Trans Atlantic Return Home

7 02 2011

Day 17 – Reflections on Our Adventure

Hi all –

The 5 am alarm was a shock, the showers and check-out were a daze.  The Roma airport was an organizational nightmare (12 counters or checkpoints before we could get to the gate).  Were we really heading home?  It seems like years since we left!  Will Roxy still remember us when we pick her up?!?  And 29 hours of time to get home – yikes!!!

We learned some great lessons on the trip, and we thought we’d spend our final Blogging from Blue Water message sharing some of these with you.

Before you go:

  • Call your debit card holder and let them know you may be charging things outside of your regular travel area.  They may place a security hold on your card if foreign charges show up.  (This happened to us in Vancouver last year for 2 bottles of water from a machine!)
  • Call your credit card holders as well, and remember that American Express is not, in fact, accepted everywhere!  Carry a Visa or MasterCard as well.
  • Make a copy of your passport info page and the fronts and backs of any debit or credit cards you carry in case they are stolen.  Take the copies on your trip but keep them in a place other than with your cards!
  • For checked luggage before a cruise, consider splitting each person’s clothing among all checked bags, so that if one bag is lost, everyone still has something to wear.

 

For a cruise and/or city or regional travel:

  • No one can really predict what a transocean crossing or any other cruise will be like, weather-wise, so pack layers accordingly. 
  • Get a balcony, because it gives you the privacy of doing nothing and just watching the waves go by, undisturbed, or watch the scenery go by when you’re near land.
  • Anytime or free style dining on a ship gives you plenty of options and on many lines, it is now the dining preference of most passengers.  And you get to meet new people (or not) everyday if you like!
  • There is SO MUCH to do on the days at sea!  You’ll only be bored if you choose to be!  There were many things on the ship that we never got to experience because we ran out of time!
  • Before leaving home, do some online homework about the ports you will visit.  In many cases, large cruise ships dock in the industrial port.  A shuttle will be required to get into town.
  • For the town experience itself, organized tours are a great way to become familiar with areas you have not visited before, particularly if you are uncomfortable with the language.  Not everyone speaks English!
  • Many major cities have their own versions of the hop-on hop-off bus system, which offers a great way to get around if you are willing to be more adventuresome.
  • If you go into port on your own, pay attention to the back-on-board time!  Some captains will not (or cannot) wait for late passengers!  (Applause from the balconies greeted the two very embarrassed women who were 45 minutes late in Gibraltar!  At the farewell party, the Captain chided them for being the only people who could get lost in a 3-mile long country where the port is just about always in view!)

 

And then there are the global lessons we learned in Roma specifically, which apply to many major cities where we are foreigners.

  • Again, don’t assume everyone speaks English, and don’t be an ugly American who just speaks louder and gets mad when they aren’t understood!  Learn at least to say your apologies about your poor understanding of ____ and pick up a few key phrases before you go.  (There are stories here!)
  • On a tour or on your own, when there are facilities available, use them.  Who knows when you’ll find the next one!  (Public toilets are not the norm overseas.)  And remember that in many countries, it is expected that you pay for their use, so keep some currency in small change handy for each person.
  • Do your homework on the city.  If we hadn’t been so busy, we would have spent more time learning that we could get online tickets to the Vatican (avoiding the lines).
  • Get a really great map of where you plan to spend some time.  Don’t assume that the hotel can give you something detailed to use.
  • Carry a notebook and pen to write down ideas for your next trip and memories from this one.
  • Weigh the price benefits of being on the perimeter of a city as opposed to being downtown, since cabs can be expensive and time consuming. Next time we would stay in the city’s center, so we could just walk out the hotel door and be in the city ambiance.
  • Always ask and don’t assume that any place, including major restaurants, take any credit cards or your brand of plastic.
  • Bring an umbrella for each person and very good walking shoes!  In many cities, walking is much more prevalent than what we’re used to, and in some areas it’s the only way to negotiate narrow old streets.
  • Try foods you don’t find at home. The fresh anchovies in Alicante were to die for! (As was the pasta in Roma, of course.)
  • Don’t over-schedule yourself.  Take some time to just be in a city and absorb what living locally might be like. 
  • Allow PLENTY of time in foreign airports for your departure.  For example, the Value Added Tax (duty free) refund in Roma required 5 steps of our final day process.  The signage in the airport in Roma is poor, and no one was willing to explain all of the steps in the check-in process.  Lines get long quickly, and in our terminal for all U.S. bound flights, there were only 2 security lanes open!  Couple this with amateur travelers and things get backed up very easily!
  • Don’t expect American efficiency anywhere other than the States – we are SO spoiled!

