Welcome to my recollections of the wonderful cruise my wife and I took during the month of July, 2010. This will be an ongoing series replete with anecdotes, history, pics, and even videos taken as we experienced all that our various ports of call had to offer. As usual, click on the pics to view larger versions, and don't forget to also click on the "Vimeo" vids to view the brief live-action clips.
Just a quick recap of the details for those of you who need such things: My wife and I signed up for an 11-night cruise across the eastern Mediterranean, which left from Rome on July 5th. The ship was one of Celebrity Cruises' newest models -- the "Equinox". If anyone reading would like a recommendation for a great, elegant cruise ship to sail on, and in a part of the world that's NOT the Caribbean, I cannot praise this ship highly enough.
But before I can get to that, I must first tell the story of what came before we boarded our ship:
DAY 1 -- When in Rome.
I actually made the very wise choice to come in to Rome a few days prior to our ship's sail date. I say wise because, although Rome wasn't part of the cruise's official port of call list, nothing was stopping us from arriving a few days earlier and taking in the city before we began our "real" vacation. So I thought: why not take advantage of this to see a city we've always wanted to visit? It turned out to be a very good decision, to say the least.
We took the red eye out of JFK in New York aboard Alitalia, the official airline of Italy. Our previous experience on these types of international airlines have always been positive, so we were shocked to find the airplane we were on to be both old and a little lacking in service. Don't get me wrong, it was *decent*. The staff were courteous and did their jobs with the utmost professionalism. But they just weren't nearly up to the same high standards as, say, Air France. And the individual private tvs for each seats didn't work. Lucky for us, I had just recently purchased a Dell netbook and had it completely loaded with fun things to watch -- mostly movies and tv shows.
I have to say, having distractions onboard really helps during a long transatlantic flight. Before we knew it, 8 hours was up and we had landed in Rome on a bright Saturday morning. By the time we made it through the skull-duggery agony of passport control and baggage claims, however, it was already almost noon. Still, this was plenty of time to get to our hotel in the center of Rome and make a quick beeline for the Vatican, where we had our very own private tour scheduled for 3 pm that day.
Our hotel was kind enough to send a driver to pick us up at the airport. He was a nice Italian man who did not speak much English, but knew enough to get his point across. Many people had warned me to prepare for the insanity that is Rome driving. But, to be perfectly honest, we didn't see much out of the ordinary by New York City standards. We're a touch mad, too, on the roads. To me, it was home!
At the Hotel Campo de' Fiori where we were staying, the front desk clerk was very nice. She spoke almost perfect English and told us that our room was ready. As it was already nearing 1:00, this was music to my ears. She informed us about the rooftop terrace that we had free access to, as well as breakfast in the downstairs dining nook that we could also partake in each morning. It was all so very lovely, and the decor of this place was chic and inviting. Our room was amazingly appointed, too! I was surprised by how modern and pristine the fixtures were, especially in the bathroom. Our walk-in glass-encased shower was like heaven!
Now by this point, even though it was only noon time locally, we had been awake for over 24 hours, having had only 2 or 3 hours of sleep during the flight (if you want to be generous and call it sleep). Lisa wanted nothing more than to take a long nap. But I, otoh, knew we had to quickly change and get ready to hightail it across the city to the Vatican. Plus, I was too wired for sleep. Nothing excites me more than being in a new city just begging to be explored. I have very little patience for being stuck inside hotel rooms unless it's dark outside and time for bed. Just point me in a general direction and kick me out the door and I'm off to the races!
So, although it took some convincing, I finally got us out the door by 2:30. Yes, I was cutting things close. It didn't help that Rome chose this particular weekend to begin its heat wave. Temps were in the low 90s when we began our long walk. Using "Street View" on Google maps before the trip, I had already committed a large portion of Rome's central districts to memory. One thing about me that I take pride in is, I have a perfect photographic memory when it comes to maps. Show me a map--or better yet, a pictorial of the actual streets and landmarks, and I'll *never* get lost. Never. It's like some obscure but cool super power I have. I simply can't seem to get lost, even in an old European city with twisting streets and strange alleyways leading to dead-ends like in Rome. If you can show me the route just once before I set out, I'll always know my way.
