Monday, 31 December 2012

Waterfalls 2, Northern Lights 0

Awoke to a very windy morning, still pitch black, and got suited up for the short walk to the main house for breakfast. Quite a spread, with smoked and pickled fish, two types of home-made bread – one cooked in the steam from the hot springs – and one unmissable novelty, the chance to boil an egg in the hot springs using a contraption like a fishing rod with a net on the end. Naturally Alex did so!

We left shortly after it got light – at around 10.30. We set out on the itinerary prepared for us by the travel agent, but got distracted by what looked like a small volcano beside the road, with a cluster of white crosses at its base. Alex was determined to climb up – it was quite steep and near the top the wind became so strong that we really couldn’t stand, so we slipped and slithered back down across a mixture of ice and gravel. Later we found that the crosses commemorated those killed on the road between Reykjavik and Selfoss.
Our next stop was Seljalandsfoss, a dramatic waterfall which in summertime you can walk behind - although this is impossible with ice on the ground. The steps leading to the path were covered in icicles, a really dramatic sight. We spent some time here, enjoying the views, eating last night’s pizza for lunch and – in Alex’s case – sliding down the slopes on a mini-toboggan we had brought with us. Worth also mentioning the toilets here – picturesque wooden huts with heaters, very luxurious!

We drove a little further along the road, where there were further waterfalls, and then turned back onto route 1 for a visit to Seljavallalaug – a hot spring-fed natural swimming pool supposed to be very picturesque. Here the effects of the 2010 volcanic eruption were clear to see – the ground was covered with black cinder and the last section of the road was blocked off. It was so windy that we were pebbledashed by the cinder when we opened the car windows, so we decided to move on after admiring the dramatic scenery.
Continuing east, we headed for Skógarfoss, the last in a series of 20 waterfalls and considered to be one of Iceland’s finest. It was so windy here that Alex could hardly stand up and when he stood on frozen puddles the wind pushed him along the ice. The waterfall was dramatic, though, and a rainbow hovered above it. We were able to get quite close by walking on the frozen mud at the edge of the river, where we could feel the icy spray.

Our next destination was Dyrhólaey, a rocky promontory which we reached by a causeway. From here we had a great view of the setting sun, behind a rock arch, on one side and on the other a black beach alongside an inlet. It was beginning to get dark as we pressed on to Reynisfjara, a dramatic black beach with stacks of basalt columns. Alex enjoyed skimming stones here, and we almost missed the cave around the headland where the bottom of the basalt stacks formed the ceiling.
Although it was almost dark, we continued to Vik in the hope of finding somewhere to buy a drink – we had seen no cafes or filling stations all day so we had nothing to drink since breakfast. It was before 5pm when we reached Vik but everything was closed. We used the autopay to top up the tank with diesel and then headed back to our hotel, close to the first waterfall of the morning.

When we got out of the car at Hotel Anna it was all we could do to close the boot against the wind. The hotel is homely and old-fashioned and our room is right off the reception area. Exploring, we find that Anna was a real person who, despite humble beginnings on a farm nearby and only 4 years of education, travelled the world and wrote several books. There are jars on a shelf containing ash from the eruption in 2010.
The menu for dinner is typical for Iceland but alien to us – the meat options were lamb, horse or whale! Alex enjoys the horse, as well as the inevitable jokes about being able to eat one. The main topic of conversation is the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights – it’s a clear night, which bodes well, but the forecast for auroral activity is very low. The chances of Aurora tomorrow are much higher, but the forecast is for heavy cloud.

At least, we go outside a couple of times and look at the sky just in case. The stars are beautiful and the moon is bright, but no Aurora. Still, with so much to see they’re not essential – just the icing on an already delicious cake. In between we keep up with new year's celebrations around the world on BBC World.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Extreme bathing 3, Northern Lights 0

Wow! Wow Air is the first airline I've flown with where the safety announcement gets a round of applause. The quirky humour is refreshing. The flight passes quickly and Alex is the first to spot land. First impressions: a black and white land bathed in an eerie milky light.

