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Cruising the Star Princess - May 2011

A trip to Italy, Egypt, Turkey, and Greece

This is the story of an amazing trip.

In the spring of 2010, we began planning for our an amazing itinerary that would combine a short stay in Rome with a cruise that would visit Egypt, Turkey, and Greece. This became a reality when we booked a trip on the cruise ship the Star Princess for May of 2011.

The Star Princess offered a unique itinerary. Sailing out of Civitavecchia, Italy, it would include a two day stop in Alexandria, Egypt and port calls at Chios and Athens in Greece, and Istanbul and Kusadsi in Turkey, before making a final call in Naples, Italy.

With the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution in January of 2011, the itinerary was changed. Egypt was dropped as a port of call, and Valetta, Malta was added, along with Livorno, Italy. Fortunately, just a few short weeks before our departure date, Princess announced that we would be among the first ships to return to Egypt. On Friday, May 13th, we stepped out our front door and embarked on a voyage of discovery.

Posted by Zukini 28.02.2013 21:30 Archived in Italy Tagged italy cruise rome mediterranean princess Comments (0)

A Pre-cruise stay in Rome

Arrival and orientation

With the expense involved in flying to Rome, we decided to make the best of it, and extend our pre-cruise stay by renting an apartment in Rome for a few days. Things started off a little off-kilter. Our flight on US Air was delayed on the tarmac at Philadelphia for roughly two hours, so it made for a very tiring flight.

We arrived at Fiumincino Airport and were met with mass chaos at passport control. Now, I'm no expert, and perhaps it's like this everywhere, but things might run a little more smoothly at that airport if they actually put some waiting lines in place. It seemed like passport control was just a huge room with one exit, stuffed with people milling around trying to work their way to the door.

Once we got through, it was easy enough to find our baggage carousel. We had arranged with Stefano at RomeCabs for transportation to our lodgings. He sent us a link to a video explaining exactly where to meet our driver at the airport. Sure enough, as soon as we exited the security area, Johnny was waiting to meet us. He patiently stepped outside for a smoke while we pulled some Euros out of the Bancomat and broke one of the bigger bills by buying some breakfast at the airport cafe, and away we went.

TIP: A little aside about currency....we had obsessed about the best way to go about dealing with currency exchange. We found a real easy method to deal with it. A couple of weeks before the trip, I opened up an online checking account with CapitalOne. The sent me a debit MasterCard tied to my account. No currency exchange fees, and they even reimburse any ATM fees incurred. At every ATM I used, the exchange rate for Euros turned out to be the Forex published rate for the day, so it was a really great way to change currency.

Via Giulia

Via Giulia

I'm a real fan of apartment rentals as opposed to hotels, but it's sometimes a risky business. Often the apartment is great. Other times, it's only so-so.

In this case we found a lovely but small apartment on Via Giulia, just a block from the Tiber river and two blocks from Campo Di Fiori. We found it to be a great base of operations for our tours of Rome, although it was a bit distant from the nearest Metro station. The price was similar to a hotel, and the added space and ability to cook some of own meals made it a very attractive alternative to a hotel stay. Via Giulia Numero 191 is only one block from the Tiber River (the Tevere), and close to the restaurants and open air markets of the Campo De' Fiori.

I called the rental agent from the car as we left the airport to let him know we were on our way. When we arrived at the apartment, it was still locked up tight. Johnny called the rental agent again for us, and then insisted on staying with us until someone showed up. I thought that was really service above and beyond, and I'd recommend RomeCabs on that basis alone.

Because of the late arrival time, we felt a little too wrung out to go with our original plan of hitting the ground running and heading to the Colosseum. Instead, we wandered the neighborhood and stocked the apartment at the local grocery store, a Despar market , right around the corner, and then start our exploration.

Our first stop is the open air market at Campo De' Fiori. During the day a lively fruit, vegetable, and peddler's market is set up in the Campo. At night, the restaurants lining the square roll out their tables and awnings. We've arrived just as the market is packing up for the evening, but we are able to find some fruit and an all-important Rome bus map.

