Cruising

I started this blog with the intent of recapping adventures of the last three years before we return to our real life in the States. Only six days remain until we make the long trip across the pond. In fact, I’m writing this surrounded by luggage, boxes of items to donate, and party favors for Saturday’s farewell soirée. I won’t even come close to blogging everything I wanted to in our short time left as ex-pats, but I’ll continue once we’ve settled somewhere in the greater Washington, DC area.

And now, a post I have really been putting off writing since I’m not sure how to break it up: The Cruise.

Angie, Jen & Gary, and I had fairly low expectations for our first port call: Bari, Italy. And we were right. It’s a pretty town, but there wasn’t much to do, everything was closed since we were there on a holiday, and we knew “free” drinks awaited us back on board the ship.

Old Bari Port

Next up was Rhodes, Greece.

Rhodes, Greece

We visited the Acropolis of Lindos and St. Paul’s Bay, where it is reported the apostle landed during a storm.

me, Angie, Gary & Jen

Lindos, Greece

Gary tried a local beer at each stop on the cruise, and since I hate to see a guy drink alone, I did too.
he enjoyed a local beer at each port

Jen got a tip from our tour guide and we headed to Hatzikelis Fish Taverna for what is the best lunch I’ve ever had in my entire life, hands down. Rather than show us the menu, Vasileioi, our fantastic waiter, took us into the kitchen to show us what was fresh and ask us how we’d like it prepared.

Jen & Gary

We shared an eggplant appetizer that each of us now duplicates on our own grills many times each summer. That day, I had mussels:
my entree

Dessert was Baklava and oranges that I think were handpicked minutes before we ate them:
Baklava and fresh oranges

Cats begged (and were fed), octopus hung drying on a line above our table, we drank wine, and of course, we laughed. I’ve considered going back to Rhodes, just to eat there again. And some day, I will.

Jen, Gary, Vasileioi, me and Angie

Our next stop, thanks to an itinerary change necessitated by the Arab Spring (maybe someday we’ll visit the Pyramids?) was Ephesus, Turkey. It’s one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and is likely where the Gospel of John was written.

Odeon

Ancient Ephesus Theater

Just a short ride away was the church built on what was the Virgin Mary’s house (Photography is prohibited inside, and I didn’t take many photos outside as I was a bit overwhelmed.)
Virgin Mary's House

Back in the port city of Izmir, a Kurdish Rally was underway.

After a local brew (which I drank while I e-mailed my U2 BFFs: I am in a bar in Izmir, Turkey and they’re playing One!), we made our way through the thousands of riot police (Thousands. I am not exaggerating!) and eventually, we were safely back on board thanks to Gary’s map reading/lady herding skills. “I CAN’T SEE THE BOAT, GARY!?” Is still a catchphrase we utter when we’re confused, lost, or just trying to be funny.

Didn't want Gary to drink alone

Kurd rally

Turkish Police

Our next stop was Ahthens, Greece. I couldn’t believe we were touring the sites I studied in my high school Latin class:

The Acropolis
The Acropolis

me at the Temple of Athena
The Temple of Athena

Angie, me, Gary and Jen at the Parthenon
The Parthenon

Parthenon
The Parthenon

Tiny Angie
Angie at the Temple of Zeus

And we saw a changing of the guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Evzones changing the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Next up was Olympia, Greece where we learned all about Architecture and the Ancient Olympics from our slightly crazy tour guide.

Our crazy, hilarious and informative tour guide

Palaestra

ready to race in the Olympic Stadium
Gary and I ran the distance in the Olympic Stadium!

And finally, we made it to Dubrovnik, Croatia. Sadly, somewhere along the way I picked up a major sinus infection. So while the photos from this last stop look familiar, I don’t remember much other than feeling so bad that I cried at lunch. Sorry, travelmates!

Fort Lovrijenac, Dubrovnik
Fort Lovrijenac

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik

Angie & Gary
Angie and Gary enjoying cocktails at what is supposedly Bill Gates’ favorite bar (not pictured: my mental breakdown.)

There are so many terrible cruise stories in the news right now. Luckily, other than my (non-cruise related) illness, all I have are fantastic memories.

breakfast on our balcony
We had breakfast on our balcony every day,

some entertainers after the show
we saw a show every night,

view from cabin 9187
And we had tons of relaxing fun.

The Tourists

Like many other trip reports, this one begins with “Some friends planned a vacation, and I horned in…” But this one has a few twists.

