Doug & Heather's Voyages

Join us as we travel the world...or at least that which can be reached by cruise ship.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Barcelona

Got off the ship at about 7:45 and were in a cab to Hotel Regina almost immediately. Checked in, but no room available (of course), so we checked our bags and headed off to the Metro to Sagrada Familia. Walking out of the metro station and looking up at the most amazing building I've ever seen. As you look closer, the amount of detail put into the building is astounding.

We made our way around to the front and found out there was a big line to get in. Ran into some people from Palmdale in front of us in line who said they couldn't even get in yesterday afternoon because the line was around the block. Good thing we made this our first stop or we might have missed one of the best parts of the entire trip. Since we were so amazed by the building, we decided to get the Audio Tour as we went through. This gave a lot of background information and really helped understand the sculptures on the front and back. These show the story of the Bible in various scenes. The Temptation scenes are sculpted in a very modern, blocky, style while the Nativity is more traditional with soft curves and realistic figures.

That didn't prepare us for the inside which is beautiful with stone tree figures throughout. While the Gaudi influence led to the word gaudy, once you get a close look at Sagrada Familia, you realize it's not gaudy but incredibly beautiful and practical. I've never seen a building designed with such clear emotion and devotion.

After this, we took the long trek out to Parc Guell which is also designed by Gaudi. Not as amazing, but still very beautiful. From there, on to look at some more interesting buildings and lunch.

After lunch, we took a walk down Las Ramblas and kept our eyes out for pickpockets while enjoying the street performers. Then off to Casa Mila including an interior tour. This one is also pretty amazing, built as an apartment building. The most striking thing is the attic with it's hundreds of brick arches as well as the terrace with sculptures on the roof which are all functional as chimneys and stairwells. By this time, we were exhausted and headed back to the hotel to rest for the rough day of flying tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hob Nobbing with the Big Wigs in Monte Carlo

Today we stopped in Monaco. The plan for the day was to walk the Formula 1 course which was a lot of fun. We got to the top and were heading down before realizing we didn't get to see the Casino. So we headed back up by some stairs. It turned out we had walked right by it without realizing which building it was. Oh well.

Very beautiful town, but quite expensive. Heather saw a sign for ice cream for €8 and they had Grand Prix t-shirts for €18 which is about $25.

Today is, sadly, the last day of the cruise. We disembark tomorrow morning in Barcelona and have the day to see the sights there before flying home the next morning.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pisa doesn't taste as good as it sounds...but it's fascinating.

The trip from our port, Livorno, to Pisa is a little bit rough. The ship didn't provide regular transportation from the ship to the train station, nor do they let you walk out of the port yourself. We had to get a shuttle to Piazza Grande and we walked from there. Don't trust the Google Maps measurement tool. It said we would walk 1.4 miles, but it was definitely further than that. After that hike, we got to the train station and had some real fun. Heather's favorite part of this trip is always using public transit (see how happy she is?).

A quick 15 minute train ride and we were in Pisa, a mere 30 walk to the tower. The tower, like the Coliseum in Rome, is quite spectacular when you first see it. Fortunately, we had booked tickets for 12:40 for a tour because when we went up to the ticket window, the only tickets were for 2:40 (about 2.5 hours later). Unfortunately, we had to wait in a horrible, hot, ticket line to get our pre-purchased tickets. There isn't really much to do in Pisa other than this, so the crowds just built around the Field of Miracles…oh well, gave you something to look at once you went up the tower.

The tour was short, but pretty exciting. Walking up the steps is an experience in itself. Especially when you get to the final steps before the bells which are on a small spiral staircase. The view from the bell level is stunning and scary with no platform for walking along them, just 4 steps up to the level where the bells are hung, which were the only flat area on that level. From there you take a nice path up some more steps to the very top. It's a little creepy being up there, but the view was fantastic…I was scared even to hold the camera out over the edge.

Hot walk back to the train station and a nice 15 minute ride on the train back to Livorno. Once in the Livorno Centrale station, we were dreading the last walk back to meet our shuttle, so we caught a bus. Easy to do, but getting the tickets is a little difficult, had to go into the train station to a Tobacci shop to get them. €1 each and it was the best purchase we've made in all of Europe.

Oh yeah, another picture of food for Kim...

