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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 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 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 21:55 Archived in Italy Tagged rome colosseum forum 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 18:03 Archived in Italy Tagged night walk rome obelisk trevi gelato Comments (0)

A Day Trip to Ostia Antica

sunny 71 °F

Well, it's Tuesday, May 17th. Our last full day in Rome before the cruise begins. We've decided to spend the day at the ruins of Ostia Antica, a little ways north of Rome.

Ostia was originally the seaport servicing Rome, and grew to be a major port. It was situated along the Tiber River, with easy access to the ocean. Unfortunately, malaria, the Tiber changing course, and a series of earthquakes led to the city's decline and abandonment in the third century AD. The ruins date back as early as the 4th century BC, and are remarkably well preserved.

We take a bus from our apartment to the Pyramide Metro station in Trastavere. From there, we board the regional train heading toward the Lido, the beach area north of Rome. It's about a 25 minute train ride to Ostia Antica. We should note that the train fares are free with the Roma Pass card, and entrance to the site is also part of the Roma Pass program (you get either free or discounted admission, depending on what you've already visited.

From the Ostia Antica train station, it's a moderate walk over a pedestrian overpass and down the lane to the site entrance. If you need to use the WC, hold your nose! The bathrooms at the site entrance are simply large porta-potties, in somewhat of a neglected state. You might be better off using the restrooms at the train station.

As you enter the site, you are outside the city walls of Ostia, walking through the ancient Necropolis. The structures all around you are tombs, many with plaques identifying the former occupant ("This is Demetrius. He was a Baker"). Some, like this columbarium, were designed for the interment of cremated remains.

A Columbarium at the Necropolis

A Columbarium at the Necropolis

As you walk through the site, you'll often see large carved stone boxes along the sides of the roads. They look like elaborate planters, and some of them are fashioned into benches. Take a closer look, and you'll realize that they are ancient pagan sarcophagi, relocated from the Necropolis.

A carved stone sarcophagus

A carved stone sarcophagus

The site is eerily peaceful. It's not awfully well known, so there aren't busloads of tour groups, although it seems to be popular as a spring field trip for local Italian school groups.

The City Gate

The City Gate

Once you pass through the city gate, you're inside an actual working city. There's the dock district, with warehouses and areas for unloading goods, the administrative center with it's forum, public areas with Roman baths, temples, and taverns. You can easily spend an entire day there, if you have the stamina...I think we covered about four miles walking that day.

Some highlights of the site are the enormous, well preserved amphitheater

The Theater at Ostia Antica

The Theater at Ostia Antica


The Roman baths, with many of the mosaics still in place after a millennium and a half:

Mosaics in the Roman Bath

Mosaics in the Roman Bath

and this well-preserved tavern that still has pictures of food painted on the wall above the serving shelves.

Depictions of food above a serving shelf

Depictions of food above a serving shelf


The counter at an ancient tavern

The counter at an ancient tavern

Honestly, I could post a hundred pictures of the site. Many of the buildings still have their upper floors intact, and almost all of them are open for inspection.

Clay pipes for heating and ventilation

Clay pipes for heating and ventilation


View from a rooftop

View from a rooftop

Sarcophagus detail

Sarcophagus detail

It's really an amazing site, and well worth seeing if you can fit a day into your schedule to do it. At the far end of the site is a modern cafeteria and bookshop, with clean, authentic restrooms. I find it surprising that so many people will take an entire day to travel down to Naples to see Pompeii from Rome, when this astounding set of ruins is right in their backyard.

At the end of a very long day, we head back to Rome. We stroll around Campo De' Fiori, prepare dinner at the apartment, and repack our stuff. Tomorrow, we're off to Civitavecchia to start our cruise.

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Posted by Zukini 20:52 Archived in Italy Tagged ruins rome ostia antica Comments (0)

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