Campo de Fiori

Campo de Fiori

As we explored the neighborhood, we stumbled across Forno Roscioli, a bakery and pastry shop. One glance at the display window, and you will be rendered helpless, regardless of your dietetic resolutions. The second best sfogliatelle I've ever had in my life can be found here...it's worth seeking it out!

Forno Roscioli

Forno Roscioli

Our next stop is to stroll our own block. Just a hundred yards away, past the bridge over Via Giulia designed by Michelangelo, is the Santa Maria Della Orazione e Morte (St. Mary of Prayer and Death) Church. Founded by an order who dedicated themselves to providing decent burials for the dead found on the banks of the Tevere and the streets of Rome, they decorated their church with macabre images.

Chiesa Santa Maria Della Orazione e Morte

Chiesa Santa Maria Della Orazione e Morte

We decide to go a little further afield and try to find the Pantheon, so we start heading up toward the streets above Campo Di Fiori. All day long, we've been hearing helicopters above the city, and we haven't really thought much about it, but as we reach Torre Argentina, we start seeing riot police in full gear, blocking off the streets. What the heck is going on?

It's a huge, moving demonstration, marching through the streets of Rome, occasionally stopping to play music and make speeches. We see Palestinian flags waving in the crowd. It turns out this is a huge event, apparently in support of Palestinian autonomy.

We're a little unnerved by the huge crowd and the heavy police presence. It looks very well ordered and controlled, but knowing how things can spiral out of control very quickly, we give it a wide berth and start meandering around, trying to find the Pantheon. We snaked around the narrow streets, not quite sure of where we're going. Then, suddenly, there it is! Ancient monuments in Rome have a way of sneaking up on you. You turn a nondescript corner and BAM! Antiquity in your face!

First glimpse of the Pantheon

First glimpse of the Pantheon

The Pantheon

Originally built by Marcus Agrippa as a temple to all of the gods of ancient Rome in 27 BC, it was rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian in 126 AD. 483 years later, it was given to Pope Boniface IV by the emperor Phocas, and has been used as a Catholic church since. The 142 foot dome has inspired Bramante, Brunelleschi, and Michelangelo.

At the moment, though, it's actually closed...there's a private function of some sort going on inside, and a huge crowd is gathering at the doors, waiting to be let in. Just as we're about to give up, the doors open, the congregants leave, and the crowd starts to shuffle in. We peak in just long enough to take a photo, knowing we'll be back later in our visit.

The exterior of the Pantheon

The exterior of the Pantheon

The Portico

The Portico

Touching History

Touching History

The crowd pushes into the Pantheon

The crowd pushes into the Pantheon

The Occulus

The Occulus

We examine our Berlitz map carefully, and decide to walk over to Piazza Navona. It's just a few blocks to the west. Distances on the map are deceiving....every thing in Rome seems to be much closer together than you would think.

A short walk, and we arrive at Piazza Navona, but the entire northern part of the Piazza is stuffed with the demonstrators we saw earlier. Helicopters buzz overhead and the speeches ring out. Perhaps Piazza Navona will also wait for another day.

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

On the way back to our apartment, we stopped for Gelato at a place next to the Despar, L'Imperatore del Gelato. I had a piccolo pineapple (ananas), Mrs. Zukini had a piccolo stracciatella. Mmmmm. Mmmmm. We also stopped again at that local bakery, Antico Forno Roscioli, and picked up a pair of Napoletanas for breakfast.

