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Pip Pip, Cheerio, And All The Other Stuff They Never Really Say in London

June 7th – although honestly, yesterday and today run together a bit because we were up so early and got so little sleep.  It feels like I had about a 20 minute nap between the time we got off the ship and our arrival in London.

So, we arrive at the airport at pretty much the time we are supposed to arrive – about 5 AM.  But guess what?   The bus driver drops us off at the wrong terminal.  Now normally, this would not be a big deal, but we are carrying a TON of luggage (this is a group of 50 people who have been away from home for two weeks – a ton is probably a conservative estimate of the amount of luggage we have), nearly everyone in our group is a senior citizen, and there are several people in our group with difficulty walking.  To make matters worse, apparently, the Barcelona airport isn’t open this early.  There is no one – not even a security guard or anything – to ask about where we find the British Airways terminal.  There are no luggage carts or people to ask for the whereabouts of the luggage carts.  Brighid and I are among the youngest in the group, so we decide to set out to find out where our correct terminal is.  I finally see a man sitting behind the desk of another airline, and I ask him if he knows where the British Airways check in desk is.  He tells me it’s straight up.  I turn around and see a set of escalators, so I assume straight up means up the escalators.  The problem here is that we cannot now find the elevators that will take us straight up with all of this luggage.  Brighid and I set out again to see what we can find, and what we find is someone else who tells us that British Airways is Straight Up, but he actually points us in the direction of the next terminal.  I guess Straight Up in Catalonian means “down that way”. 

We start walking, and even for those of us without walking difficulties, this is a long darn walk!!   When you factor in the 200+ pounds of luggage we are carrying, the walk is even longer.  We finally get to the British Airways desk, and we get in line.  The rest of the group starts drifting in behind us, and Steve asks us if we can tell the woman at the counter to get a wheelchair for Dot, who we assume is still at the other terminal.  But, in just a few minutes, bless her heart, she appears, looking tired and winded – I told you it was a long walk!!!   We figure we better still get a wheelchair, because we don’t know where we go from here to get to the gate, and if the walk is anywhere near what it was just now, there is no way Dot will make the plane to London.

We are finally up to the desk and the first thing I ask is how many bags we can check.  I have an enormously heavy bag that I will carry on if I have to, but I would much rather check it.  She tells me that I can check it – YIPPEEE!!   Something goes right this morning!!   Then we ask for the wheelchair.  I tell her it’s for my mother, who is in the line, but at the back of the line, and has difficulty standing and walking.  She tells me that they are not allowed to request wheelchairs for someone who is not checking in, but since she will eventually be checking in, she will call.  Unfortunately, the office that handles the wheelchairs does not open until 6 AM, so maybe by the time Dot and Russ get up to the counter, the office will be open and we can get the chair.  UGH.

Fortunately, now that everyone seems to be awake here at the airport, check in seems to go pretty quickly, and there is soon a wheelchair for Dot, and we are on our way to the gate.  Thank goodness for the wheelchair – now where’s mine??? Holy cow, this is such a LONG walk!  

We are finally on the plane, and we are finally one step closer to home.  Are you detecting a pattern here, though?   We seem to be in a comedy of errors this morning.  We arrive at Heathrow, alive and well, and we gather together to head out to the buses.  Make that bus.  Yep – only one.  They try as hard as they can to fit all of the luggage on the bus, but it’s not going to work.  There is no way we can squeeze everything on.  Steve brings his one bag with all of the tour information on the bus and it gets put on an empty seat in the back of the bus.  A few other people have retrieved their smaller pieces and they have them back there as well, filling up the few empty seats with them, but there is still no way to get all of the luggage onto this bus.  Steve talks with our bus driver and the tour guide, and the arrangement is made that another vehicle will come to pick up the luggage, Steve will hop on the Tube, and he will meet us at lunch.  It seems like another crisis has been dealt with and we are soon on our tour of London. 

Our tour guide Liz is so funny – she has a dry, sarcastic sense of humor that I can really appreciate.  Dave, our bus driver, also gets in on the act once in a while, and they really are entertaining and informative.  We see some of the highlights of London, including Harrods, the London Eye, the Tower Bridge, Prince Albert Hall, the Prince Albert Memorial, the Tower of London, and a few other things.  Then we head to the Prince of Wales Pub for lunch.  Oh no.  Guess what?   There are 20 steps to get up to the room where we are supposed to have lunch, so as we go into the restaurant, Dot and Russ tell us goodbye, as there is no way Dot can climb all those steps 🙁   Lunch turns out to be more of a tea – tea sandwiches, chips and some small pastries – and that’s really disappointing when we see the group coming in behind us getting a full roast beef lunch.  I eat a couple of small slices of ham off of the tea sandwiches, Brighid has the tray pass her by a couple of times without getting anything, so we leave the restaurant nearly as hungry as when we arrived.  Steve has decided not to meet us for lunch afterall, and he has gone on to the hotel, presumably to guard our luggage with his life.

After lunch at the pub, we drive past St. James Place and Kensington Gardens, then we go past the horse guards, #10 Downing Street, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.  We stop near Westminster Abbey and have nearly  2 hours of free time.  Dot decides to stay on the bus – and this is one of the few occasions where someone doesn’t give her a hard time about that.  Russell at first decides to stay on the bus, but then decides to join Brighid and I.  He wants to go see the horse guards and get his picture taken with them, so we find out exactly how to get back that way, and we decide to stop in the Westminster Abbey gift shop to get postcards and then head towards the horse guards.  Okay, remember this being the day when nothing goes right?   Yeah.  Well, we get all the way to where the horse guards are supposed to be and they are gone 🙁   They have closed up early today because they are expecting a visit from Princess Anne later in the evening in preparation for the Queen’s birthday celebration this coming weekend.  I know Russell is disappointed, and it doesn’t seem like we can catch a break today.

We walk back towards Westminster and I take a couple of pictures of Brighid and Russell in front of Big Ben and a few of Westminster.  We head back to the bus, and I ask where there is a Starbucks, since I know they have them here.  We find out from Liz that they do not have sugar free syrup here.  UGH.  I make a crack about how there must not be any fat people in all of Europe, and turn to see our 300+ pound bus driver.  Ooops. 

Dave takes us out past Buckingham Palace – twice -and we see Trafalgar Square before we head out to Sussex, where our hotel is.  It’s a long drive out there – about 2 hours – and Liz is going to stay here in London, so we drop her off and we’re on our way.

Our hotel is The Copthorne Hotel near Gatwick airport, where we will be departing from in the morning.  The exterior of the hotel puts you in the mindset of an old English country house, and it pretty much lives up to that.  The rooms are not lavishly appointed, but they are comfortable – and honestly, we are all so tired, they could have given us a cot in the parking lot and we would have been happy.  When we arrive, Steve is no where to be found, but a guy from the front desk comes out and starts giving us keys and room assignments.  Our luggage is in the lobby when we arrive, so we head in to find our room and put our bags away.  We are starving, so we head out to find out what there is to eat.  They  have a pub, which opened at 4, but serves pub grub – burgers and the like.  There are two other restaurants – one a more formal restaurant, which does not open until 7, and another, more casual, which opens at 6.  Just outside of that restaurant there is a small courtyard with lavish landscaping and a small pond.  The restaurant manager gets us a couple of pots of tea, and we sit out here and enjoy the first peace and quiet of the day before we head in to dinner.

Now, at this point, it is all I can do to keep from getting hysterical with laughter.  We have come thousands of miles, we have been to 7 different countries, and we arrive here, surrounded by the quaint English countryside, where the restaurant is having – wait for it – AMERICA NIGHT!!!   We are sitting in this lovely English Garden, watching as an Asian man hangs American flags and Uncle Sam cut outs around the restaurant – this is funny, people!

