The marathon is done (thank God) and now it’s time to move on to the fun part of this trip! After a lovely day in Geneva, I flew on to Barcelona to meet my friend Shannon who was flying in from Atlanta the next day. We’ll be traveling together for the next 2 ½ weeks, starting with a 7-night cruise of the Mediterranean.
I’ve always wanted to cruise the Mediterranean. It seemed like the perfect way to get around to a variety of beautiful places and only have to unpack once. And when you’re traveling for a month to a dozen different countries, a week in one bed is a good thing! So when we found a terrific itinerary that included Italy, Spain, France and Africa, we couldn’t pass it up.
Shannon’s flight into Barcelona arrived right on time Thursday morning and I found her in the arrivals area without any trouble…I love it when a plan comes together. We headed into Barcelona to check into the Hotel Gaudi near Barcelona’s colorful promenade, Las Ramblas. I’d found it on Trip Advisor and at $108 US for the night, it was a real steal. Right off the main avenue of Las Ramblas, it also had A/C and free wifi – two musts for me in Europe in the summer.
We spent the day touring around Barcelona and visiting all of the Gaudi classics: Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera and Casa Battló before taking a break for sangria and paella.
Friday morning we spent a little more time exploring Barcelona before heading to the port to board our home away from home for the next 7 nights – the MSC Splendida. MSC is an Italian cruise line and this was the first time either of us had sailed with them. The check-in process was effortless and within 30 minutes of arrival at the port we were settling into our balcony cabin.
Splendida is one of MSC’s newest ships (2009) and is the largest of the European liners. The décor was flashy yet still elegant with gemstone-studded stairways and velvety-plush seating areas. We spent a while exploring the massive ship before setting sail that evening.
For the next 7 days we’ll be sailing around the Mediterranean visiting a new port of call each day.
Stop #1 – Marseille & Aix en Provence
This morning we docked in France’s second largest city and busiest port, Marseille. The perfect gateway to the colorful countryside of Provence, we disembarked with a loose plan to hop the train to nearby Aix-En-Provence. With no map and only a rough idea of where we were going, we managed to locate a metro station and make our way to the main train station of St. Charles.
From there it was an easy 40-minute train ride to Aix-En-Provence. Cultural capital of Provence and birthplace of Paul Cezanne, Aix is a sleepy beauty filled with tree-lined boulevards, cafes, fountains and cathedrals. After a few hours spent leisurely strolling through the winding cobblestone streets, we caught the train back to take in a little more of Marseille.
First up, the Vieux Port (old harbor). Filled with thousands of sailboats and lined with colorful buildings, it was the perfect place to grab lunch before heading up the limestone bluff overlooking the city to visit the Basilica Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. Built in 1864, the basilica’s Romanesque-Byzantine architecture is surely eye-catching, but it’s the panoramic view of Marseille, the sea and the surrounding islands that are the real draw.
It was another splendidly sunny day and we enjoyed exploring Marseille and Provence. Tonight we’ll be cruising along France’s famed Cote d’Azur passing Nice, Cannes and Monaco on our way to Genoa, Italy.
Stop #2 – Genoa & Portofino
Where to even start with our day today? We docked in Genoa, Italy this morning at 9am and planned to use our time ashore to take a ferry over to Portofino for the day. As a bonus, our ferry made a one hour stop at a beautiful little beach called S. Fruttuoso. We’d never even heard of it but it turned out to be one of the most picturesque little spots on the East Riviera.
We would have stayed if not for our great desire to see Portofino. So, we hopped back on the ferry and headed out along the Liguria coast. As you cruise into Portofino, the colorful buildings and luxurious yachts dotting the bay make you think you’ve stepped into a movie set. It almost doesn’t seem real. Sort of like Italy brought to you by Walt Disney.We spent a great afternoon sipping wine along the water and soaking in the view. I could have stayed for weeks.
Stop #3 – Independence Day in Naples & Capri
Happy 4th of July!! We slept in a little this morning before docking in Naples at noon. Since we had to be back on the ship by 6pm, time was at a premium. Shannon and I debated what to do with our day in Naples but ultimately decided to take the ferry out to the island of Capri for the day.
Often referred to as the “Island of Dreams,” Capri boasts dramatic cliffs, brightly-colored homes and blue grottos. Historically, Capri was a favorite of Roman emperors – today, you’re more likely to rub elbows with celebrities and the European jet-set.
Factoring in an hour ferry ride each way, we had just a little over two hours to see as much of the island as we could. Upon arrival in Capri’s colorful harbor, we purchased tickets on the funicular to get a look above it all from the village of Anacapri. After a quick ride up, we emerged in picturesque Anacapri. The village reminded me a lot of the Greek Islands with white-washed shops and vibrant purple flowers. We could have spent hours taking in the views from all sides.
But alas, we were short on time so after a little more sightseeing, we took the funicular back down to the port for some seaside gelato. There was so much more of Capri that I wanted to see and it was heartbreaking to have to leave so soon. But I got a little taste of this Italian gem and you can bet I’ll be back for more someday.
As the ship pulled out of Naples, it hugged the Amalfi coast and we were treated to fantastic views of Sorrento, Amalfi and Positano as the sun set on our way toward Sicily.
Later in the evening, the ship had a little 4th of July celebration for the few American passengers on board. Since the nationalities of the passengers are largely European (80% Italian), there were all of 20 people there – including the cruise line’s sole American crew member – but they had cake and free champagne. Any party with free champagne is a good party in my book. Viva la USA!!!
Shannon and I celebrated our country’s independence with our two Irish friends from the dining room before heading down to the disco for a high-spirited night at sea.