The airport is small but modern and Alex is impressed by the architecture. By the time we've claimed our bags he's already asking if he can move there. We change money, pick up our car keys and venture outside. The wind is icy and frozen snow crunches underfoot. The Satnav takes us to the Blue Lagoon where we change into our bathing kits and go in search of our first Icelandic experience.

I was wondering how to get into the water without getting frostbite, but they've cunningly made the pool dip inside the building so you can enter the water without going outside. The water is naturally heated but the pool isn't natural, it was built to take the water from the geothermal power station just over the hill. It's still a pretty cool experience luxuriating in the warm water while steam rises into the chilly air above. The black volcanic rock surrounding it has a generous coat of frozen snow. There are pots of the mineral mud that gives the water its claimed beneficial properties, so Alex and I enjoy a face mask, much to Simon's amusement. Later the joke's on me, when I get back to the changing room and realise my face is covered in blotches.

It's dark when we leave and the roads are quite treacherous, but we make it to the Frost and Fire guest house at Hveragerdi without incident. Our room is perfect - spacious and cosy with a mineral pool right outside; there's also a hot tub by the river.

The only eating place open is a pizza and burger bar, but the pizzas are excellent. We order far too much and take half away with us. Alex and I brave the freezing wind and sample both pools, although I draw the line at the natural steam room - it smells too strongly of sulphur. The sky clears somewhat but there's no sign of the Aurora. We're in bed by 11.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


Without doubt, Venice is one of the most spectacular cities at which to arrive by ship. Just after lunch, all the passengers gather on the upper decks to watch as we sail along the Giudecca Canal and pass by St Mark’s square, the Doge’s Palace and all the iconic landmarks. There’s a bit of competition for rail space, so I run down two floors to our cabin where the view from the balcony is just as good and I don’t have to defend my space. We will be overnight here and our flight leaves late tomorrow evening, so we have pretty much a full day and half to explore. But first we have some specifics to research as we’ll be leaving Norwegian Spirit tomorrow morning at 8.45 and have to make our own arrangements from there.

It turns out to be remarkably easy to reach Piazzale Roma on the people mover – a monorail that carries us above the streets and canals for 1 Euro. Once we get there, we easily find the Deposito Bagagli where we can leave our luggage and the ticket office for the airport shuttle is a few doors down from there. We buy the shuttle tickets – one thing less to think about tomorrow – and move on to the vaporetto kiosk. The vaporetto is Venice’s river bus service, and we find we can buy a ticket for 20 Euros that gives us as many trips as we like within 24 hours from the start of the first one.

Suitably prepared for tomorrow, we set off to explore Venice on foot. We’re heading roughly in the direction of St Mark’s Square, via Rialto Bridge but we don’t bother with the map, just let our instinct take us until we are close enough for the signs to lead us. When we were in Piazzale de Roma, Alex had declared himself disappointed with Venice which had more cars and less water than he had been expecting. Not surprising, as it is where the bus terminus and car parks are located. But within minutes of leaving it behind and entering the labyrinth of canals he was totally captivated. By the time we stopped for a drink at a canal-side bar, he’d decided he was moving there.

I know how he feels – I know I’m supposed to be jaded about Venice: everyone says it’s smelly, it’s too crowded and the locals rip you off, etc. But I can’t help but love it. I take far too many photos and before we reach St Mark’s square I’ve exhausted my camera battery. We meander round the streets and over the bridges, darting off to explore interesting-looking alleys or to climb bridges purely to appreciate the view from the top. On the way Alex gets a gelato and I find a lovely Murano glass jewellery shop that will need a return visit tomorrow.
It’s dusk when we board the vaporetto and set off back to the ship. It crosses to the island of Giudecca before following the route the Spirit took earlier in the day. Alex assures us that he knows which stop to get off but he overshoots and we end up back at Piazzale Roma and have to take the people carrier again.

