MEDITERRANEAN DISCOVERY ABOARD THE SEVEN SEAS NAVIGATOR
On this family trip the SC Wendels flew to Frankfurt and then on to Barcelona. The Fergusons also followed the same route, but from Denver. The 10 of us boarded the Regent Seven Seas Navigator in Barcelona and traveled around the Mediterranean, leaving the ship at Athens.
After a long night of flying we arrived in Frankfurt where we passed through European immigration, hiked a long, long tunnel from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, and finally found the Lufthansa business lounge for a brief rest. We finally boarded the cramped airbus for the flight to Barcelona. (This airbus “features” a very cramped business class section where the seats are on the same pitch as in steerage and the center seat of the three on either side of the isle is blocked.) After our baggage arrived we ventured out into the terminal and found the Regent rep who was shocked to find that there were 6 of us; he had been expecting just Nathan and me. This was resolved by getting a second driver and we all wound up at the Majestic hotel in downtown.
The Fergusons had already arrived so they joined us in our room. We eventually set off to find a place to dine, winding up at NoNo. We felt very Spanish since we didn’t eat until about 10 pm.
We did a walking tour of Gaudi buildings in the downtown area the next morning. Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) was the leading exponent of Catalan Modernisme and built several unique buildings around Barcelona. His most spectacular is the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia which consumed the last 12 years of his life. It is still unfinished however work is ongoing. We returned to the hotel around 11 giving us time for the noon checkout. Shortly after noon the buses arrived and we went off to the ship through heavy traffic. Boarding the ship was a bit like returning home, we were warmly greeted by several of the staff with whom we had traveled last year.
After we boarded and checked in we went to the Portofino Grill for an extended lunch. Although we were allowed on board early we couldn’t go to our cabins until 2:30. This delay scrubbed any plans to take the tourist bus for the afternoon since all-aboard was 4:30. No one minded too much since it felt good to just relax for awhile before unpacking.
July 20. Valencia, Spain
Nine of us took part in the adventure today. Dale whimpped out just because his tummy was not happy. We were told by the travel desk that there would be an abundance of taxis at the dock and at our destination, the City of Arts and Sciences. Neither was true. With the help of the Visitor Information desk in the terminal building we took a free bus to the entrance of the port which was undergoing construction. At the entrance we found the bus stop for bus 19 which took us to within a couple blocks of the center. We even figured out the fare and the schedule which were all in Spanish. The Center is a huge complex. We had to follow many arrows to find the Oceanographic buildings which of course were at the far end of the complex. We originally thought we would go to both the Aquarium and the Science Museum, but quickly changed our mind when we discovered the vastness of the center.
We negotiated the long ticket line and had to choose between buying 4 adults, 2 children, 2 students and1senior, or the large family discount. We got the former which was $181.56 Euros. They would not accept my credit card because I didn’t have photo ID. The ship has the passports. Chris had photo ID so he got to pay the bill.
Next was the challenge of negotiating the complex. We walked past the Museum of Science, Hemisphere, Palace of the Arts, a large aquatic and performance venue and various construction projects before reaching the Oceanographic section. That area was divided into the tropics, which was a large circular tank, the oceans, which was a very long walk through a tank surrounded by fish, the arctic and antarctic with penguins, beluga whales, walrus, and fur seals. My favorites were the walrus and belugas neither of which I have seen in captivity. There was also a huge spherical aviary with a nice selection of exotic birds.
After a lunch of ice cream, beer, sandwiches and soda (not all consumed by every one) seven of us went to the best Dolphin show I have seen. Natalie and Nathan had seen enough and made their way safely back to the ship the same way we came. Chris played the worried father. The dolphins spun small hula hoops on their beaks and their trainers rode on them like skis plus the usual jumps, trainer throws etc.. There was no narration. The whole show was choreographed to music with the dolphins responding to signals from their trainers. It lasted about a half hour.
A hot and weary group headed back to the ship about 3:30PM. All went well until it was time to take the harbor shuttle which wasn’t there so we walked which definitely was not pleasant due to the massive construction. Ryan and Weston were real troopers.