Jen & Gary booked a Mediterranean cruise so they could visit the Egyptian pyramids. It sounded like fun to Angie and me, so we made reservations, too. We made these arrangements months before the Costa Concordia disaster, and years before the recent Carnival cruise ship ‘covered in poo floating aimlessly in the Gulf of Mexico’ debacle, yet Big D knew that cruising isn’t for him. His take on cruising: “Why don’t you just lock me in a mall for a week? UGH!” He joined us for a few days in Venice, Italy where we all explored together before we set sail.

I always feel like waiting for luggage at the airport is a crap shoot, but apparently it’s more like betting on roulette:
Luggage roulette at Marco Polo Airport

I was thrilled to maneuver our way to the Rialto Bridge for dinner the first night, and again each day we were there.
Gary & Jen
Gary & Jen

view from Rialto Bridge

Our hotel was in an adorable area. In fact, meandering through Venice feels like walking through a post card:
canal near our hotel

near our hotel

gondolas on the Grand Canal

We spent a fair amount of time in St. Mark’s Square:

Piazza San Marco
Photo credit: Angie

St. Mark's Basicila exterior

St. Mark's Basicila exterior

And I snuck some photos inside the Basilica:
Pentacost Mosaic at St. Mark's
Pentecost Mosaic

St. Mark

I loved that ancient meets modern in a few places around the city:
scultpure at the San Marco Vaporetto stop
sculpture at the San Marco Vaporetto stop

And like most trips, in addition to the architecture, what I remember the most is the food, drinks, and laughs. We had a lot of all three when we visited Harry’s Bar:
Harry's American Bar

Bellinis, delicious chicken cakes and olives
Don’t ask how much one round of Bellinis will set you back. But each comes with “free” chicken cakes and olives. It’s worth it, though!

We had our fair share of Limoncello, which brought on the usual hijinks.
Ang & me enjoying Limoncello after lunch

And Gary made a silent, breadstick plea at lunch:
Gary and his breadstick plea for help

Venetian rain: one night it’s beautiful, the next day it’s a total pain in the ass…
Calle Vallaresso

terrible weather on departure day

But eventually we made our way on board our ship, though not quite to the Pyramids. But I’ll save that for another post.

More pictures from Venice and a day on Murano are over on Flickr.

The High Seas

Who would ever imagine that an 11 day cruise with a balcony would be less expensive than a 5 day cruise without one? But it’s true! And so, I flew to Barcelona two weeks ago. Angie met me there and we set sail on the MSC Divina.

I’d never visited Barcelona before and had a great time wandering La Rambla at Christmas:
Christmastime in Barcelona

This marked our third cruise together, and some things never change:
at the safety briefing
Safety first!

Our first full day on board was spent at sea and I did not feel well at all. It was probably for the best since it kept me halfway sober the next night: New Year’s Eve. We sailed into Funchal, Portugal just in time for what the Guinness Book declares the World’s Largest Firework Display:
Funchal, Portugal

New Year's Eve in Funchal, Portugal

We took a self guided tour the next day and enjoyed exploring the island of Madeira, including a visit to the town of Câmara De Lobos where I had limpets for lunch, without knowing exactly what I ordered. Turns out they are sea snails and I loved them.
Câmara De Lobos

my lunch in Câmara De Lobos, Portugal

I spent some quality time on deck while the ship left port:
Funchal, Portugal

The next day we toured the island of Tenerife, Spain:
Tenerife, Spain

Tenerife, Spain
That tiny speck in the water at the lower left is a woman surfing.

La Laguna, Spain

And after another relaxing day at sea, we arrived in Casablanca, Morocco where we hired a taxi cab tour guide. (The process was stressful – there is so much competition the police literally separate the drivers from the tourists at the gate of the port!) Our guide drove us to a few stops including the Grand Mosquée Hassan II. We missed out on touring the interior, but it was impressive enough from outside:
Grand Mosquée Hassan II

me at Grand Mosquée Hassan II

Angie at Grand Mosquée Hassan II

Next, we found our way to Rick’s Cafe (sure, it’s not the actual site where Casablanca was filmed, but lunch was delicious and the whole experience was great!)
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Rick's Cafe

Rick's Cafe

We bought a lot of things from the gift nook, including a book about the development of the building and its furnishings – I’m anxious to read it and learn the whole story.

After lunch we shopped at both the old and new Medinas:
Old Medina of Casablanca

Old Medina of Casablanca

The next afternoon we arrived in Malaga, Spain where we shopped, ate lunch, and sadly – we left just before their Feast of the Kings Festival kicked off.
Malaga, Spain

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ready for the parade
We hated leaving while preparations for what promised to be a great parade were underway!