Alex has arranged to have dinner with his friends in Raffles so it’s just Simon and me again for dinner. My fish arrives on what looks like rice pudding with a heap of whole olives beside it; once I taste it I find the risotto is perfectly cooked but the idiosyncratic presentation lets it down. Simon and I are reminded of the couple we watched dancing last night – step-perfect but with no emotion. My dessert tastes so uninteresting that I only eat one forkful; the waiter offers to bring me a fruit plate instead. It feels as if the food has deteriorated during the cruise – maybe they’re running out of ingredients! – or perhaps it’s that we have become more jaded as the Spirit’s shortcomings have slowly revealed themselves. It’s not that we haven’t enjoyed ourselves – we have had a fantastic time - but it seems to be despite the ship, not because of her.
We return to the cabin to finish packing and our cases disappear within minutes of being placed outside our door. Alex goes out, first to swim with his friends and then to meet them again in Galaxy of the Stars (yes, its real name!) to say final goodbyes. It’s around midnight when we get to bed and it seems odd to be sleeping on a stationary ship.

We’re up at 7, at breakfast by 8 and in the queue before they call our colour (purple) to disembark. Yesterday’s research pays dividends as we make straight for the people mover, then to the Depositivo Bagigli and onto the vaporetto. It takes us almost the whole length of the Grand Canal and again I take far too many photos. It’s still before 10 when we reach St Mark’s Square but it’s already mobbed and there’s a large queue waiting to go into the cathedral. We’ve decided to give interiors a miss and just soak up the scenery. Simon navigates us around a walking tour from Rialto Bridge and we stop in the middle to have a drink at a café I noticed from the vaporetto close to the bridge. After we’ve completed Simon’s itinerary we hop back on a vaporetto back to the St Mark’s stop and walk along to see the Bridge of Sighs.
Alex has found a restaurant for lunch, recommended in a Tripadvisor guide, but before that he is determined to have a pigeon eat out of his hand. We tempt them with cereal bar and get the shot Alex wants but then we spot a blue and green pigeon and now there’s a new mission to entice that one. He’s not convinced so we have to give up. And, anyway, we just got told off by the pigeon police. It’s amazing how quickly the streets become less busy once you leave the tourist hot-spots. We find the restaurant – the Rosa Rosso – easily despite a diversion due to building work and it is just gone 1 when we reach it. We take their last outside tab le and enjoy pizza while watching the workmen operate a complicated human chain to get wheelbarrows full of cement from one place to another.

There’s a great deal of renovation work going on here; building seems to be a stable profession in Venice. I had seen some interesting-looking shops on the walk here so I leave the boys to finish their drinks and go back to check them out. The silver shop is just too intimidating: it has lovely pieces but they are all behind glass and the prices aren’t visible. The mask shop turns out to be a theatrical mask maker, manufacturing on the premises despite having his arm in a sling. As I look around a journalist comes in and asks if she can write a piece about it. The masks and costume shops are an essential part of Venice’s appeal; it’s easy to imagine the glamour and decadence of its masked balls.
After collecting the boys, we work our way back to the jewellery shop I found yesterday – this time crossing the Grand Canal by gondola taxi. Simon has a beer in a nearby bar while Alex and I shop. It’s been difficult to buy things on this trip, as we haven’t wanted to waste time shopping in a tightly packed itinerary and most of the shops and stalls we do find sell only “tourist tat”. I spend more than I should on an original handmade necklace containing all three kinds of Murano glass and the proprietor makes me a bracelet and earrings to match and then gives Alex all he needs to make me another pair of earrings.

Back on the vaporetto, we head towards the north, to visit the Jewish ghetto. The jews inhabited their own island, gated and with a curfew and there is still a jewish community there although of course they are now free to come and go as they please. It has quite a different feel to the parts of the city we have seen so far and the jewish influence is still very apparent including a kosher wine bar and restaurants. A rabbi obligingly emerges from the gate and into my photo as we approach.
It’s towards the end of the afternoon so we begin to work our way back to Piazzale Roma. The sun is setting and the light is quite different to the middle of the day. We’ve been fortunate to be able to see the city at all times of the day and to appreciate the difference in its atmosphere. I especially enjoy the way the light plays on the water of the canals at dusk.