 

So we’re back, safe and sound.  Hope you’ve enjoyed the messages!  Until our next great adventure… Ciao!

Yvonne & John





Trans Atlantic Day 16

7 02 2011

Day 16 – More Roma

Hi all –

Our last full day dawned with the steady drop of continuing rain.  Argh!!!  We had originally planned to take the early shuttle from the hotel to the City Center (3 Euros each, with free return) and then grab the first round of the hop-on hop-off bus and get to St. Peter’s early.  A short stop somewhere along the way for cappuccino and pastries would fuel us, we thought, but it was hard to get moving when the weather looked like a repeat of the day before.  We bought tickets for a later City shuttle and for the airport trip, and then had a full brunch buffet (freshly made cheese!) at the hotel.

By the time we were heading into the City itself, the rain was letting up a bit, and then the drizzles became intermittent and finally stopped altogether!  When we arrived at the bus stop, we found that the road was blocked off, and it looked like perhaps a film crew was at work.  Since the bus couldn’t come to us, we began to walk to the next stop, and then the fun began!  It was the Susan G. Komen run, with tens of thousands of people running and then walking by!  Another wonderful slice of life! 

When we finally caught up with the bus well down the line, we found that it was re-routed and most of the City Center was incredibly backed up with traffic due to all of the closed roads.  Despite the distance, it would have been much faster to walk!  Ten thousand people were again in line at St. Peter’s, so we got off the bus at a much later stop and visited the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain (threw a coin in apiece so that we can come back), and the Pantheon (under renovation, as so much is).  With improved weather and much warmer clothes, we were willing to spend many happy hours walking around, getting (now) overheated, and lost on a couple of occasions.  (Note to self:  Find a much better map than what is provided locally!!!)

Lunch found us again in the Piazza Navona at a seafood restaurant.  Yvonne practiced her Italian with our waiter Claudio who had no English.  He was delightful and was pleased that we were trying so hard, and he brought us complimentary surprises with our wonderful meal!  It was memorable (we took pictures) and fun and more of what we expected Roma to be!  The sun was finally shining and the day was turning into a much better experience!  John’s picking up good Italian skills too, so we’ll plan to practice much more once we get home!

We spent the afternoon wandering, enjoying more ruins and churches and slices of daily life.  It was what we had hoped to find in Roma!  We got lost a few times and after some hours we finally got on the bus again just to give our feet a rest.  We were on a different color of the same bus line, so we got to see different sights, and because the sun was shining beautifully and we were sitting on the top deck, we enjoyed just riding around and experiencing new areas. 

Dinner found us at Piazza Navona yet again, this time to visit the restaurant of a man who had worked in San Francisco and LA for 18 years before returning to Roma.  (Just so you know – this big square has an awesome fountain, many restaurants surrounding the piazza, and some history with Yvonne’s parents.)  We had a piazza front row table on a beautiful evening, and as we began our final meal in Italy, a live orchestra there for a European Union festival began to play opera favorites and the singing started!  The festival was releasing what we thought were balloons (but ended up being a foam of some kind that breaks down) shaped like stars (the EU flag, seen everywhere, is a bright blue background with a circle of stars in the middle, one for each member country).  It was the quintessential Italian experience, the fountain, the piazza, the music, the total ambiance! 

After finding a taxi that was not trying to rip us off (beware!) we headed back to the hotel for the sorry job of packing and torturing ourselves with the video loop of SPG luxury properties around the world.  It’s hard to believe that tomorrow we will leave here in the early morning and some 27 hours later (with layovers and time changes) we will be sleeping in our own bed!  Tomorrow, a wrap up of some lessons learned along the way!

Yvonne & John





Trans Atlantic Day 15

7 02 2011

Day 15 – Into Rome

Hi everyone!

