Freedom in the Mediterranean…More Barcelona!

For our last full day in Barcelona, I had scheduled two tours through Viator.  First a guided tour of Sagrada Familia in the morning, then a Flamenco Show at Tablao Cordobes in the evening.  Believe it or not, this was my first time scheduling through Viator, I usually book directly through the tour company.  Here is why I didn’t this time…Paying in US Dollars as opposed to Euros.  Booking directly through a tour company usually  means you pay in cash on the day of the tour, in Euro’s.  I am not opposed to doing that usually, but with five people on the trip, that’s a lot of cash to haul around every day.  So booking on Viator means both that I could pay ahead of time and that I could pay in US dollars.  Then, I just have to remember my vouchers…this is never been a certainly so I really like that I can just show them on my phone!  So first up? A guided tour of Sagrada Familia through Viator.

Our only hiccup of the morning came when I was asked to read a map to get us to the Julia Travel office to begin the tour.  I’m not sure if I have mentioned this but I am TERRIBLE with maps.  I am good at following directions, but if I have to navigate via map?  Well, lets just say it’s lucky I like to wander!

Fortunately, I am aware of this adorable trait so I always leave super early to  account for the fact that I am most certainly going to get lost so we were not late for our check-in.  We met our tour guide, and after a bit of confusion (one party thought that they had signed up for the tour in a different language) we were on our way to the famous church.  This is one of the most important tourist sites in Barcelona, perhaps in Spain, so there are a lot of people there.  Always.  All around.  And vendors.  Everywhere.

But thanks to our “Skip the Line” tickets, we breezed right in, got our tour guise boxes and headphones and headed in the gate.  We began our tour at the Passion Façade on the west side of the church.  Meant to symbolize the Passion of Christ, this façade is very severe and angular.

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We learned where Gaudi even managed to get himself into the scene (He’s the old man beside the knights on the first level!).

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We then moved inside.  I have no words for how awesome the inside of this church is when you first walk in.  Gaudi wanted to use light as well as architecture in his design.  I’d say he succeeded pretty spectacularly (also, kudos to my son for snapping this picture with his iPhone!!).

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The interior is meant to mimic nature so the columns look like trees that branch out at the top; the stained glass is colored so that as the sun moves around the church, different colors shine through; there really are no flat surfaces anywhere in the interior (except the floor of course!).

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Then we moved back outside to the other side, called the Nativity Façade.  This façade is meant to celebrate the birth of Christ.  It is typically Gaudi though, his naturalistic style can be seen throughout with animals and trees interspersed liberally in the design.  This facade is the complete opposite of the stark west side, Passion Façade.

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The Glory Façade, which will, by all accounts, be the largest and most striking façade  is still under construction and covered by scaffolding and tarps.  This will be the primary entrance to the church and is meant to represent the Path to God.

The church is scheduled to open in 2026…exactly 100 years after Antonio Gaudi’s death and I, for one, can’t wait to see it!

Our tour ended in a small building next to the west façade that Gaudi used as an office, and was also used as a school house for local children.  Pro Tip:  This is the ONLY air-conditioning on the grounds…since temps were in the upper 90’s our entire trip you can imagine how popular this little two room building was!

That night, we also had tickets to a Flamenco show at Tablao Flamenco Cordobes.  With Viator, I had the option of just buying tickets for the show, buying tickets for the show + a drink, or the show + a drink + dinner.  Since we all know I am a firm believer in prepaying for my alcohol, I chose the show+drink ticket.  I really vacillated about adding dinner, but ultimately I did not…and boy am I glad (but we’ll get to that later!).

We were ushered into the seating area, and I immediately realized that one benefit to eating dinner there was procuring front row seats to the show as they were all already taken and we were only the second family seated.  We were all handed our drinks…Sangria obviously, and the show began.

These people are crazy talented.  The dancers and singers alike.  The energy they put out, night after night, several times a night is unbelievable.

