Freedom in the Med…All Roads Lead to Rome

Our next stop is Rome.  I had booked a private tour with Italy Tour Sharing again.  And just as in Florence, they were right on time ready to go when we got off the ship.  And of course, as the saying goes, “All roads lead to Rome.”  What they don’t mention, is that all of those roads are packed with other people trying to get to Rome, also Rome is about an hour and fifteen minutes from the port area, so be prepared for that as well.

Once in Rome, we first stopped at the Januculum Terrace for some amazing views of Rome laid out before us.

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This is also the site of Il Fontanone (the Big Fountain) built in 1612 and continuously in use ever since.  The most interesting part of this fountain (to me) is its ability to turn wine into water…yep you read that right.  The opposite of the great miracle.  You see, Pope Paul V, who built this fountain, raised the funds by imposing a tax on wine.  Needless to say, this caused a bit of consternation to everyone that didn’t actually need the clean water provided by this fountain.  Still, it is pretty.

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And just in case you were wondering, yes it was still hot.  See that amazing blue cloudless sky…HOT!

We next moved on to the remains of the Roman Forum.  If you’ve read any of my previous reports, especially Athens or Ephesus, you know how much I love this stuff!

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This is actually the first real example of Urban Sprawl as this area was developed piecemeal over several centuries.  Some of the excavated buildings date back over 2000 years!

Our next stop was Capitoline Hill.  One of the seven hills of Rome.  This one has some really old stuff but it is most famous for its designer, Michelangelo.  He had a plan for an Urban design that showcased palaces surrounding a piazza meant to impress the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  There are many famous statues around the piazza, including one of Romulus and Remus with their “foster mom,” but my personal favorite was this one:

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I loved how the base was made to look like patchwork, almost as if they had to scrap together the materials to finish.

Our next stop was the Alter of the Fatherland.  Basically their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as it is meant as a tribute to fallen soldiers.  It is a MASSIVE tribute too!

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It is imposing and beautiful and solemn and all of the things a war memorial should be.  Considering that this is in the middle of the city, I was amazed at how quiet this area felt.

After marveling at this incredible monument, it was back in the van for a short trip to another old, crumbling monument…you may have heard of this one.

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Yep.  The Colosseum.  The largest amphitheater ever built. And of course you cannot be in Rome and not stop here for a look.  We did not have a tour of the interior scheduled for this trip.  Fortunately, we paid our pennies at Trevi Fountain so we will catch the inside on a future return trip.  In addition, there is currently restoration plans going on for the floor and underground areas…that might be worth waiting for!

One thing you will certainly see if you are anywhere near this area, is people. Lots and lots of people.  And Gladiators.  There are hundreds of gladiators wandering around just waiting for you to take a picture with them.

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And as this is the parade route taken by triumphant Roman emperors, it seems appropriate that you can have a photo with your very own gladiator.  Just like they did in Ancient Rome!  This arch was build in 312 AD to celebrate Constantine, but the engravings on the arch actually celebrate the victories of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius as well as Constantine.

We wandered this area of Rome for a while but then it was off to ensure our return visit to Rome…the Trevi Fountain!

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And boy if you thought the Colosseum area was crowded…just wait until you try to jam 7 bazillion people in front of this fountain.  I mean, its pretty big as fountains go, but holy sardines, its crowded.  It is also one of the most profitable fountains in the world, thanks to that quaint little urban legend about throwing coins over your left shoulder ensuring your return to the city.  Thanks to Frank Sinatra, this little water feature pulls in nearly $1.5M a year.

Our next stop was the Spanish Steps.  These are…well…steps.  One Hundred and Thirty Five of them to be exact.

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Just as an FYI – Its still hot.  And I’m not climbing 135 steps in this heat.  About the most exciting thing that happened here was Jarod getting accosted by a gypsy for standing too near her stuff…really, we were just trying to find shade!