Our Apartment

Our Apartment

Our Window View

Our Window View

Posted by Zukini 02.03.2013 15:04 Archived in Italy Tagged rome precruise Comments (0)

Doing the "Caesar Shuffle"

Visiting the Ancient Monuments of Rome

sunny 69 °F

Sunday morning dawns bright and sunny, a brilliantly blue sky, temps around 69F. We make a quick breakfast, try to figure out the incomprehensible controls on the dishwasher, and give up and wash 'em by hand. We decide to take a scenic stroll on the Lungotevere, along the Tiber. We pull out our handy maps (we use a tiny Berlitz map as well as a bigger Knopf MapGuide, fill our Pacsafe 200, and off we go. It's a beautiful walk. Bicycles are passing on the pedestrian path that lines the river, the sycamore trees are rustling in the breeze, life couldn't be better! The gentle breeze and rustling sycamores also have a less fortunate effect: mounds of fluff wafting through the air, pollen and such being shed by the trees. It gets in our eyes and hair. Within a few blocks, everyone walking along the Lungotevere is hacking and coughing, tears streaming down their faces.

Ponte Sisto

Ponte Sisto

As I look down to shake some of the tree fluff from my hair, I spy a 10 Euro note laying on the sidewalk. I stop, and look around warily. Is it a trap? Some sort of Roman pickpocket scam? Will John Quinones jump out of the bushes to confront me if I pick it up? We wait a few moments. No one seems to be looking for dropped money, and none of the other passersby notice it. Cautiously, I pick it up an pocket it. Mrs. Zuke warns me, "Instant Karma's gonna get you!"

Umbrella Pines

Umbrella Pines

We stroll past the Temple of Hercules Victor and the remains of the ancient Circus Maximus where chariots once thundered, and we climb the slope of Palatine Hill.

Circus Maximus

Circus Maximus

Our idea is to get to the entrance to the Palatine Hill, where we've heard that the ticket lines are shorter, and buy a set of Roma Passes for our visit. We arrive at the Palatine (which is also the entrance to the Forum) and find a very disorganized line snaking about. We join what we think is the end of the line, and patiently wait for about 45 minutes. As we near the entrance, we find our line is merging with another, and we are angrily rebuffed by tourists on the other line. Turns out the line we joined wasn't the actual ticket line....it was the line for people trying to CUT the ticket line.

Temple of Hercules Victor

Temple of Hercules Victor

Ticketless, we decide to try our luck at the Colosseum instead. The plaza in front of the Colosseum is a veritable sea of people, and it's obvious it will take several hours to wait on the line here. We spy a sign for an alternate ticket booth somewhere on Via Foro Romano, so we try to find it.

Aqueduct near the Forum

Aqueduct near the Forum

Via Foro Romano is hysterical. The sides of the road are lined with street performers, living statues, posing gladiators, and, somewhat incongruously, an Andean Pan Flute band. Hot and thirsty, we spot a Tabacchi shop, and stop in for water. We are surprised to find that all Tabacchi shops sell Roma Passes, a fact we missed in our research. We pony up our €25 each and buy the Roma Pass package.

TIP: There are lots of discussions about how to most effectively use the Roma Pass to get the most bang for your buck and take advantage of the free and discounted entrance fees. My opinion? Just get one. The time you will save by not waiting on line at even a single site makes it well worth any premium you might pay by not utilizing it to the fullest. In addition, the included 3 days of transportation without the hassle of buying metro and bus tickets makes it a no-brainer. Just stop in to any Tabacchi shop and pick one up for a no-hassle experience.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum

Roma Pass in hand and Rick Steves in our ears, we enter the Colosseum of Rome, and marvel at the incredible feat building something this massive without the benefit of modern equipment.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum

The Colosseum - partially restored floor

The Colosseum - partially restored floor

Temple of Venus and Roma

Temple of Venus and Roma

Rome is holding a month of exhibitions on the reign of the emperor Nero, and many places, including the Colosseum have auxiliary exhibits about him. The exhibit at the Colosseum features artifacts from the Domus Aurea, Nero's "Golden House".

