Thursday, July 23, 2009
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
From Eze, we boarded another bus that would take us to Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo is part of the small independent principality of Monaco. Monte Carlo/Monaco are known for fast cars, expensive yachts, and a world famous casino. It also perhaps is infamous for its royal family who despite being the longest ruling monarchy in Europe has seen their names and faces splashed across the media for decades.
Unfortunately, with such limited time in port on this day, we didn't really have time for much more. We quickly headed back to the train station and in the direction of Villefranche to catch the ship again. Nonetheless, this part of the world is absolutely stunning and definitely lives up to every bit of the charm you'd envision when you think of the French Riviera.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Ajaccio is the major city on the island of Corsica, just off the coast of France. It was also our first port of call on my first Mediterranean cruise.
It was probably the port city in which I knew the least about ahead of time and unfortunately it also turned out to be my least favorite port stop on my cruise. Apparently, this island is a very popular holiday spot for the French and other Europeans. Unfortunately, a beach vacation wasn't quite what I was looking for.
Corsica biggest claim to fame, or perhaps infamy, is as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. You can see statues commemorating this favorite son all over the island and in the city. While we were in Ajaccio, we saw a Napoleon statue with him dressed in a toga similar to what a Holy Roman Emperor would wear. We also visited a playground which was supposedly where the young Napoleon used to play. There's also a bronze statue there commemorating Napoleon. Finally, we also saw the building in which Napoleon was born and his family lived. It was mildly interesting, but at the same time, do you want to be celebrating this place as the birthplace to one of the world's most hated men?
During our time in Corsica, as we weren't quite sure what else to do, we took a ship's tour of the island and it's surrounding. During the tour, we drove out of town to an area where we could see a string of islands just off the coast of Corsica. At the edge of the island itself sits a watch tower which was operated like any other watch tower back in the old days, as a lookout to help spot enemy fleets as they approached the island. It was an intersting spot that we wandered around for a little bit.
While this turned out to be a nice and lovely day, and the island has it's bright spots, it was also the least exciting stop on our cruise, and I'm not sure that I'd be thrilled to ever go back there again.
Friday, July 17, 2009
I've heard many people mention that Barcelona is either a city you love, or one that you hate. And much of that has to do more with the architectural style of the city rather than the people, the sights or the food.
Barcelona is the home of Antoni Gaudi, master Art Nouveau architect who designed and built many of the most iconic structures seen around Barcelona.
It was late in July in 2006, when I visited Barcelona. When we arrived to Barcelona International Airport late in the evening, little did we know that this stay in this beautifully eclectic city would prove to be such an adventure. Additionally, this trip, re-ignited our interest in Europe. It had been nearly 20 years since I'd last been to Europe in 1987. Since this trip in 2006, I've visited Europe at least once every year since.
By the time we got out of the airport, took the Aeroport Bus to Placa Catalunya, walked to Las Ramblas and found our hotel, checked in, and dropped off our bags at the room, it was just past 10:00 pm. We decided to make the most of our first evening in Barcelona by going for a stroll outside. Since our hotel was situated on the very popular main pedestrian street in Barcelona known as Las Ramblas, we were in the perfect place for a late evening stroll. At 10:00 pm, the place was packed and it looked like the party was just getting started. This is definitely one place not to be missed if you're ever in Barcelona. It's funny that during the day (as seen in the picture), before all the previous night's revelers are up, the street is just a very beautiful, but peacefully, tree lined street filled with vendors selling the wares on either side of the street.
For our first full day in Barcelona, we decided to take a trip on the city's famous hop-on, hop-off bus operated by Bus Turistic. The tour operators jumping off point was just around the corner from our hotel, and we made sure we were there for the first bus of the day.
Once we were off on our adventure, you could clearly see the sights that Antoni Gaudi has made so popular laid out before you throughout the city, especially when you're riding on the top deck of an open-top, double decker bus.
Our first stop was Gaudi's famous Casa Mila, an apartment building that he designed and had built. The outside facade of this building that sits at the corner of 2 intersecting streets is the first sign of whimsy that you see. It's up on the rooftop of the building where you see all sorts of odd, unique and intricate mosaic creations where you begin to get a glimpse into this man that is Antoni Gaudi.