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The above shot is a good view of what the room looked like.  A Tablao is the wooden stage where the singers and dancers perform.  Overall I think we all really liked the show, but now we were hungry!!

We decided to just walk along La Rambla since we were already there.  We knew that the restaurants there are more touristy, but we were hungry so we were just really looking for someplace with no wait.  We made it approximately one block to a place called Ultramarinos.

So from a street view perspective, it looked fun and the menu had enough variety to ensure that no one would go hungry.  Plus, they could seat a party of five immediately, which was when we wanted to be seated!

I chose my dinner exclusively from the Tapas section.  I have decided that tapas is the greatest way to eat ever.  Period.  Picking five or six “little plates” allows me to taste a bunch of different items and since I have issues making decisions at restaurants, this is genius.  Jarod and Carly both got Paella (different kinds), Tyler got a burger (I know, I know.) and Mom got  (I think) a chicken sandwich…maybe?  At that point I was so in love with my food she could have gotten Krabbie Patties and I wouldn’t have noticed.  But everyone enjoyed their food immensely no matter what they got.   So if you find yourself hungry on La Rambla, head to Ultramarinos.  Is it kitchy?  Yep.  But it is good food and fun so I would definitely head there again.

Next up, we FINALLY board the ship and head off on to France!!  Plus dinner at Chops!

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Freedom in the Mediterranean…The Story Begins!

Way back in the twilight of 2015, when I was on board the Freedom of the Seas Eastern Caribbean cruise, I purchased a “Future Cruise Certificate.” Basically it is a promise to cruise again, which I knew I was going to do anyway, so I took advantage of some perks that they were offering with the certificate and booked a cruise.  Then, in March of 2016 when the 2017 European sailings opened and I saw that my favorite ship, the Freedom, was going to Europe for the summer of 2017 I immediately called and transferred my reservation to the June 18, 2017 sailing out of Barcelona on the Freedom of the Seas.  Since it was the first day that reservations were open (yes…I had been checking every day!) I was able to get the cabins that I wanted, 3 adjacent promenade view cabins with one balcony cabin across the hall.

My next task was to find an apartment that would house 8 people for three nights and not break the bank…Not as easy as it sounds…actually, it doesn’t even sound easy!  Hotels are out, too expensive to get four rooms for three nights.  And you need four rooms…hotel rooms in Europe are hardly expansive living spaces.  So I headed over to AirBNB to look for a place for all of us.

After the apartment in Venice, that we all loved but had no elevator, I was told specifically to find one with an elevator…and I did.  But I did overlook one thing that would be somewhat important…but I didn’t realize that until we got there.

Our flight was crowded but uneventful.  Lines to get through border control were long and we were just barely on-time to meet our AirBNB host.  I rented a 4 bedroom 2 bath apartment in the Eixample neighborhood.  The location turned out to be fantastic, easy to get everywhere we needed to go.  It had a beautiful view:

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It also had an amazing kitchen with all utensils, wifi all over the apartment, a fresh water dispenser, an elevator, and ceiling fans in all rooms…which was a good thing because the one thing I did not look for…air conditioning.  In the Mediterranean.  In Summer.  During a heat wave.  Okay, well that last part I couldn’t have known, but all I can say is thank goodness for the gigantic windows all over the apartment and the ceiling fans in every room.  They kept it bearable!

I had scheduled several tours for our three days in Barcelona.  The first was a tour of Barcelona via motor coach with a trip to Montserrat.  I used Barcelona Day Tours and they were fantastic!  Our guide picked us up right at our apartment and we toured some of the highlights of the city on our way to Park Guell where we had “skip the line” tickets. This park was designed by Antonio Gaudi originally as a housing development for the wealthy, but it never really took off even after Count Eusebi Guell moved there himself to try and add to the prestige.  Ultimately, only two houses were ever built and it was eventually converted into a municipal garden.

