Barcelona

Cruising is like listening to a Beatles greatest hits record. Yeah (yeah, yeah) you admire Hey Jude and Yesterday, but you miss out on the hidden gems (for me, Norwegian Wood is an almost perfect song) and get no feel for the history and depth of the band.

View through masts, Marina Port Vell, Barcelona

View through masts, Marina Port Vell, Barcelona

 

Even our brief time in Barcelona allowed us to relish some of the B-sides. We spent only two days there, but we were able to walk at leisurely length around this magnificent, quirky city, doing it justice in way that a six-hour tour never would have permitted. (Barcelona is eminently walkable – much of it is flat, and the drivers notice pedestrians and sometimes yield to them, unlike in Italy.)

 

Balcony, Passeig Isabel II

Balcony, Passeig Isabel II

From our base at the Hotel Espana, a tasteful and sleek establishment on Carrer Sant Pau just off La Rambla, we set off in search of Gaudi’s best-known buildings. His unique style – sandcastle spires, amoeboid balconies, splashes of color – contrasts with and complements the city’s stately older structures.

 

The Sagrada Familia (still under construction almost 90 years after Gaudi’s death), which somehow is reminiscent of a building in one of the early Star Wars movies, is a powerful amalgam of emotion, spirituality, and modernity.  

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

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Detail, Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Casa Batllo is the only building I’ve ever seen that reminds of a Smurf.

Casa Batllo

Casa Batllo

Its neighbor to the left (Casa Amatller), designed by another famed architect (Josep Puig i Cadafalch) could not be more different: its stair-step, Moorish/Gothic design is all sharp angles to Gaudi’s soft curves.

Casa Batllo and

Casa Batllo and Casa Amatller

 

These houses sit on a stretch of Passeig Gracia known as the Block of Discord, replete with remarkable and sometimes bizarre structures from competing architects. Unfortunately, Gaudi’s famed La Pedrera, a mansion on the corner of Passeig Gracia and Provenca, currently is wrapped for renovation and surrounded by scaffolding.

Building, Passeig Gracia

Building, Passeig Gracia

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Top of building, Passeig Gracia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also explored the Gothic Quarter, whose seemingly random alleys are filled with taperias, curio shops, and as many Xarcuterias/Pernilerias (basically, ham stores) as most cities have Starbucks. (Barcelona is a bad place to be a pig: bacon, ham, pork sausages and the like are staples of all three major meals and many snacks, and rows of pigs’ legs hang in shop after shop.)

View toward Museu d'Historia de Barcelona, Gothic Quarter

View toward Museu d’Historia de Barcelona, Gothic Quarter

 

Pigs' legs

Pigs’ legs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This part of Barcelona is filled with enchanting details: meticulously carved wooden doors, filigreed balconies, and plaques identifying not just the name of the street, but a few details about the person whom the street honors.

Doorway, Galerias Sant Jordi

Doorway, Galerias Sant Jordi

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Street sign, Gothic Quarter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gothic Quarter also is home to the Catedral de Barcelona, a massive, majestic structure dating back to the 14th century which sits on the site of a cathedral built a millennium before that.

Catedral de Barcelona

Catedral de Barcelona

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Tower, Catedral de Barcelona

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just across La Rambla, a tourist-drenched avenue running from the statue of Columbus near the harbor up to the Placa de Catalunya, is the Mercat de la Boqueria.

View up La Rambla

View up La Rambla

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Entrance to Mercat La Boqueria

We entered in search of breakfast and found stalls packed with spectacular produce, almost every imaginable type of marine life, various whole animals and parts thereof, delicious baked goods, freshly squeezed fruit juices, and other random edibles such as emu and ostrich eggs.

 

 

 

For me, the sensory experience ranged from bliss (a scrumptious chocolate croissant) to disgust (goats’ heads). By mid-afternoon, the stalls had been picked clean.

Produce in the Mercat

Produce in the Mercat

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Olive oil and more

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Fish

 

I’ll finish up with some notes on language, food, and music. First, Catalan – not Spanish – is the primary language in Barcelona. On paper many of the words look similar, but the spoken languages are distinct. Although everyone seems to speak Spanish, there’s no doubt that Catalan is the preferred tongue.

 

Second, Barcelona is a wonderful place to practice your Spanish if, like me, you’re not fluent but know enough to get by. Spaniards enunciate in a way that Spanish-speakers from many other countries don’t, making it easier to identify individual words and draw meaning from the context of the conversation. What’s more, people in Barcelona welcome efforts to communicate in Spanish, even though almost all of them speak far better English than I do Spanish (a welcome change from Marseille, where shopkeepers either don’t understand English or simply pretend not to).

