I have a love/hate relationship with Venice. On one hand, it is so beautiful and amazing, chock full of art, architecture and romance. On the other hand, it involves a lot of walking in a crowd...behind slow people...like Disney World with much smaller pathways. There are few places to sit, the marble or pavement that you walk on is unmerciful on tired feet, and restaurants are either cheap windows with no seating or crazy expensive mediocre food. The sites in Venice are some of my favorite in the world, but I have been more discouraged by this city than any other. It feels like if only you could happen upon the city when no tourists were present, it could be the perfect destination. But Venice exists largely because of tourists, so that dream is not realistic. And so, for me, Venice will remain this elusive, beautiful city that I dream of when I am back home, but silently curse while there. Maybe one day I'll experience the Venice of my dreams. I'll certainly never give up; this gives me the perfect reason to return...
It has been over a week since we returned from our trip, but I am just beginning to feel settled since we are also in the process of James attending a military training class and moving the family. But, we are in a makeshift apartment for the next week at least, so I feel like I can finally reflect. Here are the things that stick out in my mind most from our recent trip:
1. Waiting in the rain for a restaurant to open in Bologna because we were starving and in Italy, restaurants don't open until at least 7 for dinner. We crouched under awnings, raced across streets with ankle-deep puddles and were soaked to the bone by the time we reached the restaurant, which had barely opened. Good thing meals in Italy take so long, so we had plenty of time to dry off! We were rewarded with fresh tortellini and other delicacies that were definitely worth waiting for.
2. Wandering around Piazza del Duomo in Florence by myself while James climbed the dome early one morning. I studied the art on the church, the Baptistry doors, and even gave some tourists directions. Someone asked me if I was local, and I almost felt like I was. I attended church in the Duomo and just soaked up the city.
3. My beautiful evening in Ferrara, where we finally took it easy and strolled the streets like the locals. We admired the pink confection of the Duomo, bought candied nuts and listened to street musicians.
4. Touring ports with Joann and Calvin, our tablemates. They were the perfect companions for us: Joann, always armed with optimism, her camera and the willingness to ask anyone anything and Calvin, a man of few words, but who could actually put James in his place.
5. Our amazing Greek lunches by the water which lasted for hours and featured excellent conversation with wonderful people. The first, with Maria from Katakolon Express, and the second with our other tablemates, Mike and Debbie. I've never enjoyed al fresco dining as much as I did eating fresh feta by the sea.
6. Winning trivia with Jeannie and Paul, our brilliant teammates who made us the winningest trivia team I've ever been a part of. They became great friends, and we learned so much from them. We aspire to travel like they do one day.
It's funny. As I look at this list and think back, it occurs to me that none of them revolved around a single monument or piece of art. Of course we saw amazing things that I will never forget, but the more we travel, the more it becomes about the people and the authentic experiences. I would never have believed it before we first visited Europe, and I know that I will always be filling our days with museums and churches in the future, but now I understand how important it is to leave room for those impromptu experiences. They are what travel is all about!
As anyone who knows us or listens to our show can attest, we LOVE to cruise in Europe, specifically the Mediterranean. But, why?
1. Cruising is the easiest and cheapest way to see Europe.
If you have ever looked at planning a European vacation, it is really easy to get overwhelmed. Where to go, what to do, where to stay, how to get around: there are a myriad of things to consider. Even as someone who loves planning and handling those details, it made my head spin. Cruising presents this great opportunity to answer most of those questions for you, allowing you to focus and enjoy the experience.
Don't know where to go? Find a cruise itinerary that hits a lot of those places you have dreamed of. Don't worry if it goes a few places you haven't heard of yet, those are often hidden treasures. Once you have the itinerary selected, you can focus on what you want to do in each port. Europe is very walkable and public transportation is plentiful, so it is much easier to see the sites independently than in the Caribbean. If you are nervous about that prospect, the ship offers a plentiful selection of guided tours. The question of where to stay is obviously handled by the ship, but another plus is that you are often getting a much higher level of accommodations than you would normally find in Europe (with air conditioning!). And finally, the how to get around is answered by the ship as well. Compare the daily price of a cruise to what you would pay to stay in a comparable hotel, meals and transportation; the numbers really speak for themselves.