July 21. Palma de Mallorca, Spain
The whole group toured the Cuevas del Drach or Cavern of the Dragon in the morning. We left the ship at 9 and drove for about an hour to Porto Cristo and after a hurried potty break entered the cave by going down some stairs. These limestone caves are beautifully decorated by nature with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, with a few curtain formations thrown in. Access to the fully lit cavern is via well-paved sidewalks and many stairs which, fortunately, have good hand rails.
We eventually reached the end of the paved trail at a large chamber with a lake named “Diana’s Bath,” which is 95 m under ground. After a long introduction repeated in several languages the lights dimmed and some classical music began as some illuminated row boats emerged from one side of the cavern. The first boat contained an organist, violinist, and cellist. All three boats were illuminated around the gunnels and progressed slowly across in front of us and then back the other way. At the conclusion of the concert the boats disappeared from where they came and all lights were momentarily extinguished. Then individual lights came up illuminating various features. When all were illuminated we were told to go. The exit was slightly different than the way in and featured a very long stairway of at least 100 steps.
We then had a ½ hour for shopping in Porto Cristo at a cluster of souvenir stores by a small boat harbor and beach. This harbor provides some of the over 20,000 moorings on the island! Ships range in size from very small, local sail boats to private yachts that rival small cruise ships in size.
The trip over and back passed through flat, cultivated lands, populated with defunct windmills near Palma and orchards in the hills. The windmills were introduced by a Dutchman to de-water the flats. Either this ground water is no longer a problem or there is some other means of controlling the swamp for the windmills are mostly nonfunctional. There is some effort and governmental assistance to restore them. Eucalyptus trees were also introduced to draw water from the ground.
In the early afternoon Jodie and Beth tried a brief shopping foray in the near-harbor area but were completely unsuccessful. In addition they ran afoul of the harbor police for not using the proper walk-ways.
Chris and Donna, on the other hand, took the shuttle into town at 4 PM and were very successful. Perhaps their biggest coup was finding the final Harry Potter book, one each for Natalie and Nathan, in English no less!
7/22. Port Mahon, Menorca
We expected little of Menorca since it was a Sunday. After a leisurely breakfast we took the shuttle into town and set off down a random street and found several open shops. The main part of the business district is mostly winding, narrow walking streets. There was enough shopping to satisfy the ladies and enough scenery to satisfy the rest of us. On the way back to the bus terminal we stopped at a small playground to let Ryan and Weston blow off some steam.
We returned to the ship in time for lunch. After lunch we learned that Nathan had finished The Book. There was an ice cream social on the pool deck as the ship made her way out of the scenic harbor.
We left the ship at Golfe de Porto via tender to start a bus tour across the island. I didn’t envy the driver as we wound up and down and around tight curves on a narrow road. Eventually we stopped at a roadside store and after a bit of shopping walked about a half of a mile along the road. The views were outstanding but one did not want to look over the side of the road very much.
After reboarding the bus we drove on , eventually descending on the other side of the 50 mile x 100 mile island. We stopped to tour two churches, one Roman Catholic and one Greek Orthodox, located quite near to each other. What is even more unusual is that both are used on alternate Sundays by the same congregation. In the 1800s a congregation of Greeks in Turkey were seeking religious freedom. At that time Corsica was controlled by Genoa who said the Greeks could move to Corsica however they would have to become Roman Catholic and change their names, which they did. They finished the Catholic church in 1848 but found they missed the Orthodox traditions for things such as marriages, etc., so they built the Orthodox church, finishing it in 1860.
Our next stop, an hour later, was at a restaurant for a potty break which also provided an opportunity to sample the local beer which includes chestnuts as an ingredient. Chestnuts are also ground into powder or flour and used as an ingredient for bread. They must have a lot of chestnuts in Corsica. Anyway, the beer was pretty good and had no pronounced nut flavor.
After a sampling of beer what would be more appropriate than a visit to a winery. There was a brief tour then a sampling of three wines plus some very dry cheese, held outside in the hot sun. One interesting feature of the winery, bulk wine was available for those who brought their own container.
We finished our trip at Ajaccio where we found the Navigator patiently waiting for us pier-side.