 

Third, if you don’t eat beef or pork, you can still get by quite nicely on fresh fish. It’s available everywhere and it’s delicious. In fact, I had the best salmon of my life at a restaurant called Brasserie Catedra on Via Laitana, which also serves outstanding paella and superb sangria. If you’re a vegetarian things are more difficult, although living on chocolate croissants for a couple of days isn’t such a bad alternative.

 

Finally, shops and restaurants are filled with American or British pop music, but none of it is performed by the original artists. There must be some weird licensing dispute underlying this phenomenon. The nadir came at lunch in an otherwise very nice restaurant, where the soundtrack consisted of godawful smooth jazz arrangements of Beatles songs, including for some reason Honey Pie – probably the only time that particular tune has been covered.

*     *     *

Ending this post with the Beatles would be symmetrical, but I’m not quite done. I cannot wrap up this wonderful trip without expressing boundless gratitude to my parents, whose overwhelming generosity made it all possible. Ever since my siblings and I were small, my parents have made travel a central part of our lives. Time and again, they’ve brought us – and now our own spouses and children – on marvelous voyages, enlightening, educating and entertaining us beyond measure.   Mom and Dad, thank you, thank you, thank you and tanto quiero.

The travelers

The travelers

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Aix-en-Provence and Marseille

Pity the port that follows Florence. Suffice it to say that Toulon (actually Seyne sur Mer) isn’t up to the job.  Although not so distant geographically from Tuscany, this region of France (part of Provence) has an almost shockingly different vibe.

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The change is physical and psychological: Tuscany is lush and welcoming while Provence is rocky, dry, and diffident.  Admittedly, these are generalizations. But to me, quaint Aix-en-Provence and bustling Marseille (the two cities we visited on our tour) can’t hold a candle to the charm and history of the Italian ports.

Granted, the old quarter of Aix-en-Provence is picturesque and not at all touristy. Seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings, many of which once were mansions, line the streets.

Alley, old quarter, Aix-en-Provence

Alley, old quarter, Aix-en-Provence

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Place d’Albertas, old quarter, Aix-en-Provence

Outdoor markets offer luscious produce and brilliant flowers.

Sunflowers

Sunflowers

There’s also a beautiful old church, Cathedrale Saint-Sauveur.

Cathedrale Saint-Sauveur

Cathedrale Saint-Sauveur

In contrast, the more modern part of Aix, while clean and bright, could be almost anywhere. When we visited, the main street (Cours Mirabeau), was occupied by a market where vendors sold shoes, purses, shoes, clothing, and more shoes. (Footwear must be particularly valued in this part of the Mediterranean; Marseille and Barcelona likewise seemed to have far more shoe stores than could be supported by a two-legged population.)

Outdoor market, Cours Mirabeau

Outdoor market, Cours Mirabeau

Marseille is a sprawling metropolis extending from the coast to the mountains. Even though it was settled 2600 years ago by the Greeks, there is little in the way of ruins. Most buildings date from the nineteenth century, and many weren’t erected until after World War II, when much of the downtown area was destroyed by German bombing. The architecture is pretty but unexceptional; the buildings’ interest lies principally in the ornate ironwork enclosing their balconies.

Islands in Marseilles Bay

Islands in Marseilles Bay

Our bus crept around the U-shaped Old Port, passing a fish market and hundreds of sail boats. There are several islands in Marseilles Bay; the fortress made famous in The Count of Monte Cristo hulks over one of them.

From the port, we climbed the Hill of the Guards to the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde. This basilica dates to 1214.

Statue of Notre Dame de la Garde

Statue of Notre Dame de la Garde

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Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde

It’s gorgeous inside, but the real draw is the exterior walkway, which offers a 360-degree view of the coast, city, and mountains.

View of Marseilles from the Basilique

View of Marseilles from the Basilique

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Drawbridge, Basilique

Toward the old port, there’s a beautiful vista of the twin forts guarding the harbor (Bas Fort Saint-Nicholas and Fort Saint-Jean) and a splendid Byzantine-style cathedral beyond Fort Saint-Jean (Cathedrale de la Major).

Bas Fort Saint-Nicholas

Bas Fort Saint-Nicholas

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Cathedrale de la Majore

After the basilica, we wandered around downtown, passing dozens of shoe stores, patisseries, glaceries, and boulangeries.  As with Aix, Marseille isn’t a tourist trap: the shops were filled with locals, and the shopkeepers neither cater to nor go out of their way to welcome visitors.

