Saturday, May 18, 2013

Tales of Cruising & A Visit To The Cinque Terre

5/15/13 Finally, I have found a little time to go through my pictures and prepare a report about our recent cruise and following time in Italy. On April 6 we boarded the Navigator of the Seas in New Orleans for a 15 day transatlantic cruise to Civitavecchia, Italy, which is the port for Rome. Here is a picture of the Navigator: The first part of the cruise was 8 straight days at sea. These are Elaine's favorite days because she loves being on the ship. There are many activities offered, although we mostly spent a lot of time in the gym. In the late afternoon, we joined friends from previous cruises in the Diamond+ lounge. This is a nightly Happy Hour from 5 to 8:30PM for people who have done more than 175 cruise nights on Royal Caribbean. Free drinks are served, as are an assortment of hot and cold appetizers. Here is a picture of the people we spent the most time with in the lounge: From left to right are Mary, Mark, Egbert, Christiane, Elaine and Peggy: Usually we would be joined by other friends, such a Rob & Jeff, who always dressed up in their kilts for formal nights: Because we were at a "milestone", with regard to cruise points, we attended a special ceremony where we were awarded a crystal block, which has an etching of the Navigator on it. It was presented by Robert, the Hotel Director: There are a couple of specialty restaurants onboard where we can get a gourmet dinner for special occasions and an extra fee. The first formal night, we joined friends from previous cruises, Andree and Dick Hindorff, at Portofino. The food was delicious and we had fabuolous service from Gordana. Here is a picture: At the second formal night, we hosted Steven Newell, who is the assistant guest relations officer onboard, because we had met him on the Jewel in 2011, and another cruise friend, Doug White, who cruises on the Jewel so often he is the honorary "Mayor of the Jewel". Again, we had a delicious dinner and a delightful time with these friends. Every evening, after dinner, there is entertainment in the theater. Often it is a guest performer, such as a singer, musician, magician, or comedian. Sometimes it is the onboard cast of singers and dancers who put on a production number involving lots of great music and dancing. Here is a picture of one of their numbers: Another perk we enjoy on the cruises is a special lunch with some of the ship's officers. This time we were lucky enough to have the main financial officer, Janet, and the ship's doctor. Our first port was in Punta Delgada, Azores. We have been there many times and the weather wasn't the best this time, so we just did internet at the mall and walked around the town a bit. Here is a picture of a 100% electric one person car that was on display at the mall: The next port was Toulon, France, a place we had never been before. We actually docked at La Seyne Sue Mer, which was across the harbor from Toulon. We took the local ferry boat over and it was a lot cheaper and quicker than the ship's shuttle. The walk along the seafront promenade was scenic and interesting. There was a street market going on until noon on one of the other pedestrian streets nearby, and it was interesting to walk up the street and see all the goods for sale. Here is a typical pedestrian street, which to us looks typically French: Here is a picture of the market street: We walked along the streets and eventually ended up in front of the Opera House, which not only had a fabulous facade, but had a huge square in front of it with an open air restaurant, and shops all around. In fact, the whole town was full of picturesque squares, where there were restaurants with outdoor seating (which the Europeans just love!), and people selling things like jewelery and handicrafts. Our last port was Livorno, and lots of people went off to do shore excursions, but it was rainy and cold so we stayed on the ship. By the time we got to Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, where the transatlantic cruise ended, it was sunny again. Elaine and I were staying on the ship for the next cruise which was a 7 day Mediterranean cruise, so we said goodbye to the cruise friends who were leaving, and explored the town a bit. Here is a picture of the huge statue that now adorns the large promenade area near the beach: I don't have a clue why it was here, as it is my understanding that this couple was in an American picture of 2 people celebrating the announcement of the end of World War II in 1945. The first port on the Med. cruise was Messina, Sicily. The weather was overcast and drizzly as we sailed into the harbor. This is the monument which greeted us as we sailed in and docked: The best shore excursion from this port is Taormina, and we could have easily gone there on our own by train. But with the ugly weather, we didn't think it would be a good day to appreciate a picturesque medieval town. So we stayed in Messina, walking over a few blocks in time to see the astronomical clock, located in a 60 foot bell tower attached to the cathedral. This tower had to be rebuilt after the 1908 earthquake, and was fitted with