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 fa├žade 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.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

And so it begins ...

A very early start to our holiday; a 6.40am flight to Barcelona. It seemed preferable to wake up at Gatwick rather than Reading but our choice of airport hotel was less than ideal. It's not quite the country house the photo on the website led us to believe; more like a downmarket holiday camp. Our room didn't even have a window. But it was 70miles closer to the airport than our house so that alone made it preferable.

So the first day of our holiday began at 4am rather than 2am, which was definitely still too early as far as Alex was concerned. The flight was fairly uneventful and we foumd our way to the cruise terminal by taxi, but arrived too early to check in. We dropped our bags off and took the port shuttle to the Columbus monument.

We are on familiar ground in Barcelona; our previous med cruise stopped here. That was in April though and one difference is immediately noticeable - it's VERY hot. Having made sure we saw all the key sights on our last trip, we're content with a stroll along the promenade and a beer (ice cream for Alex) at a pavement cafe.  There seems to have been a cycling boom since our last visit, too. The cycle lanes are well marked and there seems to be a Boris Bike scheme.There are also quite a few people on electric scooters and Alex wonders why we don't have those at home.

Travelling back to the dock it's remarkable how small Norwegian Spirit looks against its neighbours; it's dwarfed by the Norwegian Epic. It's got a capacity of 2,000 guests and 1,000 crew but that's much fewer than Ventura and Celebrity Eclipse so it will be a different experience. Check-in takes a while and it's 2.30 by the time we get to our cabin. It's pretty compact, and there's no fridge. But Alex is impressed by the balcony.

It takes us a while to find a restaurant that's open, as the staff don't seem to know. We end up in the buffet which has plenty of choice including dishes prepared to order. After lunch we begin to explore but Alex finds the wet and wild kids pool where we stay until the emergency drill. That is a real chore; being translated into about 17 languags takes ages while we stand in rows on deck.

I unpack after that, while the boys play cards and then we watch from our balcony as we leave Barcelona. This is 'freestyle' cruising, so we can eat dinner when we like in a choice of two a la carte restaurants. The dress code is pretty informal too - even formal night is optional. We opt for the Garden Room; the food is excellent and our waiter is really friendly.  But even Alex can't manage dessert and we have a fairly early night. It's been a long day.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Grand Mediterranean Cruise on the Norwegian Spirit

That's the cruise line's description, not ours - although the itinerary is pretty comprehensive:

Sunday 26th August - sail from Barcelona, Spain
Monday 27th August - Toulon, France: meet up with Simon's sisters and brother-in-law
Tuesday 28th August - Iivorno, Italy: visit Pisa and Florence
Wednesday 29th August - Civitaveccia, Italy: a chance to revisit Rome
Thursday 30th August - Naples, Italy: visit Pompeii
Friday 31st August - sea day (and a well-deserved rest!)
Saturday 1st September - Mykonos, Greece
Sunday 2nd September - Istanbul, Turkey: a chance to show Alex where we were stranded by the dust cloud! No tour guide required ...
Monday 3rd September - Izmir, Turkey: visit Ephesus
Tuesday 4th September - Piraeus, Greece: visit Athens
Wednesday 5th September - another sea day
Thursday 6th September - the first of two days in Venice, Italy
Friday 7th September - disembark and late night flight home

This blog will be updated whenever I can find a 3G signal, but I'll be relying on my trusty Kindle so photos won't be uploaded until we get back.