This ability served us well because, let me tell you, we abused the hell out of our shoes to get to this meeting on time! The shortcut I took carried us across the bridge which spans the Tiber in front of the Castel Sant'Angelo, formerly known as Hadrian's Mausoleum. The old fortress got its present name because a Pope claimed to have encountered the Archangel Michael atop its battlements, which is why a statue of the angel stands there now. The route past the Castel took us more or less in a straight line to the entrance of the Vatican museum. We got there exactly at 3:00 on the dot, completely soaked through with sweat and dying of thirst. Luckily our guide pointed out where we could purchase water, and also that the tour was actually indoors. This probably saved us both from passing out.
Our guide was a young British lady who was very soft-spoken but knowledgeable. We joined another couple going on the same cruise as Lisa and I, whom I had met online on a message board prior to the trip. Together, the 4 of us spent the next 3 hours combing through the Vatican museum and seeing sights that can only be imagined. I say imagined because most of the galleries we stepped into were either very dark or prohibited the taking of pictures. And the pics I was able to take were not very interesting. The exhibits were nice, don't get me wrong, but for the most part I was more intrigued by the socio-political history of the hallowed halls we were stepping through, rather than the statues and iconography adorning their walls. And you can't photograph history.
I will say I was disappointed we weren't allowed to take pics inside the Sistine Chapel, though. Words alone cannot adequately describe the beauty that is the Chapel. Michelangelo really was a genius! The place was absolutely, horrendously, PACKED with tourists, however. So much so that 4 Italian museum guards had to constantly "sush" the crowd and cry out "silencio!" from time to time to get the unruly mob down to a more solemn din. Still, I must highly recommend that if you get the chance to visit Rome, please do not miss stopping by the Sistine Chapel for a look-see. Trust me, it's so worth it!
Afterwards, we left the museum behind and cut across St. Peter's square for the end of our tour, the Basilica. Here I was able to take pics, but refrained from taking too many out of respect for the august solemnity of the place. Again, words cannot describe . . . so here's a video I took instead!
After the tour was over, we all bid farewell and headed back to our separate hotels. It was only after 6 pm by this time, however, and I was not ready to call it a day. Neither was Lisa, despite her obvious jet lag. We grabbed a quick gelato near the entrance to St. Peter's Square, then headed in the opposite direction of our hotel and along the Tiber river. Again, thank god for my prior memorization of this area of the map. I could see how someone could get horribly lost in this city. But I knew where were going -- to that famous touristy mecca known as The Spanish Steps.
Don't ask me why this is such a crowded tourist flocking. I couldn't figure it out. The steps are magnificent to behold, sure. And the fountain at the bottom is nice. But I don't get the sitting on the steps part, or hanging out there for hours at a time. After only 5 minutes in the area I started to get annoyed and had to leave.
We were starving by this point, however, and decided to check out a curiosity we had seen on the History channel once. Was this some neat old mausoleum only recently excavated? No. Was it a revered neo-classical fountain in the artsy side of town? No. A statue? Archway? Public forum for the stoning of heretics? No, no . . . and definitely NO!
The place, in fact, was Rome's first ever McDonald's restaurant.
Located very close to the Spanish Steps, this is no ordinary Micky Dees. This one has Class with a capital "C", you see? Inside, the establishment is split into two floors and two distinct experiences. The first floor is what's called the "McCafe"; an artsy-fartsy type sit-down cafe where you can have espressos and eat finger food and pastries. No burgers, no fries, no happy meals. Just the traditional European cafe scene -- but with simply divine desserts. We needed real food in our stomachs, however, and for that you had to head on up the marble steps (yes, MARBLE!) to the second floor and where the more traditional McDonald's experience is waiting.
The second floor is HUGE! It's like three normal sized McD's combined. But with tasteful decor like marble countertops and columns, art-deco type lounge chairs and with a fresh salad bar the likes of which you would find at a decent mid-range restaurant. I would have taken a pic of the interior, but after the fiasco that ensued the last time I took a pic inside a McD's in Paris, I was not ready to have the owner come and chase us out this time. Not before we ate, anyway.
