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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Touring Rome with Francesco from MilesandMiles.Net

                   Touring Rome with Francesco from Miles and Miles.Net!
Francesco & M.A.
Our stay was at the four-star modern Hotel Tiber in Fiumencino (near the airport) and it was exceptional.  I even found Fox News on the TV along with ESPN and watched some baseball.  Monday morning we got up and went to the top of the hotel for a fantastic breakfast.  Most European hotels offer a “continental” breakfast but this hotel had scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, hot toast, yogurt, orange juice, coffee and more.

Our private guide, Francesco, showed up right on time at 9am. He is in his mid-thirties, handsome, wavy dark hair and he has a warm smile. I think MA was slightly dazzled by him!  He also spoke excellent English, a lot of which he learned at home from his mother. But when someone speaks a second language well, it is usually a sign they spent some time in the country of that language as did Francesco who came to College Station, Texas for a while. Small world! His tour company is family owned and specializes in the history, the secrets, back roads, cappuccino cafes and ice cream parlors of Rome.  They operate with 17 Mercedes vans running every single day! And btw, they are recommended by Rick Steves.
Why did we elect to have a private guide in Rome? MA did the math. She calculated the cost of cabs to/from the train, if we could get a cab, train tickets to/from town, Hop-on Hop-off bus tours, tickets to venues, long lines and back to our hotel, plus not knowing our way around all that well. Then there’s that knee business and lots of walking is not yet in the cards.  So we coughed up some extra Euros for a personal guide, chauffer driven van and saw sights most tourists never see.
St. Peter's dome

The first stop of the day was Francesco’s neighborhood which is near the Vatican.  We got there via his secretly known back streets bypassing the infamous Rome traffic jams.  The first order of business was his favorite coffee shop where we all had a cappuccino. This was like no other cappuccino I've ever had.  Excellent describes it best!  From there we went to a nearby hill where we had a great view of the Vatican and Rome.  

We then went proceeded to the oldest part of the city where the streets were built for horse drawn carts and pedestrians.  They are barely wide enough for one car going one way.  Somehow Francesco had a way of finding a place to park or if not, he just double parked! When in Rome!! We stopped at the Ciuri Ciuri, a pastry and ice cream shop and he treated us to a really, really good canola, very Italian.  He knows all these people personally and it’s fun to watch the interactions in Italian.  At this point I knew our private tour was the right decision!
Pantheon interior
Our next stop was the Pantheon.  It was built in 126 AD as a temple for all the Roman gods but served as a Roman Catholic Church since the  7th Century You can actually attend Mass on Sunday morning there. The Pantheon consists of a large circular portico with three ranks of huge granite Corinthian columns.  The portico opens into a rotunda which is topped with a concrete dome with a central opening: the oculus.  Almost two thousand years after it was built, the  Pantheon's dome is still the largest un-reinforced concrete dome in the world.

From there we toured central Rome ending at an enormous white marble monument that dominates Piazza Venezia. It commemorates Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a united Italy. The mounument marked the 50 years of unification.  By the way, I  didn't know this, but it was the Roman Catholic Church which was the major obstacle to Italy's unification. 
Victor Emmanuel Memorial

Our next stop was at the column of Marcus Aurelius, in Piazza Colonna. It is a Doric column featuring a spiral relief. It was built in honor of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius depicting his victories over the Germanic tribes.

Marcus Arilus Column

Spanish Steps

Next we stopped at the Trevi Fountain, the largest Baroque fountain in Rome. We tossed in a couple Euro coins, took a couple of photos and continued on to the Spanish Steps.  You are supposed to make a wish and toss them in over your shoulder, facing away from the fountain.

From there we went on to the Spanish steps. Francesco said that he did not know why they are such a tourist attraction other than the movie, “Roman Holiday.” Today the food police will ticket anyone caught eating on those steps.