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A bunch of the infrastructure was built in anticipation of all those upper crust folks moving in, so there is quite a bit to see there, and it is all VERY Gaudi.  It is the exact type of architecture you think of when you think of him.  Gaudi did not have a huge budget for this, so he improvised.  He used scraps from other construction sites to decorate his buildings and other creations.

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Like this bench.  It has “butt bumps” on the seats meant to align your spine when you sit to make it more comfortable.  Surprisingly enough, they work really well, and that stone and ceramic bench is actually really comfortable!

Our next stop was a “drive-by” of La Sagrada Familia.  I say “drive-by” but we did actually get out and walk around the entire church with Marta, we just didn’t go inside!  I will give you a quick teaser picture here but a full review when I talk about my full guided tour later!

 

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It is massive, and awesome, and truly a work of art.  I can’t wait to see it finished!!

But moving on, we next headed out of the city to the monastery Santa Maria de Montserrat.  This is about 28 miles west and 4000 feet above the city of Barcelona.  My hope was that maybe it would be a smidge cooler up there in the mountains, but really it was just closer to the sun!  But it is beautiful!

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The basilica houses the Virgin of Montserrat, Catalonia’s saint and plenty of people make the pilgrimage here just to see her.  In addition, about 50 boys in the famous Montserrat L’Escolania boys choir live here while they are members.  They give a daily free concert in the basilica, but ironically enough, the boys were in New York while I was in Barcelona so I did not get to hear them.  Still, its pretty amazing inside:

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With some pretty awesome sculptures:

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And some absolutely incredible stained glass:

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We decided to eat in the cafeteria style restaurant, in addition they have two sit-down style restaurants, a bar and a grab and go type store if you want a picnic.  The selling point for me was the buffet style and options for everyone.  I’m just kidding!!!  The cafeteria offers all you can drink wine and beer with your meal!!!  SOLD!!!  But, in all honesty, the food was decent, the wine was okay and the beer was warm.  But it was reasonably priced, filling, and most importantly air conditioned!

Outside the cafeteria there are some more amazing views and art work.

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Another option would have been to take the funicular to the highest point.  I’ve heard that you can see all the way to Mallorca on a clear day.  However, some of us are not fond of cable cars, or funiculars, or heights so we didn’t go.  Really, after Santorini, how bad could it be??!!  Next time…I’m going up!

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Back in our van and down the mountain to resume our guided tour of Barcelona.  Our next stop was Montjuic.  As Marta explained to us, some pretty amazing things are in that area, left over from the 1929 International Exposition (World Fair).  The Font Magica still does its light show every night and the Palau Nacional is still beautiful and imposing.  We stopped on the cliff overlooking the harbor for some breathtaking views of the harbor.

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Learned about some cool trees that had been transplanted to Barcelona and how they adapted to their new, much drier, home.

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Again…amazing artwork everywhere!!

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And finally, caught a glimpse of where to catch our ride later on.

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After this, we headed back to our apartment.  Tired and hot, but totally amazed at what we had seen.  While 8 hours is no where near enough time to see all that Barcelona has to offer, I felt like Barcelona Day Tours, and specifically Marta, had done a fantastic job.

Tomorrow we have a guided tour of the inside of Sagrada Familia as well as a Flamenco show!!  Stay tuned!!

Two Majestic Trips…One Review!

Because I spend quite a bit of time in the casino when I cruise…and because I don’t often win…Royal Caribbean sometimes takes pity on me and gives me certificates for free cruises.  These are not big, fancy week long cruises on their big, fancy ships.  They are usually 3 or 4 day cruises on the older, smaller ships…but hey! They’re free!!