7/24. St. Tropez.
The ship anchored in the bay and the passengers went in by tender through rough seas. There was a strong land breeze blowing. When we reached shore we found a harbor jammed with giant, luxurious yachts and a shore packed with people. We struggled through the narrow streets lined with shops finally reaching a so-called Farmers’ Market. Some produce was available but it was more like a flea market. It was so densely packed with shoppers that it was almost impossible to move. We eventually escaped and made our way back through the streets to the harbor.
Although the streets are quite narrow and crowded with people there were motorcycles and motor scooters speeding through seemingly oblivious of the people in the narrow street. There was also the occasional car and even a Tonka toy-like garbage truck, sized for the streets.
The seas had become quite rough upon our return to the ship, as a result of the constant 40 kt. wind. When the waves broke over the tender water ran in around the window where Jodie and I were sitting, getting our clothes wet. Eventually tender operations stopped at 1 PM and we left St. Tropez early for our next stop.
Portofino is a quaint village-like place tucked into a narrow cove but imbedded in a large metropolitan area. There are few giant luxury yachts there, primarily because there isn’t much room for more. The cove is lined with shops on one side with a very narrow walking street leading up from the bay to a small parking area. Many of the shops are designers outlets such as Hermes, Gucci, Armani.
We went ashore around 10 am and did a bit of shopping prior to our “event” at the Hotel Splendido. There was a group of 11 who had accumulated sufficient time on Regent ships to be Gold club members. Daniel Mason, the cruise consultant and Giuseppe Ginanneschi, the Hotel and Beverage manager were our hosts.
The hotel is accessed by a narrow winding street and is perched at the top of a ridge above the bay. If one wished, one could have a €3,000 per night suite here!
We had Belinis (Asti Spumonte and peach puree) on the patio plus various hors d’oeuvres. During the discussion we learned that Regent changed its name from Radisson since Radisson does not connote sufficient luxury in the hospitality industry. They would like to build another 700-passenger ship and are seeking financing. Giuseppe asked if any of us would like to help and one of the passengers said we were - by being on the trip. He replied that they needed a bit more help than that.
After lunch on board, Beth, Jodie, and Randall went back ashore. Randall was on a special mission - a 10th wedding anniversary gift. He was very successful. Beth and Jodie wanted to explore the walking path that led to the adjacent village and beach. It was a very pleasant paved and shaded walk with picturesque overviews for over half the way. It then turned hilly. Beth continued on to the beach. Jodie turned back.
7/26. Livorno, Lucca, Pisa.
We had arranged for a private tour to take us to Lucca and Pisa. We met the driver, as arranged, at 9 am dockside and boarded the spacious MB minibus. The harbor area is an ugly tangle of industrial blight. We wound around in seeming circles before eventually emerging into the flat countryside. There is extensive agricultural activity however no apparently large farms. After about an hour we reached the check point for Lucca. This is a tourist information center where rest rooms are available for €0.60 and where the bus driver must procure a permit to drop off passengers at the old city entrance. Rested and permitted we drove to the city wall and met our guide who led us to the restaurant where we would have lunch, so that we would know where it was, the then we went off to stand on the city wall which was built from 1525 to 1620.
Lucca was a mediaeval (11 century) city-state, as were most of the major towns in Italy at the time. There was continual competition (war) between these cities for dominance. After Lucca built its wall they had no further problems. The town is densely packed with buildings separated by narrow, winding streets. Originally there were many multi-storied homes however most of these have collapsed over the ages. There are occasional cleared areas, such as the location of a Roman hippodrome. All that remains is the very large oval which is now surrounded by a solid ring of stores and dwellings.
After a couple of hours of touring we cut our guide loose, shopped for an hour, then made our way to the restaurant for lunch. We had been provided a menu prior to leaving home and had made our selections. The lunch was good but a long, drawn-out affair. We finally had to terminate it to make it back to the bus for our scheduled 2:30 departure for Pisa.
