Freedom in the Mediterranean….Anchors Aweigh! Away? A-weigh? Well, We’re Off!

The one with the phone…

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Yay!! Its time to board the Freedom of the Seas!!  I have loved, loved, loved my time in Barcelona and I will definitely be back but now its time to cruise!

I had worked with my AirBNB host to get a taxi that would fit us and all of our luggage to get us to the port.  I had no idea who he called (this is important later on!) but the taxi was right on time and we checked out of the apartment and headed to the port.

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I had all of our documents printed out and ready to go, had everyone’s passport, put luggage tags on everyone’s suitcases to ensure that they all made it to the correct cabin.  Should be smooth sailing right on to the ship and ready to sail!  Nope. That is not at all how it happened.  You see, one of my children left his phone in the taxi and didn’t realize it until the taxi had driven off and we were turning in our luggage.

Remember how I said I had no idea what taxi company our host had used??  This is where that little tidbit becomes pretty darn important.  Also important is the international roaming plan I had added to my cell phone before leaving…FOR JUST SUCH AN EMERGENCY!!  AT&T has a $10/day plan that you only pay for if you use.  Well, I used it.  I called our AirBNB host and tried to ask him what cab company he used but it quickly became apparent that his English is limited to email (via Google Translate…I do it too…don’t judge!) and my Spanish is limited to food.

Fortunately I was able to find a port employee that was willing to help.  She explained the situation, let me know that the host was going to call and find the driver, answered the call when the host called back to tell me the driver was on his way back, and negotiated with the driver when he wanted to charge me 30€ for bringing the phone back.  Now I get that he did give up his place in line for a new fare to come back, and I already had 10€ in my hand ready to give him for his trouble but 30€ seemed excessive to me.  Apparently to my translator as well because they got into an argument about it and I ended up paying him 20€ all said and done.

Now with age, comes wisdom (What? Don’t laugh!) plus the fact that I tend to be a go with the flow kind of person once I am actually on vacation (yes, I know I am an obsessive planner leading up to vacation, but that way I can relax once I’m there.) so I was able to laugh about it pretty quickly after we knew the phone was on its way back to us.  My child, however, is still kind of salty about it so that is why I waited three months to write about it! Moving on…

After a fairly easy check in, we stopped and bought six bottles of wine and headed on board.  I may be pretty laid back about this whole situation, but I was certainly ready for a drink!

Our cabin was ready right on time, which is good considering I had six bottles of wine that I was carrying around! Sail away was fun and we were off, headed to our first port of call, Marseille.  That night, we had dinner at Chops, the steakhouse.  It was awesome as always!

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I know this post has been mostly my ramblings but I promise that there are really good port pictures coming soon!! Which ports you ask?  Well I did forget to mention that.  We are hitting some big bucket list cities for me:

Marseille
Nice
Florence
Rome
Naples
One day at sea then back to Barcelona.  All in all an amazing trip!  Marseille is up next so stay tuned!

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!

Trying Something New…

As you know, I cruise a lot.  And up until now, I have only cruised with Royal Caribbean.  But thanks to a series of amusing events, I am leaving on Saturday to fly to Ft. Lauderdale to have dinner with my Dear Son and then hop on board the Carnival Conquest on Sunday for a 6 Night cruise that will visit Nassau, Bahamas; Amber Cove, Dominican Republic; and Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos.

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With the exception of Nassau, I have not been to any of the other stops.  I have nothing planned at any of the ports this time, I am just going to wing it.  I do have reservations at the Conquest Steakhouse and Chef’s Table so I will be able to compare those venues to the similar and much beloved venues on Royal Caribbean ships.

I will be trying to give live updates as my wifi access allows, so if you follow me on social media, you will hopefully be able to travel vicariously with me!  Feel free to ask questions or comment as we go along!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 8 (Kusadasi, Turkey) – Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

In the days leading up to this cruise, Turkey had a failed coup attempt.  With that in mind, many cruise ships were skipping or replacing stops in Turkey with either a sea day, or another port in the area.  Our cruise had made no announcement as to what the plan was at that point, and when asked, the officers stated that they were monitoring the situation and would let us know, but the plan was to stop in Turkey and in fact, Royal Caribbean had collected all non-EU passports per the Turkish governments request (standard procedure even before the coup attempt).

All this to say that until the day before our port stop in Kusadasi, we still had no idea if we were stopping or not.  I had reserved a taxi service through Taxi Service for Ephesus to take us from the port up to Ephesus.  I was wary of joining a traditional tour because I did not want to get bullied into a “demonstration” that often turns into a hard sell.  I had read that most organized tours have a stop either at a carpet weaver or a leather shop included in the tour, and in fact all of the ship sponsored tours had this included stop as well.  The carpet weavers in Turkey are some of the best in the world, but lets be honest…who has room in their luggage for carpeting?

