Europe 2004

Rome, Rome, Venice, Florence, Naples, Pisa, Athens, Ephesus, Monte Carlo, Barcelona

Tuesday,
June 8, 2004

Orlando to Paris

Last month Linda sold her Mitsubishi Eclipse to a
friend and is driving a rental car until the 2005 RX8s are available, so
it was very convenient to drive to the airport Tuesday morning and simply
abandon the car.We had a long layover in Miami, spent in the Air
France lounge. Security in Miami is ludicrous. At the entrance to the
escalator they check your passport and boarding pass. Then, at the
top of the escalator there is a line for the metal detectors. Before you
may enter the line they check your passport and boarding pass. After passing through
the metal detector, you enter the terminal, but first — you guessed it — they check your passport and boarding pass. There is no way for anyone
to enter or exit this process between start and finish, so what is the
point… other than to spend your tax dollars?

Because the terminals at Miami are connected by an
unsecured area, you must do this even to change flights. And since we
originally were looking for the Air France lounge in the Air France
terminal (silly us), we ended up having to clear security three times
Tuesday. That means Linda’s purse went through the X-ray machine three
times. Yet when we arrived in France and she emptied her purse, in the
bottom she found a full-size Swiss Army knife! Now don’t you feel secure?

Dinner on Air France was very good: smoked duck salad,
scallops and shrimp, and a nice steak. Dani and Linda slept, I listened to
an audio book of Mystic River, extremely well read. (Has anyone ever
actually been able to use those in-seat video screens, or are they
perpetually being “reloaded”?)

Wednesday,
June 9, 2004

Paris

Henry, Marjolaine and Nathaniel met us at Charles de
Gaul airport Wednesday morning. Four of our five bags showed up. The other
— Dani’s — was nowhere to be found. While Nathaniel played with the
parachute toy we’d brought him I visited baggage services and was
eventually directed to a different carousel where I was told the lost bag
would emerge. Three seconds later the power went out in the building and
the carousels all stopped. (Henry says the electrical workers are striking
by cutting power periodically. That’s so French!)After about five minutes a head poked out from
between the flaps at the conveyor entrance and then the missing bag was
pushed through. I wish I had that on film.It took two cars to transport the six people, five
bags, three carryons and one parachute toy to the Holiday Inn Paris
Disneyland, about a mile from Henry’s house and Alcorn McBride sarl. The
hotel is touristy, but quite nice, with spacious rooms that are an
interesting cross between American and European accommodations.

We took a several-hour-long nap and then Henry picked
us up for a trip to the market to buy dinner. Grocery shopping is one of
my favorite activities in France. Auchon at the mall in Marne la Valee is
like a giant toy store for hungry adults. Bread, wine, pate and stinky
cheese — we were set. Off to Henry and Marjolaine’s for a relaxing dinner
outside, overlooking the valley. The weather was in the low 80s, and the
food and company were excellent. In true European style, dinner ended
about 11pm.

Thursday,
June 10, 2004

Paris Disneyland

We sort of missed Thursday morning. I can’t remember the
last time I slept 11 hours. But we were up in time for lunch with Henry and
Jean Marc (head of A/V for DLPI) at Walt’s, on Main Street in the Magic
Kingdom.

We did a little theme-parking:

  • Pinocchio  Same as Florida as far as I
    could tell.
  • Pirates  The best of the three I’ve
    been on. The scenes are in a different order, but it’s closer to CA than
    FL. The dueling pirates were moving, but they are no longer making
    contact.
  • Haunted Mansion  The best of the three
    I’ve been on. It’s audio is MUCH better than the others, there is more
    story line, and a whole section of western sets at the end.
  • Big Thunder  About twice as long as the
    CA or FL versions. Henry spent most of the day on the phone with
    customers. As it happens he was in the process of answering his cell yet
    again as the Big Thunder cameras snapped our picture. I wonder what the
    customers thought of the screaming in the background?
  • The Dragon  Few people discover this
    well-animated dragon that is sleeping(?) in the dungeon under the castle.
  • Auto Stunt Show  We drove over to the
    second gate, a very modest implementation of Disney Studios. There
    are only a handful of attractions here, although we understand they are
    going to add Tower of Terror if they can figure out where to get the
    power. Henry says they may have to synchronize with Rock ‘n Roller so they
    don’t both launch at the same time! The stunt show was very interesting to
    car aficionados, and even those of us with not automotive genes were
    impressed by the precision driving (skidding?) ballet. Like most stunt
    shows it would have been better without the fake movie shoot plot.
  • Cinemagique  This was the best show of
    the day. It’s a beautiful theater with great audio. During the show a
    guest with a cell-phone (not Henry) is chased “through” the screen and
    finds himself pursued through a montage of famous movies, from silent to
    sci-fi. The screen transitions are pretty amazing, and the use of both
    English and French works extremely well. This show was considered for use
    at Disney MGM studios, but I think it’s a bit too long for American
    attention spans.

We had a nice dinner at Chiny Cottage, a little
house-turned-restaurant on the way to Lagny. Linda and I had been there in
1992 and it was still good, if a bit expensive for what it was.

Friday,
June 11, 2004

Provins

Dani and I nibbled at a truly appalling breakfast at
the hotel (sort of an American version of a German  buffet?!!) and then
I headed to the office for a couple of hours. At lunchtime the five of us
met up and headed for the medieval city of Provins, about 30 miles southeast
of Marne La Valee.

At La Fleur de Sel creperie we had some delicious
jambon, gruyere, eouf and ongion crepes, followed by chocolate or caramel
and butter crepes. Yum.

Then we explored the Tour Cesar, begun in 1152. It
perches atop a hill in the center of the walled city. Visitors can squeeze
their way through increasingly narrow stone passages, all the way to the
bell tower (that part’s almost brand new, having been added in 1689).

For dinner we went into Paris to one of only a 25 Michelin three star
restaurants in France, Arpège.
Words cannot express the quality of this
meal. Numbers cannot express the price of this
meal. Well, possibly using scientific notation.
Each course had layers of subtly complex
flavors, particularly the vegetables, which are the chef’s specialties. We
had:

  • A glass of 1996 Taittanger Champagne
    from magnum, bottled for the restaurant.
  • Incredible artisan bread and butter.
  • A Amuse Bouch consisting of a small egg,
    served in its shell, with honey and vinegar cream.
  • 1997 Clos de la Roche, a deep and
    complex Burgundy.
  • Various vegetables including carmelized
    onions au gratin and green beans with almonds. Dani had Osetra caviar,
    which was sufficient to serve the table.
  • A consume containing stuffed raviole
    with spiced cumin.
  • (At this point in the meal I went out
    and quickly sold Henry’s car so that we could continue eating.)
  • Main courses including lobster, chicken
    and squid.
  • An incredible cheese cart, from which we
    selected twelve cheeses.
  • A variety of small pastries (to get us
    ready for dessert).
  • Various desserts including chocolate
    souffle, Mille Feuille and tomatoes(!) that had been basted with vanilla
    and a dozen other spices for most of the day.
  • Coffee and herbal tea.

Saturday,
June 12, 2004

Chalifert

We spent a quiet day at Henry and Marjolaine’s house
in Chalifert. Linda alternately read a book in the back yard and wrestled
with the washing machine, which, like all French washers, is the size of a
coffee grinder and similar in results. Dani, Henry and I went to the mall
for a little shopping and groceries and when we got back home Marjolaine
had returned from her mother’s with Zacharie, who is one year old. He is
very cute and inquisitive. We made it an early night, so we could get up
early to drive to Paris.


Not only is she smiling, she’s saying cheese.