From Casa Mila, we headed to the famous, if not infamous, La Sagrada Familia. A church hundreds of years in the making. This church has come to represent Gaudi, his life and his passion. During the later years of his life, he was obsessed with this church, which unfortunately was never completed before his untimely death, and to this day is still a work in progress. Private donations and other aspiring architects today continue his work based upon the blue prints he has left behind. This church really is a wonder to behold, with two very distinct styles depending on what side of the church you are standing on. I've never seen a church so intricate in it's design, nor so bold and forward in its thinking.
Other sights we were able to cram in during our day tour of the city was the Olympic Stadium of the 1992 Summer Games, the beautiful bronze Christopher Columbus statue (which was actually built incorrectly with Columbus facing the wrong direction), the Port Vell area, and finally the Diagonal area.
After a short afternoon rest at our hotel, we ended our day in style by taking in the beautiful Magic Fountains light show at Placa Espanya. If you've ever seen the light and music water fountain show in front of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, the Magic Fountain show is similar, albeit a little less high-tech, but nonetheless gorgeous, fun, beautiful, and a great way to end the evening in this colorful, rich and vibrant city.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
It's probably one of the most recongizable symbols the world over, and maybe the iconic symbol of Italy, and certainly that of Tuscany, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
When I discovered on our first Mediterranean cruise that our ship would be docking in Livorno, the gateway to Florence and Pisa, I knew I had to climb the Leaning Tower.
I know, some people say it's cheesy. Some people say it's not worth the money. Many people told me that my time was better spent in Florence. But I didn't listen. Couldn't listen. Climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of those things that I had always wanted to do.
So, I arranged for a private company to provide us a full day's tour of Florence and Pisa. One of the main reasons I opted to go with a private company was that this was the only way I could arrange to climb the Leaning Tower. With a ship shore excursion, none of them allow for, or provide enough time, to be able to climb the tower.
Once my tour was booked, I went online months before my cruise and booked my ticket for climbing the Leaning Tower.
The climb itself was pretty simple. Only a limited number of people are allowed into the Tower every 30 minutes. The climb takes about 30 minutes in total. It's not strenuous, but it is interesting. While climbing in a circular motion, you can definitely "feel" the lean of the tower itself. Additionally, the steps you climb are pretty much worn out as the marble has been worn away through the years of people climbing the Tower. Once at the top, there are actually 3 different sections from which you can stand atop the Tower. I will say that it was definitely worth the detour we took in order to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
From Pisa we headed off to Florence. As I was there on a Monday, I knew that the Accademia Galleria would not be open; therefore seeing the original Statue of David would not be possible.
Our first stop in Florence was the world-renownd Duomo. This structure is huge. After waiting 15 minutes to get inside, it was quite a sight to behold the gorgeous, and spacious interior of the Duomo. Outside on the piazza also sits Giotto's Bell Tower and the the famous "Gates of Paradise" bronze doors on the Baptistery. The green, pink, and white marble buildings were just gorgeous.
After this little stop we made our way over to Mercato San Lorenzo where there is an outdoor shopping market along with the Medici Chapels. This is where our tour guide took us to a small family operated outdoor sidewalk cafe for lunch. I ordered penne pasta with cherry tomatoes and marinara. It was to die for. I don't think I've ever had such wonderful pasta before in my life.
Just as lunch ended, the sky opened up on us. I saw lightning and heard thunder and felt rain the likes of which I've never experienced before in my life. From Mercato San Lorenzo we headed off to the Church of Santa Croce where some of Florence's greatest and most distinguished men are buried: Michelango, Machiavelli, Dante and Gallileo. While we were inside of Santa Croce, the rain poured down in buckets and the thunder outside boomed so loud we though that the church was being hit with bombs. It was actually quite scary.
Our last stop of the day was to drive past the famous and historic Ponte Vecchio bridge and up to Piazza Michelangelo. Piazza Michelangelo is located high atop a hill. From this vantage point you get an amazing view over Florence. It is from here that you can really tell that the Duomo dominates over all else in Florence.
This was really a wonderful day. A bit of whimsy, mixed with lots of history, and a lot of religious sites.