Friday, August 6, 2010

Mediterranean Cruise Report -- Day 2

Welcome to my recollections of the wonderful cruise my wife and I took during the month of July, 2010 for our 5th anniversary. 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.

If you missed a prior trip report, or would like a refresher, please click on the appropriate link below:

Day 1 -- When in Rome.


As I mentioned in the previous entry, we arrived in Rome two days prior to our sail date on board Celebrity's "Equinox". Our first day was a whirlwind tour through the streets of Rome, trying to see as much of the northern and western halves of the historic city as we could -- which included the Vatican and Spanish Steps areas.

For our second day, we had even more planned. A trip to the Roman forum, the Palatine hill, and the Colosseum was in store for the early afternoon. But our morning was completely free. Well rested now, we had ourselves a late leisurely breakfast, sent out some postcards to loved ones back in the States, and then took a walk to the nearby Piazza Navona -- a beautiful, medieval plaza with no less than three marvelous working fountains.





By the time afternoon rolled around, we were ready to see even more of the sites this wonderful city had to offer. Unfortunately, that glowing hot disc in the sky decided to move just a little closer to the Earth this day . . .


DAY 2 -- Bad Sun Rising.
=====================

I knew something was wrong when, after taking our short morning walk, my shirt was already starting to soak through with sweat. That couldn't be good, I thought, for the whole rest of the day was going to involve nothing but walking around outside in the hot sun. A sun which had already warmed the air temperature up to around 87 degrees before noon even hit. Not good. Not good at all.

We made a quick detour back to the hotel and changed into clothing more conducive to excessive sweat. For me that meant my workout clothes which, thankfully, were freshly laundered and waiting for me to use once we actually got on board the ship. But I made an executive decision and decided my comfort on this day was more important. Something told me I would be getting a workout anyway.



By the time we got to Via dei Fori Imperiali--the great concourse leading through the ancient Roman Forum and ending at the Colosseum--we were already wilting beneath the relentless power of the strong noon time sun. Luckily: 1) The boulevard was closed off to vehicular traffic on Sundays; and 2) There were plenty of carts lined up and down the road selling ice-cold water bottles and other refreshments. We bought ourselves 4 frozen solid bottles, knowing that in this heat the ice would be a welcome insurance against the encroaching heat of the day.






Properly stocked, we took our time to reach our meeting point under Constantine's Arch near the Colosseum in order to take in the majesty of the Forum. Spread below on either side, the ruins of this once great central meeting place in Rome was a solemn sight to behold. For as far as the eye can see there is nothing but old marble columns, the crumbled stone remains of banks, temples, and shops . . . and lots and lots of one- or no-armed statues. I tried to turn back the centuries in my head and imagine the Forum the way it once was -- dirty, crowded, but yet full of vibrant color and life. If you want a good depiction of what this all might have looked like, check out the short-lived but critically acclaimed HBO original series, "Rome". As I stood looking down into the ruins, I couldn't help but hum that show's opening credits theme.

But, at long last we had to move on. We were scheduled to meet our tour guide at 1:00 and time was running out. As we walked towards the general direction of the arch, we couldn't help but notice that huge colossus rising up from the middle of the street in the distance. It was a thrilling thing of beauty, this aptly named Colosseum. A sight, I realized then, that I had been saving up this whole trip to see. I had come to Rome for many reasons, but all of them seemed now to pale in comparison to this one.



I was finally here in person, I thought. This is what I'd come to see.

It's kind of hard to describe the feeling I had. I mean, in all honesty the Colosseum is a bit of a let down when you finally get inside. A large, expensive tourist trap of a let down. And yet, it is a memory I shall never forget. Just the goosebumps I got staring up at its magnificent outer walls, imagining the deafening crowds. It was---

Well, let me wait to tell that part of the story when the time is right. First up, the Palatine Hill.



At Constantine's Arch, we met our guide and the same couple from the Vatican tour the day before. See, I had arranged this on the message board before the trip, and we were glad for the company. Another group of around 4 joined us, and we were set to go. For the next 2 hours we went up and down the Palatine Hill -- one of Rome's fabled 7, and the seat of the Emperor's power. Mostly ruins now, the Palatine still conveyed a sense of history that was as palpable as a heavy, wet cloth around us. Most of the tour was spent walking from one side of the expansive estate to the other, taking stops in shaded areas along the way to properly put what we were seeing into perspective. None of it was info I didn't already know, but I'd come here for the hands-on experience of seeing and *feeling* history for myself. Not for the textbook lesson.



When we finally took our panoramic pictures of Rome from the top of the hill and made our way down the back side, we were all exhausted and a tad sun-burned. Luckily for us, then, that our guide had saved the Colosseum for last. As I mentioned before, the structure loomed large ahead of us. And now it was time to actually head inside. We went through one of the original entrances that plebs would enter back in the days of the Empire, climbed the original steps, and eventually made our way out into the arena itself. The sight which greeted me was breathtaking. My imagination ran wild with it. Here it was, where countless dramas and bloody battles played out to the delight of all who sat in these stands and cheered themselves hoarse. Down below, where the arena floor used to be, you could see into the subterranean levels where the cages and hoists were kept. Man and beast alike waited for their brief moment of freedom before either death or victory claimed them on the arena floor.