We have a couple of hours before we need to take the airport shuttle, so we sit in outside a bar between two canals and have a drink, then stroll along another undiscovered stretch of canal into what is clearly a less prosperous part of the city. Unlike many of the canals in the centre of Venice, these have wide pavements and create a much more spacious feel. I watch a woman drag her heavy shopping trolley up the steps onto a bridge and acknowledge that this must often be a challenging place to live. But for all that, I agree with Alex – I’d jump at the chance to live here for a while, too.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012


Piraeus is our penultimate port; after today we have a sea day before arriving in Venice for an overnight stop. We have booked a transfer to Athens for independent sightseeing and we're dropped by the Temple of Zeus. We decide to see that when we return for the pick-up and Simon navigates us to the Acropolis.

We approach via the theatres, one small and in poor repair bur with stone seats complete with backrests, the other large and intact and clearly still in use. It's a long, hot climb to the top and the higher we get the more people we encounter as the routes converge.

For me, the Parthenon is a big disappointment; it's too crowded and the restoration is too intrusive. Inside the Parthenon there's a crane and a two-storey portakabin. it's also incredibly hot and Alex complains incessantly - at least until we bump anto his friends Ander and Julen when he perks up.

Much more appealing is the Agora which we can see over the walls. It looks cool and shady with plenty of trees, unlike this arid hilltop, so that's where we head next. The buildings aren't well-preserved, mostly the foundations alone remain, apart from a picturesque early mosque and an intact temple on top of a hill. There are fewer people here and the olive trees provide welcome shade. Our tickets cover multiple sites so they're pretty good value at €12 each. Our final stop before lunch is Hadrian's library but by now Alex has had enough and sits in the shade while Simon and I look around. It doesn't take us long; we're less vocal about it but we're more than ready for a sit down and a drink.

We're in the tourist-oriented Plaka district and the restaurants are trying hard to entice customers with the kind of front of house staff that have the opposite effect on me, but we select one that has a blackboard outside in Greek rather than English and hope for the best. It turns out to be a good choice and we enjoy a meze plate and Greek salad and some cold drinks. The service is a tad leisurely for people on a schedule but the bill is accompanied by a slushie for Alex and shots for us and seems reasonable at €52 for much more food than we could eat and several drinks.

Simon navigates through the narrow streets of the old city and I feel like we're in Mykonos again. I had not seen this side of Athens on previous trips and I prefer it. We encounter more ruins on the way but don't have time to go in. We reach the Temple of Zeus at 2.50 to find it closes at 3 and last entry was 5 minutes ago. Oh well. We've had our fill of ruins by now and we have a pretty good view through the railings. Alex buys a couple of weird balls from a street vendor that flaten when they land and then coalesce again, and we head for the pick-up point.

Back on board we all swim then Simon and I sunbathe while Alex swims with his friends. He wants to eat with them in the buffet tonight so Simon and I have a date. We explore the options for a pre-dinner drink but our favourte bar, Maharini's  has been taken over by a scheduled gathering of Dorothy's friends and we don't fancy the sports bar or the 'English pub' so we go to Champagne Charlie's. 

We manage to get a window seat in the Garden restaurant but the food's not great; Simon's  chicken comes with cheese-filled tortellini and cubes of undercooked vegetables. To be honest, the food hasn't been the best, but the itinerary has more than made up for it.

Monday, 3 September 2012


I wake early this morning. We've all been battling a cold and the boys are a few vdays behind me so I let them sleep. In a sudden fit of enthusiasm I go to the Fab Abs class and then grab a coffee and take teas to the boys. They are still asleep. It's pretty windy on deck but still warm so I stay there until they materialise. Our trip to Ephesus meets at 1.15 and we're all out of sync for meals. There's a barbeque on the pool deck so I grab a bite there then have a quick swim with Alex while Simon goes to the buffet.

