My First River Cruise Experience – Getting There and Paris

Châteaux, Rivers & Wine.  This is the theme of my first ever river cruise.  This came about because my mother really wanted to do this cruise and I was lucky enough to be able to tag along.

First the details:  This was on Viking River cruises, starting in Bordeaux cruising to Cadillac, Libourne, Bourg & Blaye, Pauillac, then back to Bordeaux.  In addition, we took the Pre-Cruise extension that included Paris, Orléans, the Loire Valley, and Tours before heading to Bordeaux to meet the Viking Longship Forseti.  We paid Viking to handle our flight arrangements, and all I can say about that is “lesson learned.”

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Having never sailed a river cruise before, I was unused to the lack of planning required.  As you know, if you have read any of my previous reviews, I am a crazy planner so not having to do any of that for this cruise left me feeling a bit disconcerted and not in control.

So, without handling any of the travel planning, we began our journey in April.  Our flight was Charlotte to JFK, JFK to Paris.  I had never been through JFK before but since we had been checked through, I assumed we would be fine.  I was wrong.  We had a bit of a delay leaving Charlotte, we sat on the runway for almost an hour waiting for clearance, but after that the flight was uneventful.  I knew it would be tight to make our next flight but we should have been able to make it.  What I did not know about JFK is that we would be required to check in again at the Air France counter even though we already had boarding passes.  Then, we had to make it through security again.  Unfortunately, these couple of issued added up to us missing our flight to Paris.  We then had to wait to see if we would make it on to the next (and last) flight to Paris.

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We did in fact make the last flight out, so I called Viking to let them know not to meet us at our original arrival time, but that we would be there a couple of hours late.  A long, but uneventful flight later, we landed in Paris, collected our bags and headed out to meet our Viking rep.  We were loaded into a comfortable minivan and off we went to our hotel, Le Méridien Etoile.

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Check in was easy and quick and our rooms were ready immediately.  We headed upstairs to unload our luggage and rest a bit.  Which ended up being a good idea as the heavens opened.  It rained for a bit, but then right as we were ready to head to dinner, it stopped.  We had no real plan for dinner, but I did have a place in mind, I just wasn’t sure how far away it was.  And as luck would have it, it was right down the block!

If you read my post on Nice, you may know how much I love mussels.  Well Léon de Bruxelles is famous for their mussels so I knew when I saw them, I would have to try it.  I mean, can you really be better than sitting by the Med drinking Rosé?  Well, actually no.  But the mussels were still REALLY REALLY good!

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And there were so many I could not finish all of them.  We all enjoyed our dinner tremendously and left fully satisfied.  I know it is technically a chain, but I would certainly go back anytime I am in Paris.  Service was great (and friendly!), prices were reasonable and the food (and wine) was outstanding!

Because of our delayed arrival in Paris, we did not have our day of sightseeing as planned, but we had one thing we didn’t want to miss, Bateaux-Mouches.

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A river cruise down the Seine.  The cruise departs every 30 minutes so there really isn’t a need to pre-book tickets, unless its a holiday or event, or you want a dinner cruise.  We just wanted a lovely sunset-ish ride through Paris.  In all of my trips to this city, this was one thing I had never done and even though I’ve been there multiple times, this was certainly a new way to see the city I love!

The cruise was lovely and afterwards we caught a taxi back to our hotel.  We had a early morning pickup to begin our tour through the Loire Valley so after a quick Lillet Rouge & Tonic in the hotel lounge we all hit the sack (well, except I had to work still, but it’s a small price to pay to be able to work from anywhere!).

Up bright and early, we showered (yay!!) and headed down for breakfast.  I will tell you, I have had plenty of crappy hotel breakfasts and Le Méridien Etoile is not that.  Not that at all.  Breakfast was awesome and if anyone knows where to get that little jar of kiwi yogurt please let me know!

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After breakfast and hotel check out, we handed over our luggage and were loaded onto a motorcoach to begin our tour.