Moving on…(Rome has way more to see than you can do in a day, so you gotta move quickly!)…we headed for another really old building, the Pantheon.  This building has been continuously in use since 126 BC after the previous one, built 150 years earlier by Marcus Agrippa, burnt down.

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The inside is a large domed chamber that was unique in Roman architecture at the time.  Now simply everyone is doing them!

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It is beautiful, and since it is now a church, pretty quiet.  There are some pretty famous folks buried there, Raphael the painter for one.  Neat little trivia fact about that, Raphael was engaged to the niece of a powerful cardinal but he did not want to marry her as he was in love with the daughter of a local baker so he kept postponing the wedding. He postponed his nuptials so long, the girl died and was buried in the cella.  When Raphael died not long after, the Cardinal ordered him buried there so he would spend all of eternity with his niece.  Downright Scandalous!

Believe it or not, it was now only lunchtime!  I tell you, we were hustling!  I will also say, there would be no way to do this without a local guide.  We booked THIS tour and while we went in a different order, we saw everything on this list and made it back to the ship on time.  I would highly recommend Italy Tour Sharing for any private or small group tours in Italy.

But back to eating…We were next headed to Piazza Navona so we decided to grab a bite there.  Touristy? Yes.  But the pizza was really good too!  We ended up eating at Vacanze Romane.  It was actually the first one we came to so I don’t know that there was any great decision making going on…we were hungry and they had a big table outside ready and waiting.  I believe everyone got pizza and of course I got an Aperol Spritz…After all this heat in Italy, I totally understand why everyone drinks this!

The centerpiece of this square is the the three fountains that run the length of the square.  Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune Fountain) and Fontana del Moro (Moor Fountain) at either end and the main attraction, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers).

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The design of this fountain was originally awarded to Borromini, but was ultimately designed by his most hated rival Bernini.  Borromini did, however, design the Sant’Agnese in Agone – the church that lines one side of the Piazza.  Local legend has it that the two sculptors hated each other so much that the Nile figure on Bernini’s fountain was actually shielding his eyes from the ugliness of the facade of Borromini’s church.  And while in truth this is not the case, it does make for a fun story!

After lunch and a walk around the fountains we needed a little treat and as the saying goes “When in Rome…” We found a gelato shop and sampled until we decided on flavors to take out with us.  And we would need fortifying…we were headed for St. Peter’s Basilica.

In truth, for this I have no words.  It is awesome and there is no way any pictures I took can do any justice to the reality of standing in front of the largest church in the world.

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See how tiny the people are standing in line at the doors of the church?  The scale is immense.

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The obelisk at the center of St. Peter’s Square has certainly had its history.  Originally found in Heliopolis in Egypt, the Emperor Augustus  had it moved to Alexandria (also Egypt, not the one in Virginia) where it stood until 37 AD when Caligula transferred it to Rome.  It was placed along the Circus of Nero where it would preside over Nero’s brutal games and executions.  It was moved to its current location in 1586 and it is now the only Roman obelisk to never have been toppled.

We spent some time wandering around St. Peter’s square, but in truth, we were all so tired after the pace of the tour, that we were grateful for the hour long ride back to the ship.

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We have one more stop in Italy.  The one I had researched the least but the one that turned out to be my favorite in Italy.  Naples.

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Freedom in the Med…Nice Nice

Today we were in Nice, more specifically Villefranche-Sur-Mer.  This port is not big enough for the large cruise ships to dock, so Freedom has to drop anchor offshore and we all have to “tender” to the dock.  The tender boats are the property of the local port and not the cruise line so they are always different.  Here are the ones we used:

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They are a bit on the small side compared to some we’ve used in the past, but they were speedy and continuous so there was no real wait to get to a tender.  Today our tour was one I purchased through Viator.  Villefranche Shore Excursion: Small-Group Monaco and Eze Half-Day Tour.  This one was technically another half day tour, but I had a plan for the second part of the day so we would have a long, busy day away from the ship.   On this tour we would be visiting Eze, a medieval village with a famous perfumery; Monaco, with the changing of the guard, and Monte Carlo then back to Villefranche.