Mosaics from the Domus Aureus

Mosaics from the Domus Aureus


Artificats from Nero's Domus Aurea

Artificats from Nero's Domus Aurea

From our vantage point in the Colosseum, we gaze out over the Arch of Constantine, and notice that umbrellas are starting to come out. Time to visit the Roman Forum. The rain causes vendors selling umbrellas to sprout out of nowhere. Since there's very little shelter at the Forum, and we're not wearing jackets since the day started out so clear, we give up half of our found money, and buy a €5 umbrella.

Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine

TIP: No offense intended to our local weather forecasters, but the Italians seem to be much better at it. The daily forecasts were accurate to within a degree, and when they predicted rain, you could indeed count on rain. Even if the skies are blue, heed the forecast!

As we leave the Colosseum, heading to the Roman Forum, it begins to drizzle.

Breezing past the queue at the Forum with our Roma Passes, we decide to bypass the Palatine Hill, and head into the Forum. Again, we attempt to use the Rick Steves audio tour, but somehow got out of sync. Apparently, there's a big difference between the Temple of Julius Caesar and the Basilica of Julius Caesar! If you use the Rick Steves tour, for any site, be sure to start it before you even get in line. Often, his tours start from the exterior of the site you're visiting.

Grooves worn in the Stones

Grooves worn in the Stones

House of the Vestals

House of the Vestals

As we tour the Forum, two things happen. The rain starts in earnest, and my mp3 player (which I'm using for the audio tour) dies. I attempt to share an earbud with my wife's mp3 player. For the record, trying to share earbuds while holding an umbrella and walking on slippery paths = frustration and high likelihood of personal injury.

Temple of Saturn

Temple of Saturn

By the time we reach the end of the Forum tour, we are each half-soaked, and it really begins to pour. As we exit the forum, I spot another umbrella vendor, and give up the other half of the €10 note we had picked up. Within mere moments, the rain stops. Karma has been achieved, and the universe is again in balance.

Posted by Zukini 02.03.2013 21:55 Archived in Italy Tagged rome colosseum forum Comments (0)

Vatican City and the Vatican Museum

If it's Monday, it must be the Vatican

sunny 68 °F

Monday morning dawns cool and bright...and I do mean "dawns". We're up very early for our 8am booking for the Vatican Museum. I puzzle over the Rome bus map, and figure out how to get from the apartment to the Vatican.

The bus system is actually very efficient and easy to navigate once you get the hang of it. Bus stops are clearly marked, and have signage that shows what buses stop there and where they will go. The biggest trick is that they don't always stop at a bus stop if no one is waiting there to board, so you have to keep an eye on the window and ring the bell as your stop is approaching.

The bus lets us off about two blocks from the entrance to the museum. Although it's early, a line has already formed, mostly of tour groups. We wait for the huge bronze doors to open.

Waiting for the massive Vatican Museum doors to swing open

Waiting for the massive Vatican Museum doors to swing open

Vatican Museum

Promptly at 8am the doors swing wide, and we swap our prepaid voucher for tickets. The rooms of the museum are designed to passed through in sequence, although there is signage for a shorter itinerary. We're working on a tight schedule because we have a 10:45 meeting at the Ufficio Scavi (more about that later), so we decide to beeline through the museum to the Sistine Chapel, then backtrack. We race through the halls, past tour groups that are just starting to gather.

Ceiling of the Map Room, Vatican Museum

Ceiling of the Map Room, Vatican Museum

We arrive at the narrow corridor that leads up and down stairs to the Sistine Chapel, and pass through the doors. The Sistine Chapel is.....EMPTY!

Yes, the Chapel, which we've heard is normally shoulder-to-shoulder with people shuffling along while gazing at the ceiling has less than 20 people in it. We gasp at both our luck and the sheer awesomeness of the Chapel. There are vacant benches lining the room, and we sit and marvel at Michelangelo's ceiling. Once you see it in person, you suddenly understand the breathtaking effort that must have gone into creating it.

Photos are forbidden here, but...."Bless me Father for I have sinned".