Circus Maximus

Speaking of eating, it was lunch time and Francesco took us to his favorite spot where most of the UN workers come for lunch.  It is called Gustomassimo and it’s near the ancient Circus Maximus.  The Circus Maximus was the largest stadium in ancient Rome.  Popular chariot races were held her for almost a thousand years.  At one point it could seat 250,000 people, one quarter of Rome's population.  I think that's bigger than the Rose Bowl.  Lunch was pasta, salad cheese and Italian bread.  Yum!
From there we drove along the Apian Way and visited an underground Crypt, then the catacombs, one of the ancient burial grounds for the Roman Empire and early Christians.  A church was erected at the entrance.  It has a carved wooden ceiling that is indescribably beautiful.  We made a drive by the Vatican (big crowds there), saw St. Peter’s Cathedral. The Coliseum was next, what a mammoth structure that is and oh boy, the things that went on in there!
Us at the Trevi Fountain
Once again we found ourselves in Francesco’s neighborhood.  He took us to an ice cream shop and they treated us some marvelous ice cream, gelato in Italian. All throughout the day Francesco shared the history of his beloved home town. We were sorry to see the end of our tour as he drove us back to our hotel.  All I can say is we thoroughly enjoyed everything, well worth every Euro.

Tuesday morning early we checked out of the hotel, ate breakfast and got the shuttle to the airport. We flew from Rome to Frankfurt and then nonstop on to Houston (about 10 hours).  MA spent most of the flight with her IPAD games and watched one movie.  I, however, watched five different movies! 

As soon as we got home and unloaded the car I went to get Tanner.  Susan, his adoptive mom from when he was taken into the rescue center, had taken excellent care of him.  I do think he wanted to take one of the Irish wolfhounds home with him as a playmate.  He seems a little puzzled about where his 7 buddies are.

Well then “ciao” as they say in Rome.  Soon as we get two weeks of laundry done we’ll start planning our next trip!
Good-bye from Rome

Monday, May 13, 2013

Port of Livorno, Italy: A tour to Pisa, a Tuscan Vineyard and San Gimignano, the Village of Towers

Port of Livorno, Italy:  A tour to Pisa, a Tuscan Vineyard and San Gimignano, the Village of Towers

San Gimignano
We pulled into the Port of Livorno, Italy, early Saturday morning.  Mary Alice had signed us up for an all day tour to Pisa, lunch at a Tuscan vineyard and the medieval town of San Gimignano.  The bus was a modern, comfortable Mercedes Benz and we got the front seats.  Our first stop was Pisa, location of the famous “leaning tower”. 

The tour guide gave us an hour to take pictures, shop and or have some coffee.  MA chose coffee and I went to take some pictures.  We were in Pisa three years ago when I got some great photos of the tower, Baptistery and cathedral.  Later when I found MA at the café, she was having a lively conversation in French with a Canadian couple.

 Tuscan Countryside

From Pisa we headed east for an hour-long drive along the beautiful Tuscan countryside. Our destination was a vineyard-winery for lunch.  The host had tables set with prosciutto (sliced cured meats), cheeses, and salad and some great Italian bread soaked in Olive Oil.  Samples of the wines were available.  That was not the story.  The story was the guy who described each wine and did it with such exuberance and salesmanship, you couldn’t help but enjoying his “show”!  The vineyard goes back was started by great grandfather in the 1880’s.  He also produces a very excellent olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I think almost everybody had a few too many samples for lunch.  There was great hilarity and joking going on as folks tried to sing Italian songs as best they knew how!
Next stop was San Gimignano, the village of towers, which is a walled city built in the medieval ages.  The walls were built for protection against barbarian invaders.  The bus had to park a good distance from the village.  The walk was uphill and steep at times.  MA stayed in a café while I took a quick tour of the village, church and square.  The village offers a wonderful panoramic view of the Tuscan countryside.  We went back at the bus and the agreed departure time, snoozed for the hour drive back to the port of Livorno and the Ruby Princess.