After another day at sea (or as we dubbed it: “A day off”) we spent a few whirlwind hours in Rome, Italy. We crammed as much as possible into short day!
Saint Peter's Square
Saint Peter’s Square

Piazza del Popolo
Piazza del Popolo

Fendi
Window shopping near the Spanish Steps

me & Angie at the Trevi Fountain
Quick visit to the Trevi Fountain

Colosseum
A Colosseum drive-by (photo snapped from the backseat of a taxi)

Saint Peter's Square
We returned to Saint Peter’s to meet our ride back to the ship.

The next day we wandered the winding streets of Genoa, Italy:
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Piazza de Ferrari

lunch in Genoa, Italy
Our lack of Italian skills and the quirky menu made ordering lunch difficult, but it was particularly tasty!

San Matteo
Church of Saint Matthew

leaving Genoa
We packed our bags while we left Genoa’s port.

We disembarked, checked into our hotel, napped, and were ready to tour Barcelona the next day.
Parc de la Ciutadella
Parc de la Ciutadella

Chris and Alissa
We ran into some of our table mates from the cruise while we biked through the park.

 Sagrada Família
Circling the exterior of the Sagrada Família was enough to make me plan a return to Barcelona.

Casa Batlló Rooftop
I’m so glad Angie suggested topping off our day with a visit to Gaudi’s Casa Batlló!

Casa Batlló Rooftop
Touring spectacular architecture while listening to Dali’s opinions of the building on the audio guide is something I’ll never forget.

me & Angie on the Casa Batlló Rooftop

Equally as fantastic as touring sights in so many wonderful cities was spending quality time with Angie. It’s impossible to fit all of the wacky things we shared during our trip into this post (After all, thanks to our package, we did our very best to try one of every item offered on the ship’s drink menu…) We each won a trivia contest, danced at Grease night in the ship’s Galaxy Lounge, met fascinating new friends from Argentina, gambled the hours away at electronic roulette (and won!), and so much more…

Here’s a kiss we blew to Big D. I think this photo captures the essence of our time together – Fun!
Smooch for Big D

Tons of other photos from our cruise are posted on Flickr. Ahoy!

Bella and Bruno take Milan

I often joke that Cheryl hired me as her assistant and then immediately quit her job. It’s only kind of true, but the cool part is that we became good friends rather than just having an employee/boss relationship. Our place at the beach is just a few miles from hers. Together, we’ve ridden bikes all over the place, enjoyed lots of live music, welcomed full moons with beach picnics, and so much more. Big D and I were regular Jacksonville Jaguars tailgaters with her husband Dave and his fun gang for a couple of seasons.

I was thrilled when Cheryl e-malied to say she’d be in Europe for a conference and Dave would join her for a vacation at its conclusion. We met in Milan last weekend and had a great time.

It’s sad that I am occasionally unimpressed by churches and cathedrals since we’ve been here two years and have visited so many. But the Duomo was unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s 525 x 300 feet, has more than 2,000 statues inside and was built to hold 40,000 people. It’s understandable that it took more almost 500 years to construct!

Still here. Can't stop looking at it.

After lunch and touring the interior (there’s a red light up high that indicates a spot where a nail from the cross of Jesus is kept), we paid to ride the tiny elevator to the roof, where I expected to walk around the perimeter. Curiously, tourists can explore almost the entire roof, not just the edges. We joked about being “above the church.”

The detail on every square inch of the building is amazing. And for scale, note the crowd of people on the lower left of this photo:

Duomo di Milano

me, Dave & Cheryl

Duomo di Milano

All of that touring was exhausting. We stopped for refreshments. Often.

small afternoon drink

The Piazza is Milan’s main square and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is a four story glass arcade at one of its sides. We visited a Bar Zucca, which was a hangout for opera composer Giuseppe Verdi and conductor Arturo Toscanini. My dad would have loved that I had a drink there.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Bar Zucca is the birthplace of Campari, and Zucca is their signature drink. Who would ever imagine that I finally found a drink that I do. not. like. Not one single bit. They were pretty, but awful. Neither Dave nor I could finish and we moved to wine pretty quickly.

Zucca

After all of those drinks, we found the mosaic on the floor featuring Milan’s city symbol: the bull. For good luck, we followed local tradition and spun around on his testicles. Yep, you read that right. Sadly, my videos of our spins were taken sideways and I can’t figure out how to rotate them. But it was funny, you’ll just have to trust me.