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Pisa and Florence

Pisa is charming and Florence beguiling; this was my favorite day of the cruise, edging out Ephesus and Pompeii.

 

From Livorno (Florence’s port), most of the roughly 40-minute trip to Pisa was on SS1, the modern-day successor to an ancient Roman road. Once again revealing the engineering prowess of the ancient Romans, SS1 is unwaveringly straight and flat. Mediterranean pines (the source of pine nuts) canopy the road before yielding to boat repair businesses and an Ikea closer to Pisa.

 

View from the leaning tower of Pisa

View from the leaning tower of Pisa

To reach the leaning tower, we crossed the Arno – perhaps the most important river in the world of crosswords, if you’re an aficionado – and wound through picturesque lanes before entering the old city walls and parking illegally (a recurring event in this land where traffic violations are cultural imperatives). The first, sudden sight of the tower is breathtaking. Even on an overcast day the tower gleams – it was cleaned a few years ago – and its list is remarkably pronounced.

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Tower bell

 

The leaning tower of Pisa

The leaning tower of Pisa

Advance reservations to climb the tower are a must. The tickets specify an entrance time that our guide, Laura, said is strictly enforced; she then charmed the guard into letting us in even though we arrived ten minutes past the appointed hour.

 

The ascent is in two stages. The first 217 steps comprise a wide spiral opening onto a restricted viewing area. From there, the final 36 steps are narrower and more steeply sloped. All the steps are worn concave, sometimes to the point of awkwardness. Still, it’s an easily manageable climb.

 

Cathedral and Baptistry

Cathedral and Baptistry

At the top, a fenced platform girds the tower and offers panoramic vistas of the adjacent cathedral and baptistry, the town of Pisa (rows of three-to-four story 17th century buildings, many of them painted a muted yellow-orange), and the outlying countryside. Inside the tower’s belfry are six massive, theoretically photogenic bells.   I say theoretically because people on the viewing platform often stand, unwittingly, so that it appears as if their legs are protruding from the bells. Care and a quick shutter finger are essential.

 

Florence lies roughly 75 minutes from Pisa via a four-lane highway. After bisecting flat farms filled with wheat, corn, and sunflowers, the road winds through lush rolling hills, and for one mercifully brief stretch passes some pungent tanneries. Mountains run roughly parallel to the north.

 

Tuscan view, olive trees in foreground

Tuscan view, olive trees in foreground

Instead of heading directly into Florence, Laura took us on a detour through part of the Chianti region. We passed through a small village (San Vincente de Torre, I think) that could grace any postcard of Tuscany. Villas dot the hills, their cypresses lining their driveways like sentinels. On each side, olive groves, fruit trees, and vineyards stretch into the distance. (The olive trees are graceful, with thin, willow-like, silvery-green leaves.) What an enchanting setting.

 

Florence's old city walls

Florence’s old city walls

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The Ponte Vecchio

We approached Florence through an exclusive residential area, stopping at a park with an arresting view of the city’s best-known landmarks. After a photo break, we twisted down alleys clogged with oblivious pedestrians and maniacal scooters before darting into a parking space (illegal) a block from our first stop, the Accademia.

 

The Accademia’s claim to fame is Michelangelo’s statue of David.   We had purchased tickets a month ahead of time, only to find ourselves on an unbudging line comprised of hundreds of other similarly well-prepared people. (The line for same-day ticket purchasers was an estimated four hours long.) Laura once again charmed and cajoled, and we got into the museum in less than half an hour.

 

The Duomo

The Duomo

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Michelangelo’s David

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because of the museum’s limited entry policy, there isn’t a crowd surrounding the statue of David, which is indeed magnificent. The Accademia has many other pieces by Michelangelo as well as other terrific exhibitions, but we had limited time and had to move on.

Chiesa Santa Croce

Chiesa Santa Croce

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The Duomo

 

We ate lunch at Restaurant Boccadama, which sits on Piazza Santa Croce steps from the magnificent Chiesa Santa Croce (Chiesa being Italian for church). Our meal was outstanding. On the indispensible Laura’s recommendation, we enjoyed a fantastic appetizer of Pecorino cheese, pears, apples, walnuts, and honey. I had the best pasta I’ve ever eaten, al dente spaghetti with chunks of tuna, diced tomatoes and minced black olives. My son said the same about his spaghetti carbonara and my brother-in-law agreed with respect to his lasagna. Laura informed the manager that two of us were celebrating birthdays, and he gave us complimentary Prosecco before our meal and delicious limoncello afterward.