San Gimignano tourists
This was “pack your suitcase night. “  We packed and tagged ours and put them outside the door before dinner.  You have to remember to keep some clothes to put on the next morning.  One of the cruise directors told us about a guy who packed all his clothes in his suitcases and put them out for pickup forgetting to hold out clothes for the next morning.  He had to get someone from the ship to go into the hold to find his bags and get him something to wear.

Sunday we got off the ship at 8:30 am and meet our private van for transportation to the Tiber Hotel in Fiumicino where we are staying for two nights.  Monday we see Rome with a private guide and Tuesday we fly home via Frankfurt.  I’ll write something on Rome if I’m not too tired.  See ya later, WW.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Marseille, the Fish market, the Orange store and Notre Dame de la Garde

Marseille skyline from Notre Dame de la Garde
Marseille, the Fish market, the Orange store and Notre Dame de la Garde

Marseille, France is the largest port in the Mediterranean and also the second largest city in France.  It has a rich European history with the Greeks and Romans dating back 2600 BC.  Roman history was not kind to Marseille, during the civil war with Julius Caesar, it chose to back Pompey.  The neighboring city of Arles, on the other had provided a dozen ships for Caesar and when he won the conflict, it received preferential treatment.  You can go to Arles and see the Roman architecture whereas Marseille has none.  What Marseille does have is the Mediterranean Sea which has brought with it great prosperity. 

MA in the "M"
We arrived at 7:00am.  For the afternoon we had booked a bus tour of the city so in the morning then we took the shuttle bus into town. We walked around the harbor and I saw some fishing boats tied up to the city wall with tables and umbrellas.  It was the fish market.  We watched as many as eight fishing boats bringing fish in and putting them on these wooden tables that were built to handle about 4 inches of water.  The fish, still alive, were sold right there.  I photographed a couple of fishermen as they tended and repaired their nets. 
War Memorial

Fisherman repairing his nets

Marseille harbor and Notre Dame on the hill
Mary Alice wanted some coffee and right nearby was a McDonalds (free Wi-Fi).  She has this French cell phone she needed to activate and needed the assistance of a tech guy.  In her efficient French she asked one of the patrons where the nearest Orange cell phone store was located.  Orange France is the network for her cell. He gave her directions and we quickly found the store where a nice young French clerk helped get the phone “unlocked”. She promptly called Michel, our friend in Paris, France.
Notre Dame de la Garde

Ceiling in Notre Dame de la Garde

Altar and mosiacs on the dome
We caught the shuttle bus back to the ship, had lunch and sought out our afternoon tour group just outside the gangway.  The first photo op was at a war memorial located on the shore drive from the harbor.  The bus then continued uphill through some upscale neighborhoods and stopped below a huge church known as Notre Dame de la Garde.  There are many churches named "Notre Dame" in France.  It was going to be a steep climb up multiple stairs to the church and MA elected not to try it with her knee.  I made the trek and was glad I did.  It is one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen.  The Basilica has these model boats, ships, sailing craft hanging from the ceiling.  They are there because of the connection Marseille has with the sea.  The ceiling is done all in mosaic.  There are gold inlays on the walls and frescos.  I’ve included several photos which doesn’t do it justice.

Dome ceiling of Notre Dame de la Garde
We made it back to the ship and got ready for the last formal night.  Mary Alice looked especially beautiful this night in her dark blue gown and sequin shawl.  We departed Marseille and the next stop was Livorno, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and a hilarious fun filled lunch at a winery.  Later! WW

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Barcelona and Las Ramblas…..what a day

Barcelona and Las Ramblas…..what a day

We docked in Barcelona at 9:00 am this morning.  We are still in Spain, however most of the residents of Barcelona call themselves Catalonians, kind of like a lot of Texans would like Texas to be its own country.  No guided tour today – went off on our own which is what I prefer to do.  The shuttle bus from the cruise terminal took us to the edge of the famous avenue known as Las Ramblas.  We were here two years ago, 2011.  In fact we were stuck here for 4 days because of a national strike and our flight was pushed back.  We saw and photographed it all and you can see the photos at this web site.