the astronomical clock in 1933. At noon, the bronze statues come to life, starting with a lion roaring (the symbol of Messina province), followed by a rooster crowing, then the music of Ave Maria plays while the other religious figures take their turns moving around. The inside of the cathedral was rather ordinary, although it supposedly has the third largest pipe organ in Europe, with over 16,000 pipes. We were exploring the city with Egbert & Christiane, friends from Germany, and we all got really wet walking up to a church high on a hill which had a great view over the city and of the cruise ship in the harbor: Our next port was Pireaus, a short train ride from Athens. This day we were with 5 cruise friends. This picture was taken in front of the parliament building, where we had just missed seeing the changing of the guard. Good thing Elaine and I got to see it the last time we were here. From left to right are Rob, Egbert, Chris, the guard, Jeff, Glenn & Elaine: Walking around in the downtown tourist area located below the Acropolis was delightful because most of the streets are traffic-free, there were interesting shops, and restaurants with outdoor seating on the sidewalks: Throughout the area, there were fresh fruit stalls, and we were very impressed with the strawberries all stacked up on this one: Here is a picture of the Acropolis towering over the area we were exploring: Walking around Athens you can see ruins from thousands of years ago scattered all over. There are usually fences protecting them. These ruins are of the Bathhouse of the Winds: We stopped for a break at an outdoor restaurant near the ruins: After the break, we found the "flea market" area, which was actually filled with lots of antiques: Kasadasi, Turkey is a place we have been multiple times and always enjoy. Check out this view from our ship: And right across from us was the island, with a fort on it, which we explored on our last visit. Look at the water. Can you tell why the coast of Turkey is called the Turquoise Coast??!! Our ship was the only one in port, which was pleasant with regard to lack of crowds. On the other hand, this port is full of shops, and you can't walk around without being badgered by every shopkeeper you pass. We lasted about 1 block, and then gave up and went for a walk along the waterfront. There is a very nice walkway right along the waterfront, with nice sculptures, grassy areas, park benches, etc. As we were walking along the waterfront promenade, imagine our surprise when we passed Rick Steves, who was filming a new segment there. He is the author of Europe Through the Back Door, and he does regular segments on TV on PBS called Travels In Europe. We said, "Hi Rick. Can we take your picture?" Rick said OK, but the cameraman yelled for us to be quick about it. So here is the picture I hurriedly took: In Chania, Crete, first we walked through the indoor market: Since this is an island, there were lots of stalls selling fish: The more interesting shops and stalls are out in the small streets where they sell a lot of items designed to appeal to tourists, especially goods made of leather, which seems to be a specialty here: The very best part of sightseeing in Chania is going to the Venetian Port. This is the harbor area which was built by the Venetians when they had control of this island a few centuries ago. It is a quiet, picturesque area with lots of restaurants that have outside seating so everyone can enjoy the ambiance. They all have WiFi as well, which is pleasant, although there is free public WiFi available in the area too. Here is a picture of the Venetian Port: At the end of the harbor wall, there is a lighthouse. Here we are in front of it: At the end of the cruise, we walked to the train station in Civitavecchia and caught the train to Levanto. We had not booked our tickets in advance, which was stupid because when we got to the station there was only one seat left in first class and one in second class, so we sat separately, but we made it. We were not aware that it was a holiday in Italy that weekend, and it totally impacted the trains. When we arrived in Levanto, the little town just north of the 5 Cinque Terre towns, we called our B&B and Marco picked us up at the train station. The B&B is owned and run by Mama Rosa, who is about our age, and her son, Marco. Here is a picture of them: We decided to book this B&B in Levanto because it was the next town north of the Cinque Terre towns and would be easy to get to all the towns by train or boat. It would be less filled with tourists than the 5 Cinque Terre towns, and costs for meals and lodging were slightly less. Levanto turned out to be a most delightful town and was more authentically Italian. The B&B was in a very quiet area, the Old Town, and all of the streets were pedestrian alleyways such as this one right outside our door: Every morning, Mama Rosa met us at the bottom of the stairs, kissed us on both cheeks with a cheery "bon journo" and fed us a delicious breakfast in the dining room: Right above our B&B, about 50 yards away, was an old castle and a colorful church: Additionally, there was a very large beach just a