2. A cruise for non- "beach people".
We are not beach people. I know most cruisers are, and I completely respect that, but I hate getting a tan and get bored if I have to spend more than one day on a beach. I love to be out there, in the local culture, meeting people and seeing history. While there is some history in the Caribbean (mostly Mexico), Europe is chock-full of it. Every single port has more history than almost any port in the Caribbean. If that is the sort of thing that you like to see on vacation anyway, then combining those sites with the relaxing atmosphere, amazing food and entertainment on a cruise ship is like a slam dunk. It is like two incredible vacations rolled into one!
3. A cruise lessens the culture shock.
As much as I love Europe and other cultures, after a few days I am often wishing for a normal sized towel or tap water with ice in it. I miss my air conditioning, my large bed and talking to someone other than my husband. Cruising in Europe is so cool because you can get out there and experience the culture, and then come back to some comforts. You can discuss your day with new friends and eat a hamburger with fries (and a chocolate melting cake).
4. Europe is where most of the ships are in the summer.
Lately, in the summer when kids get out of school, most of the ships pack up and head to Europe. Unless you want to go to Alaska or sail with Carnival, your options are pretty limited. And guess what?! The cruises in Europe are usually NOT more expensive per day. My upcoming cruise was $899 for a 12 day on a premium ship, and I see deals all the time for a week-long cruise for $500. Now, of course you have to worry about air fare, which is not cheap, but many lines are giving air fare credits and if you add all the costs up, it might surprise you. Also, most new ships are built in Europe, so many do several cruises over there before heading to the United States.
One last word:
Cruising in Europe is not for everyone. If you love those beach days and can't imagine wanting to trek around the Forum or Colosseum instead of enjoying a nice margarita on the beach, I wouldn't suggest taking the leap. But, if you have always wanted to go to Europe, but have held back because of the overwhelming planning or cost, you should give a European cruise a good hard look. Chances are, it will be the best vacation of your life!
When looking at the cost of a cruise in the Mediterranean, one of the largest expenses is shore excursions. Most people assume that since they are in a foreign country, it makes sense to pay the high price for cruise sponsored excursions. While these excursions do provide the traveler the guarantee that the ship will not leave without them as well as a licensed guide, many ports are so easy to tour on your own that the DIY option is certainly worth considering. When my husband and I first began planning a trip to Europe, we read up on our Rick Steves and when we decided to make that trip a cruise, we just used that same information to tour our port cities cheaply and efficiently. That being said, some ports are easier than others to tour on your own, (and there are a few that I would suggest ONLY using the ship's tours). These are the top 5 Mediterranean cruise ports that we consider the easiest and best to tour on your own.
1. Barcelona, Spain
Often an embarkation port, Barcelona is ideal for independent touring. Transportation is great in Barcelona with a quick, cheap shuttle at the foot of the Ramblas which runs to and from the cruise terminal. From there, top attractions of Barcelona are within easy walking distance like the old Gothic quarter with its Cathedral and picturesque and twisty alleys, and the La Ribera neighborhood which houses the Picasso Museum and the Gothic architecture of Santa Maria del Mar. Or, you can take the inexpensive and clean metro up to Gaudi's masterpiece church, La Sagrada Familia. Barcelona also has the best deal in transportation that we have found anywhere with the T10 card which costs 7.80 euros, but can be shared between members of your group and allows for 10 trips on public transit, including the RENFE train which goes all the way to the airport. Beaches are also an easy walk, if that is your preferred activity.
2. Valletta, Malta
You don't even need to use public transportation to see the main sites of Valletta as the cruise terminal is directly below the town within easy walking distance. Valletta is small, with attractions like the St. John's Co-Cathedral simple to find and tour. In Malta, there is no language barrier since they speak English here. The architecture is captivating, and it is a treat to "get lost" in the old town, finding little hole-in-the-wall restaurants to enjoy Mediterranean fare and a glass of wine. It is hard to imagine having as enjoyable an experience being led around in a large group with a tour guide. Even farther flung sites like Mdina and the megalithic temples can be easily reached by bus, and with the station directly above the cruise terminal, all of Malta is at your fingertips.
