Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Rome, Italy – Post Cruise

Friday, July 17, 2009 – Rome Italy, 87F – Sunny

They actually remembered us at the Best Western Villa Franca hotel (we had stayed there pre-cruise).  This room was almost the same as the one we had pre-cruise with one exception:  The shower – glassed in on all sides - was too small for anyone over 5 ft tall.  I felt like one of those mimes trying to get out of the glass enclosure – we did eventually switch to a room with a human sized shower (and a tub for Ellen as a bonus).

Even though we just completed an 11 day cruise and a lot of walking up hills, we were eager to see more of the sites of Rome on foot.  The only issue was the heat but there was always shade to be found.  We explored an area behind the Roma Termini Station looking for souvenirs.  It seems that we always wind up walking through the Termini Station – except for the incredible cigarette smoke density, the place is a people watcher’s paradise.  There are people with “wheelies” everywhere and from everywhere. 

Ellen went back to the Hotel and I did a little more sightseeing.  One spectacular structure was the Santa Maria Maggiori Cathedral complete with ornate obelisk.

Santa Maria Maggiorie from Piazza Esquiliino

Santa Maria Maggiori Cathedral from Piazza Esquilino

Santa Maria Maggiori is a fifth century major (papal) basilica.  The current structure is the product of several restorations over the centuries.

A curious site near the adjacent Piazza Esquilino was a mini-gas station. 

Mini Gas Station 

The station is located in a little turnout in the street.  It reminds me of the letter drops at the post office but in this case, you can fill up your motor scooter or car.  I hope the gas caps are all on the correct side for the cars in Rome.

On the way back to the Hotel, there is a street that must contain fifty or more motor scooters or “bikes” as one of the locals called them.  We had seen these bikes locked and parked there many times as we walked to the Termini Station.  For some reason, somebody or something had set about six of these bikes on fire and all that was left of them were burned out hulks.  All the other bikes were left untouched.  They were all still there – a kind of art, actually, when we left the city.

torched motorbikes 

Torched “bikes” near Termini

We decided to have a real Italian Meal at one of the local restaurants.  One of them (and there are restaurants literally every 50 yards) advertised no cover and no “service” (tip) plus a 10% discount – an offer we couldn’t refuse.  There was no one at the restaurant and plenty of people at the place next door.  The waiter explained that this was not a reflection of the quality of the restaurant and that the neighbor was a bar that was open all the time – restaurants do not see many patrons this early in the afternoon.  We shared a Pizza Margherita and I had a salad – a small meal compared to other diners.  The pizza was not nearly the quality of our Neapolitan pizza but we did eat Al Fresco.  FYI:  Ice in your water is not available in Rome (so far as we know).

Saturday, July 18, 2009 – Rome Italy, 87F – Sunny

This day is planned as a major walking day (not realizing what was in store for us on Sunday – you’ll see what I mean in an upcoming post).  There are many historical and archeological sites within walking distance of our hotel and we actually have a plan to see as many as we can.

Our first stop is the Porta Pia, a gate on the Aurelian Wall, which enclosed all seven hills of ancient Rome.   It was originally designed by Michelangelo but completed using a different design.  It is named after Pope Pius IV and was completed in 1565.   A war memorial stands in the square opposite the Porta Pia.

Rome - Porta Pia and War Memorial

The Porta Pia and War Memorial

The Aurelian Wall (no doubt repaired and restored) is still visible as you walk through the area. 

 Rome - Aurelian Wall - Sallustiani Quarter

Aurelian Wall

As part of this walking tour we were looking for a residential neighborhood – all we had seen so far was the pizza-hotel layout, which dominated the area where we were staying.  We reached a tree lined boulevard – Via Margherita – that was mostly shops and apartments.  Just what we were looking for. 

A few blocks into this street, we noticed what appeared to be a fenced in park.  Peering through the bars, we discovered some ruins as well an old villa. 

Rome - Noblemans Home 16th cen - via margh

A once noble villa on Via Margherita

There was an Italian gentleman nearby and we asked him about this park – his English was good enough to relate the fact that this home was owned by one of the noblemen of Rome during the 16th Century.  The park and the home were not open to the public.  It seems a waste of history.