few blocks away from our B&B as well: About 1/2 block away from our B&B there was a small local bar and restaurant called Cristal. Just ordering a drink there was cause for lots of free appetizers and snacks to appear on our table: Another great discovery located very close to our lodging was the Acqua Dolce campground. Found out from Trip Advisor that this was one of the best places to eat in Levanto, so we went there one night and had a delicious and cost-effective meal. It even had good ambiance, with some outside tables, white linen table cloths, etc. Additionally, after dinner, we had the fun of walking around the campground and looking at all the rigs. This being Europe, the RV's were all fairly small, by American standards, and there were also lots of tents, campervans, and caravans. The first day we woke up to thunder and rain, so we took the train to Monterosso, the nearest seaside town to Levanto. These towns are all fairly close together, so the train rides between them are usually 5 minutes or less. By the time we got there, the rain had stopped and by the time we walked to the main part of town, it was actually sunny and almost hot. The town was quite picturesque: There was a clock tower in the middle of town too: The main street was filled with shops, of course, and quite picturesque: The towns are mostly all on the seaside, yet have steep hills behind them, which are terraced. There are hiking trails that go between the towns, and unfortunately most of them were closed when we were there because of landslides. The one trail that was still open was the one in this picture which goes from Monterosso to Vernazza: The trail was pretty difficult and would have taken 3+ hours, so we took the train to Vernazza. This was very full of tourists by the time we arrived there. It is also the town that many of the travel writers, such as Rick Steves, like the best, so it is heavily impacted by tour groups too. This is the main street: At the bottom of the street was the very beautiful waterfront: As I mentioned earlier, the towns are close to each other. From the waterfront, we could see Monterosso, the town we had just left: We walked up the trail towards Monterosso just far enough to get this picture of Vernazza's harbor: Vernazza was one of the towns which was heavily impacted by a huge landslide in October, 2011. Some people were killed, many were injured, and the entire town was closed for quite some time while repairs were made. This poster was in a prominent place on the main street to make people aware of this event: After Vernazza, we skipped 2 of the towns and went to Riomaggiore, the one furthest south. It is also the one with the steepest streets. Right after getting off the train, we had to walk through a colorful tunnel: The main street was colorful and a lot like the other little towns: In this picture you can see how steep the hillsides are in this town: The waterfront in Riomaggiore is very small, especiall compared to several of the other harbors: The second day we took the train to Manarola, and explored there. Here we are down at the waterfront: In the upper part of the town, there was an old cemetery, which had crypts as well as graves: There was also a hiking trail which swung up and around from the cemetery back to the upper part of the town, through the grapevine loaded terraces, which we walked: Most of the towns have grapevines growing on the terraced hillsides and they each produce their own wine. Here are a couple of old pictures that were up along the main street: The last town we explored was Corniglia, which is the only town that is not on the sea. It is located so far up on the cliffs that we had to climb 400 steps from the train station to the main part of town. This is a view of Corniglia taken from Manarola: The streets are very small, most of them pedestrian streets, and many very steep. The third day we were there we hiked the trail between Levanto and Monterosso. It went up and over the steep hills along the seaside, and from the top we took this picture of Levanto: From the other side, we took this picture of the Cinque Terre coastline: This is the town of Monterosso from the top: When we got down to Monterosso, we found that the town and beach were very impacted with people because it was May 1, which is a national holiday. This was such a huge change from the first day we were there, which was much cooler, a weekday, and hardly anyone was on the beach. We took the train to Milan on May 2, stayed overnight in a hotel, and flew from Milan to LAX the next day. Then we took the bus to Union Station and the train to San Diego, where Darran & Marielle picked us up. We had left our car with them while we were gone. The next day we did our laundry and tried to recover from jet lag while they did a wine tasting trip with friends of theirs. Here they are with Brian & Jen Lowe: Sunday, Marielle's sister, Megan, her husband, Ben, and their son, Charlie, came over for dinner. They live nearby and it is always great to see them. Monday we drove back to Park Sierra, where we are now fixing up our rig and getting ready to head for Oregon and Washington for the summer.