Anytime we are in a new place we usually look for some tall reference point so we know where we parked or in this case where to catch the bus for the ride back to the ship.  We found the perfect landmark, the Columbus statue actually pointing at our ship.  There were four cruise ships in docked in the port and that’s about an extra 10,000 people all coming into the city at the same time.  I tried to capture the masses with my camera.


The first stop of the day was a small church. The name translates to the church of Saint Mary.  She is depicted in the central statue.  Photography inside these dark churches is difficult because they are dimly lit or no light at all.  My camera, a Nikon D3s, has the ability to increase its ISO, that’s sensor speed, allowing me to hand hold the camera with a wide angle lens.  I hope you enjoy the photos.


Our next stop was the Mercat-Boqueria, a fantastic open market for fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese, spices, nuts and seafood.  It’s ringed by sidewalk cafes.  I got MA a table at a nice café while I walked around taking pictures of the fruit and veggie stands in the market.  This is a photographer’s paradise.  There is so much color and contrast I found it overwhelming at times.  I joined MA at the table and ordered a coffee with her.  The coffee in Europe is very strong and most of the time requires it to be cut by milk.

I found another church that we had not visited on our last visit, so I went inside to take some photographs.  This is the Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi.  It is a remarkably beautiful Gothic cathedral with a flower stained glass window that rivals Notre Dame in Paris. According to the brochure, it is a testimony of the prosperity, fortitude and artistic sensibility of the people of 14th century Barcelona.  Construction began in 1320 and completed in 1391.  The church has a single nave covered by seven cross-vaulted sections, a polygonal apse and side chapels.  I’ve tried to capture the beauty that is inside the church.  Enjoy the pics!


We continued on down the Las Ramblas.  Two years ago we really enjoyed the many “human statues,” along the walkway.  MA, in her excellent Spanish, discovered that the police and civil authorities are now limiting them to a very small area at the end of the avenue.  That’s a real shame as this was one of the really entertaining things going on here.  We finally found four of them as opposed to more than twenty two years ago.  I was especially impressed with “Don Quixote”. I dropped a couple of Euro coins in his bucket and had MA take a photo.

Don Quioxte comes alive

It was time for us to make our way back to the shuttle bus stop and there was old Chris Columbus pointing the way.  After the short ride back to the Ruby Princess we went for a swim The water was as warm as a bath, really nice.  Lunch was hamburgers and fries, something we don’t usually eat on ships! I always resolve to go on a diet after these trips.  We’ll see.  For now I have to get ready for dinner.  We’re in France tomorrow (Friday). See you later, WW.  

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Cartagena and a Bus Ride to the City of Leche

Port of Cartagena
Cartagena and a Bus Ride to the City of Leche

The Ruby Princess docked in Cartagena, Spain this morning at 7:00 am. Cartagena is an ancient port.  It once served as Hannibal’s Spanish headquarters during the second Punic War with Rome. Cartagena became important because of its climate and soil. 

MA and I didn’t stay in Cartagena, but had decided to take a bus tour to the coastal city of Leche.  Our tour left at 8:30 am on a modern comfortable bus.  The weather was mild, temperature 25 C or 75 F.   Our tour guide was a young Spanish lady who spoke well in English and had a magnificent vocabulary.  The bus headed north out of Cartagena on A-7, the auto route that parallels the Mediterranean coast of Spain.

Some of the agriculture fields along highway

The highway traverses the market basket of Europe.  Agriculture is king in this part of Spain and Europe.  There are large farms with multiple crops growing.  Some with potatoes and onions were being picked by gangs of pickers.  There are large greenhouses also on the farms growing year round.  I saw three large herds of sheep this morning and all three were large.  One farmer had just turned a herd loose into a picked field getting a second harvest of food for his sheep.