Sunday,
June 13, 2004

Paris

Henry picked us up at 9am to go to our favorite
breakfast spot, La Duree. After some delicious croissants and pain au
chocolat we stopped on the Champs Elysee. While Henry had a short meeting
about show control programming at the Renault showroom Dani, Linda and I
walked up to l’Arc de Triomphe.

Then it was on to the Louvre so that Dani could visit
locations mentioned in The Da Vinci Code (which she finished yesterday).
I’ll skip the explanation so there are no spoilers, but it was fun taking
pictures of all the tourists taking pictures of La Jaconde (the Mona
Lisa). We also visited the apartments of Napoleon III.


Why is this gargoyle wearing a German helmet?
Nice hat.

Henry was somewhat disgruntled that we dragged him to
a hot dog stand next to Notre Dame for lunch, but that was where Dani had
a fondly remembered hot dog three years ago after four days in food hell
(i.e. London). I’m not sure this hotdog was quite as good, but it was
filling.

We made a brief stop to take a photo in front of La
Tour Eiffel, and then headed back to the hotel for a couple of hours
before our farewell dinner at Henry’s home.

Monday,
June 14, 2004

Paris to Rome

In the morning Dani, Henry and I had breakfast at
Paul, a tea house at the mall. It’s one outlet of a bakery established in
1889. The French bread flute and coffee were delicious. After a brief stop
at the office to take photos and check email we picked up Linda and headed
to the airport. The brasserie lunch we shared with Henry at the airport
was really quite good. Then we bid Henry goodbye and headed for Rome.Just to show you that airport security really is
protecting you from terrorists (in the interest of political correctness I
can’t say crazy arabs) Linda (who had repented of her mini-jihad and
stowed the Swiss army knife) was unable to smuggle aboard a pair of
plastic children’s scissors (airline approved) which were promptly
confiscated and deposited into the receptacle for
dangerous-things-confiscated-from-people-in-wheelchairs-and-short-women.By the way, when you’re paying $10 per kilogram for
overweight luggage, don’t pack Diet Coke.The flight from Paris to Rome is less than two hours,
so we arrived by 6pm. We had arranged for a driver to meet us at the
airport with an eight-passenger van — the only thing with enough room for
our luggage! Actually we don’t have that much luggage for a month-long
trip, but it would overwhelm the small Mercedes they usually use.Because the airport is a ways outside the city and
there are no expressways in the city it takes close to an hour to wend
your way through the streets into the ancient part of town. I’m always
fascinated to see the modern buildings that abut — and in some cases
almost swallow — the historic structures. Nothing can be knocked down,
but that doesn’t mean you can’t build all the way around it!The Empire Palace Hotel is a pretty nice hotel
considering it is offered as part of the Princess Cruises land tour. We’re
on our own for two days before the tour actually starts; when I booked the
extra days I was surprised to find it was a member of Small Luxury Hotels
of the World.

Our room is a bit odd, but not unpleasant. It’s
shaped like a flag: You enter at the base of the flag pole, turn right and
advance twenty feet down a two and a half foot wide hall before it opens
out into the living space. The bathroom is rather small, with one of those
corner showers with diagonal doors, like in a small cruise ship cabin.
There is an emergency cord in the shower, but I can’t imagine what for,
since it would be physically impossible to fall down. Perhaps it’s in case
of claustrophobia.

Around 9pm we ventured out into the pleasant evening weather and walked a
half dozen blocks down a side street until we came upon a small trattoria
called Ai Tre Moschettieri, where we had a very pleasant meal. I enjoyed
Tagliatelli alla Arrbbietta and Saltambuca Romano. Dani made the best
choices, though, Tagliolini Bolanese and grilled shrimp (and rejected
squid). When we arrived the place was full of Americans, but by the time we
finished we were alone. The service was very friendly, and the owner treated
us to some limoncella, that lemon liqueur from Capri.
Dani stayed up late playing the new Harry Potter game on her PC.

Tuesday,
June 15, 2004

Ancient Rome

I had an excellent breakfast of bread, croissants and
espresso at the hotel restaurant while Dani and Linda slept in. Then we
walked to London. No, seriously, we only walked halfway to London.We set out first for the Trevi Fountain. Along the
way we stopped at an Internet cafe in the Piazza Barberini, where I caught
up on email.The Trevi Fountain is an enormous, elaborate thing,
shoe-horned into a tiny piazza and surrounded by tourist vendors. Still,
there’s something pleasant about the sound of the water and all the
pigeons fluttering about. Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the
fountain you will return, and it seemed to work last time. This time Linda
and Dani threw in Euros, so I guess they’ll be coming back to the
continent. Ever thrifty, I threw in an American penny, so I guess I’m
going to Illinois.We continued on in search of a Jesuit church with a
fabulous tromp l’oeil ceiling, but missed it (and upon our return
discovered  it was closed anyway) but found ourselves at the
Pantheon, our next destination. We had a pleasant lunch of pasta and pizza
in an outdoor cafe on the square there, then ventured into the enormous
structure.

The Pantheon is the best preserved of ancient Rome’s
buildings, probably due to the fact that in the sixth century Christians,
claiming to be troubled by its demons, converted it to a church. This was
better than the sixteenth century approach, when the Christians converted
much of ancient Rome into a sort of Home Depot for  those needing
marble and limestone to build ugly churches.The Pantheon’s several hundred feet of unsupported
dome is pretty impressive when you consider it’s constructed of
2000-year-old stone.

We continued our trek, heading east past the “wedding cake”, a monument to
Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy. (There were only five
before 1946 when, as a result of losing WWII, Italy became a democracy.)
This was Mussolini’s favorite building, so you can assume it is overblown.
Behind the wedding cake lies the Roman Forum, which is currently undergoing
some fairly extensive exploration by a lot of archaeology students. It’s a
little difficult to picture all the great structures that were once located
here, but it looks just like the jigsaw puzzles.We visited the ruins of the temple of the vestal virgins. These girls
were selected at age ten to supervise the eternal flame, and it was a pretty
good job except that if you forgot to keep it lit you got whipped and if you
forgot to keep your virginity you got buried alive. The girls held the
position for thirty years, and could then retire. No doubt that’s where we
get the expression “life begins at forty.”

Beyond the forum is the Palatine Hill, where
Augustus, Rome’s best — and most enduring — emperor lived. We would have
explored it, but we were about five miles into our walk at this point, and
it was after 3pm, and the Palatine Hill is, after all, a hill.

Turning left we encountered the Coloseum. Well, it
had actually been looming over us for some time, but we decided to finally
acknowledge it. We purchased a tour from a company called Romaround —
which gives you an idea of their sense of humor. Everyone selling the tour
was from the US and spoke perfect English, but the guy giving it was
Italian. That’s actually not an accident, though, because the law requires
a local guide. Anyway, he was very funny, and being on a tour lets you
jump the line.

When Dani and I visited the Coloseum three
years ago, we could walk across the arena, but now you can’t. Here’s a bit
of trivia for you: did you know the word “arena” comes from the Italian word
for sand? The floor of the Coloseum was wood, covered with three inches of
sand (it’s good at absorbing blood). Under the wood floor were all the cages
for the thousands of animals they slaughtered each year. Those Romans really
knew how to party.

Speaking of animals, everywhere we looked
in the Coloseum we saw cats. What’s up with that? Anyway, Dani enjoyed
photographing them sitting on the ruins and licking their butts.