 

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Freedom in the Med…The Chef’s Table

Our last full day on the boat. Never a day I look forward to.  This is the day you have to pack and put debark luggage tags on your bags, set them out in the hall, and hope you remembered to save at least one outfit to wear in the morning (don’t laugh…I’ve worn jammies on the ride home for just this reason!!).

However, there is one thing on our schedule tonight to look forward to, Chef’s Table.  This is a seven course (don’t worry, they’re small) tasting menu paired with 6 wines and a dessert cocktail.  If you know me at all you know this is right up my alley!  In fact, I reserve this dinner every cruise even though the menu hasn’t changes since my first one back in 2012.  But for this one, not just the menu had changed.

My first Chef’s Table experience was also on the Freedom way back in 2012.  Mom and I decided to try it.  It was held at a long table up in the WindJammer, the buffet restaurant.  They have since moved it to the Main Dining Room…in a pretty cool spot!

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Yep, that round table right in the middle, with the spiral staircases on either side.  (Pro Tip: Those staircases are tricky after 6 wines and a dessert cocktail…be safe!)  The setting is gorgeous and you feel like a superstar eating up there.

Another change is the menu.  It had long been rumored that the menu was going to change and when I sailed last summer on the Rhapsody, the Maître D’ confirmed that there would be a change, but not when so I did not know going in if we would be having the old menu (which I love) or the new menu (which at this point, I hadn’t even seen).  As it turned out, we had the new menu:

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And some fancy new place settings:

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That’s two napkins folded to look like a tuxedo!  Snazzy, right??

The first thing I noticed about the menu was the choice of entrée.   On the old menu, there was only one choice…short rib.  If you did not eat meat, the chef would make something for you on the fly (I am sure it was good but just to be clear, I eat meat, and I love short rib) but this was the first time I had seen an actual choice between beef, fish and vegetarian.   After the soup course (I think, maybe salad) the waiter came around and asked for your choice.

But first up?  Scallop Carpaccio:

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Basically just thinly sliced scallops with the dressing, a yuzu vinaigrette.

After that, the soup course.  This is first served with the bowl empty so that you can see the ingredients and then the server pours the soup into each bowl at the table.

Part of the fun of the Chef’s Table is the unique and interactive presentation.  At the start of each course the chef says a few words about what goes into making each dish and why it is served the way it is.  Then the Sommelier talks about what goes into the wine pairings for each course.  The wine is the one thing that always changes, while the chef must stick to the approved menu, the Sommelier has some freedom to choose the wines based on what he has on hand at the time.  The wines for this Chef’s Table overall  I would describe as adequate.  No show stoppers, but nothing too terrible either.

Moving on to the salad course:

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Now everyone loves lobster, and I am no different, but this was probably my least favorite course.  While the lobster itself was fine, the pineapple/vanilla dressing was a bit sweet for me.  YMMV

Now onto the entrèes.   Twelve people can sit at that table for dinner, and at our meal there were eleven Filets and one Tagliatelle.  No one ordered the fish…ergo I have no pictures of the fish (you better believe I would have taken a picture of someone else’s food if there had been that option!).  But I do have pictures of the filet:

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and the Truffle Tagliatelle:

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As both dishes were ordered by people in my party, I was able to try both…and both were amazing!

If you have not yet had enough food, never fear!  The absolute richest dish is yet to come.  That’s right!  Dessert!

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Valrhona Chocolate mousse with dulce de leche gelato and salted caramel cookie crumbles.  Believe me when I tell you that it actually pained me to leave this, but since I still had to fit in an airplane seat I had to content myself with just tasting each component.

In addition, coffee is offered, the Executive Chef, Maître D’, Sommelier and servers all come out to thank you and say goodbye and then we all precariously walked down the spiral staircase and out of the dining room.

I really enjoyed the new menu.  And I REALLY love the new location.  I will continue to reserve Chef’s Table on my Royal Caribbean cruises…even if they don’t change the menu for another six years!

 

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!!