America night features an American style buffet – corn on the cob, spare ribs, chicken, and all the fixins.  I can’t really eat my money’s worth at a buffet, so it’s not a good idea for me to get it, and Brighid was hankering for some pub grub, so she doesn’t want to settle for a traditional American meal.  Brighid ends up ordering a Caesar salad and I order the chicken curry.  Dot and Russ are going to brave the buffet.  Brighid’s salad looks really good, and has nice chunks of bacon in it, so she’s very happy, and I am really surprised at how really good the chicken curry is.  I was a little afraid to order it, but it’s quite good and was the perfect choice for me.  Dot and Russ sample some of the buffet offerings with mixed results.  Some of it is too spicey (they went for a Southwestern flavor, but leaned too heavily on the spices) and the ribs are a bit tough.  There is gammon on the carving station, but initially, we don’t know what gammon is.  Turns out, it’s pretty much the same as ham.  They have a nice selection of salads and desserts, and we all leave pretty full.  I am grateful to get back to the room and get ready for bed, and even more grateful that there is a language I understand on TV!!   It doesn’t matter much, though, because I am asleep before I ever make it through one show.

We are up at 5 AM, and we are the first to arrive at the restaurant for the full English breakfast.  It is very traditional breakfast, with fried tomatoes, mushrooms, bangers, potatoes, eggs, bacon, etc.  They also have all types of cereals, tons of fresh fruit, yogurts, deli meats and cheeses, and all kinds of fresh baked breads.  They really provided a nice breakfast. 

I don’t know why we are up so early, because we arrive at Gatwick and check in with still 2 hours to wait until our flight takes off.  There are a bunch of shops in the waiting area of Gatwick, so we pick up a few Harrod’s souvenirs, and we check out a few other shops.  There is a Starbucks here – and YES, they have sugar free syrup!   Not only that, but the barista is about the cutest guy we’ve seen the whole trip.  He is tall, has beautiful blue eyes, gorgeous hair, and I start thinking that this is Brighid’s type!   She barely acknowledges him.  There goes not only my chance for tall, beautiful grandchildren with normal sized noses, but also my annual holidays to the UK to visit them 🙁  

So now, with my venti, nonfat, 7 pump, sugar free vanilla latte in hand, we went back and sat down where Dot and Russ were waiting until it was time for her wheelchair escort to the gate.  We chatted a little with their friends Ken and Eileen, and then we decided to head to the gate ourselves, not knowing if we would be allowed to go the same way Dot and Russ were going.  We still had about an hour to wait, and when we got over to the gate, we found out that you are not allowed to wait at the gate until 30 minutes before take off.  Brighid and I head to the bathroom, and I buy another souvenir – yep, in the bathroom!   They have chewable toothbrushes!   Loved them.

We walked back out and got in line to wait for the gate to open up.  When they do, we take a seat right next to the door so we can hop right up when it’s our turn.  A British Airways employee comes over and asks if she can do a survey with us about the day and the experience so far, so we do.  Before long, we are sitting on the plane.

We keep watching for Dot and Russ, and we don’t see them anywhere.  The plane is getting more and more full, and it’s very close to time to take off, and they are still not here.  I’m starting to get worried, and then I see Eileen and Ken coming.  I figure Dot and Russ must be right behind them, because Eileen also had to wait for a wheelchair escort, but then Eileen comes back to where Brighid and I are and says that there’s a problem, and they won’t let Dot and Russ get on the plane.  I immediately go into panic mode, but I’m not sure what to do.  If I get off the plane, all of my luggage is on here, and what will happen to us?   Will they let us off the plane?   Just as I made my mind up to get up and go up front and see what we should do, I see them getting to their seats.  Whatever the crisis is (we find out later that they have lost Russell’s boarding pass), it has been dealt with and appears to be resolved.  WHEW.  I love them, but I am so ready to go home, and was not looking forward to another night in Europe!!

This is going to be a long flight – more than 8 hours, but when we arrive in Orlando, it will only be 3 in the afternoon, so this is going to be a marathon day.  I watched a couple of movies – Ghost Rider with Nicholas Cage; The Last Time with Michael Keaton and Brendan Fraser; and The Number 23 with Jim Carrey.  I also manage to catch a few sitcoms in the bargain.  They kept us well fed and well beveraged on British Airways – I absolutely have no complaints about how they treat you on this airline.

Back in Orlando, we board a bus heading back to Solavita, and the last of the things that went wrong has gone wrong – there has been a leak in the bathroom and there is some major clean up to be done and a plumber to be called.

We are fortunate enough to be here for an evening shuttle launch, and it’s just beautiful, and Dot and I head out to pick up a few things at the supermarket.  We intend to pick up a pizza on the way home, but the pizza parlor is closed.  I don’t mind because I am so tired!  

We head to bed by 10 o’clock, and I am up at 4, Brighid at 6 – still on European time.  We leave for the airport at 10:30 for the last flight of the vacation – the one going home!

Barcelona – A Taste of the Gaudy Gaudi

We wake oh so early this morning to head up to breakfast at 6:30.  We have to eat a quick meal and head back to the cabin one last time for our carry on bags.  We arrived early at the Rendezvous Lounge, which is where our group is supposed to meet, and we sit to people watch.  About half an hour before our schedule debarkation time, Dot and Russ arrive, and we find out we can actually leave the ship with them now.  This is the fastest we’ve ever gotten off of a ship, but eevn after we got our luggage, we still have to stand outside for more than an hour and a half to wait for the tour buses to arrive.  The tour guide – Fiza – tells us the buses are there, but they have to come in order, and the ship’s buses have priority.  I’m not buying it because well after most of the other buses have gone, we’re still standing on the pier waiting in a virtually empty parking lot with plenty of room for our buses. 

The tour of Barcelona is really fairly quick, but we do have the opportunity to stop at the Church of the Holy Family.  The church, known in Barcelona as La Sagrada Familia, is one of the most well known buildings in Spain, and the original architect was Antoni Gaudi.  The story of Gaudi’s life is so painful, and when you look at his Church, you can almost see how he must have struggled with his life.  He was so well reknowned in Barcelona, and he was commissioned to do many things in the city.  He was a devout Catholic, though, and in his later years he abandoned much of his commissioned work to concentrate on the Church of the Holy Family.  He lost much of his family, and the city of Barcelona fell into economic hardship, causing Gaudi to withdraw more and more.  He stopped talking to reporters and supporters and focused solely on this one project.  Gaudi was one day run over in the streets of Barcelona by a tram, and because of his raggedy appearance, he was left in the streets to die, people thinking he was a pauper.  He was eventually removed from the streets and taken to a hospital for the poor.  No one in the hospital recognized him, and he lay without treatment until the next day, when friends who had noticed he was nowhere to be found started a search for him.  They begged him to let them take him to a good hospital, but he refused, saying he was meant to be there among the poor.  Gaudi died 3 days later, a passing that gave way to a city wide mourning.  He is buried inside his masterpiece – La Sagrada Familia – but the work remains unfinished.  Gaudi did not work from blue prints to create his vision at the church, so the city has now taken over the restoration and completion of the project.  There is a charge to go in to see the Church, with the proceeds from ticket sales paying for the Church project.

If you have ever been in an Italian or Spanish restaurant, and seen the empty wine bottles on the tables with the dripping wax candles stuck in them, then you have seen La Sagrada Familia.  The parts that Gaudi completed look just like that dripping wax candle.

We headed out to the Gothic Quarter after our trip to La Sagrada Familia, and we did a walking tour through the quarter.  They are celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi in Barcelona, so there is a flea market in the quarter, and the courtyard of the Churches are decorated lavishly with flowers.  The tour is lovely, but we are SO exhausted!

Omni tours decided to provide us with lunch, since there were a few screw-ups during the trip, and Fiza takes us to a restaurant called Oben.  The food here is so fresh and so delicious – it’s almost worth extending the trip these extra days just to have had this lunch.  I want to tell you that my favorite part of the lunch was the scrambled eggs – and I tell you this because I do not like eggs, and I have been unable to create the dish at home.  I know there were slivers of red bell pepper in the eggs, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what the seasoning was.  That was my appetizer, and it was followed by a main dish of fish that was so moist and so well seasoned, I can still taste how good it was!   If you’re ever in Barcelona, look up Oben – very good food.

We learn here that they do not really speak Spanish, but a language called Catalan.  That’s interesting, because you see signs that sort of resemble Spanish, but the spellings are different – that’s because is Catalan!

