum you marvel at how efficient this and advanced this building was. The structure was commissioned by the Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD and completed in only 8 years. When it opened in 80 AD it seated 55,000 people and seating was allocated based on social classes. One can’t help to draw comparisons as to how modern day stadiums and arenas are constructed and how events are managed.

It was common to have the emperors hold shows at the Colosseum that would start with animals performing circus tricks, gladiators fighting each other to the death. If a gladiator was badly wounded he would surrender his fate to the crowd. A "thumbs up" sign from the emperor meant that he would live and a "thumbs down" sign meant that he would be put to death. In the late 19th century excavations exposed the labyrinth of underground rooms where the animals were kept.

For a structure that was opened over 2000 years ago, the condition of the Colosseum is amazing. I would recommend allowing an hour to hour and a half to view this site.

Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain is one of the most famous fountains in the world and definitely the largest Baroque fountain in Rome. The fountain is a jewel of water and stone that is nestled between the palaces of the historic centre of the city in Trevi district. From our B&B the total walking time to the fountain was 15 minutes.

The history of the fountain began in 1453 when Pope Nicholas V commissioned the fountain to be built at the end of Acqua Vergine aqueduct. It was redesigned and moved to its current location in 1762.

The fountain is 25.9 metres high and 19.8 metres wide. The central figure of the fountain, in front of a large niche, is the God of Sea, Neptune, riding a chariot in the form of shell pulled by two sea horses. The horses symbolize the changeable moods of the sea – one is calm and obedient, the second one is restive. Each of them is guided by a Triton. On the sides there are the statues representing Abundance and Salubrity. The backdrop for the fountain is the Palazzo Poli, with a façade of Corinthian pilasters. Above the sculptures in the fountain are bas-reliefs, one of them shows Agrippa, the girl after whom the aqueduct was named. All around, natural and artificial forms merge together in a representation of rocks and petrified vegetation that run along the foundation of the palace and around the borders of the pool, which represents the sea.

Legend says that you will return to Rome if you toss a coin over your shoulder with your back to the fountain. Approximately 3,000 Euros are thrown into the fountain each day and are collected at night. The money has been used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome's needy.

The Trevi Fountain is very famous and it appeared in several films. There is a scene in the 1953 comedy Roman Holiday, the film Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) is connected with the fountain, a scene of drenching Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini's La dolce vita, Bon Jovi's Thank You For Loving Me music video was filmed there, a scene from the 2003 film Under the Tuscan Sun and many others.

The fountain is huge gathering spot for tourist and vendors selling their wares. We were there on two separate occasions once in the afternoon and the other around 10:00 pm and the crowds were large both times. It took over a half hour each time to nudge my way into a position to take the two pictures that I took of the fountain. The night shot was especially difficult as I required a tripod to be set up in order to achieve the exposure that I was looking for. They are two of our favourite shots of Rome.

The Spanish Steps

Located at the heart of the Rome hotel district in the 18th and 19th century, the Spanish Steps, carved between the tall shuttered houses painted in muted shades is a primary gathering place for tourists and Italians alike. From the base of the steps the steps are an intimidating climb but it well worth the ascent especially if you visit the area at dusk where you can look down the shopping district of via Condotti and take in the pink hues of an impending sunset.

Shopping in Rome

As we left the Spanish steps we walked through via Condotti which is home to the every designer imaginable. In the evening, the Valentino and Louis Vuitton stores have very entertaining window displays that are best viewed at night even though the stores are closed. The shopping hours in Rome are different from those in North America with most stores closing in the afternoon between 1:30 pm and 4:00 pm with most closing at 8:00 pm.

Via Del Corso intersects with via Condotti and is also a very nice shopping area with unique shops suited to be more affordable than the designer district on via Condotti. There are more restaurants along via Del Corso however, this is Rome and food is never far away.

Rome Sights - First Evening

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Two For the Road on August 5, 2009

Capitoline Hill

We began exploring the Capitol region around 6:00 pm on the evening we arrived in Rome. In June the sun sets in Rome at 8:45 PM and we needed all of that remaining daylight to cover the expansive grounds of the Capitol region.

The Capitol was the center of the Roman world. You can enter from the north alongside the Forum or to the west via The Cordonata, a spectacular stairway that was designed by Michelangelo. Looking down to the east you will see views of the Forum and the Colosseum; to the south you will see the Palatine and the Teatro di Marcello. On the North side of the Capitol you will pass by Piazza Venezia and the recently restored Victor Emmanuel Monument.

The highlight for us was the Piazza del Campidoglio which was designed by Michelangelo for Pope Pius V in 1566. The intricate detail on the marble paving that was used in the Palazzo is best seen early in the morning or at dusk when the crowds are not present. The Piazza is flanked by the Palazzo Nuovo and the Capitoline Museums. Most of the restoration work is nearing completion at the Capitol making it very easy to appreciate how it was the centerpiece of Roman life.

After a day of travel and an evening of exploring we ventured down one of the many alleys off of via Cavour to have dinner at one of the restaurants that was recommended by the Nicolas Inn. We weren't disappointed as the food was superb and the atmosphere was exactly what we were looking for as we were the only tourists in the place!

Rome 101

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Two For the Road on August 4, 2009

Finding a Place to Stay

We looked for several months at a variety of Hotels and B&B’s in Rome for our pre-cruise three night stay. We began by mapping out the location of the sights that we wanted to see on Google Earth such as the Trevi Fountain, the Forum, The Colosseum, Spanish Steps, The Vatican, Piazza Navona, The Pantheon and the Capitol. Once those were plotted, we added several hotels and a few B&B`s to our Rome map based on the contributions from IgoUgo members, TripAdvisor reviews and comments from contributors. I would also highly recommend buying the Rome guide published by DK Eyewitness Travel. It is an easy read and highlights Rome by area making it very easy decide what would be of interest to you.