Sadly, the end of the cruise is drawing near. One more port tomorrow, Monte Carlo.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

We Came, We Saw and We Conquered Rome

Wow this was a day. We were able to get seats on Princess' "Rome On Your Own" trip which got us to Rome via tour bus and traffic was quite light, so that turned out very well. The trip dropped us off at a spot just off of Saint Peter's Square (Piazza San Pietro) which we hadn't really even planned to see, so that was good.

Being the adventurous type, we made our way to the Metro and seemed to be the only ones going that way as they were pushing a HOHO bus to take people around the city. We dropped into the dark metro station and bought some all day tickets and onto the train headed to Termini station which is the cross roads for the two metro lines. We got off there and switched to the other line which takes you to the Coliseum which was our first stop. Having researched endlessly, we knew to wait in the short line at the Forum to get the combined tickets then headed over to the Coliseum.

Once at the Coliseum, we were able to bypass the tortuous lines and got right in…surprisingly without any kind of security screening. The Coliseum is simply amazing to step into. The sheer size and relative preservation of it is astounding to witness first hand, even after seeing many of the pictures. Avoiding the Gladiators trying to take pictures with you, we made our way into the Forum. This was nice, but not as spectacular as nothing is labeled, so you can't really tell what everything is. Took pictures of everything, so someday we can figure out what those are.

It was really hot coming out of the Forum, so we got some Gelato and continued on the tour. First stop was at the ruins where Julius Caesar was killed, frankly not much to see, just a hole in the ground covering a square block and some homeless and urine smells. It was really cool to see, however. From there, up the street, we saw the ruins of the Agrippa Roman Baths which are now part of a more modern building. Next was the Pantheon. This was a beautiful building and the entry into it as you realize what you are seeing with the sun shining through the hole in the top is worth the visit. Rafael's tomb is located here, under glass, although the building was built by Agrippa, long before Rafael was born. This is the oldest, continuously used, building in the world.

From there, we walked to Trevi fountain. However, along the way, we passed Hadrian's Temple, which was actually the front of a more modern building that they kept up. Also we saw the Marcus Aureleus Column which has a spiral relief of his life story carved into the marble all the way up the tower. Trevi Fountain was being closed because there was a crazy old man climbing on it. We stuck around for awhile to see what would happen as the police climbed into the fountain to bring him down. Unfortunately, I was so caught up in video taping what was happening, that we couldn't really enjoy the fountain. Heather and I both got our €0.10 pieces into the fountain by hurling them over the amazed crowd, so it looks like we'll be coming back sometime.

Tried to see the head of John the Baptist at a church, but it was closed, although we could see through the door and it was very beautiful inside. Then to the Spanish Steps. We were probably the only tourists that sat on the steps for less than a minute…but we had to get going. We also filled our water bottles at the fountain and the water tasted pretty good…we'll find out if it was potable in the next 24 hours, I guess. (You can play Where's Heather? in this picture)

Another metro ride back to Piazza San Pietro, some Pizza at one of the few places that were open, and affordable, then a quick tour of the Piazza which is stunning in architecture and in size. Also made our way across the Tiber looking for Piazza Navona which we didn't find…had to get back on the ship.

All in all, it was a really good day. Tomorrow is Pisa.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pompeii and Pizza, Neapolitan Style

I think today was the hardest day so far, although the weather has cooperated and was much more pleasant and less humid for us. In the morning, we headed to Pompeii and it was absolutely amazing. More than any of the other ruins we've seen, this place has the feel of walking through a real ancient city.

The city was destroyed by ash and rocks from the Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D., basically freezing everything in time. Still in tact were the mosaic floors, frescoed walls and even some of the people. Amazingly, when the site was excavated, there were rocks with hollow sections inside containing human bones. These were used as a cast and made into statues of citizens in their final moments. The expressions of fear on their face and their body positions reveal just how terrifying the eruption was. At the time, Vesuvius had not erupted for 800 years, so they had no idea that it was a volcano.

Walking through the city we saw shops, houses, even the red light district complete with a "menu" of frescoes on the walls. The thing that amazed me most was the roads which were dotted with "cat's eyes" or reflective pieces of stone which would keep them illuminated at night. The streets even had cross walks where pedestrians could step across without having to step directly in the street where all kinds of much from the horses would be hidden. (In the picture of me, Vesuvius is the peak on the left.

