Freedom in the Med…Back in Barcelona

So after that AMAZING Chef’s Table dinner, it was time to leave the Freedom and begin our trip home.  The trick here is to get your bags packed and out in the hall while remembering not to pack whatever clothes you want to wear the next morning.  I will tell you this doesn’t always happen and if you see random children at the airport in their pajamas, they are probably mine.

But, we did our best, packed up, cleaned up, distributed additional tips to our favorite crew members, said teary goodbyes, blew our last dollars in the casino and headed to bed.  We decided to stay one extra night in Barcelona instead of rushing to the airport immediately off the ship…this turned out to be one of my better decisions!

Since we were in no rush, we headed up to the Windjammer for some much needed coffee (me) and breakfast (everyone else).  Eventually we headed down towards the gangway, presented our cards to be scanned and heard the last mournful bong as we were checked off the ship.  In the terminal, we located our bags and headed out the door to hail an XL taxi to take us to the hotel.  This is where that “no rush” thing proved genius…the line for taxi’s, of any size, was several hundred people long.

There were people standing everywhere directing traffic…both human and vehicular so it was very easy to figure out where we needed to be, behind ALL those people in line!  The line moved fairly quickly, but it was still probably an hour or so from the time we got in line to the time we got a taxi.  There were quite a few people that did not expect or plan for this and they were frantic trying to explain that they needed to cut to the front of the line.  The Port Authority employees that were handling the line were having none of that, and would promptly pull any line jumpers out and send them to the back.

We eventually made our way to the front and were sorted into the line waiting for larger cabs.  As you might expect this took a bit longer, but soon enough we were on our way to the Hilton Barcelona.  Much like last years trip, I was able to get one night on points and since we stay at AirBNB’s on the front end of the trip, one free night after the cruise is a great way to not have to rush to the airport.

The Hilton Barcelona is a beautiful hotel in the more business-y district in Barcelona which was fine for the one night we needed it.  Plus it was close to one very important tourist attraction, one we could not miss…Camp Nou!

The Hilton has a beautiful lobby and bar area

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The rooms are comfortable enough, typical European (read small) with the amenities one would expect for a Hilton.  We checked in, then headed to the Metro to find some lunch…standing in line is hard work!

Now, you know how much we love food, and we all really prefer to eat local whenever possible.  But this was the last day of an eleven day trip.  What I wanted was a beer and a burger.  What we found was Hard Rock Barcelona.

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We walked up to the hostess stand and were told that the wait would be about two hours!!!!  Clearly that was not going to happen, but as I was standing there trying not to cry, another waitress mentioned that if we were willing to sit on the patio there was no wait…Um, okay.

So we sat on the patio along Plaça Catalunya and ate hamburgers and drank beer.  We were typical Americans again…although I still drank the local beer! It was exactly what I needed after an amazing week of touring and eating our way through Spain, France and Italy.  Our server was amazing and the lunch, while typical Hard Rock and kind of touristy, still solidly good burgers.

After lunch, we headed back to the hotel, then some of us headed to the last destination on our list…a visit to Camp Nou…can’t call myself a Soccer Mom and not go see this monument of soccer!

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We were relying on my directions…which was my first mistake!  I was trying to use Google Maps, works great if you are online, not so much in airplane mode.  We did eventually find it. I had pre-purchased tickets because I had read about long lines and wait times, this was not the case for us.  Even if we had had to purchase tickets, there were only about 5 people there waiting.  We wandered around in the museum

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and the visitors locker rooms

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and slowly made our way out to the field

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It is amazing to stand here, so close to the pitch and think of all of the great soccer that has happened here.

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This is from the upper level seats…and let me tell you, stairmaster’s got nothing on this stadium!  It felt like we were climbing forever and I totally understand why they have a snack bar open at the top, even on non game days!  I would have paid $20 for a bottle of water after that!  But it was worth it just to be there and now there is one more stadium crossed off my list, only a billion more to go!

We had dinner that night at a tapas place right out the front door of our hotel, Piscolabis.  It was fantastic.  We each ordered a few different tapas and all of them were very good to great!  The price was very reasonable and the wine was excellent.