Details of artwork on the Duomo

Details of artwork on the Duomo

 

Following lunch, we walked past the phenomenally beautiful Duomo. Unfortunately, the neighboring Baptistry was swathed in canvas and surrounded by scaffolding. Florence has eye-catching churches on almost every block, but the Duomo is the undoubted king.   To cap off our day, we stopped for delicious gelato at La Carraca (on Iungarno Soderini at the corner of the Ponte alla Carrara), where double scoops for eight people came to only 17 euros – perhaps half what we would have paid in the Old Town.

 

Arch, Piazza Della Republica

Arch, Piazza Della Republica

Of all our stops, beautiful, cultured Florence is the one I most want to revisit. Maybe next time we’ll rent a Tuscan villa and eat, sip and sightsee our way through a week or two.

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Rome

Rome, they say, wasn’t built in a day, and it can’t be seen in a day either. We ping-ponged from highlight to highlight but barely scratched the surface of the Eternal City during our nearly 9-hour tour.  From Rome’s port, Civitavecchia, we drove for an hour down a modern highway running through blandly scenic countryside: flat to rolling hills, corn fields and olive groves, rolled hay and the occasional cypress tree. We shared the road with pint-sized Fiats, Suzukis, Peugeots, Renaults, and Smart Cars. I saw two minivans and no SUVs, hardly surprising with gas costing ten dollars per gallon.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

 

Our guide/driver, Mauro, insisted on being called Mike. He had lived in the US for 18 years while working for an Italian tour company, and he plans to retire soon to San Diego out of love for the States and despair over Italian taxes. Leaving the highway, Mike took us into Rome over a road first built two millennia ago. Not only does the road remain in use today, it runs alongside an ancient, still operational aqueduct.

 

Our tour began at the Pantheon, also known as the Basilica Santa Maria Ad Martyres. Dating back to 27 BCE and rebuilt around 150 years later, the Pantheon is an engineering miracle. Its designers constructed a precisely circular dome whose skylight is illuminated from directly overhead on the summer solstice.

Dome of the Pantheon

Dome of the Pantheon

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Marcus Aurelius column, topped by St. Peter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While once again known as the Pantheon, its alternate name represents the Roman practice, post-Constantine, of asserting the Church’s dominion over those pre-existing (pagan) religious edifices that they didn’t destroy. Another prime example stands in the square outside the Pantheon: after Rome’s conversion to Christianity, the Marcus Aurelius column (an elegant travertine structure) was retrofitted with a statue of St. Peter.

Vittoriano monument (the "Wedding Cake")

Vittoriano monument (the “Wedding Cake”)

From the Pantheon, we drove down streets lined with elegant 15th and 16th century buildings, stately churches, and more than a few McDonalds before stopping for a photo opportunity near the City Parliament building. Behind this building are acres of Roman ruins in the Forum area.

The Forum area

The Forum area

This area also abuts the gleaming, massive Vittoriano monument (completed in 1921), disparagingly called the “wedding cake.” Between the Vittoriano monument and the City Parliament building are the ruins of what our guide called the world’s first condominium (once again dating back more than two millennia) and the Ara Celli church.

 

Under increasingly gloomy skies, we joined the throngs touring the Colosseum. Fortunately we had advance reservations; we were able to skip the quarter-mile line of people seeking same-day tickets.

Exterior of the Colisseum

Exterior of the Colisseum

The Colosseum lives up to its name.  It’s immense and imposing, and one can almost hear the bloodthirsty crowds cheering the deaths of thousands of people and millions of animals over the course of the centuries. As we reached the highest concourse, we were greeted by an enormous, reverberating thunderclap followed by an epic rainstorm that flooded the streets and continued undiminished for nearly an hour and a half.

Interior of the Colisseum

Interior of the Colisseum

 

We dashed into a restaurant called Insalata Ricca for lunch: mixed Bruschetta (tapenade, eggplant, artichoke, smoked salmon, sesame, walnuts and creamy cheese) and, of course, pizza. Italian pizza has a thinner crust than New York-style pizza (it’s more like the pizza in New Haven, or I guess New Haven pizza is closer to Italian pizza) and uses less sauce and cheese than American pizza. An individual pie is around 12 inches in diameter, but it’s no more filling than two slices of pizza in the States and has almost no grease. At any rate, the pie was delicious and our meal – lunch for 8 including ½ liter of wine, 6 pizzas, a calzone, sodas, and bottled water, came to only 78 Euros (around 110 dollars).