We had intended to catch a cab back to the
hotel, but this seemed to be impossible, so we decided — to Dani’s disgust
— to hoof it. Hey, it was only halfway across Rome, and we’d already walked
about twice that far. Of course, Rome was built on seven hills…

On
the way back we were passed by some sort of honor guard consisting of twenty
horses and a very busy street sweeper. Now that’s efficient.
For dinner Dani had room service and Linda and I had a simple meal of
Italian cheeses and Chianti Classico by the fountain in the courtyard of the
hotel.

At least Linda still has her nose.

Wednesday,
June 16, 2004

Rome

Dani had a bit of a sore throat this morning and
opted to spend the day reading. I had breakfast in the hotel and then
walked (yes, amazingly my feet do still function, albeit painfully) down
to the Piazza Barberini for some quality Internet time. My June Theme Park
Engineering class starts today, so I needed to populate the discussion
forums. The going was a bit slow; I thought I’d been clever to select an
English keyboard layout since yesterday’s Italian layout led to many
corrections. Unfortunately I discovered that even with the English layout,
the key assignments were still Italian — double trouble.At lunch time Linda and I walked east, past the Baths
of Diocletian and the central train terminal, stopping at at Ristaurante
Al Fagianetto (I know what you’re thinking), a cafe near the Mediterraneo
Hotel where Dani and I stayed three years ago. After a nice lunch of
bruschetta, pasta with porcini mushrooms and pizza, we walked back to the
Museo Nationale Romano.This part of the museum was in the Palazzo Massimo.
It houses Rome’s largest collection of Roman artifacts, with two floors of
statuary and a floor of floors — mosaic floors, that is — mounted to the
walls. There were also some very nice frescoes from the house of Julia,
daughter of Octavian. I can’t imagine how they move these frescoes intact.One of the most interesting things in the museum was
the basement. The entire room is a vault, filled with numismatic displays.
Excellent interpretive signs traced the history of coinage from lumps of
bronze to the 20th century, with the emphasis on the Roman era. It turns
out they were constantly devaluing the currency and reducing the precious
metal content, just like modern day politicians.

In the late afternoon we headed back to the hotel for
an organizational meeting with our tour director, Larry Bell, who looks
just like Sean Connery. We opted out of all the optional excursions for
the remaining time in Rome; after all, we’ve already walked halfway to
London.

Wednesday,
June 16, 2004

Rome

After breakfast I carried the laptop down to the
Piazza Barberini, where the wireless connection and familiar keyboard
turned an hour’s job into ten minutes of work. I was even able to transfer
this journal to date over to the web server. Dani is still a bit under the weather. She finished a
591-page book yesterday and is now well into another. It’s her last chance
to veg for a few days.Linda and I had lunch at an outdoor cafe, Taverna
Flavia, just a block from the hotel. The smoked swordfish was delicious.


The right arm of this figure was
lost. In the 16th century they “restored” it, as shown in the photograph.
Then the original arm was found. Oops.

A driver and guide picked Linda and I up at the hotel
at 1pm for a tour of the Vatican. Our guide, Isabella Roggero, was
incredibly knowledgeable. We didn’t ask her a single question she couldn’t
answer during the entire afternoon.

As a result, out tour of the Vatican Museum was
filled with previously unimagined insights into the significance of the
various statues and paintings. Since the popes claimed all of the objects
unearthed in Rome until about a hundred years ago, all of the good stuff
is in the Vatican: the only surviving gold plated bronze statue, which
survived because after being struck by lighting the superstitious Romans
buried it; rare dark red marble sarcophagi for the wife and daughter of
Constantine, the former unaccountable engraved with pictures of warfare
(Isabella said it had originally been intended for Constantine’s father,
but maybe he and the wife didn’t get along); Florentine tapestries from
the 14th century, clearly superior to the Italian and French ones; and a
corridor of maps, once showing the Po river in its old course, far from
Venice.

Isabella also provided wonderful interpretation of
the Sistine Chapel. In the recent restoration they were able to determine
from the plaster marks that Michelangelo worked on it 449 days over a five
year period. (Frescos must be painted on wet plaster, so you must mix a
fresh batch each day.) Since Michelangelo had to learn the technique to do
the job, you can clearly see the improvement in his designs in the large
panels on the ceiling, which improve as you approach the altar. You can
also see the tremendous difference in mood between the fanciful ceiling
(painted at age 35) and the tormented Last Judgment on the wall behind the
altar (painted at age 65).In St. Peter’s we admired the scale of the building
(The Sun Bank building in Orlando, 24 stores tall, would easily fit inside
the dome), Bernini’s outrageous monuments and canopy, and the recently
beatified pope somebody or other, whose waxen smile welcomes everyone
strolling past his mummified corpse. Beneath the basilica is the reputed
tomb of St. Peter. But Isabella clued us in to the fact that the box
everyone is taking photos of doesn’t hold his relics (that’s “bones” to
you non-Catholics). It actually contains one of the Pope’s old shirts. St.
Peter’s alleged bones are another level down.

Because Isabella was such a fabulous guide, we asked
her to spend another hour with us. She took us to the Roman houses beneath
the basilica of Ss. Giovanni e Paolo (that’s Mr. John and Paul to you
non-Italians). John and Paul were a couple of fourth century Christians
who lived in a house that is reputed to be the first Christian church in
Rome. When Constantine died, the next emperor, Julian the Apostate, wasn’t
a Christian. As a result, John and Paul lost their heads. Literally. They
were buried under their house.In the fifth century the current basilica was built
on top of the house. The rooms below were used for storage and wine
making, and some of the pagan frescoes were painted over. The basement was
listed in the Middle Ages’ equivalent of the Zagat Guide to Holy
Tourist Spots
and lots of pilgrims went to lower their neck chains
into the hole over the reputed tombs. Then the whole thing was filled with
dirt and forgotten. Later, someone built a well right down through the
middle. Then, in 1887, Padre Germano, priest at the church,
decided to try to find John and Paul. When he started digging he was
amazed to discover the Roman house, adjacent apartment complex and shops,
and even an earlier house beneath that. In fact the only thing he didn’t
find was John and Paul. Visitors can follow catwalks through the many
fascinating levels of the excavations far below the church. The frescoes
have been uncovered, and you can walk around the shaft of the well!
This is probably the single most interesting site in all of Rome. The
adjacent museum holds an amazing array of artifacts from the house and
apartments, including fine glassware, plates, coins, statuary and Pokemon
cards (just checking if you’re awake).

For dinner we went back to the same trattoria where
we had lunch, but Dani wasn’t feeling up to it, so I walked her back to
the room. She felt better later, though. As it grew dark — a little past
9pm — Linda and I enjoyed drinks in the courtyard.


Although it took 300 years to build, the duomo isn’t still
under construction. Perhaps they’re using that scaffolding to replace some
of the Legos it appears to me made from.

People in Orvieto must wear tall hats.

Friday,
June 18, 2004

Umbria (Orvieto and Todi)

Today we actually joined the tour group. We met in
the lobby while we waited for the bags to be collected, which took 30
Italian minutes (an hour and a half). The group is comprised of a wide range of ages,
including another girl Dani’s age (13) several other teenagers and even a
few middle aged folks, as well as the grandparents who are treating all
the teenagers to European tours. The group is entirely Americans, except for two
retired South Africans who now live in Chicago. It’s a better traveled
(and therefore better behaved) tour group than any I have been with
before. While we waited we swapped stories about travels in Australia,
England, France and Italy.We boarded our comfortable tour bus before 10am and
driver Simone (pronounce the final ‘e’) headed us north. In less than two
hours we found our bus climbing the steep road to Orvieto, a town in
Umbria. Umbria is the only one of Italy’s districts that
doesn’t border an ocean or another country. It is rural, with only about
90 people per square mile. We saw corn, olives, tobacco, grapes and many
vegetables along the way.In Orvieto we visited the duomo, a basilica
constructed from 1290 to 1590 (these things take time). If you’re keeping
score, this was the third church of our trip. It was riveting. Just
kidding.The construction of the church was inspired by (I’m
not making this up) a miracle in nearby Bolsena, when the consecrated wine
actually turned to blood and spilled onto the altar cloth. I hate when
that happens.