The hotel we are booked at is really in the center of things.  It is the Hotel Catalonia Albinoni.  It’s definitely nothing special.  The room is small and pretty dreary, although the bathroom is very pretty, all done in granite.  The only channel on TV that we can understand is CNN, where we learn that the Pope was nearly attacked as his car drove through St. Peter’s Square.  Everything else is in Spanish.  We’re not really sure what to do about dinner.  We were told that the Spanish in Barcelona tend to have much later hours, since daylight lasts much later here.  A lot of the restaurants don’t even open until 8 PM, and we have to be up at oh dark thirty, so we don’t want to wait until so late to eat dinner.  Brighid decides she isn’t even really hungry for a full dinner, and I can eat protein bars and crackers, so we decide to head to the department store down the street.  There is supposed to be a supermarket on the lower level, so we figure we’ll go check it out and at least find a snack or two.

On our way down the block, we pass some interesting shops – Swarovski Crystal, a chocolate shop, and a couple of stands like you would see at a flea market where they were selling linens and things.  There are two girls giving away samples of gazpacho on the street, which we skip, and then we walk dead into a huge protest.  It seems that everywhere we go in Europe, someone is protesting something!   This protest actually works out pretty well for us.  The intersection at the end of this street is really usually crowded with cars and exceedingly busy.  Because there is an army of police here and a mob of protestors, the street is closed and we can walk right over to the shop!

The shop itself is WAY overpriced for everything, so we head down to the supermarket part of things.  We wander around and see what’s familiar – and of course everything is, because, after all, they need toilet paper and trash bags in Spain too.  Brighid isn’t sure what she wants, and then I spot rotisserie chicken, hot and ready to go, so she gets a quarter chicken and a bottle of soda.  I find what has eluded me the entire trip – PRETZELS!!   I pick up the package of pretzels and head off to find some cream cheese, then we get a bottle of water and head out.  We easily cross back across the street (Up the Republic!   Labor unfair!   Stop animal testing!   Keep blocking that street and we’ll support whatever cause ya got!!), and head back to the hotel.  I have to say that while I am completely unimpressed with the hotel itself, the location couldn’t be more ideal for a tourist, especially if you have no car or any other mode of transportation handy.

We get back to our room, and Brighid realizes she has no silverware or napkins, and heads down to the lobby where she makes a valiant attempt at acquiring those items.  There is definitely a communication barrier here, and it’s interesting to me that more people here do not speak English.  I don’t mean to sound all angry American or anything like that, but in every other country, the people we have encountered have all had a working knowledge of the English language, so I am surprised that the people in Barcelona – or at least those at this hotel – do not.  It’s not that I EXPECT them to speak English, I’m just surprised, based on our experiences so far in every other country, that they don’t.  Anyway, Brighid comes back with a fork, couldn’t get them to understand what a napkin was, and resigns herself to having to wipe the chicken grease off on the bedsheets (I’m kidding.  You know that, right?).  Now it’s my turn – I need a wakeup call.  I phone the front desk and, of course, I do not know how to say Wake Up in Catalonian, and the man at the desk does not know that I need him to understand it in English, so we do not have a wake up call by the end of my nearly 10 minute conversation.  Thank goodness, Dot and Russ are able to give us a call to wake us when oh dark thirty rolls around, otherwise, Brighid and I would now be permanent residents of the Hotel Catalonia!

I have a terrible night sleeping here.  The daylight hours really do go on an awfully long time, and at home, I usually fall asleep to the sounds of David Letterman or Craig Ferguson.  I can’t fall asleep to the sounds of no TV with the daytime still streaming in the window, so I am awake and getting ready to go when we get our wake-up call.  We have to be downstairs and ready to go to the airport at 4:30 AM, and there is supposed to be a breakfast waiting for us when we get downstairs.  There are 50 of us, so although the breakfast included in the stay doesn’t start until 7, the hotel agrees to provide a meal for us.  You can audibly hear the disappointment when people come down, exhausted from the long vacation and tired from the long day in Barcelona, and see that the breakfast meal they have provided for us is four slices of white bread – two with two slices of cheese on them, two with two slices of ham on them.  Some people got an orange, some a banana, and we all got some kind of juice.  The ham, which I try to eat, is a slimey, nasty piece of deceased hog of some sort – almost like one of those canned hams, but not cooked – cold, with the hog jelly all around it.  The cheese is not something I like, although some people say the only part of the meal they are able to enjoy is the cheese.  There is a ton of fruit and juices left behind on the tables in the lobby as well.  I guess they’ve never heard of doughnuts, croissants, muffins, or other sorts of typical quick breakfast foods in Barcelona – but we were warned that most people here are just now going to bed at this hour of the morning, so maybe this is really akin to  a Barcelona midnight snack??

The bus ride to the airport is uneventful, but wait until I get to Day 14 and you’ll see how our arrival at the airport was mucked up!

The Last Day At Sea

Today is June 5th, and it is a very sad day for me.  It’s not sad because it’s the last day on the ship, but today is the last day for Eilis at kindergarten.  I am missing her end of the year The Cheese Stands Alone production, and I am missing the reception to celebrate their graduation from kindergarten.  I have felt homesick the whole trip, and missed Jim and the girls since we left Philly, but today, I really feel physically sick to my stomach.  If I could have gotten on a plane in Monaco and headed home to be there for this, I would have 🙁  

Brighid and I are still up way too eary, so we head up to the buffet for breakfast.  We change into our bathing suits afterwards and spend about 1/2 an hour in the Aqua Spa hydro-therapy pool.  It’s heated and bubbly, and feels so good to sit in it, but the air is quite chilly, since the ship is moving so quickly.  We laid in the sun for a little while, wrapped like mummies in towels, and then went back to the cabin to dry off and get dressed. 

There was a cook-off demonstration – similar to Iron Chef – and Brighid was hoping the French chef she liked from the last cooking demonstration was there.  He was!   This was the highlight of her morning.  The other chef was Hungarian, and when they asked him how he felt about his chances, he said, “He’s French – he’ll win!”   They actually both made a similar dish – a seafood risotto – but when they asked for volunteers to come and judge, no one wanted to go.  I kept nudging Brighid, but she stayed put, and finally, a man walked up and offered to be the taste tester.  He declared it a tie, so no one had hurt feelings and even the Hungarian chef went back to his kitchen happy.

 It was getting to be just about lunch time, and we were meeting Dot and Russ for lunch.  It was quite cold on the ship, so Brighid and I ran up and changed – well, at least partially.  I took my sandals off and put socks and sneakers on, and Brighid switched to long sleeves.  We met at the dining room.  The food today was just so-so – definitely not the best meal we’ve had on board.  After the meal, we wandered up to the photo shop to pick up the photos from the formal night portrait we had done.  We then headed out to see Jennifer’s shopping talk about Barcelona.

She’s a talker, that Jennifer, and it was nearly 3 by the time she was finished.  We figured we would head back to the cabin and start packing, since everything had to be outside the cabin tonight. 

Dinner tonight was casual, and the shrimp dish I ate completely hated me.  I ended up in pain, skipped dessert, and headed back up to the cabin.  The show tonight was acrobats, and I enjoyed them the other night, but not quite enough to head back to see them, especially with still a little packing to do.  Brighid decided to skip the show as well and she was soon at the cabin helping with the last little bit of packing.  There are no weight restrictions getting off of the ship, or on the bus in Barcelona, so we are cramming stuff wherever it will fit.  Our bags are outside in plenty of time and we are soon tucked in, watching a little TV, and enjoying our last sleep on the ship.

Villefranche – French for Americans Can’t Pronounce This

It is June 4th, and we have had several days of long tours in a row.  Brighid and I both feel like we could just stay in bed this morning, and the old cliche about needing a vacation after your vacation seems to be ringing true for this trip.  It’s an early tour again today, but it’s only a half day tour, so we’ll have time this afternoon to rest up and recuperate from our several kamikaze style days of touring.

Okay, I am now home from this trip for nearly 2 weeks, and I’m still not sure how you say Villefranche.  There were people on board pronouncing it “VEEL – France”, “Villy-France”, “Vil-Frank”, and “VEEL-Frawnsh”.  I think the last pronunciation is probably the closest to how the French tourguide pronounced it.  However you say it, there is only one way to describe our visit here – absolutely, stunningly gorgeous.

The ship anchors and we have to tender in for our bus tour this morning.  It’s Russell, Brighid and I, and the weather here is sunny and warm.  Russell is wearing shorts when we meet him for breakfast, but the TV description of our tour says you shouldn’t wear shorts or tank tops, as we are going into a church.  Russell goes back to pull on slacks, but when we get on the bus, there are quite a few people – both men and women – who have chosen to wear shorts despite being told it’s improper to do so.  And you wonder why they call us Ugly Americans.