View of the Medici home from the Paula Fountain

View of the Medici home from the Paula Fountain

 

After lunch we visited the Paula fountain, which dates back to 1612 and offers terrific views of the city. The more famous (but less authentically Roman, according to our guide) Trevi fountain is out of commission for up to two years after suffering damage from a rare ice storm.

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Our final stop was the Vatican. Once again, advance reservations are a must. The entrance is surprisingly modern. After negotiating the ticket line, escalators bring visitors to a large gift shop (the first of many throughout the Vatican complex) guarding the entrance to the Vatican Museum.   The Museum is enormous, and we were able to visit only the three galleries leading to the Sistine Chapel – two of which had their own gift shops mid-gallery, which was a bit off-putting even to someone who’s not at all religious, let alone Catholic.

Ceiling, Tapestries Gallery

Ceiling, Tapestries Gallery

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Ceiling, Maps Gallery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Candelabra and Tapestry galleries and the Map Room are filled with gorgeous paintings, wall hangings, and frescoes. The tapestries are particularly impressive; their creators captured scenes of great emotional impact with wool and dye.

Details of a tapestry

Details of a tapestry

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Details of a map showing Hannibal’s elephants

The Map Room is fascinating, with depictions of all the regions of Italy, sometimes in whimsical detail (including, for example, Hannibal’s elephants). The ceilings in the galleries appear to be three-dimensional reliefs, but they are actually painted; the illusion is masterful.

 

In truth, I enjoyed the galleries more than the Sistine Chapel. Entering the Chapel involved waiting in a long, unruly line. Inside, the Chapel is dark and jam-packed with tourists.   The art is undeniably beautiful, and Michelangelo’s masterpiece is not only stirring but a remarkable testament to the physical sacrifice he must have endured.   Unfortunately, the crowds markedly diminish the overall experience.

 

After exiting the Sistine Chapel, we took pictures of St. Peter’s square and then toured St Peter’s basilica.

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter’s Square

It is glorious. Expressive statues honor popes and saints, intricate mosaics replicate famous paintings and, from a normal viewing distance, are indistinguishable from the originals despite being composed of tiles. There’s even a marble window admitting shimmering light through thin panes of stone. The Basilica is a crowning achievement of religious art and architecture.

The Pieta (St. Peter's Basilica)

The Pieta (St. Peter’s Basilica)

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Marble window, St. Peter’s Basilica

 

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Naples: Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast

Cruise ships make a lot of money on port tours, contracting with local operators to show large groups (several busloads of 40 people each) the local sights. The tour guides are always competent and sometimes excellent, and if the tour is late returning the ship will delay its departure.  These tours are expensive, however, and their size precludes flexibility and individual attention.

Entrance to Pompeii

Entrance to Pompeii

 

Thanks to my sister’s diligent research, we skipped the ship’s tours in Naples, Rome and Florence and instead booked private excursions with a company called RomeinLimo. For significantly less money than Princess would have charged, RomeinLimo provided expert, friendly, entertaining guides and Mercedes vans in all three ports. (I’ve given the company a five-star review on TripAdvisor and recommend them to anyone looking for a private alternative.)

Theater, Pompeii (white seats are original)

Theater, Pompeii (white seats are original)

 

After greeting us at the bottom of the gangway in Naples, our tour guide (Enrico) took us to Pompeii and the Amalfi coast. It was a jam-packed, occasionally vertigo-inducing, wonderful day.

 

Pompeii is astounding. The settlement there was contemporaneous with Ephesus but it’s far better preserved, having been buried under thirty feet of rock and ash. Our guide in Pompeii, Paola, said that a mile of mountain rained down on the surrounding area: Vesuvius was 9000 feet pre-eruption and only 4000 feet afterward.

View of Vesuvius from Pompeii

View of Vesuvius from Pompeii

 

The result is a three-dimensional still life of a Roman town, complete with government offices, temples, villas, theaters, public baths, “snack bars,” and brothels. As in Ephesus, visitors to Pompeii experience history from the perspective of a citizen of the Empire. Among the highlights: the spectacular amphitheater (capacity 25,000), the beautifully restored villa of a wealthy citizen (complete with marvelous frescoes), the spacious public baths, and the views of a currently peaceful Vesuvius presiding over the countryside.