We had a very nice group lunch in the small
Trattoria la Grotta: ziti, a delicate vegetable lasagna, chicken, beans,
salad and a wonderful tira misu were accompanied by white wine (Orvieto, of
course) and a not-too-sweet spumante (I didn’t know there was such a thing).
The bread in this part of Italy is not that
great, because it lacks salt. This tradition dates to the building of the
Trevi fountain, when a tax was imposed on salt, and the city states outside
Rome refused to pay.
After lunch Linda and Dani pursued the traditional Renaissance activity of
trying to get a stuffed toy out of the claw machine in the arcade next to
the duomo. No luck.
We
did a little shopping. Dani found some nice glass pen and ink sets as gifts,
and Linda bought a pair of Etruscan style ear rings.

In
1527 Pope Clement VII commissioned the construction of a huge well, the
Pozzo di San Patrizio, to provide Orvieto with water in case the city was
attacked. (In those days Italy was comprised of many separate city states
that couldn’t get along… a lot like today, in fact.)
But this well is no ordinary well. This well
is a work of art. In case you don’t know your arts from a hole in the
ground, let me assure you this is one big hole. It’s 203 feet deep. And
there’s no rope.
But this pope was no ropeless dope. There
are two intertwined staircases, each with 248 steps that spiral down the
sides of the well. One for down, the other for up.

Why two staircases, you ask? It’s
hard to turn a donkey around on a staircase. And they don’t swim well.

We didn’t have a donkey, so we sent Dani
down to take pictures.

An
hour’s drive east from Orvieto brought us to another hilltop town, Todi. The
two towns are separated by rolling countryside, farms and a zigzagging River
Tiber.
Our hotel, The Bramante, is nestled on a
hillside below the town, and is connected to it by a nearby funicular
(inclined elevator car).
The Bramante was formerly a 12th century
convent. What the nuns did with this swimming pool, I have no idea.

Anyway, our room is about twice the size of
the one in Rome. It’s a lovely, peaceful spot.

In
the evening we took the funicular to the top of the hill and wandered the
medieval streets of Todi. It’s a charming little town of 17,000 residents
and 18,000 churches. The many gift shops seem reasonably priced.
Linda found a wonderful trattoria, with a
floral bedecked patio overlooking the Umbrian valleys. We had a leisurely
dinner as the sun set. The wine was a 2000 Sagrantino di Montefalco by
Antonelli, a dark and complex red with which I was not familiar. We took the
funicular back to the hotel around 10pm.

Saturday,
June 19, 2004

Tuscany (Assisi, Siena and Florence)

The cool breezes wafting across the terrace
at the hotel provided a lovely environment for our al fresco breakfast. Then
we headed to Assisi, about an hour northeast.


I call this picture, “Can you hear me now, Monk?”
Assisi was the home of St. Francis, founder of the Franciscan order. There a
local guide, Maurizio, provided a tour of the basilica (number 4 if you’re
keeping count). My “Whisper” radio receiver was on the blink so I can’t
comment on the commentary, but Linda and Dani(!) said it was interesting.
For me it was among the more boring hours of my life.
To summarize, the church is unusual because it
acknowledges not just Catholicism, but also Judaism and Islam, without
invoking weapons.
Beneath the church is the crypt, with the
tomb of St. Francis. There you can purchase a candle for St. Francis. You
pick it up from one box and place it into another. There is a sign that says
“Please do not light”. The church has discovered they last much longer this
way. Yet another miracle.

Back in the main church, at the shrine of
St. Duracell, you may place a coin in a slot and an electric candle will
light for a while. Sort of a parking meter for blessings.

Finally we escaped from the church into the
courtyard in front of the monk’s quarters, turned around and climbed the
steps into —  aaargh! —  another church, this one the top level
of the previous. That’s number 5.

As with the one downstairs, the walls and
ceiling had been covered with pictures of flat people painted by
perspective-challenged artists. Those by Giotto included just enough
perspective to demonstrate how bad he was at it.

Slowly I inched toward the fresh air and
natural light beyond the exit, and at last we were released. On the way back
to the bus we visited the subbasement of the church where for fifty
eurocents we paid homage to the pagan god of white porcelain.

The
two hour drive northwest to Siena gave us time to nap and appreciate the
fact that we were not in a church.
Siena is a gothic (13th century) town that was once a powerful city state
until it was conquered by the Medici family of Florence, an event the local
residents still resent.
We had a rather long walk to the restaurant
for lunch and it was hard on quite a few of those in our group. Fortunately
the three of us got into training in Rome.
On the way we passed through the Piazza del
Campo, an unusually large square where an annual bareback horse race is run.
There are no rules, just three times around the square, the winning horse is
the first to cross, with or without its rider.

Lunch was different.

Different than good, anyway: antipasti, odd
pieces of thick crust pizza with strange coatings, and then a bowl of
garbanzo bean soup. Fortunately there was plentiful white, red and dessert
wine, perhaps an attempt to make up for the food. The dessert wine was the
most interesting, a late harvest Sangiovese.

The restaurant featured 13th century
architecture and acoustical treatments (brick).


The light in this weird alley looked neat.

A
local guide met us after lunch and took us on a torturous tour of Siena,
which exhausted many of our group.
But you’ll never guess what we saw on the
tour–
Oh. You guessed.

Yes, we visited 183 churches.

The largest church in Siena is the duomo.
(I think the Italians have all these different names so you won’t realize
that all the buildings are churches.) Unlike the duomo in Orvieto, which is
white and light gray striped, this one has an important difference. It’s
white and dark gray striped.

In their competition to “out stripe” the
Florentines, the residents of Siena began building an addition to the church
that would have converted the existing structure to a mere knave. The Plague
put and end to the supply of both workers and congregation, but two walls
still stand.

The best church was the one that displayed
in an open box (I’m not making this up) the head of St. Catherine of Siena,
who apparently didn’t need it after she died in 1380. I wish we had stuff
like that at Disney World.

Dani was still hungry after watching us eat
lunch. Deciding against communion wafers, she made a fast food run to Siena’s only McDonalds while the rest of us straggled
back to the bus. I suspect more than a few people on the bus were jealous of
that burger.

It was a very quiet hour and a half bus ride
to Florence.

In retrospect, I don’t think visiting Assisi
and Siena is a waste of time, but I do think the activities our tour engaged
in were pointless and repetitive. I am certain everyone in our group would
have preferred a couple of hours in Siena to find lunch on their own and to
shop.

Unlike the four hilltop towns we’ve just visited, Florence (which is really
called Firenze) is located in a valley, and is divided by the Arno river.
Much of the town is a typical 20th century European city, due to the beating
it took in World War II.
Our hotel,
the Anglo American, is quite nice. Our room is cool. You enter into a small
sitting area with built-in desk and cabinets, and a love seat that makes
into a twin bed. There is also a fair-sized bathroom. Along one wall are
open stairs — no railing — that go to a loft with two more twin beds and a
large bathroom.
(All of the bathrooms we’ve had have
included bidets, but this is the first time I’ve encountered little bottles
of “intimate cleanser”. The ingredients are identical to the shampoo. Hmmm.)
We
walked along the Arno River about six blocks to Harry’s American Bar and
Grill for dinner. It’s not the dark, wood-paneled, intimate space in the ad,
but rather a bright, noisy place.
I wouldn’t say it’s really American, but
it’s not really Italian either. The service was formal, reminding me of
continental restaurants from the 1950s.
One of the reasons we decided to try
Harry’s was that our guide Larry warned us the place was expensive, and we
wanted to see what a $34 hamburger looks like.