When we arrived at the Pisa bus park the driver got our passes and we waited for the shuttle with a huge crowd of Indian tourists. The shuttle eventually arrived and we all crowded on board, and waited and waited for the driver to show up. It was packed, then a mob of umbrella-toting Japanese tourist arrived and crushed their way onto the shuttle. It was miserably crowded. Jodie, Beth, and Randall had to fight to keep Ryan and Weston from being crushed by the sardine-like Japanese.
When the shuttle bus finally took us to the Piazza del Duomo we found the way into the piazza was lined with souvenir shops and hordes of people. We took advantage of our fellow shuttle bus groups and followed them into the Piazza, since there were no signs indicating where it was. Once there we found the three beautiful white buildings comprising the complex. Of course, the famous tower attracted the most attention. Everyone seemed to be attempting the famous pose of supporting the tower while the police kept trying to drive the hordes off of the grass, to no lasting avail. Other than that, the mobs detracted from the whole scene. Even one side of the Piazza was lined with tacky souvenir shops. Free-lance vendors were peddling cheap junk along the walkway. All-in-all it was a tawdry experience.
We made our way back to the drop off point for the shuttle bus and had a very long wait in the hot sun until the bus finally arrived. If the shuttle ran more frequently it wouldn’t be so crowded. Our little tour bus could have just as easily dropped us off at the entrance and then gone back to the parking lot until pick-up time. It was a very short but extremely unpleasant ride. There must be a better way.
For dinner this night we celebrated Beth and Randall’s 10th wedding anniversary with a lovely cake topped by the Gumby family. During dinner all power (propulsion and electricity) on the ship failed however this wasn’t apparent in the dining room since the room is normally dimly lit anyway. We first learned of the failure when the captain announced the fact and that we were safely anchored a couple of miles out from Livorno. There was no indication as to what the problem was.
After finishing our meal we left the dining room and found a kind of party atmosphere in the ship. The bars were illuminated by lantern light. The companion ways, but not the cabins, were illuminated by the emergency generator with its own fuel supply which is on the top deck. Since food preparation had ceased with the loss of power, a bar-b-que was set up on the pool deck and the diners moved there. Noninformative announcements continued from the captain, mostly from the still-functioning public address system. Before we left the dining room he made a personal visit and attempted to communicate with us by speaking loudly.
We adjourned to the Navigator Lounge which was illuminated by lanterns and had some entertainment. Ryan and Weston thought it was a great party. Eventually we retired to our cabins and dug out our flashlights
Our cabin remained remarkably cool in spite of the lack of air conditioning. The final announcement we had from the captain was that some experts were expected during the night who would solve the problem, whatever it was. Passengers who opened their balcony doors found it was warmer outside than in. Around 2 am the electrical power and AC came back on but we remained at anchor since there was still no propulsive power.
7/27. Still at anchor.
We continued to be kept ignorant of the nature of the problem. The captain announced that they had the mysterious problem solved and that we would eventually up-anchor and drive around in circles at high speed to verify the solution then head off to Monte Carlo, perhaps at 2 pm arriving there around 9 pm. The ship staff has laid on a number of activities to keep us amused, including a wine tasting. They can’t offer free booze as a pacifier since the booze is free anyway. Some days later I encountered the captain and asked what the problem was. He said it was bad fuel and they had to run it all through some extra filters to clean it up. I don’t know if the problem was dirt or water in the fuel.
As promised, the ship ran around at high speed apparently to satisfy some authorities whom we dropped off near Livorno around 2 pm and then we set off for Monaco. The ship was alongside by 9 pm and some people went off to the casino. Our group had dinner at the Portofino Grill which was slowly served. Ours was the last group served for every course. Although the food was very tasty there was too much. Dinner was preceded by wine tasting and hors d’oeuvres. During dinner we were entertained by a solo musician who enlisted Ryan and Weston’s help with tambourines.
Jodie caused the tour desk to set up a special tour for the in-transit passengers, of which there are 40. About 20 of us took the tour to Eze and Monaco. Monaco has 30,000 residents, 80% foreign, squeezed into 482 acres. I don’t know if the foreigners are legal residents or just guests who don’t participate in the benefits of citizenship. There are 340,000 bank accounts in the 60 banks here.