Fresco, villa, Pompeii

Fresco, villa, Pompeii

 

Following Pompeii, we endured a slithering, undulating drive along the Amalfi coast. The two-lane road makes an endless series of tortuous climbs and hairpin turns, around which scooters, tourist buses, and mini-cars play chicken. I can’t believe anyone in Italy can get car insurance – particularly the maniacal scooter drivers (reminiscent of the pod racers in Star Wars).

View of Sorrento from the coast road

View of Sorrento from the coast road

 

On the way to Positano, we stopped twice: first to take pictures at an overlook offering beautiful views of Sorrento and the Bay of Naples, and second at a produce stand featuring peppers, garlic, and enormous Amalfi lemons, which are perhaps three times larger than their American cousins.

 

 

Peppers and garlic

Peppers and garlic

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Lemons!

Positano is a nearly vertical village clinging to a mountainside that plunges to the water in a series of dramatic cliffs. The town is studded with B&Bs and craft shops. Walking from one street to another typically entails climbing sharply pitched stone stairs. The one road that winds through town has no sidewalks; storefronts open directly onto traffic.

Positano

Positano

 

For lunch, we had very good pizza and the local red wine at a place called Valle dei Mulini (Via Vecchia 5), located down a steep staircase from the main road. Fortified and refreshed, we backtracked to Sorrento, a larger town 20 minutes back toward Naples.  

 

 

Sorrento understandably draws plenty of tourists as well. It’s picturesque (though not as dramatically so as Positano) and filled with narrow alleys, beautiful churches, and gelato emporia.

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House, Sorrento

Alley, Sorrento

Alley, Sorrento

 

Exhausted and resigned to the twisting return trip – made far more tolerable by my brother-in-law’s kind offer to cede the front seat – we got back to Naples some eight hours after setting out for Pompeii. Naples is not a particularly attractive city: there are many run-down areas, and the city has a reputation for “thieves and trash.” We even passed a gypsy encampment in a lot bordering the highway.

Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo, Naples

Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo, Naples

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Ceiling of Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo

 

Nonetheless, there are some wonderful sights to see. One that stood out on our whirlwind city tour was the Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo, which embodies the adage about not judging a book by its cover. The church’s plain exterior hides a magnificent interior – the first of many awe-inspiring (their purpose, after all) churches, cathedrals, and basilicas we visited on our cruise.   We didn’t have time to stop anywhere else, but my parents raved about the National Archeological Museum.

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Mykonos and Delos

Mykonos is a storybook Greek island. Blindingly white houses whose shutters match the impossibly blue sea dot the island’s gently sloping hills.

Village of Ano Mera, Mykonos

Village of Ano Mera, Mykonos

As beautiful as Mykonos is, its prime attraction for me is its proximity to the island of Delos, the largest archeological site in Greece and the mythical birthplace of Artemis and Apollo.

My tour spent two and a half hours wandering through the ruins, which stretch from 3500 years ago up to around 500 CE.

View of Delos from the archeological museum

View of Delos from the archeological museum

Not surprisingly, Homer singled out Delos as an important religious center in the Odyssey and in his Hymn to Apollo; there are temples galore.

Temple of Dionysos

Temple of Dionysos

Being generally older than the ruins at Ephesus, those on Delos are less complete. Individual columns and pieces of statues stand like so many broken-toothed combs, but there’s little in the way of more nearly intact buildings.

House of Cleopatra and Deskoridis

House of Cleopatra and Deskoridis

Still, there is much to marvel at, and the island is home to a small but impressive archeological museum bursting with statues, pottery, and other artifacts excavated from the site.

Upon returning to Mykonos, we took a bus to the hillside village of Ano Mera, our guide’s home town. There we visited a small monastery filled with gold and icons and dined well at a local café (Taverna Vangelis).

Monastery Panagia Tourliani, Ano Mera

Monastery Panagia Tourliani, Ano Mera

Driving through the island afforded an up-close look at the houses – freshly whitewashed, rounded-off rectangles or squares shaped roughly like loaves of bread.

Typical house, Mykonos

Typical house, Mykonos

Apparently the government requires all houses to be white, and social mores compel each homeowner to reapply whitewash each Spring. Many houses have a small church in the yard to honor the homeowner’s personal saint.

Our tour dropped us off by the old harbor of Chora, the main town on Mykonos. It’s a picturesque, sparklingly clean village filled with open-air restaurants, high-end shops, tourist emporia, an interesting church, windmills, and cats.