After Pompeii, we took a bus ride through Napoli to the a pizza restaurant (here are more pictures, Kim…Margareta Pizza, Italian Beer and Tiramisu).

The last stop was the National Archeological Museum which has the original mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum (another city destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 A.D., although it was covered with lava flow and mud rather than ash). There were also a lot of amazing statues of huge proportions. Our favorite thing on the trip was the floor mosaic outside one of the Pompeii houses which has a picture of a dog and the slogan "Cave Canem"…I guess Bessie's reputation precedes her.

Found out when we returned from our tour that the trains into Rome are going to be impacted by a strike, strong unions make strong industries, I always say. So we are booked on a Rome On Your Own trip which will take us by motor coach into Roma and we'll do the same tour…too bad it's more expensive than our original plan.

Picture it...Sicily, 2009


On our last sea day, we sailed through the Strait of Sicily in the evening. It was formal night, so we were dressed and headed to the top and front of the ship for the sail through. The wind was ridiculous there and you could barely walk to the front, although once at the front, it wasn't as bad, but holding the camera still was a feat. The shot of the cape is the very tip of the boot of Italy.

Tomorrow is Pompeii and Naples. Since I'm sending this one rather late, that one will be up shortly as well.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Mykonos is Too Darn Hot

Apparently we were here on the only day during the year where there is no wind. That made for an extremely hot and humid day, so we didn't spend a whole lot of time. We had originally booked a tour to nearby Delos island to view the ruins of the birthplace of Apollo. However, we've seen plenty of Greek and Roman ruins on this trip, so we cancelled it.

Mykonos is a neat little town and it would have been nice spending more time exploring. We did walk many of the streets and saw the windmills and had a really good local meal at a place called Sakis. At Kim's request, here are some pictures of the food.

We looked for the bar where Aunt Robbie and Uncle Paul spent time, but couldn't find it. The closest we came was a place called Sunset Bar instead of Sundown Bar. Oh well, we have some video of the area, so maybe that will bring back some memories for them.

After lunch, we went back to the ship for a dip in the pool. Finally made it up to Movies Under the Stars for a showing of Mama Mia! The concept is great with them bringing around popcorn in the beginning and milk and cookies at the end…the movie not so much. The music was good, we just couldn't stand the "Woo Hoo" girls. Tonight they're showing Frost/Nixon…which I really liked, but I don't think it's good for that atmosphere.

Today we're at sea heading over for Italy, so probably won't blog until tomorrow night (here…what is that, yesterday noon in the U.S.?).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Istanbul was Constantinople, Now It's Istanbul...not Constantinople

The title says it all. We visited several sites which let us explore the history from Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul.

Another fun part of this visit was using their public transit system. We walked out of the pier and a nice local at the edge of the port directed us to the nearest Tram stop after confirming that we had Turkish Lira (which you needed in order to buy tokens). The timing of this was a little strange because we rode the tram along with hundreds of commuters, so we were standing and crowding in the entire time. Quite an experience. I was impressed with how orderly and quiet the Turkish people on the tram were. It was different from Athens where the train was louder.

After a ride over the Golden Horn (an inlet off of the Bosphorus Strait which separates Europe from Asia, we were on the Europe side today…Asia yesterday), we arrived at Sultan Ahmet station. From here you can see all of the major attractions, so we had an easy time making our way to our first destination. This began our Constantinople experience.

Topkapi Palace was the home of the Sultans during the Ottoman empire. I call this the Constantinople part simply because this was the name of the city at the time…although the Sultans came long after the time of Emperor Constantine. We made our way trying to keep in front of the tour groups, to the ticket window. Unlike some of the other tourists, we had Turkish Lira and were able to get in. We saw some German tourists trying to use Euros and they were sent to a currency exchange (which I'm sure gave a terrible rate). Unfortunately, due to inflation over the past few years, the ticket prices had just doubled from what we had expected…it was still worth it.

Upon entering, we went directly to the Harem for a tour through and we were ahead of the masses of other tours (there were two large ships and a small ship in port, so things were crowded again). The harem had some very beautiful rooms with wonderful mosaics and tiles on a lot of the walls. The architecture for the most part seemed hap-hazard as each Sultan added his own rooms and styles. After this, we toured the rest of the Palace grounds including the Treasury where we saw the Sultan's Dagger which featured prominently in the movie Topkapi. We also saw the 26 karat diamond…very impressive.