It takes just over an hour to reach Ephesus. It's very busy with many tour groups and most of them seem determined to photograph each other in front of every monument. That's in direct conflict with my policy of keeping people out of my shots as much as possible! The most impressive parts of Ephesus are the library and the amphitheatre, although the communal toilets also prove popular. We're told how the Romans used sponges to clean themselves, dipped in the water that ran along a channel below the seats. Alex observed that you would want to be at the beginning of the flow since everybody else would be washing their dirty sponges in it.

Ephesus was an enormous city - population estimated at 250k based on the capacity of the theatre - and we're only able to visit the most prominent parts. Leaving the site we run the gauntlet of shopkeepers trying to attract our custom but Alex and I can't resist buying some figs which are enormous and fabulously juicy.

 Our guide, Bert, gives us a lot of information, not just abiut the site but also modern Turkey. On the way back to the ship we have the inevitable stop at a leather shop, but I would much rather have stayed at Ephesus longer. As it is, we only just make it back by last boarding time.

We watch from our balcony as the last passengers arrive back, apparently from tours that have been held up. Izmir - ancient Smyrna - is Turkey's 3rd city with 4M people and one of Europe's largest commercial ports so it's not surprising the port area gets congested!

Alex has returned with a migraine and we realise that despite nagging from both Simon and me he forgot to have lunch so I grab him a plate from the buffet and some painkillers. We're late getting ready for dinner and there's a queue at the Garden Room so we eat at Windows. Alex's friends and their parents are a couple of tables away, right by the windows. It would be a great spot to spend our last evening in Venice; I decide to try and book it.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Return to Istanbul

Today we are at large in Istanbul, showing Alex the city Simon and I got to know rather better than expected thanks to the unpronounceable volcano in 2010. We've also arranged to meet Nefise for lunch. So we're up bright and early and even manage a formal breakfast in Windows befre Spirit docks at 9am. We're among the first ashore and make a beeline for the taxi rank but the driver quotes us a fixed price in Euros so we move on to the next rank. Here the driver agrees to use the meter but once we're in the car goes back on his word. Frustrated, we pile out of the car and head for the tram station.

It feels odd to be in a place that is both so exotic and yet familiar. We enjoy pointing out the landmarks to Alex as we trundle towards Sultanhameht; both the famous places and the ones that bcame significant to us. Once off the tram we walk briskly towards Topkapi Palace to beat the tour groups; a not entirely successful strategy as it's much busier than we remember.

We show Alex the palace, including the harem and the treasury that we nicknamed the Museum of Bling. He's particularly taken by the enormous diamond which, legend has it, was found on a rubbish dump and exchanged for 3 spoons by a street pedlar. By the time we finish there it's almost 12, so we head to the Hippodrome to meet Nefise.

We've decided to eat at the Grup restaurant where we and the Walters met every night for dinner after we got stuck. Nefise has brought a friend called Cihan who speaks excellent English. We have a most enjoyable lunch but are rather taken aback when Nefise and Cihan insist on paying - they are most insistent so we concede, but agree later to send a gift from England to say thankyou. They insist on walking us to the Blue Mosque - where Cihan explains that the chains draped under the entrance were to fordce the Sultan to bow as he entered - and we insist that they both let us return their hospitality in the future.
There is a massive queue for the infidel entrance to the mosque, so we settle for a stroll round the courtyard and move on to the cistern, stopping en route for a photo of Alex next to the sunken pillar that was our meeting point on our previous visit. There's a queue but it moves quickly and we're soon inside. Alex is fascinated by the fish, some of which are enormous. We work our way over to the back corner to see the two Medusa heads and speculate about how they came to be here; we agree that they and all the other columns were salvaged from other buildings.

We pass along the street behind Aghia Sophia to admire the traditional wooden houses, then take Alex to see the two hotels we stayed in before and visit the parrot from the Safir, who has moved to another hotel. He looks significantly more motheaten than I remember. Next stop is the New Mosque which is crowded but apparently more with Turks than tourists. A boy is dressed like a prince for his circumcision, playing happily with his sister, either oblivious to or resigned to the ordeal in store. The spice market behind is our next stop and Alex is captivated by the colours and aromas. Finally we go round he corner to the horticultural section which also includes baby rabbits, chicks and leeches.