Eze is a 13th century town built on top of a tall rock. It is quite picturesque with narrow winding streets and stacked buildings. Tiny shops are tucked away in little cubby holes. Access is via steep walkways and stairs. There is also a luxury hotel embedded in the town. Guests drop off their luggage at the car park and it is brought to their room by donkey. The rooms are off of the narrow walkways in the town rather than in a contiguous complex.
After walking around Eze we took the bus back to Monaco and toured around a bit then watched the changing of the guards at the palace on top of the “Rock.”
Our mini bus met us at 9 am on the pier, as arranged and we set off on the 1-hour drive to Rome from Citiavecchia. The straightforward route on toll roads gave way to narrow non-orthogonal passages the closer we were to the center of the city. The driver took us to Garibaldi Square to enjoy the views which were impacted by haze. He then dropped us off at Borghese Gardens where we spent a couple of hours wandering about enjoying gellato and the carousel and visiting the toilets.
He picked us up at 12:30 and dropped us off at Navona Square where we had lunch at a sidewalk pizza place, then shopped until 2 when he picked us up again and then picked up our guide for the afternoon. We visited the Forum, and drove by other sights which allowed us to remain in the nicely air conditioned bus. The highlight was an extensive visit to the Coliseum. Since it was Sunday the streets around the Coliseum were closed to traffic, allowing better views of the structure. Our next stop was at the Pantheon where Jodie treated Natalie to a McDonald’s hamburger. Our final stop was to view the dry Trevi Fountain - there is a drought in Italy. Then we bid good-bye to our guide and went back to the ship, arriving in time for dinner. The ship departed at 9 pm.
7/30. Sorrento - Pompeii
The ship anchored off Sorrento early in the morning. A bit after the scheduled departure time of 8:15 we boarded a tender and went to the crowded small harbor of Sorrento. The town is spread along the top of sheer cliffs along the sea. Access is only by narrow switch-backed roads. We boarded special shuttle buses which fought their way up the narrow roads against the downward traffic, often having to pause at a curve to meet traffic. The shuttle drove some distance beyond the top to a special bus parking lot where we boarded a real tourist bus.
It was about an hours drive to Pompeii through heavy traffic with motor scooters and motor cycles zooming around and cutting through traffic with mad abandon.
We spent about three hours touring a representative corner of Pompeii. This included a theater, restaurant row, a well preserved house, a brothel, the forum, and a temple.
When we returned to Sorrento the bus let us off at a shop that was providing a shuttle to the port. We entered and enjoyed a small piece of pizza after having to walk through the entire shop. The promised lemon liquor did not materialize. It was then a long wait for the shuttle to show up and another long wait for the tender to take us back to the ship. The shuttle ride was wild and a bit dangerous however not as bad as the previous shuttle that we missed. It had a head-on collision on the winding road up from the landing.
The Greek-like name of the town resulted from it being named by early Greek settlers. The spectacular and still active Mt. Etna looms over the entire area. When I awoke I looked out our balcony door and saw Etna smoking with the full Moon setting over its shoulder. In spite of the obvious danger, over 750,000 people live on the slopes of the volcano. Everywhere you look there are densely populated little villages and larger settlements.
Our group of 10 took three separate tours. Jodie and I visited Taormina and Castelmola; the Fergusons did the Mt. Etna and 4x4 ascent; Chris and family did Hidden Sicily - In the Godfather’s Footsteps. On our tour we boarded a smaller bus or large van and wound our way up to Castelmola which is on the very top of a rock, 1,300 feet high. It is a small village with tiny, winding cobble-stone streets passing between the old stone buildings. After strolling around a bit we sampled almond liquor and then waited for the van which finally arrived. Then we drove down to Taormina where we walked down the main street and then shopped. Part of the tour was to the ruins of a Greek/Roman theater that were in poor condition even for ruins in this part of the World.
8/1. Glorious day at sea
8/2. Kusadasi (Ephesus)
We spent a hot but interesting morning at Ephesus. The highlight was the Terrace Houses. These are a set of villas that have been excavated and somewhat restored and give a hint as to what it must have been like to live here. The houses are in an $11,000,000 protective enclosure.