Maybe it’s just that after Arpège nothing
will ever seem expensive, but it didn’t seem all that bad. The hamburger was
only 19 Euros… and the fries another eight… hmmm, let’s see… that
makes…  $34.

Anyway, I had smoked trout and an Entrecote
that was excellent. Linda had — I’m not kidding — pasta. The wine, a 1999
“super Tuscan” by Collazzi, was superb.

 

Sunday,
June 20, 2004

Florence

Sunday was a beautiful, blustery day, with cool
breezes to offset the heat of the sun. It rained a few minutes during
breakfast, then the wind pushed the clouds east. 

Florence is marvelously walkable. Although the city is
large, the central area is only about a half mile square.

Today was a church-free day.

We wound our way through the twisty streets to the
Piazza di Signoria, stopping along the way for some shopping in an outdoor
bazaar. Many shops were open even though it’s Sunday.

At the bazaar we recognized a bronze statue of a boar.
There is a copy of it at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando. Legend
has it that if you rub its snout for good luck… the snout will stay shiny.

It works.

In the Piazza
we admired the scaffolding that surrounds a copy of Michelangelo’s David.
(This is where it originally stood, prior to being moved into a museum for
safekeeping during the 1880s.)
More impressive
was Cellini’s bronze of Perseus Beheading Medusa, which stood
opposite. What they say about the medusa must be true, because all of the
figures around it were stone.
There was also Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine
Women
, but they hadn’t gotten to the raping yet.

We skipped the lines at the Palazzo Vecchio and Uffizi
art museums (sort of Italy’s version of the Louvre) and instead focused on
what Florence is really all about: shopping.

Dani bought a leather bound journal and wax seal with
her initials, and a few gifts.

The place to
buy jewelry — at least the place for tourists to buy jewelry — is in the
shops that line the Ponte Vecchio. This bridge, the only one to survive the
German demolition teams as they retreated during WWII, used to be the
location of the butchers and tanners. But the smell was so bad in the 1500s
the ruling families kicked them out, and the jewelers moved in.
Across the upper level of the Ponte Vecchio is a
causeway the Medicis used to get from one palace to another without having
to mix with the peons. Untended by the Germans during the war, it became a
route for the resistance to cross the lines with plans of their artillery
placements.

We had lunch at
Ristorante Dei Bardi, a wine bar with a spectacular view of the river and
the Ponte Vecchio. Wine, cheese, salads, fish, meats, pastas, bread, fruits
and coffee — a typical two-hour Italian lunch.
On our way back across the bridge Dani bought a Roman coin of Constantine I,
mounted in a pendant. Linda bought a chain for Dani to hang it on, and
another chain for herself. (I gave Dani her allowance and trip money on a
prepaid Visa card. She has been enjoying the novelty of paying with
plastic.)
We assembled in the lobby at 7pm and a fleet of taxis drove our group
across town to Tavernetta Della Signoria for our farewell dinner. The
company was good; we enjoyed hearing everyone’s travel stories. Larry, our
guide, has had an interesting life, raising a family while working for the
US foreign service in Morocco and Paris, and now traveling the world hosting
different tours almost every week.

After dinner I decided to walk back to
the hotel by myself so I could take some photos of Florence at night. The
moon was out and it was a glorious evening along the Arno, with the sky
still fading to indigo at 10pm.

Monday,
June 21, 2004

Florence to Venice

The Eurostar Train pulled out of Firenze Station at
8:50am for our three-hour eastward trip across Italy to Venice. This is
the final leg of our land tour.

In Venice (it’s really called Venezia) we went straight to the ship, and
were onboard by 12:30. Our suite is on the stern of the ship, so we have
nearly a 180 degree view, guaranteeing we can see the port city no matter
which side is used to dock. We can see Epcot’s — er, I mean St. Mark’s —
tower from the ship.

Our cabin layout is virtually identical to that we
had last year in Alaska, except mirrored. There is a sitting are with a
convertible sofa, and a bedroom area with a queen bed. Both sides have built
in desks and drawers so Dani and I can leave our computers set up. There is
also a bar, walk-in closet and a divided bathroom.

Our cabin stewardess,
Nicole, is the best we have had. She and her husband have been aboard for
eight months, and this is their next to last voyage. During that time the
Star Princess has been all around the world.

Nicole clued us in to a
few features of the suite we weren’t suspecting: free laundry, dry cleaning and
Internet access (although unfortunately no wireless access.)

We spent the
afternoon exploring the ship and doing… well, nothing. It felt great. Then
we had a pleasant dinner in one of the ship’s dining rooms and hit the sack.

Tuesday,
June 22, 2004

Venice

We were up early for our morning tour of Venice. It
began with a motor launch that took us through the lagoon to the Grand
Canal where we went on a 40-minute gondola ride in the canals.Often people describe things as unique, but usually
it isn’t really true. Venice surprised me. It really is unique. There are no cars, not motor bikes, not even any
bicycles in the city. The streets are few, and they arbitrarily narrow to
only a few feet wide, because there is no need to accommodate anything
larger than a person. The city is actually a network of 118 islands
separated by 150 canals and connected by 400 bridges. Most of the canals
have no sidewalks, so it really is almost impossible to get around without
using a boat. The cheapest form of transportation is a water bus,
at about one Euro. The most expensive is a private water taxi, which costs
70 Euros(!) to go from one side of the city to the other, a distance of
only a few kilometers.The tide seems to run only a few feet, but it appears
to get dangerously close to the ground floor of most buildings. It’s a
very harsh environment for construction.I was amazed at the amount of traffic on the canals:
not just tourist gondolas, but launches delivering vegetables and
supplies, construction and baggage handling boats, even garbage collection
boats.

It was rush hour Venetian style.

Our next stop was Morano, a collection of
islands a few kilometers away, where glass has been made since the 12th
century. We watched a demonstration of a decorative carafe being made. It
was impressive, but not the delicate ballet of four glassmakers we watched
at the Hedeland Glassworks in Sweden.
The shop upstairs was ridiculously priced — a
set of six goblets was 1600 Euros — but we bought a few decorative trinkets
downstairs.
The final stop on our tour was a church, but
we escaped and caught a water bus across the lagoon to St. Marks square.
It’s a lot bigger than the Epcot version — and a lot more crowded.

We explored the side streets and canals for a
while, looking for a restaurant that wasn’t a tourist trap.
Finally Linda saw one that looked fairly
traditional, and we went in and sat down…
…only to discover the ceiling of the room
was decorated as a cave! The food was actually pretty good, and a carafe of
wine was less than four Euros.
After lunch we walked back to St. Mark’s
Square and had great fun feeding the zillions of pigeons.
The Star Princess left port at 6:30. We
watched from our aft balcony as a tugboat wrestled against the ship’s
engines, rotating it to squeeze through the lagoon and into the Adriatic.

Wednesday,
June 23, 2004

At Sea

Today we did nothing. It was nice.Actually, Dani and I spent a couple of hours painting ceramic boxes.
They don’t have a studio here like they did on the Coral Princess, but
they do have a cart up on the pool deck, with the same selection of bisque
and glazes. We’ll decorate our boxes with scenes from the trip, just like
we did last year in Alaska.Then we did nothing.We discovered that having the cabin on the rear of the ship has a
disadvantage: the white noise created by the wake is really quite loud.
The balcony is fine for reading, but conversation is a challenge.It was formal evening, so we dressed in our best and headed for the
Promenade Lounge, where Dani, Linda, Dani, Steve and Dani shared some
caviar.