We woke up early to yet another morning of rain.  It’s odd that after having such gorgeous weather across the ocean, we’ve had torrential downpours every day in ports!  But since the morning would be spent in transit, we weren’t that concerned – yet!

A word about the great job that Princess does in moving people.  For the daily tours, we had a coordination point in the theater.  To enter, you showed your tour ticket and were given a sticker to wear with a color and bus number.  You sat with that group in the theater, and when they were ready to load your bus, you following in line in the order in which you came in.  Very organized!

Most of the tour buses we have been on have been Mercedes, another plug for the quality of the Princess tours!  Every company seems to use the same brand, and they are all roomy, huge, and ubiquitous in all of the ports.  They even served as our transportation into Rome from Civitaveccia, the port.  Disembarkation is by color and group number and we were routed to the bus which took us to the City Center.  Then Italian ‘efficiency’ took over and we had to fight to get a cab for our hotel.  Just a note – when in Rome, never back off from your place in line, even when people give directions to move back.  You’ll be at the end – again!

It rained or poured all day long!  We had dressed for the temperatures that we were told would be experienced that day.  Unfortunately, the weather report was provided by the Italian weather service, which forgot to mention the high winds that turned umbrellas inside out and failed to predict the constant rain or downpours!  We were both soaked to the skin for all of the day and cold, and the hop-on hop-off bus with its open upper deck and packed lower one (closed in) did little to improve the situation.  We rode around more places than we walked because the weather made it miserable to get around.

And the lines!!!  There was a wait of at least 3 hours and about 10,000 people at St. Peter’s, and while we took (wet) pictures of the basilica piazza, we couldn’t stand of waiting in line with the winds howling.  The lines at the Coliseum and other sites were similarly long.  We rode the bus around to see something – anything – and headed back to the hotel relatively early for some after dinner drinks to warm us up.  While did have a nice lunch at the local version of a fast food restaurant (fixed price, short list of daily selection, cannolli and then rabbit were excellent) and then dinner on the Piazza Navona (under the umbrellas but little could be done about the wind and cold), so far, Rome is not proving to be a favorite, disappointing.

A sight at the hotel did warm us up, though.  While we were having drinks in the lobby bar, there was a large area roped off for a reserved party.  They began to arrive, a wonderful assortment of ages, shapes and sizes!  We were trying to figure out what the purpose was.  Most were dressed in black, but no one seemed to be solemn.  The kids were like little ones everywhere, running around through the bar where they weren’t supposed to be, listening only occasionally to parents who were trying to redirect them.  What was the story here?

Then a special couple arrived.  A woman probably in her early 70’s dressed in a cream evening suit, and a gentleman of the same era with a jaunty boutonniere entered to great cheers and catcalls.  A wedding?  How wonderful?  Even better, we learned, was the celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary!  It was a terrific local ending to the otherwise very wet day!  Hopefully tomorrow will bring some sunshine!

Yvonne & John





Trans Atlantic Day 14

7 02 2011

Day 14 – Florence & Pisa

Hi all –

After yesterday’s mistrals (winds like the Santa Ana’s) in France, today dawned again with showers as we pulled into the port of the Tuscany region, Livorno.  We took off very early for a day of guided walking tours through Florence and Pisa.  Walking, and driving!

This is, after all, Italy, and everything takes whatever time it takes.  Things break down, and who knows when they will be fixed?  And the traffic in or near the cities is really something amazing to behold, tiny cars and huge tour buses racing to see who can beat whom through the intersections!

Florence was beautiful – what more can be said about the City of Light with its many cathedrals and squares in the old section.  Many of these areas in the old city are closed to vehicles so you can wander with much greater safety.  (Pedestrians otherwise beware!)  About halfway through our tour, the skies opened up again and our big tour group got very wet despite umbrellas and plastic sheeting.  Our guide swore a couple of times at the conditions of the weather!

We did get to see Michelangelo’s original David, now in a museum in what used to be an arts school, as well as many other statues in public areas.  Churches made of white, red and green marble, streets that are still made of cobbles and stones, and narrow passes between four and five story buildings with tiny balconies all added charm to the walk.  We had a terrific ‘traditional’ lunch which included, as it has on every one of our tours, local wine.  Then we all fell asleep on the bus to Pisa!

