Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Spectacular Amalfi Coast

During our port stop in Naples, we decided to spend half of our time in Amalfi and the other half in Pompeii. Being avid cruisers and accustomed to enjoying spectacular views from the sea, we opted for a boat ride along the Amalfi Coast from Salerno to Amalfi rather than taking a motorcoach. We were not disappointed.

Although it was a brisk, windy morning, I decided to brave the cold during the 40 minute trip on the water and was grateful that I had worn a heavy jacket and gloves. The Amalfi Coast is ruggedly beautiful and many of the homes that we saw perched on the cliffs looked like they would slide into the sea during the next heavy rain. I imagined what an adventure it would be to make my way along interesting circuitous routes to get to these estates, including the former residence of Gore Vidal.

Amalfi was the capital of the Maritime Republic of Amalfi, an important trading power in the Mediterranean between 839 and around 1200. It is now a charming town where we had only an 1 1/2 hours to look around. Although that gave us enough time to enjoy a couple of lattes at the coffee bar (it's more expensive if you sit down at a table), we didn't have time to eat at one of the cute little restaurants on the piazza.
The first shop that drew me in was selling limoncello, an Italian lemon liqueur produced mainly in Southern Italy. While I was there marveling at all of the yellow treats and merchandise, I saw a sign about a limoncello tasting room and the next thing I knew I was looking all over town for it. Having lived in the Napa Valley for eight years I wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to taste an alcoholic beverage. Since Amalfi isn't exactly a metropolis, I found the limoncello factory (Antichi Sapori d'Amalfi) within minutes. Even though I don't speak Italian, I guess I communicate well enough with my hands so I was soon sharing a cold one with the grandson of the owner. I bought a bottle and imagined myself enjoying its lemon zestiness after a summer afternoon breaking a sweat in the garden.

More photos of the Amalfi Coast

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rome on the Run

Although I thoroughly enjoyed Rome for the one day I was there, it wasn't nearly enough time. I felt like my life was on "fast forward" while I breathlessly ran around seeing sites that covered thousands of years of history.

Cruising is a wonderful and hassle-free way to travel but if you really want to combine a visit to Rome with a cruise, do yourself a favor and see it either before or after your cruise. During my cruise on the Celebrity Century, Rome was a port stop during the cruise so we were there for only one day.

First of all, it is important to know that cruise ships dock in Civitavecchia which is 50 miles and a two hour drive from Rome. Believe me, it took us every bit of two hours to get to the Piazza del Popolo, where we were dropped off, handed a little paper map and given less than two hours to find our own way to the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and the Pantheon. We weren't given much time because we had to get back in order to make our 1:00pm appointment at the Vatican Museums.

Although Steve and I walked quickly down the Via del Corso in search of the Trevi Fountain, I still couldn't help peeking in the windows of the shops and admiring the fashionable Italian clothing. Oh well -- too many shopping opportunities and not enough time. After admiring the Trevi Fountain for 15-20 minutes, which is a spectacular fantasy of mythical sea creatures amid cascades of splashing water, we decided to grab a quick bite al fresco at the Golden Bar and were very pleased with our prosciutto paninis.

From there we ran to the Spanish Steps where we had a precious few minutes to snap some photos. Although our stop for paninis cost us a visit to the Pantheon, everyone who knows me understands that I'm a real grouch when I get hungry.

It was important for us to be on time for our appointment at the Vatican Museums because if you don't make it, you could stand in line for hours waiting to get in. Although I was led to believe the Sistine Chapel would be the highlight of the visit, it was frankly too dark in there to clearly see its elaborate beauty. I was more captivated by the majestic statues of naked men with gorgeous physiques that we passed on our way to the Chapel.

While the Sistine Chapel was a disappointment, St. Peter's Basilica was more beautiful than I had ever imagined. Being the lapsed Catholic I am, I was initially a little hesitant to enter such hallowed grounds. I started thinking that I really ought to go to confession but after a few minutes I was too dazzled to worry about it. I was struck by the fact that all of the walls and altars were adorned with fabulous mosaics.

The church's history dates back to the year AD 319 when the emperor Constantine built a basilica over the site of the tomb of St. Peter. Since then, each pope has contributed to its magnificence. It was also interesting to hear that priests from anywhere can arrange to say mass at one of the altars which immediately made me think of organizing cruises with church groups. Is it sacrilegious to think about business within one of God's most glorious houses of worship?

More photos of Rome

Monday, November 9, 2009

Castello de Verrazzano

After our brief tour of Florence we hopped back on our motorcoach to have lunch at the Castello de Verrazzano, which was about an hour away. Along the way, there were a lot of oohs and aahs expressed over the magnificent view.