Saturday morning we explored the Fiera de Sinigallia flea market in the rain. I wish I’d snapped some photos, but with my umbrella in one hand and purchases in the other… Cheryl bought fun gifts for folks back home and I bought some sweaters. Dave got a much needed, fancy umbrella.

Our hotel was near the Centrale Train Station and we became expert metro riders. The station was beautiful, and like tons of things in Europe, it’s covered with scaffolding which really screwed up photo opportunities.

Milano Centrale

We were heading to the city center for a bus tour and to hit a museum but were distracted by a delicious caprese salad, more wine and a trip to Peck Gourmet Deli.

Peck has a lunchroom, pastry and gelato shops upstairs, a gourmet grocery on the main level, and an enoteca wine cellar in the basement. We had some wine (of course) and did a lot of shopping. We may or may not have been (okay, we were) there four hours! There was so much to see, taste, and buy! I’m not sure we ever figured out their confusing system of selecting items at each counter and leaving them there, paying for them separately, and then going around to retrieve them, but I am pretty sure I couldn’t have carried one more thing in my luggage. So if I left something behind, it’s all good. Someday when we open those bottles of wine wine, fancy capers, or pasta sauce (and lots of other stuff I brought home) I’ll smile and think about our fun-filled day.

Peck

$52 a pound

We rounded out our adventures together with dinner at a restaurant walking distance from our hotel where we had excellent pizza. And perhaps my favorite part of the trip was chatting in Dave & Cheryl’s room late at night.

They headed to the airport early Sunday morning and I found my way to Santa Maria delle Grazie – the Holy Mother of Grace church, where I waited for my 9:45 appointment with Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. (Photography is not permitted inside.)

Waiting to see The Last Supper.

After passing through a series of air locks, we arrived in a big, vacant (except for about 10 benches) whitewashed room. I’m glad I did a little art history homework before the trip, and I paid €3 for an audio guide which explained a lot. I expected the experience to be similar to touring the Sistine Chapel, but thankfully, it was quite different. To minimize the humidity problem, only 25 tourists enter at a time, for exactly 15 minutes. So, it was far from crowded. Everyone was respectful – I don’t think I even heard anybody whisper. People took seats on the benches and without speaking, somehow everyone filtered from their seat to the front a few at a time, so we each had a chance to ponder its magnificence with nothing else in our view but the fresco itself.

I was overwhelmed to be in the presence of something so… historical? important? beautiful? I don’t know how to describe it. But, yes, similar a lot of expereinces  (the aforementioned chapel, the coliseum, my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, etc.) you guessed it: I cried. Things like this seem so big to me and make me feel so small. Which seems somehow right.

Okay! Enough pondering!

I spent the rest of the day wandering around the Piazza. I had lunch atop the seven story La Rinascente department store, on Ristorante Maio’s terrace, which had fantastic views of the Duomo. On my way out, I spotted a swanky mozzarella bar and wished I’d eaten there, but my lunch was great despite the fact I don’t like dining alone.

Pumpkin risotto with prawns.

I wandered through the stores, including the Gap (because, hello! a bit of ‘home’!) and Louis Vuitton. And I intended to visit the oldest museum in Milan which has a very impressive collection, but it was sunny and in the 70°s and I didn’t want to be inside. Instead I walked to the Sforza Castle, which looked great, but I ran out of energy before I toured it. Maybe I’ll go back?

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I still can’t believe I get to have adventures like this.  And I would have never guessed that I’d be lucky enough to have them with good friends like Cheryl & Dave. More pictures from Milan are on my Flickr page.

Grazie per un grande momento, a Milano!

Fruit, veggies, cheese, flowers, and more

We have a lot of favorite things about Europe and near the top of that list: shopping at seemingly endless markets.

Last spring, Jen and I trekked to Alkmaar, Netherlands for a special cheese market which was a ton of fun:
Alkmaar Cheese Market

Alkmaar Cheese Market

Big D and I did not buy any of these at the Flower Market in Amsterdam:
no, we didn't buy any

The Pescheria, Venice’s Fish Market, was fascinating (and a little stinky!)
Pescheria

But my favorite is a a trip to Wiesbaden’s market, which makes any Wednesday or Saturday seem special.
Wiesbaden market

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There’s something for everyone:
thirsty?

Stay tuned for Christmas Markets – they’ll get a post of their own! More market pictures are posted on Flickr.