Tomorrow, our last stop in Italy – a day in Palermo, Sicily.
Stop #4 – Palermo, Sicily
We docked in Palermo, Sicily this morning for our last stop in Italy. We didn’t have any real plans for our day so we ended up hiring one of the many horse-drawn carriages for a tour around the city. It was actually a nice, relaxing way to see the city and we especially enjoyed our stop at Palermo’s magnificent Cathedral which dates back to 1185.
Tonight we’ll be sailing away from Italy and heading toward La Goulette, Tunisia. We have plans to visit the ruins of Carthage tomorrow but learned last night that there’s a chance we won’t even be allowed to leave the ship. Apparently, the visa situation as it relates to Americans is still uncertain in Tunisia. The ship is holding our passports and will be dealing with the Tunisian authorities on our behalf when we dock. We’ll see what happens. I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t get to see some of Tunisia so wish us luck.
Stop #5 – La Goulette, Tunisia
Until our arrival at the MSC check-in counter 5 days ago, we didn’t even know we were going to Tunisia. Though it was on our original itinerary when we booked months ago, it was removed from the itinerary in April to our great dismay. In fact, the stop in Tunisia was one of the main reasons we had selected the MSC sailing – it was unique, the kind of place you didn’t get to every day. I like that in a destination. Not to mention it had spent several months in the news recently which always ups the curiosity factor.
Tunisia’s revolution in January was the beginning of what later became known as the “Arab Spring” and was followed by revolutions in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Though the political situation in Tunisia has returned to normal, the cruise ships had not yet returned – until this week. Yes, today was MSC’s first trip back to Tunisia since the revolution began.
Since we had very little warning about our Tunisian stop, we’d done no research. So, I did something I never do – I suggested we book one of the ship’s excursions. Sometimes, when you’re not sure exactly what you’re getting yourself into, it’s best to just go with the safest option.
The two main places I wanted to see were the ancient ruins of Carthage and the seaside town of Sidi Bou Said – known as the “Santorini” of Tunisia. Since the ship offered an excursion that did just that, we decided to book it and take the guesswork out of our stop in Tunisia.
It ended up being a perfect day. The group tour thing didn’t get on my nerves too badly and I loved the history of Carthage (an UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the beauty of Sidi Bou Said. It made me feel like I was wandering the streets of any Greek Island – with the possible exception of the aggressive merchants in the souk.
By 1pm we were back aboard and sailing toward our final stop in Mallorca.
Stop #6 – Palma de Mallorca
Situated in the middle of the western Mediterranean, the Balearic Islands are a cosmopolitan archipelago just south of Spain. The city of Palma – capital of the Balearics – is located on Mallorca, the largest of the islands. We docked in Mallorca this afternoon after a 24-hour journey from Tunisia for the last stop on our Mediterranean cruise.
Easily visible from the sea, the Catedral de Mallorca is the crowning architectural jewel of the island. Known as one of the most magnificent Gothic cathedrals in all of Europe, the interior chronicles the entire history of Mallorcan art. We spent a great day visiting the cathedral and strolling the tree-lined boulevards of Palma.
It’s been an amazing cruise and I’m going to be sorry to see it end! Tonight, we sail back to Barcelona before catching a flight to Mykonos in the morning.
Wrapping things up in the Mediterranean
In the past year or so, I’ve become a lot more familiar with cruising as a method of travel. Until last year, I’d never even been on a cruise, now I’ve done 3 in 16 months. My previous cruise experiences were with Carnival and there are a number of differences with MSC – some good, some bad. My favorite thing about MSC was the extravagant elegance of the ship. Our cabin was beautiful and the service and food were top notch. The downsides? Well, MSC has a lot of rules. And they have a LOT of extra charges to watch out for. You really have to be well-versed in all the services on the ship to avoid paying extra for things (for example, there were many food options on-board that were not included in the price). They don’t allow you to bring any amount of alcohol or non-alcoholic beverages on board at embarkation like other ships do. Of course, we also discovered that they don’t exactly enforce that policy. We brought wine on in Barcelona and again in Naples with no trouble whatsoever.
One tragic casualty of our week at sea – my beloved Nikon D60 DSLR camera. While we were in Portofino, the shutter button began making the sounds of imminent camera death and shortly thereafter, that’s exactly what happened. The shutter button would no longer release. I love this camera and it has been around the world 3 times with me and seen a lot of use over the last few years.
I researched the problem online and it seems to be repairable by sending it off to Nikon for a few hundred bucks. Not really an option when I’m only 10 days into a 5 week-long trip. Oh, and not to mention I’m currently at sea. I tried to get through our next stop in Capri with my smaller point-and-shoot camera but it just can’t deliver the kind of photos that my Nikon can. I knew I would have to replace it while on the road.
I had actually been considering upgrading the camera recently but I hadn’t planned on doing it this soon…and I certainly hadn’t planned on doing it in euro. Since I didn’t want to pay the European VAT tax on shore (& since the ship is holding my passport, I can’t claim the VAT refund anyway) – I decided to check out the ship’s duty free store. As it turned out, though they usually didn’t carry Nikon DSLRs, they had gotten two models in that day in Naples.
I looked over both models and decided on the cheaper of the two (though neither was cheap!) – the D3100. It is fabulous and has a 300mm zoom which I didn’t have on the last camera. I love it but I certainly hadn’t planned on investing in a brand new camera this week. And though the duty-free price was decent, the weak value of the dollar killed me on the exchange rate. Sigh. What can you do?
So, I hope you all enjoy the photo quality for the next few weeks – they ought to be worth their weight in euro…also known as gold.
Next up, Greece!