Sabatini’s is one of two restaurants that have a small cover charge in
exchange for finer dining. We had dined at Sabatini’s on the Coral
Princess, so we knew we should only have a bite of the first dozen things
we were served! They weren’t exactly courses, since the waiters only
replace the plate after every half dozen items or so, but we were served
food 28 separate times! Even being careful, it was still impossible to do
justice to the cold water lobster when the entrees finally arrived. The
wine was an excellent 2000 Amarone.

Thursday,
June 24, 2004

At Sea

More ceramics in the morning, then more nothing.I wish I had a dollar for every Dan Brown book on this ship. I guess
Dan Brown does. While she was sick in Rome Dani read the DaVinci
Code and Digital Fortress (plus three other books that didn’t earn Dan
Brown and money). Linda brought Deception Point and I forgot Angels and
Demons, but found it in the ship’s store. So Dani is reading that now. I
must have seen a hundred other copies of those books around the ship
today.

Dinner was at Tequila’s/Sterling Steak House, the other cover charge
restaurant on the ship. Originally I suspect they were trying for a
Mexican-themed steak house, but the only remnant of Mexico was the decor.
The steaks were excellent, the service a bit clueless, and the band truly
horrible. It’s difficult to say which rendition was worse, Spanish Eyes or
Horse With No Name, but the fact they were both in the same set gives some
suggestion of the band’s awfulness.


“Magic Atmosphere”?!

Friday,
June 25, 2004

Kusadasi, Turkey

The ship docked at the town of Kusadasi (Coo-SHA-duh-see) while we were
having breakfast on our balcony. The town has grown from a sleepy fishing
village to a large resort area over the past 30 years. Before the war in
Iraq there were as many as eleven cruise ships in the harbor at once.
Today we were the only one. A security boat circled our ship all day,
staying between us and any small boats that passed.Despite this precaution, Kusadasi seemed like a very clean and safe —
if annoying — town. It’s been a long time since I was in a place where
every shop keeper tried to drag me into his store full of tourist crap,
but it only took me a few minutes to remember why it had been so
long. Fortunately our bus departed almost immediately for Ephesus, a
Greco-Roman city about 25 minutes outside Kusadasi.By the way, did you know that Turkey is actually spelled Turkiye (with
some funny little marks I can’t make) and is pronounced tur-KAY-uh?Although GWB is working hard to turn the Turks into enemies, the Muslim
influence in Turkey is somewhat muted. (Istanbul was originally on this
cruise itinerary, but was removed in February. Just as well — they’re
rioting against Americans there this week.) A statue of Ataturk, founder
of Turkey, stands on the hill above Kusadasi even though graven images are
a violation of Islam.Ephesus was founded in the fourth century BC by the Greeks. In the
second city BC the Romans moved in. At its peak there were a quarter
million residents. It was a very rich town because of its excellent harbor
for traders and the nearby Temple of Artemis (several times larger than
the Parthenon) which brought many pilgrims.The traders and pilgrims brought money. The streets of Ephesus were
paved in marble. Every house had indoor plumbing. There were toilets with
running water, sewers with manhole covers, even a marble bed heated by hot
water pipes. The library had double insulated walls and cubbies to store
12,000 scrolls. A small theater — still in use by performers like Elton
John and Ray Charles — seats 1400. A larger stadium seated 37,000. (I
suppose Elton was once popular enough to fill the larger stadium, but it’s
a crumbling ruin… a bit like Elton, in fact.)By the fifth century AD Ephesus was in decline. The harbor filled with
silt, leaving the city two miles from the sea. The Romans, now officially
Christian, no longer made pilgrimages to the temple. Earthquakes finished
the job. Ephesus lay undisturbed until the late 1800s. Even today, only 10% of
the site has been excavated.Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, and also funny. We were truly
impressed by what a beautiful city Ephesus once was. While not preserved
like Pompeii, it was easy to glimpse its former glory.Back in town we were ushered into a carpet salesroom for an almost
exact replay of our carpet salesroom experience in Morocco over twenty
years ago. They’re cheaper at Home Depot. The carpets are woven by girls belonging to nomadic Turks, who comprise
about 8% of the population. They take about a year each to weave, and
comprise the girls’ dowries.Many of the carpets contained repeating symbols of five squares,
symbolizing the number of times a day that Muslims pray. (According to the
salesman, good Muslims pray five times a day, bad Muslims sell rugs in
Kusadasi.) A little hot apple cider, a pita, and many carpets later we escaped
with wallet intact. (It’s traditional for salespeople to give you apple
drinks and food. Selling through guilt. Hmmm… I wonder if that would
work for Alcorn McBride…)I wrestled my way through the salesmen back to the ship; Linda and Dani
stayed to shop. Later they returned with two rugs about the size of cat
boxes. (Past experience suggests this is an apt comparison.) They had a
pleasant lunch on the pier, where the local cats were enthusiastic about
the shrimp and lamb kebabs, but weren’t allowed to use the rugs.

We went up to deck 17 and watched the 360 degree view of the ship leaving
Kusadasi harbor, then Linda and I snuck down to the Promenade Lounge for
some caviar without Dani.

Saturday,
June 26, 2004

Athens

We docked in Piraeus, Athen’s very busy harbor, a 6:00 am, and
were boarding a coach for the Acropolis a little after 7:00 am. It was
worth getting up so early, because we were one of the first groups to
reach the hill, and it was uncrowded and not yet hot. Both conditions
would change within an hour. It’s quite a climb to the top, but we were in good shape after our
training in Rome. The weather was pretty hazy, and so was our guide. Actually
Angelica knew her subject, she just wasn’t very
interesting. I’ll try to be more exciting.The Parthenon was constructed by the Greeks, and is only one of a
number of temples on the Acropolis. In addition to its use by the Greeks
and Romans, it was also at one point converted to a Turkish mosque —
complete with minaret. The reigning Turk kept his harem in a nearby temple
named — I’m not making this up — the Erectheon. The Parthenon was in fairly good shape until the Turks decided to store ammunition in it, and
it was bombarded by enemy artillery until the obvious conclusion was
reached. Today it has been 45% reassembled using 85% percent original parts. The
rest of the original parts (all the good stuff) are in the British Museum.Like everything else in Athens, the Greeks have decided to spruce it up
for the Olympics (which start in a month) by surrounding it with
scaffolding. Like everything else in Athens it won’t be ready for the
Olympics.Actually, the Olympic venues we saw appeared to be ready — if you
don’t think landscaping, parking and infrastructure are particularly
important. The major challenge of these Olympic games will be simply
getting to them.The problem is that after WWII Athens was a town of 800,000, but within
15 years the population had grown to more than 3 million. Plenty of
buildings were constructed — which is why Athens looks like a modern city.
(Here’s a bit of trivia: 92% of Greeks own their residence, the highest
rate in Europe, perhaps anywhere.) But no highways or other infrastructure were constructed to go along with
all those buildings. As a result traffic on the twisty little streets is terrible.

Fortunately, we were in Athens on a Saturday, so we only had to contend with
the weekend traffic as we left town and headed for Corinth, a little over
an hour west. Along the way we stopped at a French beach resort for a buffet lunch that was quite tasty, but of no
discernible nationality. (I use the term “beach” loosely. I wonder if the
brochures mention it’s 100% gravel.)