Lisa ordered a Big Mac and I ordered a Quarter Pounder. I forget what the Italians call their Quarter Pounders. In France they call them "Royales", and I think the Italians use the same word or something similar. I don't know, I was too tired and hungry by this point to pay much attention. I ordered the food in the best Italian I could muster (which was basically 80% Spanish, 10% Italian dictionary, and a whole lot of English blubbering thrown in for good measure), before taking our food and snagging a nice lounge meant for 4 for the two of us. There was plenty of empty booths in the place, and no one seemed to mind. Most of the people eating here, surprisingly, were locals. And, of course, of the obnoxious though oddly well-behaved teenager variety. We ate our food mostly in silence, speaking only to comment on the extraordinary tastiness of the fries and the disappointingly dryness of the burgers, before downing our sodas and getting ready to call it a night.
After leaving McDonald's and the Spanish Steps behind, I took us on a shortcut which I remembered from my mental map, bringing us to the famous Trevi Fountain. Famous is definitely the word, because it seemed half the world that was not already at the Spanish Steps was here at the fountain! Argh! You could hear the size of the huge crowd long before you turned the corner and set your eyes on them. Holy SHITE there was a lot of them! And all of them tourists, every single one. But, hey, we were tourists, too, and this was our first time in Rome so . . . when in Rome, right? Except, I don't think Romans ever go to the Trevi Fountain, so I guess that's not an exactly fitting phrase to sum up the situation.
Still, it was a beautiful fountain. Awe-inspiring, actually. I've never seen anything quite like it. Not even in Paris. The legend is that, if you throw a coin in your right hand over your left shoulder, then you are destined to return to Rome. Lisa didn't want to go anywhere near the thronging mobs of people by the fountain's edge, so I braved the perils for her and threw a 2 note euro coin over my left shoulder for the both of us.
After this, we definitely had enough. It was around 8:15 by now and we were like the walking dead on our feet. Our hotel was another 10 minutes walk away, and honestly I don't quite remember the walk back except for a brief stop along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II to take a picture of an old Jesuit church (the first ever, I believe) and to snag a video clip of a flock of seagulls causing a ruckus above our heads for some unexplained reason. I'm not posting the clip here because by the time I swung my camera around and up at the sky, the majority of the flock had already vanished over the rooftops.
Despite our exhaustion, however, there was one last thing on the way to our hotel that I wanted to see in person. I was very excited about it, actually. It's called the "Area Sacra" or "sacred area". It was only excavated very recently when ground was being dug up for a new shopping center (as these things almost always happen). The four temples discovered at this site date as far back as 2,500 years ago, and is believed to have been a very sacred spot just outside the city walls of ancient Rome. Each temple is devoted to different deities, and were erected at different times throughout history. Today, the place has a curious re-designation as the "Cat Sanctuary" due to its role as a shelter for the city's abandoned or homeless cats. While we stood by the retaining wall looking down into the site, we counted no less than 11 cats slinking about, sleeping, or generally carrying on like they owned the place.
You can only see two in this picture, but you get the idea. History has it that Julius Caesar was murdered very near to here and between our hotel. I never did find the exact spot, but it troubled me to think that the man's eternal spirit might be wandering around the same alleys we would be taking to get back to the Campo de' Fiori. Great Caesar's Ghost, indeed!
Finally, we made it back to our hotel just before sunset. Despite my body's extreme desire to drown my face in feather pillows, I dragged my feet up the stairs to the rooftop terrace and took a photo that neatly caps the day for us.
There it is, that blood orange of a sun disappearing over the streets and rooftops of where we had just been earlier in the day. That's the dome of St. Peter's Basilica to the left, to give you an idea.
For us, it had been a very long but fulfilling day. When we finally hit the sack, it dawned on me that the last time Lisa and I had slept in a bed, it was in our apartment back home in NYC. And yet, here we were -- across an ocean and in another city in another country on another continent. But if this had only been Day 1, what the hell did Day 2 have in store for us?
What the hell, indeed . . .
Up next: Day 2
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