We drive through the towns of Villefranche and Eze (pronounced “EZ”, not “Easy”), and the view is just amazing.  This is the French Riviera, home to celebrities like Bono, The Edge, Elton John, Tina Turner, and Bill Gates.  We head into Monaco, which is only a 6 mile drive from Villefranche, but traffic brings it to nearly an hour trip.  We get off of the bus at the Oceanographic museum, home to the late Jacques Cousteau.  We have the opportunity to visit the yellow submarine used by Cousteau on many of his underwater voyages.  We walk from the museum past the homes of Princess Caroline and Princess Stephanie.  The tour guide is not allowed to stop the group in front of the homes, so we move down the street to view them, but on the way back, since we are by ourselves, we take a picture at each home.  I am so surprised that not only are these homes so close to where we are, but that there is no visible security.  I’m sure there are cameras, security wire, electric fencing, guards and large dogs SOMEWHERE, but we cannot see them from where we are.  The homes are pastel and white and surrounded by beautiful vegetation. 

The first stop on our tour is at the Monaco Cathedral.  This is the place where the Royal family of Monaco has celebrated all of it’s important religious events, including the wedding of Prince Ranier to Grace Kelly, the baptism of their children, the funerals of the Prince and Princess, and the coronation of Prince Albert as ruler of the principality.  The Cathedral is just lovely, and we walk to the front, where we can see the tombs of the former princes of Monaco.  When we get to the other side of the altar, there are two tombs covered in flowers – one belonging to the much beloved Princess Grace, and the other belonging to Prince Ranier.  We take a couple of pictures, with Brighid bumping my arm to let me know she disapproves of taking pictures of graves, and then the tour is moving on.

We walked just a short way down the street, and there we were, in the castle foreground.  This is the home of Prince Albert II of Monaco.  The palaces don’t really look like the fairytale castles we envision as children, but more like fortresses.  This one is done in a very light, cream color, and is bright and beautiful, if understated.

By the time we tour the couple of souvenir shops that are there and walk back outside, we learn that the Prince is preparing to leave the palace, so we go join the crowd waiting for his departure.  I am prepared to throw Brighid in front of the motorcade, with a sign saying, “I’m Single!” pinned to her blouse, but we check our watch and find out that our bus will be departing without us if we do not hurry back to the Oceanographic Museum.  We have to miss the Prince by just a few minutes 🙁

We took a short drive from the old town of Monaco (the world’s second smallest country, just larger than Vatican City) to the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo.  This is definitely NOT Atlantic City.  There are signs posted outside the Grand Casino letting people know, in no uncertain terms, that a dress code needs to be followed to gain entrance to this incredible building.  There is a 10 Euro charge to get into the joint, and you must show your passport for security purposes (by the way, Monaco, as small as it is, has the largest per capita police department, and we probably see more police in Monaco than in any other city we’ve been in).  Residents of Monaco are not permitted to gamble in the casinos here, so if you do not have a passport to show, you will not get in.  The dress code does not allow shorts, t-shirts, sneakers, tank tops, etc., and even if you follow the basic dress code, you will only be able to enter the public slot machine area of the casino.  There are other private rooms for games like Blackjack and poker, and some of them have even stricter dress codes.  The building itself is amazing, and on the other side of it is the opera house, which is stunning as well.

The shops here are all high end designer shops – no outlet shopping here!   Brighid buys an ice cream cone, as she has done in ever city we’ve visited.  This is by far the most expensive of the ice cream, at 3.50 euros.  She hands the woman a 10 Euro note, and apologizes for not having something smaller.  At most of our other stops, handing them something so large was a change making problem, as the ice creams were 1 euro, and they didn’t see so many large bills.  In Monte Carlo, the woman happily made change for the 10 euro note.  I told Brighid there was no need to apologize here – they probably use the 10 euro notes to shine their shoes.  I wanted to pick something up for Bob here, but even a deck of cards that had the words Grand Casino on it were nearly $40 (that’s American dollars). 

This ended our much too short trip to Monaco, and we were soon back on the bus, headed back to the ship.  This is the last formal night, and we are going to get a family picture done, so Brighid and I want to take a little nap, get dolled up, and try to look our best.

Dinner tonight is about the most lavish of all the nights so far.  The menu features lobster tail and the waiters parade through the room with a Baked Alaska.  Then they asked us all to hold hands and sing Auld Lang Syne, which was corny but cute.

The show tonight featured the Celebrity singers and dancers and a couple of acrobats, who were VERY good.  Brighid and I were so tired, even though she was getting a little hungry and curious about the midnight gala buffet, she decided to just head back to the room.  We ordered a little room service late night snack and turned in.  It’s a day at sea tomorrow, so hopefully, we’ll get to sleep in a little later!

Florence – Birthplace of the Italian Renaissance

June 3rd, and we wake up this morning in Livorno, Italy.  We are about an hour away from Florence, and we have booked another full day tour.  We are on our way to Florence by 7:30 AM after a quick breakfast at the buffet.  Our tour guide today is Ignazio, who will explain that he suffers from weather related depression.  I don’t know what we’re in for, and pray along the way that Ignazio does not commit suicide in the front of the bus.

The first thing Ignazio does is has our bus driver take us to the top of a very high hill in Florence.  He’s going to jump!!!   Oh, no, there’s a fake David statue there that he wants us to see, and this is also a very scenic overlook of the entire city of Florence.  I gotta tell you, the ride up the hill was fantastic – the homes and hotels are gorgeous.  But overlooking the whole city – well, not so much fantastic as similar to most other busy cities you might be looking at.  There’s no bright blue dots of rooftops like in Santorini and there is way more industrial looking areas than in Dubrovnik.  It’s a nice view, but nothing special.

We head to the museum, Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno  where we are scheduled at 10:30 to see the real statue of David, but there is some confusion when we get there.  We have tickets, but we are standing quite still in line.  People who are in groups are supposed to be where we are, people who are not in groups are not supposed to be here.  Apparently, there is no clear direction of that fact to anyone, anywhere.  Additionally, people without timed tickets are butting in line with the groups, trying to get in earlier.  Well, Ignazio calls us all up to come and go in, and he just about gets into a fist fight with a guy who has been standing and waiting and wants to go in first.  Thanks to his weather related depression disorder, Ignazio is apparently not afraid to die by fighting in the street with this tough looking and MUCH bigger man, and by standing up to this guy, the guy backs down and Ignzaio escorts us into the museum.  Whew.

We are all wearing those whisper devices now, as Ignazio handed them out to us on the bus.  These enable us to hear him, even though the museum is crowded and noisy.  We wear the headphones in our ears, and Ignazio speaks into his headset, enabling us to listen to his description of this amazing statue.  You can see veins and muscles and I am just blown away at the attention to detail.  Even more beautiful to me are the unfinished “Slaves” that we pass on our way back to see David.  Michelangelo believed that his works of art were hiding in the blocks of marble, and it was his job to “dig them out” basically.  Well, the Slaves – five unfinished works of Michelangelo – really show how he did this.  They truly look like people emerging from these giant blocks of marble.  Just amazing. 

Our tour leaves the museum, and we head on foot to a tour of the city.  We get the warning we have gotten in most of the cities – keep your purse close, your back pockets empty, your bags near you.  We go first to Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore , known as Duomo.  It was designed by Brunelleschi, and this is where he is entombed.  The dome, which is the most famous part of the Cathedral, was built entirely without scaffolding, and it is amazing to see and hear the explanation of how it was built.  Across the way from the cathedral, we get a glimpse of the Gates of Paradise.  In 1405, the pope commissioned sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti to create the north doors of the Church of St. John the Baptist.  Ghiberti had previously created other doors for the baptistery, and his work was very highly regarded.  It took 27 years for Ghiberti and his team to complete the doors, and when he saw them, Michelangelo allegedly said that the doors were beautiful enough to be the “Gates of Paradise”, which is what they are now called.  They are panels, each depicting a story from the Bible, and they are so beautiful.  You can’t get very close to them, as a throng of people are standing there trying to see them, but you could certainly picture the angels and saints walking right through the doors into the welcoming arms of The Father. 