Ancient Corinth was located on the isthmus that connects the
Peloponnesus Peninsula to the Greek mainland.  It was originally a
Greek, then a Roman city. The agora — shopping and meeting area — have
been excavated down to the Roman level. We enjoyed exploring the site because unlike at Ephesus we could wander
among the ruins. Dani and I climbed down into the underground tunnels that
connect a distant spring to the city’s fountains and water supply. The
system still works.It was 90 degrees, and the sun felt like a radiant heater, so we
tried to keep to the shade. Linda and a few others even carried parasols.
 
On the way back we stopped at the Corinth Canal, dug by the British in
the late 19th century. The 4-mile-long, 250-foot-high canal eliminated the
several hundred mile trip around the Peloponnesus. Unfortunately, at only
75 feet wide and 25 feet deep it almost immediately became useless for
modern commercial shipping.

Sunday,
June 27, 2004

At Sea

Champagne breakfast on the balcony. Sometimes the ship’s passage brings school of small fish to the surface. They
dart through the light blue wake as greedy seagulls swoop down, trying for
an easy snack. Once we saw a good sized fish leap four or five feet in the
air, perhaps chasing an unseen insect. Over and over he soared, until we
left him far behind.At 8 pm we squeezed through the Strait of Messina, where Italy’s toe
almost touches Sicily.

It was the second formal night, and we dined in Sabatini’s.

Monday,
June 28, 2004

Naples (Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri)

It’s a shame that Pompeii, Sorrento and Capri are all near Naples (which
is really
called Napoli). It’s just too much to do in one day, particularly when
it’s 95 degrees.Fortunately our tour was in the reverse order from when Dani and I
visited three years ago, and we were able to see Pompeii before it got really hot.Our first stop was at a cameo factory near Herculaneum. It was a bit of a
tourist trap, but soon we were on our way to Pompeii.

Our guide, Enzo, was much better than the previous one, and gave
us some real insights into everyday life in Pompeii. Of all the
archaeological sites, it’s definitely the best. It’s frozen at 2pm, August
24th, 79AD when Vesuvius erupted, burying 2000 of its 20,000 residents in
30 feet of ash.

Unlike our previous tour, this one wasn’t the erotic tour of Pompeii. But
although we skipped the house of Vetti and the whorehouses, it was still
hard to overlook the thousands of phalluses (phalli?) that sprout from
almost every wall. We also found a special barstool for Linda.

Down the coast about 20 miles (and through two very long tunnels under
the mountains) is Sorrento, a city that Dani and I only passed through. This
time we had a nice lunch at Villa Rubinacci and did a little shopping along
the Corsa Italia before climbing the steep stairs down to the jet boat dock.
The Corsa Italia is the only north/south route out of Naples. It’s about 30
feet wide (enough space for two lanes of traffic or about 1500 scooters).
When you consider there are 3 million people living on the slopes of Mount
Vesuvius — still a very active volcano — it’s pretty scary.

In twenty minutes we were on Capri. Up until this point we had been in a
group of 44 people, but we suddenly found ourselves dumped together with
about 400 other people from the Star Princess, all trying to take the
funicular from the harbor up to the town. We were all packed into a
super-heated loading area for an interminable wait. Finally at the top of
the funicular we emerged into… a tourist trap of a square filled with 400
Star Princess passengers.
This wasn’t at all like Dani’s and my previous
trip to Capri. Depressed, we wandered around for about a half hour before we
found a path leading to the back side of the island, and the Garden of
Augustus.

The view was fantastic. This was the idyllic Capri we remembered.
In retrospect, the last time we took a wild bus ride to the very top of the
island, where things are much less commercial.

After another torture session we took the funicular back down and caught
the jet boat directly back to the ship. Even after showers all the way
around Linda was still hot and tired, so Dani and I went to dinner on our
own while she ordered room service.

Tuesday,
June 29, 2004

Civitavecchia

It was strange wandering around a deserted cruise ship today, as nearly
all of the passengers left early for the long trip to Rome.The girls just wanted to veg today, so I took an early shuttle down the
long pier and into the port city of Civitavecchia. On the way I passed the
stone fort at the harbor entrance, with still visible WWII bombardment
damage. The city is a place where people — mostly maritime industry employees
and their families — actually live, not a tourist trap. It took less than
an hour to walk the grid of the commercial district, with its collection
of clothing and appliance stores.There were many people out walking, but few tourists. At the end of an
alley I spied a crowd and went to investigate. I found myself in an
open-air market: more than a full city block of stalls selling fruits,
vegetables, meats, clothing, and an assortment of flea market merchandise. People were rather dressed up for market day. The older women in
particular wore dresses with fancy beaded necklaces or colorful scarves.
They haggled over the prices, then loaded their purchases into baby
strollers or pushcarts and moved on to the next stall.

My only purchase was a fairly hard-sided suitcase, for 20 Euros, to
transport some of our more fragile acquisitions. Then I headed back to the
ship, before the day began to heat up.

Wednesday,
June 30, 2004

Livorno (Pisa)

Imagine having a guide who despised the place she’s guiding you to.
That was Viola.Apparently there is a longstanding rivalry between Livorno and Pisa. We
boarded our bus in the port of Livorno and were greeted by local resident
Viola, who quickly admitted she hates Pisa. During the 30-minute drive she
delivered a litany of everything that was wrong with the place. This was
particularly remarkable, considering that Livorno — at least the
industrial area where the ship docked — is slightly less appealing than
the anus of a dead goat.So it was with considerable skepticism that we approached the “miracle
square” of Pisa, with its duomo (yes, another church), baptistery (a
church in disguise) and leaning tower (a church bell tower).As it turned out, even Dani and I had to admit that the church was the
most beautiful we’ve seen on this trip, both inside an out.

 


Linda listening to the echo echo
And the baptistery possesses incredible acoustics, designed for
Gregorian chanting. Any sound reverberates for perhaps half a minute, as
demonstrated periodically by one of the female guards, who delivered a two
minute performance that was quite remarkable.
Linda and Dani climbed the 243 steps sandwiched between the inner and
outer domes, all the way to the top.

Linda & Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss
Obligatory tourist photo
The tower is open to the public again, after an 11-year effort to
straighten it  from a 5.5 degree tilt back to a 5 degree angle,
removing about 200 years of settling. This was accomplished by carefully
digging underneath the high side.
Forty brave people are allowed to climb
the hollow cylinder  each half hour, but insurance is not included.

I
knew they had made some adjustments during the 100-year construction of the
tower, but I never realized they had resulted in it being slightly banana
shaped. If you look carefully at the photo you can see that it actually
curves back toward the duomo.

Even though it was hot, it was definitely
worth the trip to Pisa. Still, we were happy to return to the ship, even if
it was stuck in the rear end of a goat.

Dani and I headed for the sun deck
for hotdogs, iced mochaccinos and a dip in the pool while Linda took a nap.

Thursday,
July 1, 2004

Monte Carlo, Monaco

The city of Monte Carlo is essentially the same thing as the country of
Monaco, since the entire country is less than one square mile. It’s a
cluster of mostly 1960s high rises pressed against the steep mountains on
the coast between France and Italy.

The Star Princess is bigger than the entire harbor, so we moored off
the coast and took tenders to the dock.

The city isn’t really oriented toward cruise ships. Instead the marina
caters to multimillion dollar yachts. The shops along the pier are an
eclectic collection of art galleries, upscale brasseries and boat
maintenance businesses. The only gift shop was closed from noon to 2:30 pm,
the majority of the time the ship was in port.