We catch the tram back across the Galata bridge and return to the ship. As usual, the call goes out for latecomers to identify themselves. At our departure time the gangway has been stowed but one passenger is apparently still absent. Half an hour later we're still dockside, although it's unclear whether weare waiting for him or a gap in the traffic - it's a ridiculously busy waterway.
This is a port where our balcony really pays off: our view is of the two principal mosques and Topkapi Palace. We enjoy some marvellous views as we sail away and turn towards Asia. Later at dinner, Alex hails this as one of his standout days. Mine, too.

Saturday, 1 September 2012


It was decidedly rougher during the night and when we arrive at Mykonos the wind is still strong and the sun hasn't made it over the headland. Our cabin is portside so we are able to watch the ship manouevre into place.  We are exploring independently today so we disembark as soon as we are able and take the shuttle bus to the capital, imaginatively named Chora (greek for town). This being a party island most peple are still asleep and we work our way through the quiet streets towards the bus stop. We take a fairly circuitous route that takes in the iconic windmills and some of the bars at little venice.

The town was supposedly designed to confuse pirates and consists of narow streets that twist haphazardly but that doesn't deter the  scooters and quad bikes. It's wonderfully picturesque with whitewashed houses,blue shutters and pink bougainvillea. The two bus stops are right on the edge of town a the buses would never make it further.

The bus we plan to take to Ornos beach doesn't leave for another 50 minutes so we explore the area and find a sweet little beach. It has two tavernas and a handful of holiday apartments but nothing is open yet. A family of ducks doze under a bush. We consider staying here but decide to stick to our plan and return to catch the 9.30 bus. It takes only 10 minutes to reach the beach which is at one of the narrowest points of the island.

Alex is initially disappointed as it is full of sunbeds and umbrellas but we head for the far end where the sand is clear. Simon and I sit down on the chairs nearest the water's edge and Alex heads straight for the sea. He soon tempts me in but every time I stop moving fish nibble my legs, which I find a bit disconcerting.

We have to leave on the 11.40 bus as we have to be back on board by 1.30, but it gives us the chance to walk back through the town when the island is awake and the shops and bars are open. It's all very stylish and a long way from the greek islands I remember visiting years ago.  By the time we retur to the ship the wind has dropped somewhat, but it's still too windy to use the sundeck. A good opportunity for a leisurely lunch in windows.

Since we're on board I give the bingo a try. I have a free card that was dropped off at our cabin. I'm not tempted by the paid games as they are horribly expensive. But it means I vsit a new venue where I find a pool table (which we'll save for calmer waters!) and a viewing window to the bridge.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

A tale of two cities

We arrive in Naples to find its picturesque dockside buildings right outside our balcony and what looks like a castle at the end of the dock. We visit Pompeii this morning - a long-held ambition of mine so I'm very excited.  We're greeted on our coach by our guide Giancarlo, an archaeologist with a really strong Italian accent which takes a while to get used to.  He explains the history as we drive and hands out radio receivers with earpieces that enable us to hear his commentary on-site even when we'e not nearby. I think this is an excellent idea.

We've told Alex this is a school day, one of the two he's going to miss at the start of term. With Giancarlo it should be pretty educational. As it turned out, Alex got more education than we bargained for! Because it was buried under volcanic ash the site is really well preserved, especially the streets with stepping stones for pedestrians to cross and ruts caused by the chariot wheels. Some of the buildings still have their second storey and the shops have counters topped with marble. We visit the baths, which are similar to those we have seen elsewhere, and then a rich merchant's house.

The big revelation is the brothel, where explicit murals depict the various delights on offer as well as the god Priapus with three penises and an amusing sign below warning "no flash". Alex was fairly nonplussed, but we've suggested he tells Mr Cooper that he now knows the Latin word for brothel: luparium, because the 'ladies' would howl from the windows like she-wolves to attract their clients.