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Here is our approach to the port on the tender.  I was already thinking how pretty this port area was but I had no idea what was to come.  We found our tour guide and the rest of the people on our tour (three single young ladies) and headed to our first stop, the Village of Eze.

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Eze is famous for its stunning views, its amazing botanical garden and the Chapelle de la Sainte Croix, the oldest building in Eze built in 1306.  I recently learned that this town was a favorite of Walt Disney.  I can certainly see why.

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These views were amazing and the pictures in no way do them justice.  We stopped at Chappelle de la Sainte Croix.  Like many religious buildings, the very simple exterior:

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Gives way to an absolutely amazing interior.

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This is the meeting place for the White Penitents of the Roman Catholic church, known for their care of plague victims.

We then made our way up to the Jardin Botanique d’Eze.  This garden has an amazing collection of succulents which had to be thriving in the unbelievable dry heat that we had the whole trip!

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Our next stop, actually just about five minutes away was our tour of the the Laboratory Fragonard.  So if I’m being honest, I was really not looking forward to this.  As in Turkey and Croatia, I avoid these “factory tours” like the plague if I can.  They tend to be nothing more than sales pitches, which sometimes can be downright aggressive.   However, this one was really not bad.  It was interesting and while there was a definite pitch at the end, it wasn’t terribly aggressive (not that we didn’t end up spending money, but at least we didn’t have to lug a carpet home with us!).

Our next stop would be the Principality of Monaco.  Our tour guide gave us plenty of commentary along the way as she deftly navigated the narrow, really high, right on the cliff roads,  We stopped in time to watch the changing of the guard as well as shop for an AS Monaco jersey…since Monaco just won the Ligue Une, not a single store had one and we had to settle for a scarf.

Monaco screams wealth from every street corner.  If you consider that 1 Million Euros will purchase a room of approximately 161 square feet, you can see why a Monaco address is its own status symbol.  Here’s one of the parking lots:

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Then the Changing of the Guard:

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Then it was time to meet our guide back at Cathédrale Notre-Dame-Immaculée, or Saint Nicholas Cathedral where Princess Grace and her husband are buried.

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Our next stop was Monte Carlo.  We were there right after the Grand Prix so they had not yet removed the stall numbers from the street, which was cool to see!  Then the most famous casino in the world.  As you know, I love me some casino. At this time, however, the Monte Carlo Casino was closed to the GenPop and open to invited guests only.  Believe it or not, I didn’t get an invitation.  Nor was I dressed for the casino, which has a very strict dress code that apparently did not include shorts and tank top.

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This casino is massive.  In fact it is too big to fit in one picture, so the powers that be have created a solution…a circular mirror that reflects the entirety of the casino facade…its really cool.

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Also, I can guarantee you that everyone of those cars in the reflection are Ferrari, Bentley, Rolls, etc.  They were really pretty.  Here’s me eyeballing the Casino entrance…I shoulda made a run for it!

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We then met our tour guide for the ride back to Villefranche.  Now was the moment I had been waiting for…lunch!  Our guide made a couple of recommendations, one pricey and one more reasonable.  However, I had one goal…Mussels. And Rosé. And a sea view.  And I got all of them!!!

We asked her specifically where she would go to eat mussels and she pointed us to a seaside cafe called Lou Bantry. We sat on the patio, I ordered my glass (okay carafe) of chilled wine and my moules frites.  Oh My Goodness!!! Here’s my “bowl” of mussels:

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It was HUGE!  And amazing!  And it was at that moment I realized that I never wanted to leave.  I love Villefranche-sur-Mer.  If I ever move overseas, this is where you can find me.  Here is our view:

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See how happy I look??? This is my happy place.  But eventually we did have to leave, as much as that broke my heart, I still did want to see our other stops.  Here’s a quick spoiler for you…I did love our other stops, but I still want to be here.  This one felt like home to me.  I can’t wait to get back there…I am not sure when it will happen, but I know it will.