We take another short walk to the Ponte Vecchio.  This is basically just a bridge, but the area is filled with shops of every kind, tourists from every country, pickpockets of every denomination.  The bridge spans the Arno River, and it is here they say the term “bankrupt” originated.  Back in the day, the merchants sold their wares from wooden tables.  If a merchant could not pay their debts, the soldiers would come and physically break the wooden tables so the merchant was no longer able to pedal their merchandise.  It Italian, the phrase for this was “Bancorotto”, or “Broken Bank”.  If they are depending on Brighid and I, these merchants will surely know the meaning of Bancorotto, because we save our pennies and our big expenditure here is post cards and a magnet for Dot. 

We meet up after a few minutes of free time and we head to lunch.  The lunch they put out is spectacular – a large piece of vegetable and cheese lasagna, a plate of roast beef with potatoes and vegetables, and a delicious gelato.  Following lunch, we walk out to the square in front of Santa Croce cathedral, and we are given about 2 hours of free time.  This is way too much for people like Brighid and I, who will pick up a t-shirt or two, a small souvenir for Eilis and Granuaile, and be on our merry way to see something important.  We pick up a t-shirt for Mirabella, who’s birthday Brighid is missing during our trip, and we wander in and out of a few other shops.  The leather shop people go nuts over my leather bag that Jim bought me at the Maryland Renaissance Faire last summer, and I can’t wait to go back and tell the guy that his bag is all the rage among the Firenze elite. 

The rest of the shops are the same as they seem to be everywhere we go – leather goods, watches, jewelry, and the tacky t-shirt/cheap souvenir shops.  We end up sitting on a bench, watching the people in the square.  There are several artists, painting various scenes of Tuscany – lots of sunflowers! – and there is a puppet show going on in the middle of the square.  When Ignazio comes back, someone asks him if this is where the real citizens of Florence shop.  The answer to this is a resounding “NO”.  Now I believe Ignazio is hoping to commit suicide by being pelted to death by designer jewelry purchased by foolish and angry American tourists at these overpriced shops in Florence.  Fortunately, the sun is now shining pretty brightly, so I think Ignazio is out of the woods for today.

We are all gathered together, after a bit of a delay because a couple of our group wandered out of the square and got lost.  We head into the Cathedral of Santa Croce, which on it’s own is just stunning.  There are some 500 tombs and monuments in the Church, and we focus on only four.  We manage to squeeze in to see the tomb of Michelangelo – which is an amazing work of art in and of itself.  We also get up close to the tombs of Galileo and Machiavelli.  The fourth tomb that Ignazio highlights is of an Italian opera singer, although also here are the tombs of Ghiberti, Marconi, and a monument in honor of Dante.  We walk the grounds and admire some of the architecture and this is a really beautiful place to be.

We had seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa on our trip out to Florence this morning, but we do not have a good enough angle from the bus on the way back to the ship.  This has been another long day, and we are back on the ship with just enough time to change for dinner.  We’re exhausted, but the show tonight is Adrian Walsh, and Irish comedian that Brighid does not want to miss.  He really is quite funny, and we enjoy the show tremendously, but now, it’s really time for bed!

When In Rome…Don’t book with Omni Tours

June 2nd, we are supposed to be the first ones off of the ship so we can meet the tour bus organized through Omni tours for our excursion into Rome, The Eternal City.  This is the only tour we have booked that is not a Celebrity Cruise shore excursion, but there was quite  a large group from Solavita going on this trip, so Dot and Russ signed us all up.  Brighid and I were in Rome in November of 2000 with Jim, and we’ve seen many of the highlights, but the sights here are so numerous and so amazing, I feel like you could visit here every year for 100 years and only touch on the things you must see.

As instructed, we are ready to walk off the ship first, as soon as they open the doors.  The Solavita group is literally the first group of people down the gangway, and we walk out to our awaiting bus.  Or so we think.  There is no bus.  We figure it will be here shortly, so we gather by the fence, peering out at the other tour groups like a bunch of orphans left behind as the other kids get adopted into new families. 

After giving Omni the benefit of the doubt, and waiting 45 minutes after the bus is supposed to be here, Steve goes back to the ship to call someone to find out what’s going on.  He is shortly back out, coming down the gangway with a long and frustrated face.  Our tour bus has allegedly broken down and is stuck on the side of some road, somewhere.  We are told that Steve has to give them about 30 minutes, then he is going to phone them again to check on the status of the replacement bus.  We can head back on board the ship, and Steve tells us to meet him back on deck 3 by guest services at around 9:00.  It’s a very chilly morning, and with more than a half hour to wait before we have to meet Steve, we all decide to go up to the buffet and grab  a cup of tea  and some doughnuts.  We are back on Deck 3 at our appointed time, and the Solavita crowd is gathering to wait for word on the status of our trip.  Brighid and I sort of resign ourselves to the fact that we will probably be sitting pool-side today, and while it’s okay for us, having seen some of the highlights of Rome, it’s an absolute tragedy to miss this gorgeous city – especially for the people who have never been here before.

Steve meets us at around 9, and instead of bringing us good news about the Omni tour we are supposed to be on, he tells us that there is no replacement bus available.  This is a holiday in Rome (Independence Day, again, just like in Croatia), and it’s virtually impossible to reach anyone, but Celebrity has jumped through a few hoops and they have thrown together a tour for us at the last minute.  They will have a bus here for the Solavita group in about an hour.  Everyone is relieved to at least have SOMETHING, as opposed to spending the day sitting on the ship stewing over what seems to be just another in a long line of Omni disappointments, but no one is really sure what exactly we have yet.  As this is all very last minute, Celebrity hasn’t given Steve a lot of information regarding what we are seeing, where we are going, or what we are doing.  On top of that, in spite of everyone already being paid for the Omni tour, we all now have to pay again for the Celebrity tour and hope that Omni refunds the money to the proper people.  As we are waiting for the Celebrity bus to come and get us, Steve makes the decision to cancel the tour scheduled with Omni for the next day.  We aren’t on that tour, but he calls out the names of the people in the group who are and asks them if they are in agreement and if they would mind if he schedules them on a Celebrity excursion similar to what they have booked with Omni.  No one says they do not want to cancel the Omni trip the next day, so it seems unanimous that the Omni tour will be cancelled.

The buses finally come in and we are loaded on and ready to go on the hour long drive from Civitevecchia to Rome.  Our guide seems very nice – Francesca – but she is not very good with the microphone, and I know most of the people in the back cannot hear her.  She seems to really only be talking to the people in the front seat of the bus.  It is at some point during our drive to Rome that the plans for the day are revealed, and it seems like there will be all out mutiny onboard the bus.

The Omni tour included a visit to the Sistine Chapel.  The Celebrity Tour does not.  The Omni tour included a stop at the Trevi Fountain, where we can all throw our coins and guarantee our return to Rome.  The Celebrity Tour does not.  The Celebrity Tour, it seems, is mostly an independent tour.  We are supposed to have 3 hours of time to do what we want, and then a 3 hour “taste” of Rome.  When I tell you people are angry and upset, I am understating the mood on the bus.  People are outraged.  There are people on this trip who have taken this cruise ONLY so they could visit the Sistine Chapel.  There are people on this bus who would not have booked this cruise at all had they known there would not be an in-depth, guided tour of Rome.  This is a real trip-buster for a lot of these people. 

Francesca suggests that if people want to visit the Sistine Chapel, they can use the 3 hours of free time at the start of the excursion to do so.  They are warned that the trip will go on without them if they do not meet us at the appointed time, and they are also told that the lines at the Vatican museum just to purchase tickets are often quite long.  Some people are willing to make the sacrifice.

When we arrive, we really don’t know what we are supposed to do.  The streets right where we are taken are mostly cobblestone, so it’s very difficult to maneuver the wheelchair.  Plus, it’s incredibly crowded, so not only is Russell having to navigate the difficult terrain, he is having to avoid running down careless pedestrians.  We go in to St. Peter’s Square for a quick look around, but since we do not know what the tour will be doing when we meet up again in a couple of hours, we don’t really know what to do or what to see.  The line for tickets into the Vatican museum is very long, and the tickets are pretty pricey for a quick run from one end of the museum to the other to glimpse the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  We decide to head back across the street where the bus dropped us off and grab a bite to eat at the little restaurant that is there.  Because of the holiday, we have been warned that few shops and restaurants will be open, so we don’t want to waste time wandering the very crowded city if we can get a meal right here.  Fortunately, just as we are ready to sit down, an outside table opens up and I jump at it. 