I had booked a cruise for February and wanted to take my father for his birthday (his birthday is really in October, and I made him a really cool card!) See:

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But then…In January, he found out that his work would not give him the time off so my brother got the spot instead.  (Dad gets a much better cruise later on, but you’ll have to wait for that one!)  So that is the first Majesty cruise.  A three night trip to Nassau and Cococay.  Certainly a quick trip, but Port Canaveral is not too bad a drive so easy enough for a weekend get-away

Then, I got another certificate in the mail for a free cruise so I hatched a plan to use this one for bribery!  I needed to pick up my son from college in Ft. Lauderdale and move him back home for the summer.  I drive a SUV, but my BIL drives a BIG SUV!  So I thought, “If I take him on the cruise, he will go with me the rest of the way from Port Canaveral to Ft. Lauderdale, help me move the kid out of the dorm, then we can split the drive back home!” It was a genius idea!  But that’s not how it worked out…It was even better than that!

You see, while we were on that first Majesty cruise, my brother earned a certificate for money off a future cruise so we decided to book a second cabin for the May four night cruise and bring Katie along as well!  Then I was able to get Jarod to convince a local college buddy to store some of his stuff over the summer, so now I didn’t need the big SUV.  It all worked out really well, mostly!

So since both cruises went to the same places, on the same ship I am going to combine them into one review…that may or may not work but we’ll see how it goes!

First up, a quick pit stop at Grills Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar. Why? Because boarding doesn’t start until 11am so what else are you supposed to do?  Everyone needs a pre-boarding drink!  And a quick picture!

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The Majesty of the Seas is an older, smaller ship in Royal Caribbean’s fleet.  But they have made some upgrades, most notably on the pool deck where the addition of water slides was a big hit with the Under Six member of our party!

Another big hit with the Pre-K crowd was our stateroom attendant’s mastery of the famed “Towel Animal” left in the room after evening turndown service.  I am lucky that I have always had really good stateroom attendants and these two cruises were no different!  Here is one of our nightly visitors!

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As a quick side note…I left those sunglasses on the plane ride to Barcelona so if you flew American Airlines last month and found those awesome Minnie Mouse glasses in the seat pocket, can I have them back please?

But back to the Majesty.  Our itinerary was the same on both cruises but in different order.  In addition, the four day cruise also had a day at sea, while the three day cruise just had the port stops.  So first up…Cococay, Bahamas.  Royal Caribbean’s private island.  This is a tender port, which means you have to get off your big ship, onto a smaller ship in order to get to the island.  Really like a water taxi service.  Because of this, tender ports are susceptible to weather disruptions and are often missed.  We had amazing weather on both cruises so we were able to visit twice.

Here is what the Majesty looks like from the tender boat.  The water around the island is not deep enough for her to pull closer so she really does have to park a bit away.

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And that little boat by her side that looks like a barnacle is one of the tenders.  But they really are a nice little ride, provided the water is not choppy.  You can see our seas looked like glass. Nice and smooth!

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And here is a little part of the island.  This has been totally built by Royal Caribbean so everything and everyone on the island works for the cruise line.  This makes for a nice sanitized day at the beach, which is great and I really like Cococay, but sometimes I miss local flavors and stuff like that.  Still, it is beautiful.

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We had some cloud cover as you can see, but it never rained.  A newer addition to the island is the floating bar.  Basically a tiki hut that floats by the shore.  It is connected by a giant chain so if the water gets rough, they can reel it in.

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It does have a limit on how many people can be on it at one time…presumably so it doesn’t sink…so they kind of do a “one off, one on” scenario once it gets full.  I haven’t actually been out there yet, but it certainly looks cool!

Next up, we headed to Nassau.  If you have read my previous review of Nassau, you may grasp that I have not had the best of luck there! So sometimes I don’t even get off the ship anymore, but this May I had a goal…Pirate Republic Brewery.  It is right by the port and I love tasting local beers so that was my mission.  In addition, the beach soccer world cup was going on that week and while the day we were there was the rest day, so no games, I did want to see if I could find a t-shirt or something from the event…It is Soccer Mom Travels after all!