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

While we're there, I take the opportunity to exercise my Italian language skills with the guard at the "secret door". This door, at the far end of the Sistine Chapel, gives direct admission to St. Peter's, inside the security perimeter. More importantly, it's a shortcut to the Ufficio Scavi, but it's normally reserved for tour groups only. I ask the guard if we can use this door later, since we have reservations at the Scavi. He says yes, as long as we show our reservation form. Cool.

After enjoying the Sistine Chapel, we backtrack through the museum, checking out the varied works of art and treasure contained in the halls. There is far more to see here than you can scratch the surface of in the few short hours we have, including a marvelous Egyptian collection. Although we're planning on visiting Cairo later on during the trip, we take advantage of the opportunity to "warm up".

A Mummy from the Vatican Museum's Egyptian Collection

A Mummy from the Vatican Museum's Egyptian Collection

Ushtabi figurines, Egyptian Collection

Ushtabi figurines, Egyptian Collection

An ancient Etruscan chariot from the Vatican Museum

An ancient Etruscan chariot from the Vatican Museum

Laocoön and His Sons

Laocoön and His Sons

Swiss Guard at the entrance to Vatican City proper

Swiss Guard at the entrance to Vatican City proper

We exit the museum through the Sistine Chapel (which now is wall-to-wall people) and cross the porch of St. Peter's to visit the Swiss Guards. We show them our Scavi pass, and they let us pass through to the interior courtyards of the Vatican.

Vatican Scavi (Necropolis)

We've made arrangements for a 10:45am tour of the Vatican Necropolis, provided by the Ufficio Scavi. The Necropolis is an ancient pagan tomb complex that once stood above ground on Vatican Hill. It is believed that St. Peter the Apostle was buried here, after his inverted crucifixion. When Constantine decided to build a church on the site in the third century, he leveled Vatican Hill, and filled in the Necropolis with the rubble. Since then successive altars and churches have been built on the site, all centered around the original burial place.

In the 1800's, the Necropolis 35 feet below St. Peter's Basilica was rediscovered, and gradually excavated. Now, an eerie street of tombs is open for a select number of visitors to view each day.

Our tour of the Scavi ends in the crypts below St. Peter's, where centuries of Popes are now entombed. No photographs are allowed in the Necropolis, and I suspect if you pulled out a camera you'd be clapped in irons and carried off by the Swiss Guards, so you'll have to satisfy yourself with the virtual tour provided at the Vatican website.

After the Scavi Tour, we have direct access to the Basilica without passing through security again.

St. Peter's Basilica

It's hard to describe the scale of St. Peter's. Photos cannot capture the outrageous proportions of this church. Standing underneath the highest dome on the planet, it's still difficult to conceptualize what we are seeing.

The Dome of St. Peter's

The Dome of St. Peter's

See that lettering up there? Each letter is nearly 7 feet tall. Picture the Statue of Liberty, including her pedestal and upraised torch. She could easily fit under the dome, with about 150 feet of headroom!

The Dome of St. Peter's

The Dome of St. Peter's

Markers are inlaid into the marble floor of the great nave, indicating the relative lengths of the next largest churches of the world. No matter what church you think of, it would fit within the footprint of St. Peter's. Oversize statues abound, and the camera cannot capture their scope.

This massive statue of St. Andrew is 32 feet tall.

This massive statue of St. Andrew is 32 feet tall.

Wall size paintings are discovered on closer examination to be finely grained mosaics. Paint would not be able to withstand the smoke from centuries of oil lamps, candles, and incense.

St. Peter's is amazing, no matter what your religious affiliation may be. We marvel at the 60 ton bronze baldicchino, sculpted by Bernini. It is said that much of the bronze used to make it was stripped from the portico of the Pantheon.