I don't think I'll ever forget that experience of seeing all this in person. Ever. One of the top most defining moments this trip would bring me, for sure.

Our tour of the Colosseum was a brief one, however, in spite of all the buildup. But by this time in the day, after three hours of constantly walking and hiking in the sun, we were ready to return back to our room anyway.



The walk back to the Campo de' Fiori was painful, but still pleasant due to the closed-off traffic. Walking directly down the main avenue as if I owned it was another thrilling memory, especially when 99% of all the other tourists strangely kept to the sidewalks for some reason. Oh well, more road for me.

Later that night, after showering and changing into dryer clothes, we left the hotel and returned back to the spot we had visited earlier that morning -- the Piazza Navona! Where it had been fairly empty (by Rome standards) at 11 am, the square was now bustling with HUGE crowds of both tourists and artisans showing off their wares. Artists, musicians, street performers -- it was almost like the circus had come to town! For us this was bad news, though, since we had agreed to meet a bunch of our fellow cruisers around the central "Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi", or "the Fountain of the Four Rivers". We never did manage to find the couple who had arranged the get-together, but we did meet up with some other people on our cruise. It didn't take long to find a cozy spot just off the Piazza for dinner. The sun had gone down by this point and the night was pleasant enough to eat "al fresco" and enjoy a bit of people watching -- which, traditionally, I hate to do.

It was pleasant until I tried to go find an ATM, that is.

Low on Euros, and after placing my order with our waiter, I told Lisa and our new friends that I would be "right back" as I had spied an ATM just around the corner. However, when I got there, the machine (operated completely in Italian) refused my card. Shit! Rather than head back, I decided to keep looking around. How far could it possibly be to the nearest ATM, right?

Wrong!

Picture it in your head now . . . me quick-walking through the cobblestoned streets and side alleys of Rome at night, frantically trying to peek around the next corner for the sight of a brightly glowing screen or kiosk and only being met with more cobblestoned alleyways. It was like my own personal Twilight Zone episode. I can't tell you how many different streets I went down, or corners I turned. It was enough to make a person dizzy. And mad! For each ATM I ended up finding, there would be something wrong. One operated in English, but was not dispensing any more cash that day. Another one, like the first, rejected my card outright, even though my card carried the same symbols as those on the screen. Keep in mind now, I *had* remembered to contact my bank before we left on this vacation and inform them that I would be using my cards overseas. Everything should have been okay on that end. So the problem, then, had to be with one of these damnable machines!

Eventually, I found myself all the way back by the Cat Sanctuary -- a spot I mentioned back in my Day 1 report. This machine looked like a winner. It was in English, and a man using the machine ahead of me clearly retrieved cash from the slot. So I stepped up, stomach growling and hair plastered to my damp forehead, and slipped the card in. The machine asked me for my preferred language, then my pin code. This looked promising so far. Then it asked me for the type of transaction I wanted, and from which account. I entered that information and waited. Then it asked me for the amount of Euros -- and here is where I had a brain fart. Desperate to get as much cash as I could (for fear of having to go through all this again in another port of call), I bypassed the suggested amounts and entered a larger figure manually. Naturally, the machine rejected this request. But I didn't know why at the time and assumed that, like the other machines, this one had rejected my card as well.

It was only later, after coming back to the dinner table with my tail tucked between my legs, did I realize the mistake. I should have only asked for 200 or 300 euros -- not the 600 I had entered! It all came back to me, how most American banks cap off international ATM transactions at the 300 mark for the day. Stupid me! Luckily I had just enough euros between me and Lisa to pay for dinner and leave a tip. Afterwards, we said goodnight to everyone and headed back to the ATM. Sure of my mistake and with Lisa by my side now, I took it slowly getting back there. We took the time to properly enjoy the same streets I had flown past in an angry storm just an hour before.

And, sure enough, this time I was able to pull the appropriate funds from the machine with no problem. Sure, it might seem like an amusing little story now in retrospect. But I can assure you, it was not a fun time for me. Not at all.

So, back at our hotel, we realized with a sinking heart that Rome was done for. The next morning we would hop on a chartered bus with other fellow cruisers also in the city for the weekend, and trek almost 90 minutes through the Italian countryside towards the port of Civitavecchia where all the cruise ships were docked.

Since we'd known we were only going to be in the city for 2 days, we hadn't bothered unpacking all our clothes when we first arrived. This was good as we were dead tired and couldn't muster up the energy to pack anyway. We left it all for the morning, which turned out to be not such a hot idea.

But that's a story for another day. The next, in fact . . .

Up next: Day 3

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