Now, if you have followed my cruise planning at all before, you know I ALWAYS plan my own excursions, I think that you get a better product for less money than booking the cruise line excursions. However, I had waited so long to get organized for this one due to a bazillion things going on at home, that by the time I started looking at options on Viator or any other third party tour operator, most of the reasonable ones were sold out, and the only ones left were hella expensive! I was nearly resigned to just wandering around aimlessly in every port (not that the idea doesn’t have merit!). I decided to check out what the ship was offering and lo and behold the excursions were downright reasonable! (I’ll give you my opinion on why I think they were so cheap later, but for now let’s just roll with it.) In case you’ve forgotten, this was the itinerary:
Our first port was Marseille. I’ve been here before with Royal Caribbean so I was looking for a different tour to see some of the surrounding areas. We went with a tour called “Charming Arles.” Here is the description from MSC: “Board a comfortable modern coach for an enjoyable 1.5-hour drive to the historical city of Arles located in the Camargue region in the south of France. The city was once the main Roman colony of ancient Gallia Narbonensis. UNESCO listed the city’s Roman and Romanesque monuments as World Heritage Sites in 1981. The Dutch post-impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh, lived in Arles for a year between 1888 and 1889, during which time he produced more than 300 paintings and drawings. Your panoramic walking tour includes the main sights such as the Church of St. Trophime, which once held cathedral status, the “Place du Forum” that inspired van Gogh’s famous painting and the Roman amphitheatre, whose 120 arches date back to the 1st-century. The amphitheatre was capable of seating more than 20.000 spectators and was built for providing entertainment for the masses in the form of chariot races and gladiators engaged in bloody hand-to-hand combat. You will have time to explore on your own before returning to the ship.”
The trip was $56 per person, not including any food, drinks or gratuities. Our tour tickets were left in our cabin at the previous nights turn down service. We were to meet in one of the lounges to get our tour sticker, then head down with the group to the busses. Once we were loaded up, I realized that this was a combined tour…English and German. This would be a recurring theme throughout our tours and is the reason I think they were so inexpensive. Our group had about 30-35 people and I would guess 10 or so were English speakers. Not a major issue…in fact mostly impressive as the tour guides were clearly multilingual, although some were better than others! Anyway, back to Marseille! The bus dropped us off and our guide led us to Saint-Trophime church (also, a free public restroom!). The church was all decked out for Palm Sunday, it was really pretty.
We then moved on to the ruins of the 1st century Roman Amphitheater and the new 2-tiered Roman gladiatorial amphitheater which is still in use for community events.
We then wandered down side streets to Place du Forum, which has some pretty fancy hotels built using some really old columns.
Then on to L’espace Van Gogh. A quaint garden area that inspired the master painter. The garden is absolutely beautiful, it looks just like a painting!
After that, we were given a time to meet back at the bus (and directions to said bus) and set free to roam as we wished. Mom and I were hungry so we grabbed a sandwich from Sas le Fournil des Lices and sat outside to eat. Thus fortified, we still had some time to kill, so we stopped at…you guessed it…Paddy Mullin’s Irish Pub!
After a lovely glass of wine, we headed back to the bus and ship. Verdict: I loved Arles and I would certainly come back and visit. I did not “love” the dual language tour, but it wasn’t that big a deal overall.
Next up was Barcelona, a city I love. Last year, we had spent several days here so this time I wanted to see something different. I booked “Girona, Figueres & Dali Museum” and I was super excited about it, I love the Dali museum in Paris (you can read about that experience here!) and so I was very much looking forward to this excursion. Here is the description from MSC: “An entertaining day of cultural sightseeing awaits you here, starting with a 1.5-hour coach ride to the historical city of Girona. You’ll head for the excellently preserved Jewish quarter for an external look at the Isaac el Cec Jewish Centre, the site of 12th-century Romanesque baths, also called the Arab Baths due to their Moorish appearance. Moving on again, you’ll then head for the town of Figueres, the birthplace of Salvador Dalí. Once in town, you’ll first have time to get lunch on your own, after which you’ll pay the fascinating Dalí Theatre and Museum a visit. The museum incorporates the building that housed the town’s theatre during Dalí’s childhood and is also the place where one of the young artist’s first public exhibitions was staged. Apart from giving you a chance to view a huge collection of Dalí works, including 3D installations like the Rainy Taxi and the anamorphic room – the Sala Mae West – in which the face of Mae West is revealed when viewed from a certain angle, the museum is also Dalí’s final resting place with the crypt located under the stage. The tour then wraps up with your return to Barcelona and your ship.”
Sounds awesome, right? And it was the most expensive of the excursions I had booked at $91/pp. However about a month before the cruise, I received an email telling me that due to lack of participation, my tour was cancelled and my money would be refunded. Well, damn. So now, not only was my most anticipated excursion cancelled, we had just under a month to find a replacement. We had already been to Sagrada Famila, Park Guell, Montserrat, and seen the Flamenco show. I contacted the tour company I had used before in Barcelona and asked about anything new but all they could offer me at this late date was a private (read: expensive) custom tour. That wasn’t in our budget at this point so we ended up staying on board. As it turns out, it rained most of the day and with the ship mostly empty, we got to spend some time in the amazing spa and I got my first ever massage! Barcelona, I will be back for you, but this time it was not to be!