We all decide we want pizza, so we order two pizzas and a few drinks.  The waiter is the most laid back you will find anywhere.  There is no rush to bring the food, clear the plates, or bring the check.  He would easily let us sit here until the city closes down for the night and not say a bad word to us.  The pizza is very good – again, the thin crust, light sauce, fresh cheese, and a little basil.  While we are waiting there, a family with a newly baptized baby wanders by, heading off to celebrate the baby’s special day, and while I am in the shop looking for postcards and magnets, a wedding party passes by.  Adding to the excitement of the street, there are four people slated to be canonized the next day, so throngs of people are wandering around, wearing buttons and pins celebrating their candidate for Sainthood.  Also on the street are Cambodian women selling silk scarves.  They are the only people who get a rise out of our waiter, as they are chased away anytime they come near one of the restaurant’s outdoor tables.

After lunch, we are supposed to meet the tour with our new tour guide right here in front of the restaurant, so we are in the right place.  But because people are scattered every which way and Francesca didn’t keep up very well with who was going where and who was meeting us when, even though we are supposed to resume the tour at 2, it is much closer to 2:30 when we actually get in line to go into the Basilica.  Some of the people are very upset because, not knowing we would be going in with the group, they used their free time to tour the Basilica.  We wait in the long line to get through the security check points, and at some point, Dot and Russ are pulled aside to go in a handicapped accessible entrance.  By the time we actually reach the doors of the Basilica, we find out we have only 15 minutes before we have to be outside to meet the tour guide.  This is truly a shame.  There is so much to see and so much to appreciate inside St. Peter’s that there is no way with only 15 minutes you can begin to scratch the surface.  You need more than 15 minutes to stand and stare at the Pieta.  Brighid and I race around and see as much as we can in the little time that we have.  There are so many people in here, and we have no idea where they have taken Dot and Russ, so we just assume we will see them when we get out of the Basilica. 

Once our 15 minutes are up, we are heading out, but a few of the people have to use the bathroom.  Well, the line to get into the bathroom is nearly as long as the line to get into the Basilica itself, and I am a little frustrated that we have to wait for people.  Not only that, but we still don’t see Dot and Russ, and we have no idea where they are or who they are with, so I’m getting a little worried that we will get separated.  Finally, with everyone done their potty break, we start to head out of the Square, and we are rejoined by Dot and Russ and a few other stragglers (Angel and Eileen and Ken).  We get back on the bus for a short drive to San Pietro in Vincoli – the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains.  Dot and Russ stay behind, but the bus driver makes them get off the bus, along with the other people who choose not to continue with the walking part of the tour.

The history of St. Peter in Chains is basically there were two sets of chains that once imprisoned St. Peter.  When the two sets of chains were brought together, they miraculously fused together, and the fused chains are kept in a reliquary under the main altar in the Basilica.  Also in the Church is the statue of Moses created by Michelangelo.  It is a beautiful piece, and the chains are interesting to see.

We walk from the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains to the Coliseum.  It is completely mobbed here, and the suggestion is made by the tour guide that we go across the street to get a closer look.  About 6 people decide they do not want to do that, and I really would like to stay with them, but Brighid wants to go.  We take the walk across the street, clinging to each other for dear life in the crowd, and we watch as a group of firefighters repel down the side of the building.  Apparently, the only people in all of Rome that are capable of putting up the scaffolding high enough so that restoration can be done on the Coliseum are the fireman, and that is what they are doing.

A couple of ladies in the group decide to head back before our time is up so they can go to the bathroom, but after  a few minutes, we walk back to where the bus is supposed to be.  It’s not there, and we have packed up all of our tired non-walkers to wander down the street to see if we can find the bus.  It is about a 2 block walk from where it dropped us off.

We are the LAST bus to get back to the ship, and we have literally only minutes to spare.  They are pulling up the gangway as the last of our group gets on the ship.  Our waiter told us the night before that they know people will have long trips in Rome, so even though our dinner seating time is 6:15, they will allow us to be seated as late as 6:45.  We are onboard at about 6:43.  No time to worry about dressing for dinner, we make a mad dash for the restaurant.  Brighid had talked about just ordering room service, but she perks up a little for dinner.  But, we still decide between us to skip the show tonight and head right to bed.  On our way back to our cabin, we see Jennifer the shopper at her desk.  She is pulling out the magic bells of Capri, and that is the one souvenir I wanted to get each of the girls.  We stop at her desk and I buy a bell for Brighid, Eilis and Granuaile, and THEN we head to bed!

The lowlights of today are really the fault of Omni tours.  In an email later sent regarding this mix-up, a representative from Omni tours says that they knew at 6:40 AM that the bus was broken down, and between herself and another Omni rep, they took 4 and a half hours to phone 16 other bus companies to secure transportation for us.  Well, how did it take two women more than 4 hours to make only 16 calls?   And what were they intending to do with the three midi-buses they secured at 11:30?   Assuming it took them an hour to get to us, the buses would have picked us up at 12:30, we would not have gotten to Rome until 1:30, and we would have had to be back on the boat by 6:30 – meaning we would have had to leave Rome no later than 5:30.  That left us with only 4 hours of what was supposed to be a 10 hour trip.  I cannot fault Celebrity in any way for the tour we ended up with, as it was better than no tour at all. 

I also question the honesty in telling us the bus was broken down and they had no way to contact us at the port.  If they knew at 6:40 a bus was not going to make it, even if they did not have another bus lined up, the tour guide assigned to that bus could have taken a car to the port to let us know our bus broke down, but they were working on a replacement. 

Rome is a beautiful, memorable city.  When we visited in November of 2000, I knew I wanted to come back and see more – even see again some of the stuff we saw the first time.  Omni really robbed us of a very valuable part of the trip by not showing up for this tour.  If nothing else, we learned to never book with an outside agent again.  All of our future excursions off of a cruise ship will be booked through the ship itself.

Pompeii and Pizza – What Could Be Better?

June 1st, we arrive in Naples.  I have let Brighid choose all of our tours for this trip, and I have to say, this was not my favorite.  She elected to stay in Naples, where we are scheduled for a tour of the Archeological museum and a visit to a pizza place for some authentic Napoli pizza.  This is, after all, where pizza was invented.

We arrived just around 9 to the Archeological museum, after driving around in a circle for about an hour through Naples.  The guide points out the Castle of the Egg and some other buildings that are somehow important in the history of Naples, but it really just feels like we’re going around the block a few times.

The museum features quite a collection of artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, both devastated by volcanic eruption.  We spend a lengthy time admiring the mosaics, most of which are truly beautiful, but you can only look at so many with the same level of enthusiasm.  We are then taken into a room with a collection of statues and busts, but we find out that many of them in this room are merely reproductions, as the originals would have been destroyed in the volcanic eruption.  A small collection of black statues draws my attention.  They have alabaster eyes, most of which the guide says were long ago destroyed, but they are absolutely haunting when you look at them. 

One of the rooms in the museum is called Gabinetto Segreto.  The guide explains on the outside that we have a special appointment to go in, but we are being bumped up earlier because another group has failed to show for their time.  One of the gentlemen in our group is positively giddy with excitement about going into the Secret Cabinet, and I’m figuring there must be some amazing art in here.  I’ve never heard of it, but surely, with his level of excitement, there must be a Michelangelo or a DaVinci in here somewhere.  Okay, call me naive.  The Gabinetto Segreto was open to the public (anyone over the age of 14) in 2000, and houses a collection of erotic art.  Among the pieces here, a bed from a Pompeii brothel, along with wall tiles depicting various acts of a sexual nature that one could purchase from the ladies at the brothel.  There are penises (is that the plural for that word, anyway??) at every turn, and the guide says in ancient Rome, it was considered a great thing to have a giant stone carving of a penis grace the entrance to your home.  It was a symbol of protection, fertility, and prosperity.  I am thinking of having one installed, then asking the priest to come bless our house.  I wonder if he – and the neighbors – will see it the same way?   Oh, and that old pervert?   Way too excited to be going in to see this particular collection of artwork.  Especially with his wife in tow.