I think most of us who appreciate wine have dreamed at one time or another of luxuriating at an authentic Tuscan winery. If there was ever a winery that lived up to my fantasies, Castello de Verrazzano was it. Believe it or not, winemaking here dates back to 1170.

As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by Gino, our warm and welcoming host who urged us to experience Castello de Verrazzano with our hearts.
With enthusiasm in his voice and his hands waving wildly, he extolled the fascinating history of the winery. While listening to Gino I was reminded of my visits to the Caffe Trieste in San Francisco many years ago where the laughter was contagious and I had not a care in the world singing "Scusa me but you see back in old Napoli, that's amore."

I could not believe the wonderful meal and wine they served us. It began with an assortment of antipasto including wild boar salami which I had never tasted before. It was divine. With each course, we tasted a different bottle of wine including the Verrazzano Rosso and the Castello di Verrazzano Chianti Classico. We also tasted the Vin Santo (Holy Wine) with the traditional almond biscuits.

The taste treat that was particularly memorable for me was the parmigiano reggiano cheese with the balsamic vinegar (Balsamico Verrazzano). There was an elegant subtle style about tasting it; you take a tiny spoonful of balsamic vinegar and place it in your mouth at the same time as a morsel of parmigiano reggiano cheese followed by another tiny spoonful of balsamic vinegar. I really don't know if I did it right but I do know that it was heavenly if not quite orgasmic and I quickly followed up the experience with a purchase of Balsamico Verrazzano at the tidy sum of 48 Euros (about $73).

Although we spent half the day there I could easily have spent the night. There are just some experiences in life that should linger for a while longer. We never did make it to Pisa that day but I was much too mellow to care. After all, I shall return.

More photos of Castello de Verrazzano

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Florence is Magnificent!

Our visit to Florence was much too short -- a half day is just not enough time to see the birthplace of the Renaissance. Although I firmly believe that cruising is one of the best ways to see the world there are times when you need more time to savor the beautiful site you're visiting. I now know that someday I will spend more time in Florence.

The highlight of my short visit was Michelangelo's Statue of David. I could have spent all day in the Galleria dell' Accademia admiring David's physique -- the powerful chest, the rippling muscles and the look of fear and determination in his eyes as he was about to cast the stone that would kill Goliath. In a moment of levity I asked Steve if he could possibly work out enough to look like David by the end of year and he replied that there was no way that his hands would possibly grow as large as David's in a couple of months. It's hard to see in this picture but David's extremities are not in proportion to his body.

Another fascination for me was the Ponte Vecchio, Florence's oldest bridge. Our tour guide explained to us that the Ponte Vecchio was not always lined with fancy jewelry stores. In fact, it was occupied by a meat market until Grand Duke Cosimi I de' Medici ordered the meat market closed in 1565 because he didn't like the stench it was creating as he traversed the passageway from his residence to the government palace. I don't know how you feel about Grand Duke Cosimi I de' Medici overall, but I think he made a good move when he outlawed the meat market.

Although we had the opportunity to take photos from the outside of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo), the Church of Santa Croce and Uffizi Gallery, it is a shame that we didn't have the time to go inside. I also didn't have time to shop for leather handbags or savor a gelato or two.

More photos of Florence

We Missed Portofino

On a seven-day Western Mediterranean cruise, you really don't want to miss one of your ports of call but we missed Portofino due to our lazy morning luxuriating in bed. Since we were expected to be in Portofino for 12 hours we didn't think we would have to rush off the boat to see the charming little town but we were wrong. By the time we got our butts out of bed the Celebrity Century's captain made the call to stop the tenders into Portofino because the water was just too rough, which is unusual in the Mediterranean. And the sea didn't get any calmer as the time approached for the ship to set sail to Livorno.

Although about half the passengers managed to get into Portofino, they had to be transported to Santa Margarita Ligure to pick up the tender to the Celebrity Century. Over dinner, people who got to shore expressed mixed sentiments about their adventure. Some just went with the flow and enjoyed the extra time to explore and others spent four hours in line cooling their heels waiting for the tender.

Cruisers need to understand that there are risks associated with tendering to shore. You just might miss the port or you might be in port a lot longer than you expected. Either way, remember to relax and enjoy the moment.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Beautiful Day in Cannes

Our first port of call after we departed Barcelona was Cannes, France and what a glorious day it was – a picture perfect 80 degrees. I just couldn’t wait to get off the Celebrity Century and start practicing my French. After Steve spent some obligatory time drooling in the harbor, we decided to hop a ride on a city bus that traveled down the Boulevard de la Croisette, one of the most famous and I daresay expensive promenades in the world.

Given that it was a beautiful sunny Sunday in Cannes, we decided to have lunch at the Long Beach restaurant which was located on a private Mediterranean beach. After all, you only live once. We thought we ordered a light lunch of pizza and Caesar salad but the portions were much more generous than we expected.