I did eventually get back on the tender to go back to the Freedom.  Our next stop is Florence.  By the way…here’s our ride:

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She’s a beauty and since I have been on her three times now, with a forth time scheduled, I kind of think of her as mine.  But you can ride her too!!

 

Freedom in the Med…Marvelous Marseille!

After a yummy dinner at Chops, we were up bright and early (some of us were less bright than others, but we were all at least up!) to meet our tour: Aix on Your Own.  I booked this though Royal Caribbean.  I NEVER book through the cruise ship as I can always find better tours on my own, but we had some Cruise Credit, and this was really just transportation up to Aix and back to the ship and it was only 4ish hours which I figured was a good amount of time for our first day.

So at 9:20 we all assembled in the theater and waited for our group to be called…which it was, finally.  Another reason I usually don’t book tours through the ship is because I really don’t like being tied to someone else’s schedule…I’m not sure if you have noticed, but I am a bit of a type A person.  But really, I was going to try and just go with the flow on this one…try.

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The port at Marseille is a bit of an industrial area, which I knew and that was why I wanted to go up to Aix.  I wanted to get a bit of that Provence feeling.  Aix is certainly a good place to do that!

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The wide cobblestone streets, fountains EVERYWHERE!!! In fact, we couldn’t turn a corner without another cute little square with a pretty fountain there…or a playground…or a merry-go-round!

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We had a map, but as we’ve already covered, I’m not super good at those so once again we were wandering aimlessly from cute street to cute street; hardly a tragedy!

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Of course the architecture is amazing every which way you turn.  And as usually happens when I am “following the map”  we stumbled into one of mom and my’s favorite things:  The local Farmer’s Market!

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The food is so fresh and the colors are so vibrant!  It truly is a feast for the senses.  Especially in Provence, with the scents of garlic and lavender in the air.

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We continued wandering around and finally found what we were originally looking for…Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, the town square.

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This is the site of the former Halle de Grain (corn exchange) and the center of the merchant trade in Aix.  It is a mostly pedestrian square with cafès and shops lining three sides of the square and the impressive Hôtel de Ville taking up the fourth side.

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Next to the Town Hall, is a clock, originally erected in 1510.

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After admiring the square and checking out some of the cute shops, we headed towards the Cours Mirabeau.  This is a wide tree lined street, now dotted with tchotchke shops and cafès, including the now famous Les Deux Garçons: watering hole for famed writers such as  Paul Cézanne and Ernest Hemingway.    This street is also the dividing line between the old town, where we had already been wandering, and the new town.

We decided it was time for lunch, and as it was nearing 100 degrees, it was certainly time for a cold beverage.  We stopped at a restaurant that looked like it had immediate seating…and we quickly realized why…they were not very tourist friendly and even made some comments in French about our party.  Since I speak the language fairly well and I certainly know my insults, we took the hint and left without ordering.  I was probably crankier than the rest about it, but everything happens for a reason, and we then moved to La Piazza Papa.  Yes, a pizza place.  But the service was friendly and the food was good!

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After eating and relaxing a bit, we decided to venture back out into the afternoon heat…well we made it as far as the first Gelato shop we saw!!  I’m not kidding you, it was HOT!!

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You can see the shop behind this big rock fountain thing…Giovanni Gelateria…and if you are ever in Aix you should find this place and order all of the gelato.   The flavors were amazing and the girl behind the counter was so awesome!!  Such a difference from our crabby first restaurant stop.  Oh…if you see that big rock fountain, yeah.  Well its covered in bees.  Consider your self warned.

We wandered a bit in the new town, but for real it was hot so we decided to head to the statue/fountain that was our meeting place for the bus back.  We were early for sure, but there was a cafè with cold beverages and free wifi so we sat there until it was time to board the bus back to the ship.