We had a delicious lunch at
Quai Des Artistes. It was nice to find some true French cooking after two
weeks of Italian and cruise ship cuisine.

After lunch Dani and I spent
only a few minutes walking around before deciding to head back to the ship.
Linda went on a tour of the casino made famous in many James Bond movies.


Grand Marina Hotel

Friday,
July 2, 2004

At Sea / Barcelona

It’s a long way from Monte Carlo to Barcelona, so the ship doesn’t arrive until noon.
There was a 25 knot wind during the night, which made for a bit of a wild
ride; I was glad I was lying down!We have sailed 2593 nautical miles since leaving Venice.

Most of the passengers left the ship for shore excursions, but since we
have two more days in Barcelona we stayed aboard and had the ship to
ourselves for a leisurely day, much of it spent fitting all our stuff back
into the luggage.


This is a monument at the location of Columbus’ return
from the new world.

The Guadi Cathedral is worth a close look.

Saturday,
July 3, 2004

Barcelona

Barcelona is a beautiful city. Rarely have my expectations been so
completely wrong. I had envisioned a sleepy, dusty old town. Instead it is
a vibrant, clean metropolis. We purchased a two-day pass for the tourist buses that continuously circle
the city. These double-decker busses are open on top. You can hop on and
off at any stop, listen to the commentary in eight languages, or simply
enjoy the sun, the wind, and the occasional tree branch in the face.Barcelona offers a dazzling mixture of modern, traditional and truly
fanciful architecture. Most impressive are the many buildings by the
architect Gaudi, whose organic structures fascinate the eye and impart a
playfulness to the entire city. His cathedral, the Temple de la Sagrada
Familia, which is about halfway
through a 200-year construction project, is simultaneously beautiful and
creepy. Currently at 100 meters, when its twelve towers are complete it
will reach 170 meters The towers are hollow parabolas, designed to enhance
the sound of
the bells to be hung in them.Taking the recommendation of one of the hotel receptionists, we dined at
a restaurant on the Passeig de Gracia called Tapa Tapa. Not surprisingly,
it was a tapas restaurant. It was also delicious. We had many, many
courses, most of them only about $3.Ordering was simple because the hundred or so selections were pictured
on the placemats. This was a good thing, because the descriptions were in
the local language, Catalan, something across between French and Spanish that took
considerable deciphering.

Catalonia is the eastern corner of Spain. With a population
of 6 million, it is one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. Its
major city,
Barcelona, is one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean. It is a
center for art, finance and commerce.

After lunch we waddled up the block to a book store where Dani added to
her Harry Potter collection with editions in Spanish and Catalan.

The five star Grand Marina Hotel is easily the nicest of our trip.
The ultra modern building is circular, and sits on a cruise ship pier in the
marina. Our room is huge, with an expansive bathroom and hi-tech shower
separated by futuristic sliding glass panels. Every surface is covered in
rare wood or marble.

There is a fantastic guide book in our room, even though it’s one of those
hard cover advertising books you find in all hotel rooms. It’s filled with maps
and useful information, arranged in order, and even lists non-advertisers.
It weighs about 20 pounds and costs $85. Some of the information is
available at www.barcelonastyle.com

The book describes a night on the
town: dinner followed by a night club. Night clubs open around 12:30 am and
some go to 6 am. Then you can go for a stroll, and still have breakfast as
late as noon. (Presumably one then sleeps.)

After a siesta we went in
search of an early (for Spaniards) dinner at 10 pm. We walked to the marina
and had seafood at El Chipiron Monchos. Linda and I shared a passable
paella. Dani ordered spiny lobster, but her plans changed when the intended
victim showed up at the table writhing indignantly.

Since evening
is the central point of the day here anyway, we’re trying to get on a later
schedule in preparation for our afternoon flight home on Monday. So now
bedtime is 1 am.

Sunday,
July 4, 2004

Barcelona

Happy 4th of July!

It was a beautiful day in Barcelona and we made good use of it. I started
the morning catching up on email and uploading my journal in the hotel’s
business center, which is really just a corner of the lovely piano bar on
the first floor.

Sunday breakfast was popular, and the patrons spilled out of the adjacent
restaurant into the hotel’s courtyard. It was close to 11 am by the time I
finished uploading (while listening to piano music and leafing through a
beautiful book about Dali). I hurried up to the room afraid that Linda and
Dani would wonder where I’d gone, and found them… still asleep! Spanish
time, indeed.

Eventually we made our way to the historical center
of the city and strolled down the Rambla de Santa Monica, admiring the many
booths of jewelry, pets (including chipmunks), postcards, and souvenirs.
There were also street performers, including a horrible Mickey Mouse and two
ratty Pooh Bears. And mimes. Always the damn mimes.

Soon we found
ourselves on Paseig de Gracia. Since it was now lunch time — 1 pm, early
for the locals, but hey — we decided to have lunch in Citrus Restaurantus,
one flight above where we ate yesterday. This meal was more Mediterranean
than tapas, but it was nice.

After lunch we crossed the street to admire
Gaudi’s organic Casa Battlo. Truly beautiful.

We caught the tourist bus
and took it past the Temple del al Sagrada Familia (no visible progress
since yesterday) to Parc Guell, where we found Gaudi’s house and a lot of
other wild architecture. (It was a long steep walk up to the park, but we’ve
been in training.)

The central plaza of the park is supported by 84 Doric
columns, the outer ones canted inward. There is also a winding portico
supported by strange organic pillars covered with lava rock. Everywhere
there are mosaics.

Next we caught the tourist bus and took it to a
shopping area on the aptly named Avinguda Diagonal, which cuts diagonally
across the entire city. We were looking for a shop Dani wanted to visit:
Chocolat Factory. It lived up to its billing chocolate-wise, even if it
wasn’t a factory. Nothing like 77% cocoa to bring a smile.

We rehydrated
at an outdoor cafe as the sun set behind the buildings, then caught the
tourist bus back to the hotel to clean up and relax before dinner.

Tired,
we selected the restaurant on the first floor of the hotel, which proved to
be a good choice. It was quiet, intimate and sophisticated, and since it
wasn’t yet 10 pm there weren’t many other customers. We had their
seven-course tasting dinner which was pretty adventurous, with giant
sardines, grape soup, turbot, suckling pig, and two different desserts. The
most interesting thing was the chocolates they served afterwards, which
seemed to contain something like ground up Pop Rocks. Weird.

Monday,
July 5, 2004

Barcelona to Orlando

The Barcelona airport is bursting with colorful shops and cafes. It was
so nice we would have been happy to browse, but after a short wait in the
Air France lounge we boarded our Delta flight for Atlanta, and connection
to Orlando.

It was a great trip — perhaps a week too long, as (some of us) missed
our pets — but full of interesting places and fun experiences, and we
enjoyed each other’s company throughout.

Some Tips for Next Time

When booking a cabin, check the exterior view of the ship in that area.
Our balcony was substantially blocked by a support member. The suite next
to ours was not.Avoid aft cabins. The wake is noisy.The Star Princess and other ships in its class are not as well designed
as the slightly smaller Coral Princess. The elevators don’t cooperate well
with one another and dining and shopping access is all in one spot.While most of the service on the Star Princess was excellent, the room
service was, to be kind, incompetent. Also, the attempt to emulate NCL’s
“Freestyle Dining” with flexible seating in the dining room simply doesn’t
work well, with long waits at popular times. The smaller and newer Coral
Princess didn’t have this problem.

Don’t try to do Pompeii and Capri in the same day; select one. And
don’t take the funicular in Capri, take a taxi to the very top. The people
who visited Pompeii and the farm in Sorrento really liked that tour.

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