3. Dubrovnik, Croatia
Cruisers can come into Dubrovnik in one of two ways. Some ships tender passengers directly to the gate of the Old Town, while others dock at the terminal a couple of miles away. If tendering, one only needs to walk around the city to tour independently. If docked, there is a reasonable priced shuttle which drops you off right outside the walls of the Old Town. Those feeling especially independent can save even more money by taking public transit or by walking the two miles. Once in the Old Town of Dubrovnik, you have easy access to the top attraction: walking the perimeter on the city walls which provides breathtaking scenery and views. You could also duck into a number of old monasteries or churches, or you could ride the gondola up to the fortress above the city which boasts more amazing views as well as a small museum on the recent war in the 90's which destroyed much of Dubrovnik. Shopping is also a pleasure, and eateries are geared toward cruisers.
4. Naples, Italy
Up to this point, my choices have been largely uncontroversial, but this one might raise a few eyebrows due to the negative reputation of Naples. So why, when Naples is known for being somewhat unseemly and potentially dangerous, would I suggest to tour it on your own? My answer is simple: some of the best attractions in the Naples area are not on any ship excursion. Sure, you can take an overpriced excursion to Pompeii, but to see the art from Pompeii as well as a wealth of other ancient sculpture, you must go to the Naples Archaeological Museum. This museum is one of the true gems of Europe, and is often not crowded (likely due to its exclusion from cruise shore excursion itineraries). And, it is a relatively easy walk up on of the most touristy streets of Naples, or you could easily take a bus.
Another site which gets no love from cruise ships, but is certainly worth touring is the Royal Palace at Caserta. The palace, built shortly after Versailles, was to rival the famous French palace. With its amazing gardens, complete with waterfalls and gorgeous statuary, one feels transported back in time. The palace itself also impresses, with room after room of gold leaf and rich brocades. The train ride to Caserta is only slightly longer than the train to Pompeii, and the palace is across the street from the station.
Taking a train from Naples does require more planning than some other ports, but the payoff can be extremely high. It allows you to spend all day in Sorrento if you prefer, or to combine a trip to Pompeii with lunch at one of Naples famed pizza parlors and an afternoon visit to the Archaeology Museum. My warning or caveat for Naples would be that you MUST do your research. Don't expect to just step off the boat and find your way or wander around Naples. If you don't have time for planning, absolutely take a shore excursion.
5. Civitavecchia, Italy (Rome)
Most people assume that since Rome is an hour away from the cruise port of Civitavecchia, they must take a shore excursion to get to the Eternal City. But, with a little bit of prior knowledge, it is quite easy to take the train to Rome, allowing you to tour at your own pace. The station in Civitavecchia is a short walk from the cruise terminal, and an all day ticket which allows you to travel to and from Rome, plus metro and bus travel within the city is only 9 euros. If you are like we were, you want to see all the major sites in Rome in one day: Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, Vatican and St. Peters. Alas, no shore excursion dares to complete all that in one day, so we created our own itinerary which we completed by 5 pm. (Podcast Itinerary- A Day in Rome) Other great sites like the Basilica di San Clemente and St. John's Lateran are also absent from shore excursion itineraries.
Some concerns may arise about touring Rome independently, one being the lack of a guide. But, guided tours are easy to come by at both the Colosseum and the Vatican, with private guides costing extra. The other concern would be getting back to the boat in time, but with most boats leaving Civitavecchia at 9 pm or later, as long as you make sure you are on a train by 7, there should be no issue. (We have always completed our touring and headed back by 4:30, even with our full schedule.)
Shore excursions can be a great option for travelers who don't have time to plan, or who just want the security, but in many Mediterranean ports it makes sense to weigh your options before plunking down lots of cash. As always, each traveler should feel comfortable with their decision and decide what is right for them.
One of our news stories this week on the podcast was about Naples cleaning up its act in order to increase the profitability of cruise ships in the city. Currently, when people hit the port of Naples, they scatter like roaches away from this crazy, amazing city to Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri, Positano, seemingly anywhere BUT Naples proper. And with good reason. Naples is one of the dirtiest cities I have ever been to. You feel like your life is in danger everytime you cross a street. Not to mention that some guy recently died after getting mugged right outside the cruise terminal in Naples. Trash is piled on the streets; locals don't seem to care that we're there. Why should they? They don't care enough about their own city to prevent the disgusting graffiti that covers their historic monuments and piazzas.