After lunch, Sharon Assis and Sandy Velikonja invited us to join them on a tour of Cannes. Our local tour guide was Sylvie Di Cristo, who works extensively on the French Riviera and Paris. I was very impressed that she spoke four languages fluently – French, English, Italian and Spanish -- and was happy when she agreed to converse with me in French. After all, I can use all the practice I can get and Cannes was the only French port on my seven-day Western Mediterranean cruise. Sylvie took us up to Le Suquet where we all admired the breathtaking panoramic view of the whole city below.

After the climb up to Le Suquet, it was time to explore the quaint old town and do some shopping. Unfortunately, since it was Sunday most of the stores were closed and the only thing we could do was window shop. Sylvie reminded me that the French word for window shopping is “l├Ęche-vitrine,” which literally means window-licking.

After a busy afternoon of window-licking we stopped for a beer at the outdoor restaurant of the majestic Intercontinental Carlton Cannes. It turns out that the Intercontinental Carlton Cannes was closing its outdoor restaurant for the season and we were fortunate to be their last clients of the year. I guess our waiter was in a celebratory mood because he brought us some appetizers gratis to enjoy with our beers. He even indulged Sandy, who has a craving for French macaroons.

More photos of Cannes

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Getting Around in Barcelona

While we were in Barcelona, Steve and I got around town by foot, city bus, tourist bus, taxi and cable car. The double decker tourist bus covers the most ground in the least amount of time and is particularly enjoyable on a sunny day. The audio presentation, however, is hard to hear and often doesn't synchronize well with the path of the bus. We were stopped in one of Barcelona's numerous traffic jams while the recording was telling us about a site that didn't appear for a while. The ear plugs are uncomfortable so if you have a set that you particularly like, take them with you.

The views of the city from the the cable car that crosses Port Vell from San Sebastia Beach to Montjuic Mountain are incredible. You would think that the station would be relatively easy to find but as we followed the overhead wire to the Jaume I tower, we discovered after walking forever that this station was closed for repairs. So we decided to take a taxi to the station on the other side of harbor at San Sebastia Beach only to discover that it was closed from 2:00pm - 3:00pm for lunch. This gave us an excuse to have a sangria on the beach. In spite of the fact that we walked and waited nearly half a day to board this cable car, the view was well worth it.

Another tip about getting around in Barcelona --- forget about using your iPhone. Although I downloaded the Lonely Planet Barcelona City Guide and thought it would be cool for it to guide me around Barcelona, I found an old-fashioned paper map and my gumption to ask for directions to be far more useful. There are just too many beautiful sites to see in Barcelona to be fooling around with an iPhone as I was doing in this photo.

More photos of Barcelona from above

On the Gourmet Walking Tour

If you're a foodie and ever visit Barcelona, you don't want to miss the Gourmet Walking Tour. It was truly a treat as we strolled through the streets of the old town experiencing sensory overload. The vibrant and hectic Mercat de La Boqueria was the highlight of the walk. Every type of delicacy that you could think of can be found there. Imagine ham costing 158 Euros per kilo -- that 's about $120 per pound! Another particularly memorable shop was the Tostaderos Casa Gispert where the smell of roasted nuts wafted in the air making me very hungry. The head roaster of nuts gave us a presentation on how he worked his magic in an authentic wood-burning oven that is around 150 years old.

More photos of Mercat de La Boqueria

Barcelona's Gothic Quarter

Steve and I took a walking tour of the Gothic Quarter, Barcelona's historical and political center. One of the most memorable buildings that we saw on this walk was the Barcelona Cathedral. Although the richly decorated main facade was added during the late 19th century, the rest of the cathedral was built between 1298 and 1460. I was fascinated by the fact that we saw a lot of geese loitering in the cloiser and was amused to find out that in medieval times, the geese were the protectors of the cathedral. The geese were the medieval equivalent of a security system because if anybody tried to sneak into the cathedral the geese would start honking like crazy.

In addition to seeing a lot of old and interesting buildings, I noticed that there were some talented musicians playing in the plazas of the Gothic Quarter. Our tour guide told us that these musicians had to be good because they needed a license from the city to play on these crowded plazas and in order to get a license, they were required to audition for the privilege. These musicians are not paid by the city; they rely on grateful passersby to toss some money in their hat or buy their CDs.

Our tour guide was a dyed-in-the-wool Catalonian. While we were standing in the Palau del Lloctinent (Spanish viceroy), which is home to a unique archive documenting the history of the kingdom prior to unification under Fernando and Isabel, he was quick to point out that the kingdom of Catalonia was once so vast that it once covered parts of Italy and Greece. I was also amazed to learn that when Spain was ruled by Franco, the Catalonians were not allowed to speak their native language, which is Catalan. Everyone in Spain was required to speak Spanish.