The best part of this tour was a section devoted to various religious artifacts. Here we saw Moses' staff, King David's sword, John the Apostle's arm and part of his skull. There was also Mohammed's beard, tooth, sword and bow. This was a pretty impressive collection and throughout this section, there was a man singing the Koran. We looked at him and made eye contact, which, perhaps, we weren't supposed to do because it seemed to distract him.

Continuing our Constantinople experience, we headed over to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque). On the way, a gentleman spoke with us and followed us over there. He said his name was Arsenio and that he had a shop near the Mosque. We weren't sure how to escape from him, but he was very nice and shared a lot of good information about the Mosque and about Istanbul. While we knew he was up to something, he was still very polite and it was nice to get to know one of the locals. I thought the mosque was quite impressive. The tile work and the lighting from the windows high in the dome were very beautiful.

Upon exiting the mosque, began our Istanbul experience. Arsenio led us out of the mosque, down through a gate and up to a street where there was a hotel and some shops. He took us right into a carpet store and upstairs for a carpet demonstration. We felt bad because we knew he put a lot of time in with us, but we weren't going to be buying a carpet. His boss spoke with us and there was really no pressure from them. They showed us 10 or 15 carpets which were very beautiful, but clearly not our modern style. Once we thanked them and left the store, Arsenio took us to his store, a shop with "hand painted" plates. These were also nice, but far too expensive at 160TL. I offered about 50TL, but that was clearly not enough. We parted ways with a hand shake, but Heather and I felt bad not buying anything from him after he spent about 45 minutes with us.

From here, we went to Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya) for our Byzantine experience. This was originally a church with wonderful artwork during the Byzantine empire, but during the Ottoman empire, it was changed into a mosque and the artwork was plastered over. Finally in the 1930's, Ataturk declared it a museum and much of the plaster was removed to reveal the Christian art. This was much older than the mosque, having been built in the 1200s. The dome and windows were wonderful, unfortunately, there was large scaffolding and the central chandelier was down on the ground for renovation. This took away from the beauty of the place.

After this, we took the tram to the Grand Bazaar just to see what it was like. Walking in there were hundreds of jewelry stores and Turks outside each one wanting you to come into their store to look at their wares. We avoided most of this because we were just looking for a place for lunch. Even the food places had people in the middle of the hallway trying to get you in. We picked a place that was nearly full. The "barker" told us it would just be a minute for a table to clear out as they had been trying to get as many people seated as possible. He paged through their entire menu for us and we made our choices. I had a donner kebap plate and Heather had a chicken kebap. The food was good, although more expensive than it would have been on the street.

For some more Istanbul experience, we had carpet salesmen trying to get us in the store. Here are some things we heard here:

"Do you remember me?"
"Now, it's my turn to harass you."
"Brother. Brother, it's me. Come and I will just show you two carpets."
And the best one was from yesterday which we heard from Mom and Dad:
"Do you want a leather jacket? How about a purse? Then how am I going to get your money?"

All of this made for a great experience in Istanbul and Turkey in general. I think we may come back here some day. It's a pretty amazing place with an interesting culture which is very different from ours. I really appreciate the all business aspect of it because it's not like Mexico where everyone just wants you to buy cheap junk…these people really go out of their way to connect with you and make you feel comfortable doing business with them. A lot of fun.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ephesus

Today we visited Turkey. While we were on a tour the entire time in port, you could definitely notice a difference in the culture with the street vendors and signs for "Genuine Fake Watches", etc.

Our tour started with a visit to the last home of the Virgin Mary way up in the hills above Ephesus. The house had been found as a result of a German nun's visions which detailed the area although she had never left Germany. Several Pope's had also visited the site and declared that it was Mary's house. The mountain air and shade provided at this spot was very pleasant, in sharp contrast to the next couple of hours of our tour.

The next stop was the top of Ephesus. The crowds all day were enormous and this was a little discouraging. It would be wonderful to be able to tour this site with fewer people. The ruins are amazing in comparison to the ones we saw in Greece. The inhabitants of the city had been Greek's, but were under Roman rule during the time the city that we visited was built (although there had been a couple of previous sites of Ephesus prior to this). The buildings and temples were well preserved as they had been simply abandoned when the harbor became a swamp due to silt buildup and mosquitoes had festered and spread malaria.