We arrived in Leche around 10:00 am and our first stop was the National Artistic Garden named El Huerto del Cura.  This is a garden of palm trees, cactus, and flowers. Typical Mediterranean species are grown here including orange and lemon trees.  We found several ponds, one with a momma duck and a bunch of brand new little ones.

After the Garden we were bused to the old part of downtown for escorted guided walk.  MA and I found out when and where the bus would pick us up and we went off on our own.  We walked across the street to a church and went inside.  I switched to a 20mm 2.8 lens and photographed the interior.  We decided to have lunch and found the Paris Café, sat down with a couple on the tour and had the tapas (combination order) of chicken, potato croquettes and guacamole.  Before long it was time to meet the bus, board and travel back to the ship. 

We ran into one of our trivia teammates and he wanted to play the afternoon game.  We didn’t know most of the questions so we didn’t even switch our answer sheet.  MA said that if future trivia were like this, we would probably stop playing!  Example: What do you call a pregnant goldfish?  What is the tallest building in all of Europe?  What did so and so (some woman I never heard of) invent in 1862 that was a big help for working men?  Answers:  Twit – some new building in London – the dishwasher.   I think you get the drift!
I gotta get ready for dinner…see you later. WW


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Day 9......Gibraltar

Day 9……Gibraltar

The Ruby Princess sailed into Gibraltar harbor about 7:00 am this morning and I was up and ready to take a photo of this famous historical place.


Gibraltar is part of the European Continent and it’s only eight miles across the sea from Northern Africa.  Because of its strategic location and 1400 ft elevation, it used to control who entered and exited the Mediterranean from Atlantic Ocean.  In the year 711 the Moors crossed over from North Africa and conquered Gibraltar and then Spain in the name of Islam.  (These Islamic terrorist have been at it for a long, long time.)  In 1462 the Spaniards beat them back and in the process gained control of Gibraltar. They would hold the “Rock of Gibraltar” until 1704 when the British captured the town and fortress.  It has been in British hands ever since in spite of many Spanish and French attempts to recapture it.  During WWII Gibraltar was a key naval and air base against the German U-boats.  Britain granted the colony substantial self-government in 1964.  Spain continued to want the territory back and at the request of the UN, residents were asked to vote on who they preferred Britain or Spain.  Britain won overwhelmingly.  It remains a British colony to this day.

Mary Alice had booked us a shore excursion not to Gibraltar, but to Marbella, Spain, a resort town on the Costa del Sol.  We met in the Princess Theater shortly after 8:00 am and in groups of 22, we were all herded into small tourist busses.  After about an hour more or less we arrived and were dropped off in the middle of downtown. The driver told us to meet him in two hours and so we were on our own so to speak.

We spotted a luxury hotel and knew they would have a good cup of coffee, so we checked it out.  MA spoke to the maître d’ in her usual excellent Spanish. The hotel was offering the biggest breakfast/brunch buffet I had ever seen.  She explained we just wanted coffee and weren’t guests of the hotel.  With a big smile, he said “no problem”, seated us and we had a great cup of European coffee, so strong I had to use milk to thin it, just like the locals. 

When we got up to leave she asked the waiter for the check and he directed us back to the maitre d’.  MA told him we needed to pay for our coffees.  Again, with his huge smile he told us the coffee was on him!  I don’t know what all she said but that’s a first for us in our travels.

We strolled around, spent a little time with an author who was one of the speakers on the ship.  He had written a novel incorporating the Pan Am Clipper ships into the plot. MA was thrilled to meet him. We climbed back on the bus and headed for another sea side resort town, Puerto Banus. We checked out several posted menus (expensive!). Eventually we found the exact right spot and split a really good pizza. 

Back on the ship, the Ruby Princess moved away from the dock shortly after 4:00 pm and we are now on our way to Cartagena, Spain.  I have to get ready for supper so, as usual, later!  WW
Park in Marbella
Last view of "The Rock"