After our visit to the museum, we come outside to see a rather enormous police presence and a demonstration brewing.  We hop on the bus, which must now take  a different way out than he originally intended to, but we still seem to somehow be traveling in a circle.  We view the Castle of the Egg from a new angle, and the palace of some other big shot who is long dead, and we finally end up getting off of the merry-go-round to go to a little pizzatta for lunch.  We have a gorgeous view of the water and the boats as we enjoy a delicious lunch.  They serve us a salad that smelled out of this world, and I couldn’t help but eat a few bites of tomato.  The tomatoes were the closest I’ve ever had to Jerseys, and with the dressing, they were so good.  After the salad, we each got our own pizza – a good sized pie with thin crust, fresh tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, and a little green stuff sprinkled around the center.  The pizza was amazing.  No other way to describe it.  The flavors were fresh and the pizza was so light.  There was no oil pooling on top as on many American pizzas, and no oil slick underneath.  I ate one whole piece, without eating the very last bit of crust, and I ate the cheese off of another piece.  Brighid ate just about all of hers.  What followed was a dessert that looked like a brownie, smelled like heaven, and had a big dollop of deliciously flavored cream on top.  I told the waiter I didn’t want one, but he insisted I take it anyway.  Brighid ate the whipped cream from mine, and did her best to eat all of hers.  I took  a tiny taste of the cream – holy cow, it was delicious. 

We took another quick trip around the block, viewing again the Castle of the Egg from yet another angle.  We also see the home of the former royal family.  The home – a huge, Buckingham Palace sized place, is not used anymore except for the occasional important political meeting.  What a waste.

We raced back on the ship and dressed quickly, since it was nearly dinner time.  As always, it was a delicious meal.

After dinner, we went to the show.  Tonight, it was a piano playing magician.  Yep.  I don’t know either.  It made no sense.  His magic was okay – mostly card tricks, which were a little boring – and while he was a great piano player, his specialty seemed to be taking GOOD, classical music and putting his own deranged spin on it.  Not cool.

We visited the photo shop, bought a few pictures, and went to bed.  What a long day!

Yo Ho Yo Ho, Sailing, Sailing, and all that other Nautical Jargon

May 31st is our second day at sea.  We don’t have to get up to be anywhere in particular – although we have looked at the schedule of events and Brighid has her appointment for a make over at 11, with Dot to follow at 11:30.  We placed our breakfast order outside the door last night, and we are hoping to have breakfat delivered at about 8:30.  We woke up around 8, showered and dressed quickly, and breakfast didn’t end up showing up until after we phoned to check on where it was at about 9:15.  The breakfast is way more than we can eat – I had ordered scrambled eggs and hash, and there is a mountain of both, plus potatoes.  Brighid has a breakfast equally as huge, plus a plate of fresh fruit.  They gave us a plate with four different pastries on it, as well as two croissants, so we wrap most of that and put it on the shelf in the room to enjoy later.  There is also a yogurt, and a nice hot pot of tea.  We really eat way too much, but it’s a nice breakfast, watching the waves roll past us, and it’s very relaxing.

The makeover goes well.  Brighid looks her usual gorgeous self, and we buy a few of the products.  One of them is an Estee Lauder product called Idealist – I should have bought one for Brighid and one for myself.  You skin feels like silk after you apply it, and I like how it seems to even out things without a concealer to do all the heavy work.  very nice stuff.  The makeup on both Brighid and Dot is very natural, not over done, and makes them both look very cleanly done – no hooker makeup here.

Following the makeovers, it was lunchtime, so we headed upstairs to eat.  We had a full afternoon planned, so after lunch, Brighid made her way out to the pool to read some school work and I headed off to attend a lecture on how accupuncture can control over eating.  I found it very informative, and even ended up signing up for a treatment, but since the woman said it can take as many as three treatments to begin to see results, I ended up cancelling and may look into it when I get home.  It’s not that I overeat, but I do have carb cravings, and this may help.

When the accupuncture class was over, Brighid met me for an Italian language lesson.  The woman who gave the lesson is Spanish, and a lot of things she mispronounced.  Even though she had the paper in front of her telling her how to say stuff in Italian, she seemed to confuse it with Spanish.  The best one in the class was an Asian man, who not only corrected the Spanish teacher, but was the loudest and best at pronouncing everything himself.  All in all, not worth the time it took, but we did come away with a print-out of some handy Italian phrases, and since our next three ports are Naples,  Florence,  and Rome, we might need them.

The adult passenger talent show is up next, so Brighid and I headed there.  Only 4 adults tried out and they took all 4 of them.  The performances were just okay – two of them were members of the Solavita group.  One man, Mr. Hartleman, sang a very nice rendition of Moon River, but there was nothing extraordinary about any of the other performances.  The one young woman who played the piano made quite a few mistakes that even I, an untrained listener, was able to pick up, but you have to give them credit for even getting up on the stage.  Brighid REALLY wanted to dance, but you had to be 18 to audition.  She would have blown them away.

We sat for a little while afterwards talking to Dot and Russ about shopping, but most of the information is for Capri, and we don’t go there.  We have  a full day in Florence and won’t have time to detour to Capri.  I do love the little bells though, and hope we will find them in Florence.

By now, it’s getting close to time to get ready for dinner, and since this is a formal night, that takes longer to do.  Brighid and I head up to the room, and I hop in the shower while Brighid fusses with hair.  Her makeup is still perfect, so no worries there.  I bring the champagne Jim sent to dinner, and the sommelier exchanges that bottle for a cold bottle so he can serve it. 

After a delicious dinner, Brighid runs to our room to get changed into her black and white gown, because she wants a formal picture of herself in that gown.  It looks gorgeous, as it did the other night, so I don’t know why she didn’t get her photos done when she wore this dress before, but no matter.  She looks gorgeous in it now, too.  She then runs back to change again, because she doesn’t want people to see her in the same dress she wore the first formal night.  She’s so difficult sometimes!

The show tonight, starring the Celebrity singers and dancers, is called Classique, and it really is very good.  They work so hard and put in a great show every time we see them.

When the show was over, we headed up on deck so we could see Sicily as we sailed by and to catch a glimpse of Mount Etna.  From there, it’s off to bed.  We have another early day tomorrow with our stop in Naples.

If It’s Wednesday, This Must Be Athens

Wednesday, May 30th – we can sleep in today!   Yay!   It’s the first time the whole trip, and Brighid is snoring away.  The sun shines in at 5:30 AM, and when I wake up, outside my window is a group of scruffy looking men doing something nautical.  We are right at ground level, and evidently, VERY close to the sidewalk.  I get up and close the blinds, then go back to sleep until about 8.

My initial impression of Athens?   Like any major city in the US, except way dirtier and way more crowded.  Brighid and I got up, got dressed, and decided to eat out on deck 10 this morning.  This is the first time the scenery isn’t very appealing, but there’s a nice breeze blowing and we enjoy the breakfast anyway.  Because we don’t leave until after noon, we wander the ship, check out a few spots we’ve missed, and then head back to our cabin to chill out until lunch time, when we’ll go grab something quickly before we have to meet our tour group.  Brighid isn’t really hungry yet by lunch time, but she grabs a slice of pizza and I grab some soup and cheese, and we’re full for the time being. 

The tour takes us first to the Acropolis, which can be seen from quite a distance away.  On our way, the tour guide explains the city’s congestion on the roads by saying every time they try to build subway stations to improve public transportation, they unearth a new archeological find and the building is stopped.  She points out what was going to be the newest subway station, but where they found the ruins of an ancient public restroom.  The thing that is so odd here in Athens is how careless they seem to be about these ancient treasures.  You drive by this ancient find, surrounded by little more than cyclone fencing, and there is so much trash around it and disrespect for it, you can’t really appreciate being there.  The guide talks about how beautiful it is that Athens is such an interesting combination of ancient civilization surrounded by contemporary growth and architecture.  It’s not beautiful – I found it very sad.

We do not actually get to climb up to the Parthenon or anything on this tour, but we do get some beautiful pictures.  There are a few gypsies wandering around, so we are all warned to hold on to our personal belongings and told not to engage any of them.  After about 15 minutes, we head back to the bus and wait while a local vendor comes around to sell postcards and picture books of the area. 