The next morning, we asked the front desk to call us an XL cab to take us to the airport.  Our time in Europe was over.  It was amazing and there are several places that I would love to come and visit for longer: Barcelona, Nice, Positano & Sorrento.  But first there are a million places I want to see for the first time!  Until next time!  Adéu…

 

 

 

 

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Freedom in the Med…Amazing Amalfi

Wow…Our last port.  Tomorrow we have a sea day and then back to Barcelona to fly home.  This was the port I had done the least amount of research on.  I mean, Pompeii was obviously on the list but really what else is there?  Turns out…Plenty!

Now, ask anyone about the Amalfi Coast and instantly they will gush over the beauty, the seascapes, the amazing views.  Almost all the same things people say about Santorini.  And if you remember last year when I visited Santorini, I likened it to a Supermodel…Beautiful, but not a lot of substance.

I had once again booked with Italy Tour Sharing and since we had had two previous good tours, I anticipated nothing less for this one.  And after a TINY bit of confusion at the start, it was just as good.

The website advertises starting at Pompeii then hitting Sorrento and Positano.  Our driver asked if we minded doing it in reverse, Positano, Sorrento then Pompeii last.  That would mean that the long part of the drive was in the beginning to Positano and we would work our way back to Pompeii which is closest to the port.  We agreed which had its ups and downs…I’ll get to them.

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Driving along the Amalfi coast is nothing short of incredible.  Although if you ask my mom, she might say it was more terrifying than amazing!  She doesn’t like roads on the edge of a cliff for some reason…weird, right?

And while we all agreed that we would happily live here, none of us actually wanted to drive around.

We stopped a couple of times for pictures but eventually made it to Positano.  And if the roads were bad along the way, they were nothing compared to what was actually in Positano.  Fortunately, after a bit they no longer allow cars in town so all the roads are pedestrian.  And beautiful!

The town is, for fairly obvious reasons, dedicated to the sea.  I mean, its clearly easier to get here by boat than by car so everything revolves around the ocean.

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The artwork on the streets pay tribute to the sea as well.

 

And I’m sure you are aware of how much I love the ocean!  Its as if this town was made for me!! Oh! Wait!

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They are already holding a spot for me!!!

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So after making it down to the docks, we now had to get back up to the van to move on to Sorrento.  No easy task, that.

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The car park is up by that orange building…the one WAY UP THERE!!  I mean, its paved and more a series of cutback ramps rather than stairs, but still!  At any rate, we made it, piled back into the van and headed to Sorrento.

We really did not do much in Sorrento, a little shopping and lunch.  Now if you know us at all, you know how we feel about food.  And our driver had mentioned that Sorrento was famous for two things: gnocchi and limoncello.   Well, it was a bit hot for me to indulge in the famously rich pasta puffs, but hey!  Limoncello is served icy cold, right?  Well, I still don’t know for sure because I didn’t order any, but I didn’t order any gnocchi either so I was a miss on all Sorrentean specialties.

I did buy a beautiful bottle of limoncello to bring back with me, and I can confirm that it is fantastic chilled.  It is also fantastic made into a limoncello granita and served after a Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes…but that might have to be another post!

We also realized that Sorrento has a soccer team!  With jersey’s and everything!!!  And since it was our goal to purchase a jersey in every port, we were thrilled!  We still got a Napoli jersey too, but the small teams are so cool to represent, we had to buy one of those too.

That church is called Chiesa di San Francesco.  And check out the streets…see any resemblance??

Overall, we enjoyed Sorrento very much.  Up next, Pompeii.  I have probably 200 pictures of Pompeii alone, you know I have a thing for ruins.  I will try to pick a just a few to give you the impression.  Here is where doing Pompeii late in the day, on the way back to port becomes an issue.  You see, while we did avoid the traffic coming back from Positano, we could not avoid the afternoon sun.

And it was HOT!  So hot I kept checking the volcano just to make sure we were not about to meet our own ashy end.   And while those trees are beautiful and green and shady, they are behind the fences and inaccessible to us poor, blistering tourists.

But there is no doubt the sheer awesomeness of this town, and to think it was gone in a day.  The treasures that remain, from artwork to fast food stands to complete corpses, are genius and beautiful and a tragedy.

 

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And soon enough it was time to meet mom (who decided a/c and a cool beverage beat wandering around active volcano sites in July) and the driver back at the entrance.  Yep, time for me to read a map!  Can anyone guess what happened next?  Yep.  We got lost. And while I usually love getting lost in a new town, Pompeii isn’t really new.  We did finally find our way out, by way of a water vendor, and we were all relived to finally see the spot we were to meet the van and mom.

