David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Cruise from Rome to Barcelona, Nov. 2009

The Duomo, Belltower, and Baptistry in Florence
Florence with the Ponte Vecchio

Mount Etna at sunset

Coming in to Valletta

Relaxing in Piazza Umberto I, Capri

We set off from Nice on Nov. 21, taking the bus to the Nice airport for our flights on Swiss Air. It's always a gorgeous flight north, with exceptional views of the snow-covered Alps. Swiss Air, unlike its American counterparts, always offers a bite to eat, free wine, and a delicious piece of Swiss chocolate. We had lunch in the Zurich airport and then another flight to Rome, enjoying the snack served on this flight, complete with the chocolate. Yum. We finally got our luggage (took 40 minutes) and found the shuttle to our hotel in the town of Fiumicino. The hotel was nothing special, but it was inexpensive (a rarity in Italy) and convenient. The town of Fiumicino is fairly ugly, certainly not worth a visit.

The next morning we were picked up by Picci and Sandro, people we are planning an exchange with over New Year's, and they drove us to the fancy seaside village of Fregene so that we could see our "villa". It's small but charming, and decorated beautifully in all blues and white. They showed us favorite places to eat and made other suggestions of things to do. Then they dropped us at the train station in Fregene where we caught the train up to Civitavecchia, where we would board the Azamara Journey. Boarding went well, the easiest boarding procedure ever! We were greeted with a glass of champagne and shown to our cabin where we enjoyed the champagne on the balcony. The bags arrived quickly and we settled in. Then we explored the ship - a great library, nice dining room, and so on. It's exactly the same ship as the Oceania ship we cruised on from Istanbul to Athens two years ago, and we were glad to be back on a smaller ship - it carries 600 passengers.

At 6 PM, Cruise Critic (internet site) had a reception for its members - more champagne and really great hors d'oeuvres. About 30 people showed up, Brits, Canadiens, and Americans mostly. Then on to dinner in the main dining room. Azamara gives the choice of being seated with other people which we greatly enjoyed throughout the two weeks, meeting new and interesting people each night. We had a good dinner of shrimp cocktail; salad; and dessert - I skipped the main course. And to bed.

Monday morning we got the tender to Sorrento and then the hydrofoil to Capri. I'd read all sorts of warnings that the hydorfoil might not be running this late in the year, but there was no problem. On the dock, we got talked into a tour of Capri by Jerry (seemed very "New York" but was born and raised in Naples) - he called us all (about 12) "Jerry's Kids". Mostly hung out with four Canadiens. We drove in a tiny bus up the windy road to Anacapri where we saw the town. We took a chairlift ride to the highest point with beautiful views, but I was panic-stricken! Will NEVER do that sort of thing again. I couldn't look at the views to the sea, but instead just stared at the mountain or closed my eyes. But the views from the top were great. Afterwards we all had lunch in Anacapri, just pizza and wine. Then back down to Capri where we walked through the town to the most famous square, Piazza Umberto I, which Oscar Wilde said was the perfect setting for a musical drama. We walked down to the gardens, again stunning views, and then back for a glass of Campari and orange in the square. We thought Capri was very nice, but really no nicer than Amalfi or Positano. Perhaps a bit over-hyped. We took the fun funicula (with me singing the song, "Funiculi, funicula, joy is everywhere, funiculi, funicula" - it was written about this funicula) to the port where we caught the hydrofoil back to Sorrento and the tender back to the ship. It had been a rather gray day when we started out and pretty chilly on the chairlift, but sitting in the piazza and getting back to the ship was the prettiest part of the day. A soak in the hot tub and dinner (bananas Foster for dessert!) and bed!

The next morning we were on the tender by 9:30 and spent the day in Sorrento. The Duomo is beautiful with the inlaid wood that the area is famous for all around. And where there wasn't inlaid wood, there was inlaid marble. We bought a couple of bracelets and some napkin rings with the inlaid woods in intricate patterns of many types and colors of wood. After walking all over the town, we treated ourselves to Campari and orange in the main square.

There was a beautiful sunset as we sailed away from Sorrento. We ate in the buffet and brought dessert back to the cabin to enjoy with some wine we brought on board. There was MSNBC with Keith Olbermann on the TV! We were amazed.

We were supposed to head next to Taormina, then Malta, then Tunis. But then we would have arrived in Tunis on a religious holiday when they cut the throats of goats and lambs so the cruise ship changed the itinerary. Sadly we would arrive much later in the day so the all-day tour we had arranged was canceled and we had to choose just one of the three things we wanted to see (the Bardo Museum, Carthage, and a pretty town of white and blue cascading down to the sea). We chose the Bardo, famous for its mosaics; we spent about an hour or so there with our guide and the mosaics were wonderful. But then we spend 1 1/2 hours at the souk - we could easily have driving to one of the other sites, but they think we need to get our shopping in. Almost everyone hated this. It would have been better to hire a cab for the day but I wasn't sure if we could do that in Tunisia. The day had started out grey and rainy, but cleared by the time we started our tour.

Tunisia is only 60 miles from Sicily and has 10 million inhabitants with a quarter of them in the capital, Tunis. The southern part of the country is Saharan while the northern part along the sea was part of the "breadbasket of the Roman Empire". The Phoenicians were here in 1000 BC, then Romans, Vandals, Carthaginians. Carthage was founded in the 7th century BC, capitulated in 202 BC, and was totally destroyed in 149 BC by the Romans in the 3rd Punic War. In 44 BC it was REfounded by the Romans! In 698 the Arabs arrived in Tunisia; 1200 was the "Golden Age of Tunis" and the Great Mosque was built. In the 1600's they were under Ottoman Rule; in 1881 the French took over and there are beautiful buildings in the "New City" of Tunis from this time. They gained independence in 1956. It is one of the most liberal Arab states, is fairly stable, and is often a mediator between the Arab States and the West.