Bernini's Baldacchino, made with bronze from the portico of the Pantheon

Bernini's Baldacchino, made with bronze from the portico of the Pantheon

If you circle the church clockwise as you tour, the last major artwork that you come to is the chill-down-your-spine inducing Michelangelo work, the Pieta. As many times as you've seen the image of this statue, seeing it in person, even through a thick layer of bulletproof glass, is a very moving experience. To cap it off, as we stood there contemplating the sculpture, a processional of priests entered the church behind us, chanting in Latin. It literally raised goosebumps.

Michelangelo's Pieta

Michelangelo's Pieta

Next entry, we'll be off on walk across Rome, to view some of the Baroque tourist sites in the early evening.

Posted by Zukini 03.03.2013 12:03 Archived in Italy Tagged vatican Comments (0)

An Evening Stroll Through Rome

sunny 68 °F

After visiting the Vatican, we take a long, rambling stroll through Rome. Our path will take us across the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II, along the Lungotevere, and up to Piazza della Rotunda for second look at the Pantheon. Exhausted by our day at the Vatican (and LONG walk back) we stop at a restaurant near the apartment for a bite to eat. Some simple Roman pizza bufalina and delicious homemade tiramisu, and we're refreshed and raring to go.

After revisiting the Pantheon, we head up to Piazza Colonna. While the Piazza has a famous column, we have an ulterior motive.

Piazza Colonna

Piazza Colonna

Nearby is a gelato place we've heard about in various guidebooks, Giolitti's. Now, we ate gelato constantly during our visit to Rome, and you can really tell the differences in quality between the different places. Giolitti's was simply the best we tried, and worth going out of your way for. Stop at the register first, and order your cup or cone. Then take your receipt to the counter and sample pure wonderfulness. I find pistachio is a great gauge of gelato quality...the pistachio at Giolitti's is stuffed with crunchy nuts and creamy goodness. DW had a stracciatella and nutella mix that was out of this world. After eating at Giolitti's, no gelato anywhere else ever compared.

Next stop is an obelisk erected at Piazza Montecitorio. I have to wonder if there are any obelisks left in Egypt...13 of them are scattered around Rome, and we saw them in a few other places on our trip as well.

Solare Obelisk at Piazza Montecitorio

Solare Obelisk at Piazza Montecitorio

We wiggle around the narrow streets, turn a corner, and are stunned by an overwhelming baroque fountain, jutting out of the front of a building and into the tiny square. This is the Trevi Fountain, perhaps the most famous fountain in the world. Once powered by the Vergine Aqueduct, it is now run by modern recirculating pumps, but is as impressive as ever, towering 85 feet over the piazza.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

We toss our coin into the fountain, adding to the 3,000 Euros that are dropped into it each day. We expect our coin will guarantee good luck and a return trip to Rome, but it certainly will help provide for the needy, as all money collected from the fountain goes to a free supermarket for the poor.

We headed up to Piazza Barberini to catch the metro. The metro lines in Rome are very straightforward. You have a red line and a blue line, and the stops are clearly laid out. We took the red line to Piazza Spagna, the Spanish Steps. Darkness was just starting to fall, and street vendors were out with glowsticks and such. A relaxed, fun atmosphere.

Dusk at the Spanish Steps

Dusk at the Spanish Steps

Our feet were starting to get a little worn out by this point, so we found the 116T bus (which we now affectionately refer to as the "Bronco Bus") and took a jouncing, jostling ride down to Piazza Navona. By now, it was full dark. The piazza was filled with artists and vendors and strolling musicians. The restaurants were all open, and it was just what you would picture it to be. Pure romance.

Piazza Navona at night

Piazza Navona at night

Piazza Navona at night

Piazza Navona at night

Piazza Navona at Night

Piazza Navona at Night

Our stroll home from there took us down Via Mascherone, where we found the mask fountain that the street is named for.

Via Mascherone

Via Mascherone

Having had our taste of La Dolce Vita, it's time to head home. We've got plans to travel out of Rome tomorrow, to visit the ruins at Ostia Antica.

Posted by Zukini 03.03.2013 18:03 Archived in Italy Tagged night walk rome obelisk trevi gelato Comments (0)

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