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Looks like we got the best parking spot!  And look!!! Right there!!  Pirate Republic Brewery!!  How close is that!!

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Off we headed to find soccer stuff then stop for a nice frosty local beer…ah the best laid plans.  Seems I have no luck in Nassau at all.  We tried to get a taxi over to the stadium since the vendors were telling us that the only place that would sell t-shirts like that were over at the stadium, but then the taxi driver said that the vendors wouldn’t even be open because there were no games.  Sigh.  Okay so that plan is shot…at least I still have my frosty local beer to look forward to, right??

Um. No.

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While I heartily applaud the policy of not drinking and voting, this would once again add to my luck in Nassau.  So once again I am leaving Nassau without doing any of the things I actually planned to do.  Lucky I still have two more trips scheduled with stops in Nassau.  I will get to you yet Pirate Republic!

Overall, I really do like these short cruises on the smaller ships.  I am very lucky to live within driving distance which makes it possible to do these.  Next up?  Freedom of the Seas in the Western Mediterranean.  Spoiler…Yes, it was as awesome as it sounds!

Happy Birthday!!

So I am back from my venture on Carnival Cruise lines and I will write a full trip report shortly.  BUT!  Today is my dear brothers birthday and I wanted to take a minute and let him know how dear he is to me.

There are people in our lives that love us: family, friends, etc.  But if you are really lucky, you have someone that supports you unconditionally.  Without question or reservation, no matter what stupid decisions you make.  My brother is that guy.  I am blessed to have a plenty of loving family…sometimes part of that love is to call me out when I make an unwise decision (believe it or not it does happen…sometimes!).  My brother just supports (at least to my face…he may talk about me behind my back though!! :-).  And he always has.

In addition to being an amazing brother, father, son, husband and friend; he is also an amazing travel companion.  So to that end, he will be joining me on my next cruise in February.  This is the first time we have cruised, or even traveled just us so there really is no limit to the trouble I expect us to get into!

We will be sailing back on Royal Caribbean, on their oldest and smallest ship, the Majesty of the Seas, but even being the small, old girl she still has a loyal following so I am looking forward to sailing on another new ship for me.

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We are headed to Nassau and CocoCay.  This is just a quick 3 day cruise, but I am honored to have my brother along.  So Happy Birthday dear…I can’t wait to cruise with you!

Part 9 (Santorini, Greece) – Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

Santorini.  The most picturesque of all the Greek Isles, as I had been told over and over again by friends and family that had been there and loved it.  I will admit, my expectations were high heading into our third and final tour with The Travel Insiders.  We chose a tour called, “The Highlights of Santorini – The Black Pearl of the Aegean.

This was our only tender port so I did have a little heartburn about getting off the ship and up the cable cars by our tour’s assigned meeting time…I am a little, teensy bit OCD about being on time so I tend to get really crabby when I am late.

We did eventually get off the ship and to our meeting spot and we were about 10 minutes late…this means that I was almost in hives stressing about it, but I tried not to be too crabby!!!  (That only worked for part of the day!)

We got our tickets for the ride up the cliffside and hopped on the cable cars.  My mother is terrified of these things so I am pretty sure she kept her eyes closed the entire time, but if she hadn’t, she would have seen a pretty steep ride up the side of a volcano.

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Okay, it’s a little steep…but a quick 5 minutes and you are up to the top where you now realize that you are standing on the rim of a volcano.  From the town of Fira you can really see how the cone of the volcano used to look and you realize that your ship is parked right in the middle.  I know a bunch of really smart science and geology people have proven this volcano to be dead, but there is a minute when you look around at the throng of tourists and wonder which one you will toss over the side of the cliff in case an emergency sacrifice becomes necessary.

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We met our tour guide and she walked us around Fira showing us some lovely views and giving us the history of the caldera and how the island came to be so popular.  We wound through very crowded streets to get to our coach that would take us to Oia.