The final part of the tour takes us to the agora, where temples were erected on each side to different deities. Vesuvius towers over all as if to remind us that only nature is all-powerful. I have thoroughly enjoyed Pompeii, and even found he obligatory vist to a handicraft factory interesting; I hadn't realised that cameos were made by carving a shell so that the lighter upper layer formed the image.

We grab a quick lunch back on board before heading out on foot to explore Naples. What a contrast: one city I couldn't wait to visit and another I couldn't wait to leave. It begins well enough, with a stroll along the waterfront and through a park (although there were hobos snoozing under the trees). There were some imposing buildings towering above what may have been the old city wall, with tall shuttered windows and an air of faded elegance. But the map indicated that the historic part was just inland so we turned back and found ourselves in a scene of post-apocalyptic urban dystopia.

The large square should have been impressive, flanked by a palace, a church, a museum and a colonnaded crescent. But instead it was derelict and covered in graffiti. The contrast with Florence could not have been more dramatic; one city proud and confident, the other totally bereft of civic pride. A lone soldier stood on guard, although I can't imagine what he was there to defend.

We persevered with our exploration, leaving the derelict square for the commercial centre. Even the supposedly upmarket shopping galleria - a dramatic building with vaulted glass roofs - was almost deserted apart from police officers. We never did find out whether the shops were closed for economic reasons or whether it hapened to be a festival.

We stopped briefly for a cold drink and then attempted to visit the castle, That turned out to be a museum and had been set up to host a comedy festival that night. We decided not to go inside as we were not sufficiently motivated by that point. We couldn't wait to get back on the ship. But at least one passenger was less reluctant to leave. He arrived with a screech of tyres in what looked like the harbourmaster's car 5 minutes after we were supposed to sail and got applauded by the other passengers.

Naples had one last surprise in store for us. As we sailed away, we had a fabulous view of the moon rising over Vesuvius.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Not going to Rome

We had decided not to go to Rome; it's a couple hours drive and we visited on our last cruise. Civitaveccia has history of its own and so we grab a map and take the shuttle bus out of the port. The bus drops us by an interesting-looking fort but it turns out not to be visitable. So we set off to see what else we can find. We take the stairs up to the town and find a church which offers welcome shade - it's another scorcher.

We decide to go in search of a historic building called the Rocca but the map is not much help. We did find an information office just inside the port but it looked abandoned;  I don't think Civataveccia expects to be visited.We stop to buy Alex some flip flops and ask for directions, but the woman's English is as good as our Italian. Setting off in the direction we think we were told to go we end up at what apprears to be the prison. A helpful local directs us towards the port, clearly convinced that we wouldn't be heading anywhere else.

We continue looking and find some likely-looking ancient walls near the marina. Across the road is what's left of the Rocca. The city was heavily bombed in WW2 although we're not sure if that was by the Germans, British or both. Having exhausted the delights of the city we head back for lunch on the ship. The afternoon sees us sunbathing and swimming; Alex meets up with his friends again and decides To eat with them and see the magic show, so Simon and I have diner a deux.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Pisa and Florence

Another beautiful sunrise this morning, illuminating mountains that appear to be topped with snow, although we later learn it’s actually marble shining white in the sunlight. I watch the ship negotiate into the confines of Livorno harbour – a busy working port with dilapidated warehouses. We meet in the theatre after breakfast ready to be called for our tour. Labelled “Pisa and Florence on your own”, it turns out half the ship is coming with us!

Pisa is not far away – actually it used to be a port but now is 8km from the coast. We park a few minutes walk away from Miracle Square where the iconic buildings are. It’s very busy with scores of people jostling to do the familiar “holding up the tower” pose. The square includes a cathedral, baptistery and cemetery – so all angles are covered – but of course it’s the tilting tower that captures the imagination. It really does lean at a quite alarming angle and I’m secretly relieved we’re not here long enough to climb it, even though that’s what I would normally do with a tall landmark.

We only have 45 minutes at Pisa but that’s long enough given the crowds. It’s just over an hour to Florence, and as we approach through the outskirts of the city I’m already smitten. Our coach drops us by the river and we walk to the Piazza Santa Croce, the first of three notable squares which between them contain most of the key landmarks of the city. We have decided to head back to the river first of all, and visit the Ponte Veccia, the only surviving original bridge now flanked by goldsmiths.