In addition to temples and statues, we got a good feel for the day to day life of the Ephesians. I thought it seemed like a great city to live in with running water, entertainment and lots of commerce. The main shopping area had been a marble ramp with columns and covered stores on each side. Houses of the merchants sat behind the shops and were terraced up the hills. This has been excavated, but was under a good 15 feet of silt buildup. Something like 85% of the city is still to be uncovered since the population at one time was around 200,000. We saw roman baths, a community latrine, and one of the largest libraries of the time.

The Theater is where Paul spoke to the Ephesians about the Christian God. This picture is Heather listening to Paul.

After a compulsory stop at a shopping area where the Turks tried to sell us everything from saffron to ancient coins found at the Ephesus site, likely minted in China, we went to visit St. John's Basilica which was the first resting place of John, the Apostle. His body has since been moved although no one knows where. John was the only one of the 12 apostles who died of natural causes, the others having been killed. Out front of this was where the street vendors swarmed us including a couple of shoeshine people who would reach out for your foot, even if you were wearing tennis shoes. We watched them ruin one tourists black Nike's...not sure how much they charged him for the pleasure.

On the way, we saw the remaining column of the Temple of Artemis which was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Most of the structure had been taken down and used for other construction. There were stork nests on top of many of the ancient structures and there were 4 or 5 sitting on top of this particular column.

Unfortunately this was the last thing we got to see before heading back to the ship. We didn't even have time to stop off at the restaurant on the dock that said they had the best kebaps in town…boo. We really enjoyed this port and would like to come back some day...instead of ruins, I would try going to the large water park on the city's outskirts.

Tomorrow, more Turkey with our visit to Istanbul, not Constantinople.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ancient Greece

Today was a long and hot day, but we got to see most of what we had planned, although a couple of things were from further away than expected. The day started off by getting in line to get off the ship as early as possible. From there, we walked about 2 miles to the metro station. This was the first electric train build in Athens and was very convenient. We met a very nice woman from Norway who was studying Greek in Athens for the summer. She was very helpful and this made the train ride a lot of fun (Heather's favorite thing of the day). From our stop on that line, we switched to another line and rode a couple of stops which brought us to the base of the Acropolis.

The Acropolis was beautiful and the view from the top was amazing. From this vantage point, you could see all of Ancient Athens. Of course, it was also very crowded and hot by the time we got to the top around 11:00 (after having docked a little late at about 9:00). At this point, we were pretty glad we weren't on a tour because the tours had to group together so close, that they couldn't find any free space.

From there, we climbed the Aeropagus which is where speakers could address the population of Athens. It is also where Paul spoke to the Greeks about the Christian god. People make pilgrimages to this site. The view of the acropolis from here was very nice.

Next we headed to the Pnyx which is where votes were cast in the Athenian democracy. As the birthplace of democracy, to us, this was one of the most significant things we saw today although there were no other tourists there. I guess they missed out on the substance of the civilization while only viewing the religious temples and such on the acropolis.

The Agora was the place where government and business was conducted in Athens. Here we saw a lot of ruins and the Temple of Hephaestus which is the best preserved Ancient Greek building from the 4th century BC and still standing…pretty amazing. It was getting hot, so we didn't explore the entire Agora, instead heading off for another train ride to the National Archeological Museum.

On the walk from the Metro station to the museum, we stopped off at a bakery and got some good ice cream (which I think s better than the gelato we've been having). The museum didn't open until 1:30, about 15 minutes after we arrived. After a wait in line, we made our way through most of the museum which included many wonderfully preserved statues and sculptures as well as some other artifacts.

We headed back to the ship on the same train line, pretty good transportation this day, and all of this for only €3 each. The train was extremely crowded for the entire ride, which took about 20 minutes. After getting off the train and realizing we were going to have to walk another couple of miles before reaching the ship, we smelled something wonderful. As we came down the stairs, we realized there was a man cooking souvlaki on the street. It was only €1.50, so we had one and it was really good. Hopefully we won't get sick from that.

Finally back on the ship, we had to take a swim to wash the grime of the day off. Overall, this was a great day that we're going to look back on fondly.