After a bit of a harrowing ride along sheer cliff walls, we arrived in picturesque Oia.  This is what everyone thinks of when they think of Santorini.   This is the white washed buildings with the blue domes, this is the endless vistas over the caldera, this is beautiful.

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In case you were wondering, yes I did notice the For Sale sign and yes, I do have that number written down!

Once in Oia, we were given plenty of free time to walk around, shop if we wanted and of course take pictures!

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You can see how incredibly close to the sheer dropoff these houses were built.  I know quite a few Greek nationals and I promise you, many of them are a schosh crazy…seeing how close to death these folks choose to live?  I get it a little bit!

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This may, in part also explain the abundance of churches for such a small island, between the cliffs and the volcano, I could certainly see wanting to stay on good terms with the Almighty!

After wandering around for a bit, shopping if we wanted, or desperately searching for a bit of shade, we meandered back towards the bus.  Our guide promised us a treat on the way back to the bus and she was not wrong!  Gelato!!

We stopped at Lolita’s Gelato and it is cute, kitchy, very greek.  BUT…and this is the most important part…the gelato is fantastic!  i don’t know if I would say it was the best I had on the trip, we did spend several days in Venice, but it was the best we had in Greece.  And we tried some in every port.  My son was on a mission to find the best gelato so he was certainly well equipped to make a determination.  We tried all the fun flavors, Cuban Lover: a blend of coffee and chocolate (my favorite); Zabaione, Stracciatella, and the flavor that they are famous for: Greek Viagra.  This is gelato flavored with honey and pistachios and it is fantastic.  If you can get past saying the name, it is totally worth it!

We then moved on to Pyrgos.  This traditional village is supposedly the least spoiled by tourism and still has many features of the medieval village such as narrow streets, fortified walls and secret passageways.

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Many of the houses are still inhabited mostly “as is,” small and built on top of one another.

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This village also has the best vantage point of the island.  It isn’t “untouched” by accident…the villagers could see an invasion coming for miles.  Remember those walls?  This is a fantastic example of a fortified city still around for us to see.

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Yep, you can see for miles and miles and miles.

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That’s Oia…way over there.  It took us about 30 minutes to drive here from there in the motor coach.

After some time for picture taking, we headed for a quick stop at the Black Beach of Kamari.

There are cafes and shops and things here that I am sure would make a lovely stop by themselves.  However, we were running out of time and really, I had to put my feet in the water so I could say I had been in the Aegean and Ionian Seas.

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This is from the beach looking back up the road we had driven on to get here.  The sand is indeed black, and I did put my feet in the Aegean.  A word of warning…if you go to a black sand beach in the Mediterranean in August, spend some time before hand studying with the fire walkers so you are prepared to withstand your walk from the side walk to the water.  Just saying.

Back in the coach to head back to Fira to wait in the incredibly long line to get to the cable cars down the mountain.  There is a path to walk, but it is hot and covered in donkey poo and there is no place to rest on the way.  I knew mom wouldn’t make it, so I waited the two hours to get to the cable cars.  This is likely not as bad when there are fewer ships in port, but still…its better than sitting on a donkey the whole way down!

For me, Santorini was the supermodel of the Greek Isles.  Pretty (stunning actually), but kind of superficial.  This was also my one disappointment with the tour I had taken, because of the time crunch we did not get to see the Venetsantos Winery, which was one of the main reasons I wanted to be on this tour.  Ah well, next time!

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Here is the port area where you catch your tender back to your ship hopefully still waiting where you left it, in the middle of a collapsed volcano cone!

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And there is the cable car track and the path back up to Fira…yeah, not walking it!  Back on board I was devastated to learn that SOMEONE drank all of the Aperol on the entire ship and I (I mean…someone) would now have to find another refreshing beverage to get me through the sea day tomorrow, and then…KINGS LANDING!!!  Well, I guess some people call it Dubrovnik.