From the Acropolis, we drive through the city and visit sites like the stadium where some of the 2004 Olympic games were held.  The bus drops us off at an area called The Plaka.  There is a ton of great shopping here – lots of souvenir stores, leather goods, jewelry, etc.  Brighid and I are looking for one store in particular, recommended by Jennifer, the shopping expert onboard the Millenium.  They are supposed to have a lot of souvenirs, and they do, although it takes us longer to find it than we had hoped it would.  We pick up souvenirs for everyone, and then head out to get Brighid some ice cream.  It is her mission to taste test ice cream in every port.  We find a little shop with a cute young Greek boy standing out front, and we decide that’s where we will get our ice cream.  This cute little Greek boy can’t do enough to help Brighid – opening her soda and everything.  It’s the highlight of her afternoon.

The highlight and lowlight of my afternoon occur right about now.  The first time we have seen Starbucks since we left Florida is right here in Athens, and I am so excited to have free time in the Plaka to grab my venti non-fat 7 pump sugar free vanilla latte.  Much to my great sadness, when we head into Starbucks in Athens, they do not have sugar free syrup 🙁   Brighid decides to torment me by getting her own sugar laden Starbucks drink, which she drinks right in front of me, telling me how great it is, licking her lips, slurping her cup.  I want to remind her that we will be in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night tonight and they might miss the sound of her skinny little butt “falling” overboard.  But I suck it up and drink my water, which I tell her is just as good as the Starbucks.  I don’t think she buys it.

When our time is up at The Plaka, we head over to the bus for the rest of the tour.  We are taken to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – I really would have liked time for a few pictures here, but there wasn’t any.  We also see Hadrian’s Arch, parliament buildings, and other sites of local and national importance.  All of it is beautiful, but surrounded by all that is not beautiful, so it is a little disappointing.

We got back on the ship in barely enough time to change for dinner.  It was a very nice dinner, but I got a little nauseous by something, so left before dessert to try and wander around and walk off the full feeling.  I headed back to my cabin, where I found Jim had sent Brighid chocolate covered strawberries and soda.  I ran up to email him and thank him, and by the time I got back, I found two nice bathrobes and an assortment of nuts for me.  By the time I was about to turn the lights off and go to sleep, a beautiful bouquet of flowers arrived.  AND, a card to arrange for a specialty breakfast in bed 🙂   I get misty eyed and a bit homesick, but we’ll enjoy the breakfast tomorrow, as it’s a sea day!

To Donkey or Not to Donkey, That is the Question

Tuesday, May 29th, and we are up at the crack of dawn AGAIN to get ready for our excursion in Santorini, Greece.  We pull in to anchor (we will be tendering over to Santorini), and the scenery is amazing.  There are gorgeous white washed buildings, brilliant blue roofs, amazing blue-green ocean – this is like walking into a post card.

We head up to the breakfast buffet and meet Russell, who is going with us on this excursion.  Dot is going to relax and order room service – now THAT’S a vacation – none of this up with the roosters nonsense!!   We meet our group in the Rendezvous Lounge and we head to the tender that will take us to the bus.  Once on the bus, we climb the mountain to the top of the village of Pyrgos, and we are allowed out to take pictures of what I am certain is a stunning scene below.  Unfortunately, the top of the mountain is covered in clouds and fog, and we can barely see anything. 

The bus takes us back to the center of Pyrgos, and our walking tour begins.  Everything here is built into the sides of a mountain, so where in your neighborhood, to get to your neighbors’ homes you walk straight down the block, in Pyrgos, you climb up the sometimes steep steps.  We wander through the neighborhood, coming across a man and his donkey.  He will let you take a picture of him and his donkey for whatever you want to pay him.  I fork over a Euro or two and have a nice picture of a stereotypical Greek man on his even more stereotypical Greek donkey. 

The tour guide tells us about the devastation the island of Santorini has suffered over the years at the hands of a volcano, and she tells us that people back in the 50’s just up and left when the volcano last erupted.  We can see the remnants of homes destroyed by the volcano, and she points out homes that have been restored to their original splendor.

There are enough Churches here for you to attend a different one nearly every day of the year.  The thing is, most of them are privately owned homes now.  Even so, if you make one of these Churches your home, you agree to celebrate the feast day of the saint for whom your Church is named by calling in the local priest to say Mass and inviting anyone in who wants to come to celebrate.  In Pyrgos alone, there are only 300 full time residents and 30 Churches. 

Our walking tour concludes as we go past the big Church in Pyrgos – completely white washed with a brilliant blue roof.  A crowd is gathering outside the Church and branches are being thrown on the ground, lining a pathway up to the Church.  We never find out what the celebration is, but it seems to be attracting just about all 300 of Pyrgos’ residents.

We load back into the bus and take a short ride to the Pyrgos Tavern, where we are served a plate that contains a sampling of various Greek specialties.  Much of it is fried or has bread, which I don’t eat anymore, but I do take at least a small taste of everything.  The goat cheese is especially good, and the small bit of what looks like crostini is very good as well.  Brighid eats just about everything on her plate – Russell doesn’t even take a plate.  He says he has had Greek food before and doesn’t like it, but this isn’t the Greek food we get back home.  It really is very tasty.

Our tour ends with the bus heading back to the village of Fira.  This is where the shops and restaurants are, so we spend some time wandering around.  We find a great shop where they are selling fresh olive oils and vinegars, and I order some to be shipped home.  I also bought Granuaile a little embroidered blouse, which is so cute.

We know it’s coming eventually, but now we gotta face it.  Once you are tendered over to Santorini and dropped off by bus, you have to get off of Santorini Island.  There are 3 ways to do that.  The first way is cable car.  It looks like a ride from Disney, only straight down the mountain at a very steep incline, heading towards the water.  The second way is donkey.  Yes, I said donkey.  You sit on the donkey, and the donkey walks down dozens of steep steps, eventually getting you to the bottom, hopefully in one piece.  No one guides the donkey – you just sit down and it goes at it’s own pace.  The third way is to walk yourself down the donkey steps, walking in whatever the donkeys have left behind on the journey up and down the steps all day long.  Hmmmm.  Which way do we go?   Do we risk the donkey?   People say you will smell badly after the donkey, and the steps are very steep, and I don’t want to be tossed off of a donkey, into the piles of donkey poop, and roll all the way to the bottom.  I also do not want to walk down the steps alongside the donkeys.  The cable car looks very scary.  Brighid is terrified.

We elect the cable car as the lesser of three evils, and we patiently wait our turn to ride.  Brighid is writing out her will, saying the rosary, bowing towards Mecca, offering her soul to Satan – she is chancing nothing.  She feels certain we will all fall to our deaths before we ever reach the tender back to the Millenium.  It actually turns out not that bad.  It’s a very quick ride, but you don’t feel the steep-ness of it.  You get the impression standing there that it’s like a roller coaster kind of thing, but you certainly don’t feel that sinking feeling in your stomach.  And it’s over so quickly, you don’t even get the chance to die from the heart attack you think you are going to have when you take this thing.  Much safer than the donkeys.

After tendering back to the ship, we head up for lunch.  It’s late in the day, so we don’t eat much, knowing dinner is coming.  After a leisurely lunch, I check my email.  Yay!   I got one from Jim and the girls!!

The options for dinner tonight are open seating in the restaurant or a Greek buffet poolside.  We figure we’ll do dinner in the dining room, and then wander out to the buffet to see what’s cooking.  Dinner is great, and no one is hungry enough for the Greek buffet, but we browse anyway.  There is no place to sit outside, even with all the extra seating they have put in place, so we just wander around, look and smell, and head back in.  They did have all kinds of cheeses, a whole lamb on a spit, shish kebabs, olives galore, and a bunch of other stuff I couldn’t identify, but we were so full.

There is no live show tonight, since we are in Santorini late (we are here until 11 PM), but there is a movie in the theater.  We go see Firewall with Harrison Ford.  Pretty good!

Off to bed, and we can sleep in a little late tomorrow since our tour leaves later.  Yahoo!!

It’s been a long day, but we just keep seeing these amazing sites.  As tired as we are, we can’t wait for the next port!