The man also gave us directions to a nearby neighborhood where we would find some amazing architecture – not old but neo-old.  He was certainly correct – one example of the kind of homes we found was an apartment building with an external chandelier.

Rome - home with outdoor chandelier

Building with Chandelier in the Archway

Back to the hotel for lunch and a little rest – when it got a little cooler outside (late afternoon), we were back on the road.

Our new goal was the Via Veneto – if you know why that’s an important site in Rome, give yourself a trivia point (I’ll explain later).  As we made our way there, we came across what must be a relatively common occurrence in a historical city like Rome. 

Rome - New building and ruins

A new building – an old building – and me 

I’m referring to the building of new structures around archeological finds.  It gives the building an automatic museum feel to it because the ancient find is noted and explained. 

We also found additional sections of the ancient wall but at one location, we noted a very common (but interesting) addition– a drinking fountain in the old wall.

Rome - drinking fountain city wall

No, we were still not brave enough to take a drink – it’s a long flight home and I don’t want to make that trip in the baggage compartment.

We finally arrived at our target destination – the Via Veneto – an upscale street with very nice (and pricey stores and restaurants).  What is this street famous for?

Via Veneto - La Dollce Vita Restaurant

Ellen and the La Dolce Vita Restaurant

The 1960 Fellini classic - “La Dolce Vita” – was filmed on and around this street.  There is a restaurant that claims to be the one in the movie.  It is a fabulous street and worthy of Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg.  After walking up and down the entire street, we headed to our next site – the Palazzo Margherita, a vast structure on the Via Veneto, and built in the 19th Century.

Pallazo Margherita aka US Embassy

Today, it is home to the US Embassy – we know where to place our embassies.  Although I am sure this is a very secure building, we didn’t see any security personnel (armed soldiers) of the type we saw guarding the Turkish Embassy.

Heading home, we passed the Planetario (Planetarium)

Rome - Planetario 

The Planetario

and then another view of the Santa Maria Degli Angeli Basilica located on the Piazza Della Repubblica. 

Santa Maria Degli Angeli Basilica

Santa Maria Degli Angeli Basilica

The church was designed by Michelangelo but the final design was not his.  It is now a parish church.

Termini Station is nearby which means we are nearly home.

Later in the evening, we decided to try one of the “pizza by the gram” restaurants.  The price of your pizza depends on the weight of the slice.  Many of the pizzas sit there for a while until someone wants a slice; then they are heated in a pizza oven – no nuking here.  These places are very popular since it probably takes less time to get your food.  Not thrilled by the stuff available, we did try a couple of slices of a pizza that just came out of the oven.  Not bad but not Naples.

This day is a wrap.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Naples - Pizza and Pompeii - Eastern Mediterranean Cruise – Celebrity Solstice

Thursday, July 16, 2009 – Naples, Italy – 91F – Scattered Clouds

I was up early and managed to get a great shot of the sun rising over Mt. Vesuvius

Sunrise over Mt Vesuvius

Naples, Italy was founded by the Greeks in the 7th century BC and became a Roman town in the 4th century BC. Today, Naples has a population of 1.5 million people and is known to have the best pizza in the world. Even though Vesuvius is an active volcano, about 1 million people live at the base of this historical bad boy.

We have a very early excursion today, “Exploration of Pompeii” which departs at 8:15 AM – the morning excursions are preferred because of the heat (Pompeii is known to get very warm due to the absorption of the sun’s heat by the volcanic soil).

Pompeii is 14 miles east of Athens and it took about 30 minutes to get there. There is a bit of an uphill walk to the entrance to the archeological site but once inside it is all level ground.

Pompee- entrance to site

Entrance to Pompeii

There are a number of main streets in Pompeii. These streets have interesting stones (usually three) that span the streets at regular intervals. These stones enabled the people to cross the streets without getting their feet muddy. The streets are also flecked with white marble which reflected the moonlight and lit up the streets for better visibility.