So why do I care? Why on earth do I think cruise passengers should give this city any money whatsoever? Because underneath all that grime and gruff exterior, Naples has some of the most amazing sites, architecture, and food in the world. It is one of the oldest cities in Italy, and has some wonderfully preserved buildings and streets. Perhaps Naples just happens to have things that I particularly love. Sculpture is my favorite art form, and the Naples Archaeology Museum contains some of the best and most sculpture in the world. Then you have the Sansavero Chapel with the Veiled Christ and the fisherman caught in his net... seriously, I was almost as impressed as I was with David. Just breathtaking. I love amazing architecture, and Naples has it. From the iron beauty that is Galleria Umberto, to the Pantheon-like church in Piazza del Plescibito to the crazy looking Gesu church with spikes all over the outside, Naples is a feast for the eyes. Oh, did I say feast? Yes, I could feast on the pizza in Naples endlessly. In fact, now anytime I visit a new city, I search for that local pizzaria that claims to be in the style of Naples, just for a fraction of the memory of that pizza. I also love to see a little local culture, and with the clothes and Italian grandmas hanging out of the windows on Spaccanapoli, I just feel immersed, "Dorothy, you aren't in Kansas anymore". I love that feeling; it sounds silly, but that feeling makes me feel like I am growing as a person.
I feel bad for Naples. I just want to shake them and say "Do you realize what you have here?!" With everything the city has to offer, plus all of the amazing side trips that are within less than an hour, you could spend a week in Naples and never get bored. But, because of all the aforementioned issues, people never do. Will Naples shape up, clean up and become the tourist destination it could be in my lifetime? I feel that it won't, but one thing Naples never is, is predictable. John Heald says that Naples is the Charlie Sheen of Italy, and I have to agree. It could be so good if it could just get rid of the crazy.
This week, my husband, daughter and I have been in "Hot"lanta because we went along with him on a business trip. We are staying at a hotel in midtown Atlanta, and have walked to every attraction and restaurant we have visited. This experience has been so antithetical to our recent experiences in Europe, that Atlanta has actually suffered by comparison. I'll explain: we are about a mile from the 2 major attractions in downtown Atlanta which are the world's largest aquarium and the World of Coke. Now, normally a mile wouldn't faze us in the least. We have walked most of New York City, Rome, Florence and Naples. We walk miles and miles everyday when we go to Disney World, and have even suffered walking around D.C. in the heat. But nothing prepared us for attempting to walk in Atlanta. Immediately around our hotel, the sidewalks were wide and nice, but about a block up, they started to break up, narrow and sometimes disappear altogether. All lights favor motorists exclusively, and crosswalks sometimes never light up for walkers. Even on the campus of Georgia Tech, there were not good walkable areas. (How is that possible on a huge university campus?) We found ourselves crossing streets and crossing back, just to stay on a sidewalk or to avoid a construction zone, and the one time we didn't cross away from a work area, some lady yelled at us. Not fun. "Why walk then?" you may be thinking. Well, parking is crazy high as well with the parking garage at the attractions costing $10, regardless of how many hours you happen to be there in one day. (Disney is $14, but at least that is a world-class theme park, which these are not) And, normally we enjoy walking.
Once we finally arrived, we were treated to overpriced, mediocre attractions. Well, I am being a little hard on the aquarium. Although overpriced at $25, it was still good. World of Coke is an absolute ripoff at $16.
The experience, as a whole, had me wishing for the insanity of Naples at times or Rome. In Rome, we walked from one corner to the other, and never had even a fraction of the issues we have in Atlanta, going a way shorter distance.
Now, I know that I am not reinventing the wheel by suggesting that cities which were built before cars were the major mode of transportation are more pedestrian friendly than those which were built after, but never has it been so clear before. What I am suggesting, is that these pedestrian friendly cities make for better touring all around than the newer, motorist cities. There is something enjoyable about walking up to a great attraction, viewing it, and walking on to a local snack (gelato!) or passing some great architecture, street performer or fountain. Although some cities in the United States can replicate this experience (New York, Boston, Chicago), it is amazing to me that every city in Europe that I have visited fits this bill perfectly.
What do you think? Does driving and parking somehow impede the enjoyment of a city? Do you prefer to immerse yourself in a city or to just get in and out?