The next morning we sailed in to the harbor of Valletta, the capital of Malta, an island which had gained its independence in 1964 and became a state of the EU in 2005. Everyone had told us we must be on deck for this and we were - it's quite a sight, with its high stone walls and beautiful architecture and old buildings. We headed into town on our own, a fairly easy walk from the ship. The town was a bit congested, partly because of a visit by the King of Spain, so there were parades and many people lining the streets. The town itself reminded me a bit of Dubrovnik with its marble paving and beautiful buildings. We went to the cathedral, St. John's Co-Cathedral (so named because there was already a cathedral in Mdina, a town nearby) built in the 1500's. We toured the church and then decided it was time for lunch.

The Caffe Cordina was nearby. We had met the owners when we were in the Piedmont in October and were hoping to see them again. Sadly, Linda was busy with a school meeting, but John was there. This restaurant was started by his family in 1837! It moved to Valletta in 1944; the premises were originally a Treasury Building for the Knights of St. John and later a Grand Hotel. There was much damage to it during WWII. There is a beautiful vaulted ceiling with paintings by Guiseppe Cali depicting the leaders and the eras in Maltese history. We enjoyed our lunch which John insisted was "on the house".

Afterwards we tried to visit the Palace of the Grand Knight but it was closed. When the Knights of St. John were expelled from Rhodes, they came to Malta in 1530. By 1798 they had become dissolute and were expelled by Napoleon. On the outside wall of the palace is a commendation from the British Government, praising the bravery and fortitude of the Maltese during WWII when they indured 154 days of bombing. Instead we headed for the Archeological Museum. There are digs on Malta dating back to 3600 BC and even earlier but we wouldn't have a chance to see them on this visit. But we saw many of the artifacts recovered from them, including captivating pudgy women figures, all beheaded. Later we walked more around the town, admiring its lovely architecture, and then back to the ship. (Someone we met on the ship had hired a cab for the day and had seen all the digs, Rabat, Mdina, and Valletta, all in the day - a much smarter idea. Of course this was very off-season so they didn't need to get the tix for the digs 2 weeks ahead of time).

The day in Malta was Thanksgiving and we had a wonderful turkey dinner (or other choices) on the ship. It was very festive and nice. I'd been surprised that so many Americans would leave home on this holiday but they all seemed very happy to be here!

The next day we arrived near Taormina. We were tendered ashore and took a bus to the city itself. We figured we had been in Taormina 17 years earlier but we really didn't remember much of the town. It's really lovely, perched high above the sea with pleasant piazzas, sweet little churches, interesting shops. But of course the main focus is the Greek/Roman Theater, built in the 3rd century BC by the Greeks and then refurbished by the Romans. It is as beautiful as we remembered. Afterwards we strolled along the main street to Piazza IX Aprile where we had a couple of Campari and oranges and enjoyed the views of the sea far below. I could have sat there for days!

The views of Mt. Etna from the ship and from Taormina were spectacular - we have photos of it at sunrise and sunset and in-between.

When we sailed away from Taormina, our Captain took a northwesterly route and circled Stromboli, a small Italian island with an active volcano. The volcano was black against an ink-blue sky and at the very top the fire was burning like an eternal flame. The Captain turned off the ship's lights for a few moments so that we could really appreciate this magnificent sight.

That night we went to a concert in the theater onboard ship. There was a wonderful pianist playing Chopin, Bach, Listz, and Tchaikovsky. He was excellent and had a great personality and told wonderful stories about the composers, as if he knew them personally. It was the best entertainment we had onboard.

We had a day at sea and then docked at Livorno. We disembarked and took a bus, arranged by the cruise line, to Florence. There was a race in the city, so many streets were blocked off. But we made our way to the Uffizzi, where we picked up the tickets we had arranged for weeks before. We spent a couple of hours there and then had lunch at a restaurant recommended by our guide Trudy on the bus, Ristorante Ponte Vecchio, which was very good. David had the pasta with wild boar and I had the pasta stuffed with pear and cheese which was very rich but delicious. We had a bottle of Vermentino (Tuscan wine) and had chocolate cake (for me) and cheesecake (for David) for dessert. By the time we'd finished there really wasn't much time for anything else - we rushed down to Santa Croce but didn't have time to explore it, then rushed back to the Duomo and the Baptistry where we were to meet the group. No one was there and we were getting worried and decided to try to find the bus on our own - thank heavens, we bumped into Trudy! They were about to leave without us!

The next day we could not anchor by Portofino as scheduled because of very high seas with heavy rains. We had to go on to Genoa where it rained all day and we spent the day reading and relaxing. Our next stop was Monaco. David decided it would be a good idea to take all our purchases to Nice and drop them at home instead of lugging them home on the ship. Other than that, we didn't do much in Monaco where we have been so often. That night we had dinner in one of the specialty restaurants on the ship, Aqualina. We had foie gras to start, salad or soup for the 2nd course; I had lobster tail while David had Osso Buco for our mains; and Grand Marnier Souffles for dessert.

Toulon, west of Nice and east of Marseilles, was our next port. We walked around the city, visiting the lovely opera house where we had attended an opera years ago and the Cathedral Ste. Marie de la Seds. There is a walking tour, following all the many fountains around the city, so we followed that route.

Next we arrived at our last port, Barcelona. Again, the weather wasn't very nice so we spent the last day packing and reading and taking it easy. We had a wonderful dinner the last night, finishing with Baked Alaska. The next morning we walked off the ship at 7 AM with our luggage and took a cab to the airport for our 9:45 flight to Zurich and then home to Nice, arriving on a gorgeous day in mid-afternoon.