Pompee street with stepping stones

Pompeii street with stepping stones

Typical homes in Pompeii had a small garden and a fountain; wealthier residents had larger homes with grand gardens and a large entrance or foyer area.

Pompee - Home w garden and fountain

Typical home with fountain and garden

Pompee - Wealthy Home

Large home with large garden and “contemporary” entrance

The Grand Plaza or Forum of Pompeii was the site of civic events

Pompee - Forum

The city also had a bakery, where wheat was ground in a millstone and bread baked in the oven (all in the same complex); there was also a restaurant, where patrons were served freshly prepared dishes. The food was kept warm by placing the dishes on a terra cotta bar.

Pompeii - Bakery

The Panera of Pompeii (structure is a millstone)


Pompeii Restaurant

The residents also had their temples. The Temple of Apollo had statues of both Apollo (God of the Sun) and Diana (Goddess of the Moon) facing each other in an East-West Direction. This placement allowed the Sun to rise over Apollo and set over Diana.

Pompee - Temple of Apollo and Diana

Temple of Apollo

The Basilica of Pompeii is an imposing structure near the exit to the city

Pompeii - Basilica

Pompeii Basilica

When Mt Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, the mountain ejected half its total height. The explosion left the mountain with two peaks. Residents that fled to the sea were killed by the ensuing tsunami and those that couldn’t get away succumbed to the the hot ash. This ash covered Pompeii and preserved the city and some of the inhabitants (in an eerie fashion). The victims were essentially “frozen” in time by the ash

Pompee - ash covered victim

Pompeii victim trying to avoid breathing volcanic ash

Vesuvius still stands over the Pompeii as a reminder.

Pompeii - Me and Vesuvius

Pompeii, Vesuvius, and me

The bus dropped us off next to the pier, where, this time, I did meet up with Ellen. Our goal was to taste the legendary Neapolitan pizza, whose unique taste is due to the volcanic soil from which the ingredients (tomatoes, cheese, and flour) come (Sorrento is the only other place you can get this pizza). We decided on a pizzeria a few blocks from the pier and each ordered a Pizza Margherita (tomatoes and cheese). The pizzas were pretty big but we both finished them off and, at least in my opinion, the best pizza I have tasted in a very long time.

Neapolitan pizza al fresco - yummy

We set out to explore the area around the pier but the heat and the unappealing environment of the neighborhood convinced us to walk back to the ship and return to the world of air conditioning and iced tea.

Some of the more interesting sites in the downtown area are visible best from the ship. The Castel Nuovo, built in the last 1200s, is directly across from the pier. This castle, once complete with a moat, is now a museum.

Castel Nuovo

Castel Nuovo

High on the Vomero Hill overlooking the city of Naples is the San Martino National Museum. This building was once a monastery.

San Martino National Museum - on Vomero Hill

San Martino National Museum

Dinner tonight was in the buffet – most of our clothes were already packed.

Tonight is the farewell show in the Solstice Theater. The show was a recap of all of the shows during the cruise – there were acrobatic and flying segments and some song and dance numbers from the Solstice Stars; in addition, Livewire, the Celtic Duo, did a few up tempo tunes. The show closed with Karen Grainger, who finished it all with a great rendition of “Over the Rainbow”. Following the show, we met with Karen in the Lobby of the theater – where I purchased one of her CDs. . When I went to get it signed, she told me she would have given me one and said she would rip up the sales ticket. Very nice of her.

When we got back to the room, the phone rang and it was Karen Grainger. She wanted to make sure she had the right ticket to tear up. What can you say?

Friday,July 17, 2009 – Civitavecchia, Italy – 80s – Clear

The Solstice has returned to home port

Civi - Debark day

The Summit along with a few other cruise ships are also docked.

Ellen had arranged transfers from the dock to Central Rome (Metro Station). Debark was quick – once our group was called, it was only minutes until we were on the bus. The trip to the Metro Station took a bit over an hour but once at the Metro Station, we easily made it to our hotel’s Metro Stop. The room was ready.

The Cruise portion of our vacation was officially over.