The village of Chora

The village of Chora

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Church of Panagia Paraportani, Chora

Windmills

Windmills, Chora

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Kusadasi and Ephesus

Temporarily leaving Greece, we docked next in Kusadasi (KOOSH-uh-das-uh), a port on the Aegean coast of Turkey south of Izmir (ancient Smyrna). Kusadasi is the gateway to an area of great beauty, where the sea yields to olive groves, which in turn sidle up mountains studded with ancient ruins. Most notably, Kusadasi is a short drive from Ephesus – once the second-largest city in the Roman Empire and now an archeological site of astounding presence and importance.

View toward the Aegean from the road to Ephesus

Ephesus is one of the most interesting, revealing places I’ve ever visited. An international team of archeologists is masterfully excavating and renovating the Ephesian ruins – reanimating a Roman capital from the first and second centuries CE.

The contrast between Ephesus and the Acropolis is striking. Visitors must keep their distance from the ruins on the Acropolis; in Ephesus they stroll among marble columns, climb the steps of ancient theaters, enter what once was the third-largest library in the world, and stand in the courtyards and kitchens of 2000-year old houses.

Victory monument of Sula

Victory monument of Sula

Nike, Goddess of Victory

Nike, Goddess of Victory

For this reason, Ephesus is more than just history out of a book; it’s experiential. Tourists throng the same avenues down which Alexander the Great promenaded in pre-Roman times and Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, and the Apostle Paul walked three centuries later.

For me, the highlight of Ephesus was the tour through the terrace homes of the wealthiest Romans. (Entrance to this attraction is not included in the basic admission price; it requires a special ticket.) Mosaic floors depicting lions, philosophers, or intricate patterns have been meticulously restored, as have colorful frescoes and friezes. There’s even a white marble table with an inlaid backgammon board. 

Partially restored room, terrace home

Partially restored room, terrace home

Library of Celsus

Library of Celsus

Our terrific guide (a man named Otkay) explained how the homes were built to maximize exposure to sea breezes and featured indoor plumbing and radiant heating.

The tour also encompassed two nearby attractions of great Biblical interest. The first, Meryem Ana, is the small stone house where many believers think the Virgin Mary spent her final years. After centuries of obscurity, the house was found after a German nun who had never been to the region dreamed very specifically about such a dwelling and identified landmarks allowing its location to be pinpointed. The Catholic Church now accepts that the house was Mary’s, although as I understand it, the evidence supporting that conclusion is more wishful than definitive.

Entrance to Mary's house

Entrance to Mary’s house

Side of Mary's house

Side of Mary’s house

Occupying a secluded spot on Mt. Koressos, the house has been rebuilt on top of the original foundations. Visitors may enter two of the rooms, which are small and bare (photography inside is prohibited). A “wishing wall” studded with prayers from the faithful occupies a slope in front of the house, and a pipe fed by a nearby spring supplies water credited with producing miracle cures. There were many devout visitors; Mary is revered by both Christians and Muslims.

The "wishing wall"

The “wishing wall”

The second attraction is the Basilica of St. John, which dates to the 6th century and supposedly incorporates the tomb of the apostle. All that remains of the structure are some walls, pillars, and door frames. Nearby is the 600-year old Isabey mosque, and a bit farther away is the one extant column (out of 128) of the Temple of Artemis. After the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, bureaucrats instructed builders to level “pagan” temples and use the rubble to erect churches, shrines, and the like. As a result, little remains of the Greek and Hittite structures that once dotted the landscape.

Basilica of St. John

Basilica of St. John

Our tour ended at the Grand Bazaar of Kusadasi, a tourist trap featuring stores selling “authentic fake” Rolexes and the like. The one exception: vendors of hand-woven wool or silk carpets, which are legitimate works of art.

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Athens

Poor Athens. Suffering along with the rest of Greece, some of its modern buildings are nearly as dilapidated as the ruins from two millennia past, and beggars (many of them children) are all around. The road between the port (Piraeus) and the city is lined with strip clubs and sex shops. Graffiti is everywhere; our guide, Maria, said that most of it relates to political protests. She also noted that the unemployment rate is nearly 30 percent and, at the rate things are going, there will be no middle class in another five years.  Against this somber background, we visited the Acropolis, the National Archeological Museum, and the Plaka. 

Theater of Dionysus, the Acropolis

Theater of Dionysus, the Acropolis

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The Parthenon, complete with scaffolding and crowds

Soaring over Athens, the Acropolis is a landmark of Western civilization, and its temples show their majesty even through the ubiquitous scaffolding.  

Unfortunately, the suffocating crowds dampened our appreciation of the site; despite Maria’s exhortations, I just couldn’t “close my eyes part way and imagine myself back 2500 years” while being whacked by camera bags and backpacks.