There is much more to Pisa than the Leaning Tower.  The square includes a baptistery (where Catholics were baptized before they were allowed to enter a church), a cathedral, and various other historic buildings.  Again the themes of white, red and green marble were repeated.  Since the skies had now cleared up completely, we got to enjoy this spacious area with lots of sunshine.

Perhaps the most wonderful part was driving through the countryside.  There are many small villages and towns, each with its own bell tower, a matter of great competition and pride in Italy.  Gardens are everywhere, small to large, and grapevines and olive trees dominate the landscape.  This area is known for many types of agriculture, including grain, corn and flowers.  Businesses are also located in zones by type of industry.  We are looking forward to returning to this area, spending time in some of the cute Florence cafes watching the world go by, and exploring the small towns in the area.

In the evening we said goodbye to the many crewmembers who made a positive difference in our trip, a kind of sad farewell.  We may run into them again on a future cruise as all of them plan to continue to work for Princess after their current contracts run out and they take their vacations.  Of our favorites, Lloyd may be on the Fall Colors cruises later this year, something we want to pursue, and Eleanora may be on one of the Alaska routes later in the year as well.  Everyone works very hard with long hours and continuous days to make sure guests are happy.  John will miss being called “Sir John”, and Yvonne has gotten used to being “Madame” or “Doctora”. 

Tomorrow, we disembark in Rome and plan to visit the Vatican that afternoon.  Hopefully the weather will take a turn for the better, though there appears to be a front stuck over central Italy right now.

Yvonne & John





Trans Atlantic Day 13

7 02 2011

Day 13 – Marseilles (but really Avignon)

Hi everyone!

Today we changed our original plan to take the shuttle into the Old Port area of Marseilles and went instead deeper into the Provence region and the town of Avignon.  The day dawned with threatening skies once again!  After such a clear sail ‘across the pond’ as it were, we’ve had rain come down at some point in every single port.  Luckily, as we crossed over the hills into the countryside, the clouds lifted and beautiful blue skies greeted us.

The drive through the more rural areas was delightful in that again, we saw many garden areas, this time primarily with grapes planted.  There are interesting wind breaks planted everywhere, long rows of cypress trees with rows of grapes planted in between or other fruit trees, olives, vegetables, or even grazing areas for the long horned cattle.  And <<GASP>> there is Scotch Broom (an invasive species at home) coming up everywhere along the highway!

Avignon was the home of Catholic Popes from the mid-1300’s to the end of the 1400’s, when there was a lot of unrest in the Catholic Church.  It so happened that there was a rose show going on, a competition from across the world!  They displayed the roses with lavenders and herbs, a great mixed planting example.  This coupled with some of the pictures Yvonne took as we were driving gave her an idea for a Master Gardener public education class on how to use your microclimate successfully!

Yvonne found her French coming back, much to her surprise – as long as people we were willing to speak slowly!  John noted that the tour guide, Oliver (Olivier in French) was sometimes difficult to understand because he sounded like Inspector Clouseau (sp?  from Pink Panther fame?!?) 

As the Rhone River wound into Avignon, we enjoyed the long houseboats that are parked at the banks, many with gardens planted on their roofs!  Avignon and the Popes’ Palace complex was very interesting, and we spent about three hours walking around with our guide before a great lunch at a local restaurant for the group.  We sat with a couple who now live in El Dorado Hills but used to be about 10 minutes away from us in Placerville!  We have friends in common – the world is indeed a very small place!

After our return to the ship, we changed more dollars for Euros.  While the rate has been falling in our favor since we left the States, we think that next time we’ll buy them stateside.  The exchange rate is decent, but the processing charges can get pricey at any bank or on the ship.  We watched a very exciting tight squeeze out of the harbor and have been packing a bit so that the task isn’t so overbearing tomorrow when we get back from Florence and Pisa.

Tonight is the lobster dinner, so despite feeling like we’re competing with the Goodyear blimp (but our pants still fit), we’re heading down to be loaded with courses again!  Captain Nash has warned us that tonight there will be gale force winds and the ship will be rocking, though we’ll probably be snoring already in preparation for our very early start tomorrow for a very long day! 