The Wonders of Athens - Eastern Mediterranean Cruise – Celebrity Solstice

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 – Piraeus (Athens), Greece – 84F- Sunny

Piraeus is the port city for Athens, Greece and one of the largest ports in Europe. The port is big enough to run a shuttle bus between the two main terminals. Athens is only seven miles from Piraeus but in traffic it could take an hour to get there (train and taxis are the best way to get around). Athens (plus Piraeus) is home to 4.5 million people – spread out along a massive plain on the Aegean Sea.

Piraeus, Greece

Piraeus Port, Greece

Docked along with us is “The Explorer – Semester at Sea” ship and numerous ferries and hydrofoils that move people from nearby islands and cities to Athens.

The popularity of Athens has basically filled up the excursions but an early visit to the Excursion Desk gets us on the “Athens Sightseeing and Acropolis” Tour. It’s an early morning tour because most people want to visit the Acropolis before it gets too hot.

The bus ride takes us through Athens (nice, new buildings) and drivers appear to be heading traffic signals. Our ship dispatched seven buses on this tour. There may be more than 30 buses at the site combined with folks arranging their own tour – bottom line – there are a ton of visitors here today. This will become as issue later – read on.

The Acropolis, which dates back to the 5th century BC (the Golden Age of Greek civilization), was a religious meeting place until the end of the Byzantine Period. It is considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. The hilltop site is not visible until you arrive at the entrance to the site and gaze up from the pedestrian walkway at the base. From there you can see the Parthenon and the original wall that protected the hilltop.

parthenon from pedestrian walk

The Acropolis (with Parthenon) from the pedestrian walkway

The trees in the area are mostly olive trees (and once again we find out that black olives are green olives marinated in olive oil and/or salt solution).

Another very interesting factoid: The term “OK” is from the Greek - “Ola Kala”, which means, well, everything’s OK.

There are about 200 steps to reach the entrance of the Acropolis; a few steps into the journey one finds the Dionysos and Odeon Theater stages

dionysos and odeon theaters base of acrop

Dionysos and Odeon Theater

At the entrance to the Acropolis, one can see the ancient city of Agora. Agora was a major marketplace and business center for Athens from the 6th Century BC to the 6th Century AD. The Agora complex contains the best preserved ancient temple in Greece – the Temple of Hephaestus

The agora with temple of hephaestus

Temple of Hephaestus

as well as the Odeon of Agrippa,an ancient theater.

the Odeon of agrippa

The Odeon of Agrippa

The Monument at the entrance of the Acropolis is called The Propylaea. At this point, you are climbing up a serpentine set of marble stairs (or rocks) with a thousand of your new closest friends; there are also people trying to get down from the site. It makes for some interesting footwork. To the left of the Propylaea is the Temple of Athena Nike (the Goddess of Victory and overpriced athletic shoes).

Propylaea - entrance to acrop

The Propylaea (center) and Temple of Athena Nike (left)

Once you are through the entrance, you are on the Acropolis. As you will see further on, the Acropolis is not the highest point in Athens but the highest point of the ancient city-state. The most striking structure is the Parthenon (70 by 40 meters) - essentially the symbol of Greece. To make the structure less imposing, the designers of the Parthenon put the columns in at a slight inward angle. How that reduces the “heaviness” of the building is unclear. The structure is under repair with a crane and scaffolding present on the Southeast side


Parthenon – South and East Sides

parthenon north side

Parthenon – North Side

parthenon and ht et

E and me at the Parthenon (I am wearing my “Whisper Set”

Another structure on the Acropolis is the Erechtheion, a temple on the edge of the hilltop.

Erechtheion front

The Erechtheion

What makes this structure more interesting is the presence of four dancing women – the Caryatids - as columns (one of their legs is just off the ground – that’s the way they danced in ancient Greece). By the way, these statues are cement casts – five of the original statues are in the Acropolis Museum and the sixth is in the British Museum.

dancing statues - erechtheion

Dancing Girl Columns of the Erechtheion

The view of Athens from the Acropolis is spectacular

athens to the west
Athens (to the West) from the Acropolis

I was able to spot a very nice restaurant at the foot of the Acropolis

restaurant base of acropolis

where I bet the views are spectacular.