The bus ride back was uneventful, pretty much everyone was hot, tired and glad to be sitting.  I had originally thought that since this tour was only a half day tour, we could visit the Old Port area if we had the time and inclination.  Well, we certainly had the time but no one really had the inclination so we just boarded the air conditioned ship and chilled out until our dinner reservations at Giovanni’s table.

Our next four ports we had full day tours scheduled so this half day was a good break between our full days in Barcelona and what was to come…No more half days for us, but plenty of heat!

Next stop?  Nice!

 

 

 

 

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!

Conquest in the Caribbean…4

Ah, Sea Days.  For some people, it is the best part of the cruise; some people would be happy to have none.  I like them just fine.  Sailing along in the middle of the ocean with nothing to do but relax, have some cocktails, soak up the sun.  If you love them or if you don’t, it still beats a day at work!

First up, Sea Day Brunch.  Among Carnival regulars, there are some pretty famous staples on this menu: the Funnest French Toast for one, and of course the Bloody Mary Bar!  However, I chose the Steak & Eggs…I mean, Bearnaise!  My general rule is if something comes with Bearnaise, I order it.  This rule has never let me down, and it didn’t today either!  The filet was perfectly cooked, the eggs were okay and the Bearnaise was awesome!!!  I really don’t even remember what everyone else had, mine was that good.  Thusly fortified, we were ready to begin the serious business of relaxing.

Even though it was January, we were in the Caribbean so the sun seekers were out in full force.  Chairs around the pool were at a premium…BUT!! Chairs around the bar were plentiful and it was nice and quiet in the adults only aft pool.  Extra bonus: my bartender from the Steakhouse last night works days at the aft pool bar…Yay! Javorka!!

Mom eventually found me although she popped in and out in between trivia, but for the bulk of the day, I sat and read my Kindle and really just relaxed.  As a single mom, that doesn’t happen often!

Eventually, I headed back to my cabin to get ready for dinner.  I had a very important mission this evening…discover the Alchemy Bar.

The Alchemy Bar is a specialized bar on some Carnival ships.  No beer, no wine, no frozen drinks.  But the bartenders are the best in the business and their specialty is matching a cocktail to your taste.  They are VERY good at their jobs!  It was here I met my other favorite bartender (its not weird that my favorite people are all bartenders, is it?).  Kat from Belarus.

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She won my heart when she made me this amazing Espresso Martini.  Yep, those are chocolate covered espresso beans on top!! It was love at first sip!  Needless to say, I spent a good deal of time here and in fact took the mixologist class which I will talk about later because tonight is CHEF’S TABLE!

I have loved Chef’s Table on every other ship that I’ve tried it on , so I was really excited to try it on the Conquest!  First up was a kitchen tour.  Since this a working kitchen during dinner service, the tour was quite interesting…and busy!  We finished by having champagne and small bites before making our way to the private dining room set up for us.

Once we got to our table, everyone had an assigned seat with a personalized menu.

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See those bread things at the top?  Those are blue cheese popovers…Those are amazing and if you ever get to a Carnival Chef’s Table, you should immediately sneeze on them or something so you get the whole tray!

We then worked our way down the menu.  At each course, the Chef would talk a bit about what we were eating.  The servers kept the wine glasses full, although there were only two choices, a white or a red.  On previous cruises, the Chef’s Table is also a wine tasting so there is a different wine with each course, but not on Carnival.  That’s okay, the food was pretty darn interesting on its own.

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Crab Stack
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Duck Textures
Crazy molecular gastronomy going on here!
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First time trying sweetbreads.
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As if there’s room for dessert!!

Needless to say, we barely rolled back to our cabin.  Overall, while I would have liked to have a wine pairing with each course, the food was amazing and I will certainly be doing the Chef’s Table dinner on Carnival again!

So next…I promise we did go places…really cool places I’d never been before!  I’ll tell you about them next!