So instead I reserved just a taxi to meet us at the port, drop us off at the top gate to Ephesus, and come back a few hours later and pick us up at the bottom gate.  I made the reservations via email, the price was agreed upon in advance and Hasan was very responsive and easy to work with.  In addition, his English was nearly perfect and I have no reservations recommending this company should you ever find yourself near Kusadasi port.

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It is a beautiful port area, hills rising steeply from the ocean with condos/apartments/hotels built all up the hillside.  That little tiny island out there?  Well that is the namesake, the actual Kusadasi – Bird Island.  Here is a better picture:

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There are shops and restaurants all along the pier so a very easy port to navigate by foot if all you are looking for is nosh and trinkets.  We however, were headed to Ephesus.

We walked out of the port area past armed guards.  We were told that we were the first cruise ship to stop at Kusadasi since the failed coup attempt, only 16 days prior.  It was very clear that the merchants were happy to have us (tourists) back.

At the taxi stand, we met Hasan and he directed us to our driver for the day.  He ensured that we had his number and knew how to reach him if necessary.  While Hasan’s English was excellent, our driver’s was not.  He tried really hard and he was so nice though that we hardly minded.  Ephesus is about 30km from Kusadasi through some lovely countryside.  Our driver pointed out some other local attractions along the way and tried to teach us the names of some of the fruits in Turkish!

When we reached the top gate, our driver found a friend that spoke English and we arranged a time to meet at the lower gate for pickup.  Our driver assured us that if we happened to be a few minutes late that he would certainly not leave us stranded!  We also purchased a guide book and some water…it is HOT in Turkey in July and we would come to find out, not much shade in Ephesus.

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So these ruins are a bit different than the ones in Athens or Olympia.  These ruins are being actively restored.  They are only using the original pieces that they find so different buildings are in different states of, well ruin.  The other thing that I love about Ephesus is how accessible everything is.  You can walk in, around, and through almost all of the building sites.

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We added the Terrace Houses to our admission.  These were the houses of the wealthy citizens of Ephesus and are currently being excavated and restored.  As we were there on a Sunday, no one was working but evidence of excavation was all around.  And the houses themselves were incredible!

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The color on the walls and the mosaics on the floors are so remarkably preserved.  It was an awesome thing to see and if you are ever in Ephesus, make sure you take the side tour into the Terrace Houses.  It is hot and there are a lot of stairs, but it is worth it!

Coming out of the Terrace Houses, you arrive at the restored facade to the Library of Celsus.  Its Stunning.

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This two story library was home to thousands of scrolls (you know…what books used to be!) making it the third largest library in the world in its day.  This building has been restored somewhat. But since they will only use original parts for restoration, it is never going to be fully restored.

Nearby is the Temple of Hadrian…we seem to have seen a lot of stuff dedicated to this guy!

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And of course, my favorite…the theaters!  There are several in Ephesus from smaller ones used for Senate meetings and such:

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I’ve heard that this guy Paul lived here around 50AD for a few years.  He gave daily talks to scholars here.  Those talks eventually became “Ephesians” in a pretty famous book…that’s impressive stuff!

To the massive ampitheater used for concerts as well as gladiator battles and other community building exercises!!

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This one seats approximately 25,000.  See that little black dot?  That’s my son.  He climbed all those stairs!!  I did not, in case you were wondering!!

The Commercial Agora is where business got done.  You can see in this picture the parts that have been unearthed but not restored to actual buildings.

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 So after a very warm yet amazing trip through history we made our way out the lower gates to meet our driver. If you EVER make it to Ephesus, take note: start at the top and walk downhill! We passed people going the other way and they really looked like they would welcome death. Remember it is hot…very hot. And there are no trees or shady spots to rest. Add to that an uphill climb and I can totally understand their open arming the grim reaper.

But forwarned is forarmed so we worked with gravity and not against it. And as we made our way out of the historic site, we invariably walked into vendor central. These guys are well aware of the demographics of their clientele and proudly touted their stock of chilled water bottles…or the one that won our hearts (and dollars) air conditioning!

One of the traditions we have as a family is that whatever country we visit, we buy the national team soccer jersey. So we were in the market for a Turkey jersey and as it happened, he had the air conditioning also!!
I find that very often I am faced with the stereotype of a woman not knowing her sports. This was very apparent in Turkey and I was VERY amused proving him wrong!! He took it in stride and in fact gave us a great deal on the jerseys once I proved my knowledge!

So having gotten our fill of history and our quota of Turkish soccer jerseys, we headed back to the port with our driver who was exactly where we said he would be waiting.

Back at the port we stopped to shop a bit and get something to eat. We had some of the best calamari I have ever had and when we stopped the owner to compliment the food, he simply pointed to the the water and said, “Of course it’s good. I caught it right there!”  

All in all, this was our favorite port so far and I am so glad we stopped. I would go back for a land vacation without hesitation!


Back on the boat, we visited our favvie post port bar for Aperol Spritzs. Our next port is Santorini. 

Could it really be as awesome as everyone said??