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Ah Bliss!  Or air conditioning and refrigeration if you’re being technical but they’re basically the same thing, right?  We made it back to the ship in plenty of time, even after stopping to get our Napoli jerseys and headed on board.

Up next, our final sea day.  And Chef’s Table!!!  You know how much I love Chef’s Table!!  And this one has a new menu and wines and presentation, and location.  Stay Tuned!

 

 

 

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.

Freedom in the Med…Fabulous Florence

So now we are leaving France and heading around to Italy.  Our first stop is Florence, well Livorno…no, La Spezia.  Confusing, I know.  You see, when we originally booked this trip we were scheduled to port in Livorno.  I chose this sailing because it was the only one that listed Livorno as the port.  It is closer to Pisa and Florence and from what I had heard, just an easier port to deal with.  However, as we got closer, Royal Caribbean emailed me with the change to La Spezia.  Disappointed? Yep.  Especially since I had already booked my tours from Livorno, but what can you do?

Speaking of tours I had booked…I had made reservations for tours in all three Italian ports through the same tour company, Italy Tour Sharing.  Their website is super easy to navigate, and you can search for a group that has already been formed, or you can start your own group and make it available for others to join to bring down the price, which is what I did.

In Florence, I booked the full day Pisa & Florence tour.  We had 5 people in our group, and I opened it up to 8 people total.  Eventually, one other couple did join us and they were lovely!  Each party is a separate reservation though so you are not on the hook if these people that you don’t know are no shows.

We were met at the port by our driver who had a sign with my name on it.  We all loaded into his Air Conditioned minivan and started the trek towards Pisa.  Our driver kept up a running commentary about what we were seeing and answered any and all questions in excellent English.

A note about Pisa…there is no shade. None. And it was Hot. But…it is absolutely a must see at least once.

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See how pretty!!  And just look at that cloudless sky!  We were already toasty warm and it was only like 10am by this point!

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The one thing I will tell you about Pisa…if you have to go potty…use the restrooms here.  You have to pay like 2 Euros each, but they are clean and stocked!

Back into the van, we headed towards Florence…again, an hour away.   But once again our driver was chatty and informative.  He pointed out the hills where the famous white marble is mined.  The same mine that supplied the marble for possibly the most famous statue in all the world, David by Michelangelo.  Here is the mine:

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See?  At the top?  That is marble, not snow!  Our driver estimated that the marble would run out in just over 200 years if the current rate of mining was maintained so you better get your orders in now.

Our next stop was an amazing look out terrace that gave us the full view of Florence at our feet.  It was incredible.

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We had a great view of the Roman wall that withstood the siege of Henry 4 for 10 days in 1082!!!

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Next, we headed into the city to explore.  Here is where having people other than your family on the tour can be really cool…the awesome couple that I mentioned above?  They asked if we would mind stopping to see the Great Synagogue of Florence.  Of course we said yes…we had not even looked at it as someplace to see but hey, why not?

And boy, it is impressive!!

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We did not go inside, but it is apparently amazing.  This was something that was not even on our radar, but because of the new folks in our group we saw a truly impressive building.

Then, we split up to see different things with a set meeting time and place.  For us, well you know us…we went to eat!

Our driver recommended a place called Trattoria Le Antiche Carrozze. This place is a gem!  Good food, cold wine, really cute place!  I think we all got pizza and it was fantastic!  The prices were reasonable too!

After lunch we wandered around Florence, in the general direction of Ponte Vecchio.  We walked through Piazzale degli Uffizi:

Stopped to see the Santa Maria del Fiore:

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Stopped for a rest in Piazza della Signoria:

And finally made it to the most famous bridge in Florence.  While everyone should totally see this in person, its pretty crowded actually inside the bridge and as I may have mentioned before, it was hot so we were content to just see the bridge, then go find gelato!

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We headed back to our assigned meeting spot, found some yummy gelato and of course rubbed the nose of the Fontana del Porcellino to ensure our return to Florence.

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We all then gratefully piled back into the van, where our driver handed out water and blasted the air conditioning for the ride back to the ship.

I am always nervous when I use a new tour company, but Italy Tour Sharing was off to a good start!  If our tours in Rome and Naples were on par with this one, we would be good to go!

We made it back to the ship in plenty of time and enjoyed our dinner in the Main Dining Room then headed off to bed…Another long day of touring tomorrow…IN ROME!!

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!!