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!!

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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!