Yvonne & John





Trans Atlantic Day 12

7 02 2011

Day 12 – Barcelona – we love it!

Hi friends!

Okay, it’s official – we LOVE Spain and are already planning our return!!!  After having such a wonderful time in Alicante yesterday, we headed off in Barcelona today on a tour of the city (Gaudi’s church, La Sagrada Familia, was stupendous!), and then up into the mountains to Montserrat, the famous monastery originated over 1200 years ago. 

First, something about the language here.  Our stateside Spanish is marginally useful because the language most people speak is Catalon (also spelled Catalun and Catalan).  The dialectic is a combination of Catalon (the indigenous language of this region of Spain), Spanish (that’s European Spanish, not what we know as Spanish which is the Mexican version in CA), French and Italian.  The region, Catalonia (Catalunia, Catalania) was once its own country, but its language was banned by General Franco and just returned to use in public in 1975.  Obviously, we need to find a different LiveMocha course before we come back!

Barcelona itself it amazing – incredible architecture, a very easy city to navigate, and very friendly people.  Side streets are tiny, and then there are broad boulevards that include separate city/motorbike lanes under trees on either side.  They have bike stands everywhere, and you pay your money, unclick your bike, ride it to where you need it, and click it back in place on that stand.  Vespas and other motorbikes are a primary form of transportation here, and they compete with the huge tour buses, small cars, and trucks of every description.  There are a significant number of traffic ‘rounds’, where you enter and circle to the right until you reach the place where you want to pull off.  Luckily, many of these are regulated by stoplights so you have a chance of actually getting into the flow!

Everywhere there is greenery here!  The apartment and condo buildings all have balconies, however tiny, and everyone has some kind of pots and plants in evidence!  Tops of buildings have gardens, and it is not unusual to see plants cascading down the sides of structures old and new.  And then there are parks at every turn, little ones and large expanses, which people seem to use a lot.  We’re anxious to come back and explore, now that we have a taste for the city and know how to get around.  (There are many universities here too, so perhaps Yvonne can find a part time lecturing post to feed our travel habit!)

After our city tour, we headed out of the suburbs up to the mountains to visit Montserrat.  I’m not sure what we expected, other than a nice drive in the country.  In the little towns (of which there are many, and connected to both Barcelona and Madrid by high-speed rail) people may live in apartment buildings (single-family homes are not the norm in this area) but they do garden.  Wherever people can shoulder in a patch of land to work, they do!  Along the highways you see groves of olive trees, grape vines (primarily for cava, Spain’s sparkling wine, or for homemade wine), and patches for vegetables along with many different kinds of fruit trees.  People typically build a little shack of some kind on the property, install a cooking facility and a place to sit, and work their land when they can.  As with the greenery in the city, no one here appears to stay very far from the earth, a sentiment we heartily support!

Montserrat was an amazing place.  It has been built over the centuries up in the mountains on a craggy cliff, and if you get vertigo, you’d best not be walking along the railing!  On a clear day, you can see the Pyrenees and Barcelona, though of course it was raining off and on again today!  (We think it may be the fault of the volcanic ash in the atmosphere, since this is odd weather for this region right now.)  The church is incredibly ornate, and the monastery clings to the mountain.  Local farmers have stands at the church, and we sampled some local fresh fromage that was a cross between what we know as fromage blanc and a very light cottage cheese – a very fresh light cheese that is made daily.  They serve it with local honey – a real treat! 

Lunch was in a huge pavilion on the grounds that included a local red table wine (yummy!), and then it was time to head back to the city and the ship.  Our travels took the whole day in our big comfortable bus, and we came back to the ship quite ready to put our feet up and have some prosecco (Italian bubbly).  After last night’s dining overindulgence courtesy of our waiter Urbano, we are heading for Vines and the sushi bar tonight to have a lighter end to our day! 

Tomorrow we added a trip to Avignon, where we are taking a walking tour, and we look forward to seeing something of the French countryside.  It’s another long day too, and we realized that we need to start packing then too.  <<SIGH>>  Roxy better win us Lotto so we can continue these odysseys!!!

Yvonne and John








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