Halfway across there is a statue surrounded by railings to which lovers have attached padlocks. A notice indicates that this practice is illegal, which doesn’t seem to deter those who are happy to identify themselves by marking their names on the padlocks.

We have lunch at the Trattoria Ponte Veccia and opt for the local dish – a thick T-bone steak, served with roasted potatoes in aromatic salt and butter beans. It’s delicious. From here we head to the loggia outside the Uffizi Gallery where modern-day artists draw portraits of tourists below statues of Florence’s geniuses. At the Piazza Signorina a replica of Michelangelo’s David is just one of the many statues that display amazing artistry.

We stop here to buy an ice cream, which Alex declares to be the best he has ever tasted. He’s finally defeated and I get to finish the last of the three flavours – a chocolate ice-cream so rich that it’s more like fudge – delicious!

I absolutely love the architecture of Florence, and the whole ambience of the city. It’s stylish and yet still rooted in its ancient heritage. It’s definitely somewhere I would want to return to; which is just as well because on a cruise schedule you don’t get to linger anywhere very long. The only disappointment, if you can call it that, it the Duomo – its multicoloured marble façade seems gaudy in comparison to the restrained elegance of the rest of the city. All  too soon we have to head back to the meeting point, stopping on the way for Alex to buy a wallet and to get granitas for all of us.

We stop briefly before leaving the city at a viewpoint where there’s a panoramic view. This really is a beautiful area and I’d love to come back and explore properly. But we have to return to the ship and continue our journey. We’re hot and tired, but the pool is refreshingly cold and so is the cocktail that I take back to our cabin. From our balcony I watch a stunning sunset – odd, since I also watched the sun rise from the same spot this morning. But a fitting end to a lovely day.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Toulon en famille

We wake early to a beautiful sunrise and a cloudless sky and are having breakfast as we enter Toulon harbour like a multi-Storey hotel gliding into a coastal village. As we disembark shortly after 9 it is already very hot. We stroll along the edge of the marina then  turn inland to visit the fruit and veg market which begins in front of the church.
The produce is impressive, especially the juicy figs and enormous mangoes. We're intrigued by the brass studs in the pavements thet seem to direct pedestrians, but to what? Toulon is known for its leafy squares and fountains, as well as its provencale market so we stroll around the old city and admire them.

Paula, John and Leah are meeting us today so we find them a car park under the Place des Armes and then stop for a drink at a cafe. It really is hot! Above the car park os a terrace where we spot some street art but it's too hot to spend long looking. Back in the cooler narrow streets we find a life size sculpture of a ship emerging from the end of a building.

Back at the car park we meet the family just after 11 and head back to the marina for a drink. It's so lovely to see everyone, espeially Leah who Alex and I haven't seen for, we think, 7 years. She lives in Marseille, just up the coast; Paula and John are visiting her as part of a tour of Provence and they move on tomorrow, so we're lucky our schedules coincide.

We consider staying where we are for lunch but the menu has photos so we check the guidebook and find a place called the Feuille de Chou a 5 minute walk away in the old town. That tuens oit to be a real find; it's in a quiet square shaded by olive trees and the food is fantastic. We're pretty full but have to find room for the cafe gourmand we see our neighbours eating.

We wander back through the market to the marina, with a brief stop to buy sunglasses, and end up at another marina-side bar as there's little else to do. Finally we walk them back to the car park and say goodbye.

 Back on board the boys play table tennis while I sit in the sun, then I join Alex in the pool which is freezing! We sail at 7 while Al and I are in the jacuzzi listening to an excellent salsa band. Alex tells me he's so happy he loves everybody except President Assad and the President of Uraguay (who he's heard runs an oppressive regime). Bless. We're late to dinner and end up sharing a table with an entertaining Texan couple. Service in Windows is so slow that we get to bed after 11, not ideal preparation for an early start tomorrow.