Our criteria were location, atmosphere, reputation and price. The Nicolas Inn B&B was the hands down winner in every category. The Nicolas Inn is within walking distance of everything. Hospitality can only be genuine in nature, and the owners of the Nicolas Inn (Francois and Melissa Nicolas) made our Rome stay an exceptional experience. It’s the little things that they do that you really make a difference. You tend to appreciate them more after you stay somewhere else where those gestures of goodwill are not offered or even considered to be important by the larger hotels. If you are planning on staying in Rome, I would encourage you to reference our full review on the Nicolas Inn that I will be posting shortly.

Arriving from the Leonardo da Vinci airport, you will need to take a train into Rome. The price of a one way ticket was 11 Euros per person. You should buy your train tickets at the Tobacco store adjacent to the train platform at the airport. It is better to wait for the direct train if you can as it will save you 30 minutes on the trip. When you come up the stairs to the platform area, turn right and you will see it across the concourse. There are several companies also offering motor coach services to the Termini station but you should be aware that they also charge an additional fee for every bag that they place in the trunk, so two people with three checked pieces of luggage will cost approximately 100 Euros for the one way trip. It is important that you validate each ticket before boarding the train. Throughout our train rides in Italy and Greece, we always saw the officials checking tickets.

The Termini Station is the main train station in Rome and is quite large. It took us over 20 minutes to walk from the arrival platform to the main exit. The Nicolas Inn is located on via Cavour - one of the streets that border the Termini Station, so getting to our B&B on foot was very easy. There are an abundance of cabs available but the same luggage costs apply, so the half mile trip will cost you 15 – 20 Euros depending on traffic.

A few words about pickpockets - You will read that they are everywhere. We travelled with a backpack full of camera equipment, enough euros for the day, generally 150 Euros or less, and never felt uneasy or unsafe while in Rome or anywhere else on our three weeks in Europe. Basically, it comes down to common sense. If you place your wallet in a loose back pocket, it will likely disappear. Here is a tip for anyone traveling with a backpack: Take a few twist ties with you to join the zippers of the backpack together for extra security. As our host at the Nicolas Inn put it, "Trust is good…no trust is better."

As we walked along the cobblestone sidewalks the traffic sound of a big city provided a distinct contrast to the ancient history that was about to envelop us. The Nicolas Inn is located less than five minutes from the Forum and as we got closer to our B&B our view of the Forum directly in front of us and the Colosseum to our left energized us from our 16 hours of travelling. Upon arriving at the Inn, we were greeted by our host Francois who had two ice cold glasses of water waiting for us. Rome in June is very hot and humid and even a short walk in 90 degree heat can seem longer than it is.

Getting Around in Rome

There are no shortage of busses and taxis around Rome, but with the summer heat and humidity, standing on a crowded bus was very unappealing. We elected to walk everywhere based on the location of our B&B. It also provided us with a chance to wander down a side street if we wanted to. We also avoided the tours as we wanted to see Rome on our schedule, not that of the tour operator. We witnessed 50 people leaning out the windows of a bus to take pictures of the Forum as they drove by and were glad we decided to walk. If you are unable or not interested in walking everywhere I would recommend that you purchase a Roma Pass. You can by a Roma Pass at most tobacco stores and it is good for all public transportation in Rome.

Crossing streets can be a challenge at uncontrolled intersections. Italian drivers have heavy feet but they will stop abruptly for pedestrians - just make sure that you make eye contact with them as you step off the curb. It is easy to see the newcomers to Rome. They are the ones standing on the edge of the curb for an eternity! It seems daunting but after a half day, you will get the hang of it.

If you are walking, you must take a water bottle with you to stay hydrated. There are many water fountains in Rome where you are able to refill it. The water is cool and very good to drink.

Food in Rome

Our host Francois was able to recommend several restaurants nearby and reminded us that Italians run on a different timetable then North Americans do. The majority of the retail shops and restaurants close just after lunch and although most retail stores re-open at 4:30 the restaurants do not re-open until 7:00 pm. If your goal is to experience Rome as local resident, I would recommend getting a table early and watch the restaurant come alive. The pace of service is much slower than we see back home making it a very relaxed atmosphere. So relaxed, that you will need to ask your waiter for the bill when you are ready to leave.

We chose to dine at restaurants that were recommended by the Nicolas Inn. These places were where the locals ate and were typically located a block or two away from the tourist restaurants. The cozy atmosphere combined with the generous portions of pasta made dining in Rome a great experience. We were never disappointed in the quality of the food and we were able to dine in most instances for less then 35 Euros at dinner and 30 Euros for lunch if we limited ourselves to a couple of drinks each. By comparison, a lunch on the patio of Piazza Navona which is lined with colourful cafes and shops will set you back 60 Euros for the same meal. The atmosphere isn’t as quaint, but the setting is beautiful and it is worth a look to decide which ambience you prefer.

Our breakfasts were included with our room and they were served at a café just down from the Nicolas Inn. They had a great selection of croissants and pastries and provided a great start to each day.

Gelaterias are everywhere and we found ourselves making at least two trips to them each day. You should never pay more than 2 Euros for a single scoop and never buy your gelato from a street vendor as they just don’t have big enough coolers to provide a good product.

You should also never line up for pizza regardless of how good the review is. You will quickly notice that there are thousands of pizzerias in Rome so why wait in line?

Access to ATMs

I would recommend checking with your bank prior to leaving to inquire about ATM fees in Europe. For a $10 account change, we were able to withdraw Euros as we needed them without paying a $10 ATM fee on each transaction. There are lots of ATMs around Rome so you won’t need to map out their locations in advance.

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