The Acropolis also affords an excellent view of the highest spot in Athens (yes, it is not the Acropolis) – the 912 foot high Mount Lycabettus with the small chapel of St. George (19th Century) at its summit.

mt lycabettus - chapel of st george
Chapel of St. George – Mount Lycabettus

We were allotted about an hour to spend on our own at the Acropolis. At the 30 minute point, I started my descent, which apparently coincided with everyone’s plan. It was shoulder to shoulder all the way to the entrance and down the serpentine steps. It took the entire 30 minutes to make it down – I got to my bus just in time. However, many of my fellow passengers were still trying to get down.

All loaded, we next stopped at the Panathinaikon, the site of the first Modern Olympiad in 1896. Over a hundred years old, the stadium, which can hold nearly 75,000 people, is in great shape. It is not longer used for athletic events – good thing since there is no shade whatsoever in this stadium (I don’t know they dealt with that in 1896).

panathinaikon - 1986 first olympic stadium


During our ride back to the port, we saw the Temple of Zeus (photo from the bus); I took this picture because the Roman Emperor Hadrian

temple of zeus

Temple of Zeus from a speeding bus

helped the Greeks finish this temple leading to the construction of Hadrian’s Arch as a gift for his assistance (according to our guide). Even so, the arch was built by Hadrian, himself, in the 2nd Century AD.

Hadrian's arch

Hadrian’s Arch (no - it’s not leaning)

The bus also took us past the Parliament Building where the courtyard hold the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The soldiers on duty here wear the traditional Greek attire complete with short pleated skirts.

parliament - tomb of unknown soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

And the Athens Hellenic Academy, the most beautiful example of Neoclassic Architecture in Athens

athens academy - athena and apollo

Athens Hellenic Academy

On the two main columns are Apollo (right), with his musical instrument and Athena, with her weapons ready to protect Athens.

Some passengers were dropped off at the Constitution Square (opposite the Parliament Building) to do some sightseeing and shopping in Athens. We went back to the ship, had lunch, and tried in vain to find an internet cafe. We went to the other terminal because we were told they had free Wi-Fi; I was able to connect to their system but could not get online.

The sailaway from Piraeus was spectacular with the city of Athens crawling up the sides of the hills just like some kind of white groundcover.

sailaway athens

Goodbye, Athens

Tonight’s Show featured the results of the best singer contest. This was won by the performer from Mexico (he had 40 plus relatives cheering him on).

Wednesday, July 15, 2009 – At Sea – Mediterranean Sea – 80s – Sunny

Time change today – I thought it was tomorrow so I arrived at the buffet an hour before it opened. I worked a bit on my talk for today and waited for the place to open.

My talk, “DNA Testing: Solving History’s Mysteries” was at 1:30 PM in Celebrity Central. I had the best turnout yet – at least 60 people – and the talk, which felt fast to me, came off well. There were no questions at the end so either I did a good job or people were too tired to ask questions. I don’t believe this talk generates too many questions.

This is the second formal night and we had dinner in the Dining Room.

Showtime: Tonight’s Show is “Solstice: The Show”, a Cirque du Soleil type of show featuring flying, acrobatics, juggling, and new age music and graphics. The Stars of Solstice are cross-trained at aerialists and did some amazing stunts. I found the “hula hoop” girl the most interesting – her ability to keep about 25 hoops going at once was amazing.

Following the show, we went out on deck as the ship went through the Straits of Messina (followed closely by the Celebrity Summit). The Straits are very picturesque as are we in our formal attire.

Formal Night - Straits of Messina

I also had a chance to chat with some of the people who attended my presentations – the feedback was all positive.

While going through the shops on board (the clerks are known as “retail therapists” on the Solstice), we ran into Karen Grainger. After saying hello, she indicated that she had attended and enjoyed my talk earlier today. We wound up spending about a half hour with Karen (she’s from Canada) – a very nice person indeed.