Ephesus terrace houses are located on the slopes of Bulbul Mountain, opposite the Hadrian Temple. Also called "the houses of rich", these houses were for the important and wealthy people of Ephesus, as only rich people could afford such houses. The houses were in a form that on each terrace, two houses, one facing the street on the east and one facing the street on the west, were built. The oldest of the houses were built in the first century BC, and most of the houses were restored in the second century AD. The houses seemed plain from outside, but inside were constructed with the highest standards of their time. They were decorated with mosaics and frescoes, and they had interior courtyards (peristyle) in the center, with the ceiling open.
These houses were mostly two-storied, upper stories have collapsed during time. On the ground floor there were living and dining rooms opening to the atrium, and upstairs there were bedrooms and guest rooms. The heating system of the houses were the same as that in baths. Clay pipes beneath the floors and behind the walls carried hot air through the houses. The houses also had cold and hot water. The rooms had no windows, only illuminated with light coming from the open atrium, so that most of the rooms were dim. The excavations of the terrace houses started in 1960. The first frescoes, mosaics and other things found were taken to museums, but after that findings have been left in their original places.
All homes had running water from 5 springs that are no longer flowing and a functioning sewage removal system.
After the tour we made the mandatary visit to a rug merchant.
Santorina is much bigger than I expected. The several islands are actually the walls of a huge caldera. As we entered we saw white towns on top of islands like snow on a mountain or icing on a cake. The island we visited was large with much flat area, mostly devoted to towns which are quite dense with narrow, winding roads. Considerable area is devoted to agriculture, much to producing grapes, The winery we visited produces 750 K to 1,000,000l bottles of wine per year. We tasted a dry white, a dry red, and a sweet red. All were unexceptional - didn’t buy any.
As we entered the caldera we saw the place where a cruise ship sank earlier this year. The location was ringed with anti-pollution floats.
We went ashore in local boats. The local union prevents ships from using their own tenders. We landed one place where a tour bus picked us up and climbed the wall from the water to the plateau. The tour first went to a high place near a monastery for the view. Then we to a village with many houses built into the hillside. There were many blue-domed churches. Individuals can build their own church, usually to honor some saint or to comme rate some special event. Then visited the winery, then were dropped off for shopping. While we were on tour the ship moved to a new location. The caldera is so deep that the ship cannot anchor. Actually, there is exactly one location where a ship may anchor however it was already occupied. We took a gondola back down rather than riding donkey.
At the last minute the ship made an abbreviated tour of Athens available for departing passengers. This filled in the time until we reached the hotel. It was basically a drive around town with a few brief stops for photos. When we reached the hotel we found, as expected, that our rooms weren’t ready. We decided to have lunch while waiting. Service was extremely slow but finally we ate. Our rooms became available while we were waiting for our meals.
We checked in and then waited for the independent tour that we had booked when Regent indicated that they had no tour. Jodie stayed at the hotel with Ryan and Weston and took them swimming. The rest of us left at 3 pm to brave the heat of the afternoon. There were many repeats from the morning tour. The major exception was a visit to the Acropolis. The guide seemed to be killing time because of the heat but finally we trooped up the hill. It was hot and crowded.
When we returned to the hotel we explored the included “club” on the 8th floor, accessible only by stairs from the 9th floor. It was very nice with free, name-brand booze and good snacks. The snacks were so good that they comprised my evening meal. The rest of the bunch ventured out to a local version of McDonalds, called Hoody’s.
We ariose at 2:30 the next morning for our shuttle to the airport. The flight home with a plane change in Frankfurt, was long. The Airbus from Athens to Frankfurt had the usual expected pseudo business class section with very cramped seating. The flight from Frankfurt to LAX was on a 747 with almost fully reclining seats. We couldn’t use the business lounge at either city because of the pressures of time and the distance from the lounges to the gates.
In summary - although interesting, most of the areas we went are heavily impacted (crowded) with tourists. In addition, southern Europe is experiencing a heat wave so the air conditioned ship was greatly appreciated. The tour buses were all comfortable and the tours, for the most part, well organized and worthwhile. The Navigator, as we have come to expect, was a delightful experience.