View from the Acropolis

View from the Acropolis

The Karyatids, Temple of Athena and Poseidon

The Karyatids, Temple of Athena and Poseidon

 

The National Archeological Museum is phenomenal, with a collection of well-presented relics going back to Mycenean times (the second millennium BCE). There are friezes, statues, vases, weapons, mirrors, household items, and more. It’s a nearly overhwhelming collection, but Maria adeptly explained how the items interrelated. Her discussion of changes in Greek statuary from its earliest days (when it was influenced by Egyptian styles) through the Classical period was particularly illuminating.

 

Following the Museum, we stopped briefly at the Panathenic Stadium (an enormous, impressive structure) and then passed the changing of the guards at the Parliament building. The latter is an absurd spectacle, with deadly serious guards sporting what appear to be clown shoes doing their best imitation of Monty Python’s John Cleese in the Ministry of Silly Walks skit.

Mycenean vase

Mycenean vase

Statue of Zeus or Poseidon (archaelogists aren't sure which one)

Statue of Zeus or Poseidon (archaelogists aren’t sure which one)

The Plaka is the traditional market area. It is filled with souvenir shops, not all of which are tacky. Several stores sell handsome bowls, backgammon sets, and serving ware crafted of olive wood, and others offer exquisitely colored, hand-painted plates. Unfortunately, the area is overrun with aggressive peddlers.

 

 

Statue of Aphrodite

Statue of Aphrodite

Athens should be a treasure, but dilapidation and despair mask its charm. Our guide was painfully candid about the future, which in her eyes looks bleak. I hope she’s wrong.

 

 

 

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Dubrovnik

Our second port, Dubrovnik, clings to hills overlooking the Adriatic. With no ship’s tour lined up, we cabbed into the Old City (the equivalent of $14 each way), which sits within massive walls surmounted by a walkway offering glorious views. Our guidebook suggested avoiding the crowds at the principle entrance to the walls (the Pila Gate) by taking the main street (the Stradun) to its end at the Ploce Gate. Nice in theory but impossible to execute.

Steps up to the city wall

Steps up to the city wall

 

We saw no signs for the Ploce Gate, so we asked several people for directions. “20 meters left.” “Go 50 meters and turn right.” “About 30 meters that way.” Quite literally, we kept running into brick walls. Conceding defeat, we went back to the Pila Gate, stood on a long line for tickets (100 Kunas for adults, 30 for children under 18, with one US dollar being around 4.5 Kuna), and were informed that, because of a summit of European leaders (including Angela Merkel, who was greeted like a rock star), we would only be permitted to walk around half of the wall.

View down to the Stradun

View down to the Stradun

 

So we did. After puffing up the stone steps to the walkway, we spent an hour taking in one lovely view after another – cliffside forts, dramatic hills, the sparkling Adriatic, and the flowers and grape arbors (and laundry) of people who live in the old city.

Dubrovnik Old Town

Dubrovnik Old Town

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Cliffside fort

 

Cautionary notes: First, many places (including the public toilets) only accept Kunas. There are ATMS near the old city, but they had long lines. Second, the old city and the walkway were crowded, even though ours was the only ship in the harbor. I can’t imagine how mobbed it must get when there are four or five ships in town, as often is the case.

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Mediterranean Cruise: Introduction and Venice

Freshly returned from a twelve-day Mediterranean cruise, I’m going to post “a port a day” as I work through our itinerary, which included visits to Italy, Croatia, Greece,, Turkey, France, and Spain. First stop: Venice.

Venice

Purgatory before paradise. US Airways before Venice. ‘Nuff said.

Venice may not be paradise – perhaps if the pigeons were doves – but it is magnificent. With no cars, and with winding alleys framed by centuries-old buildings and topped by a sliver of sky, it’s easy to imagine the city unchanged since the Renaissance. (Unfortunately, Venice’s time may be running out. The city is sinking: many buildings now have uninhabitable first floors, much of the stucco has worn off the structures lining the canals, leaving shimmed and gap-filled brick, and flooding is commonplace.)

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Gondolas with Isola San Giorgio Maggiore in the background

Venice deserves a glowing, descriptive write-up. Unfortunately, my jet-lagged stupor fuzzed the limning details. Here’s what remains:

After a short bus ride from Marco Polo airport, ten of us and our luggage squeezed into a boat taxi. Several canals later, we pulled up, bobbing and swaying, to the waterside entrance to the Hotel Kette and clambered into the refined marble lobby. With several hours to go until our rooms were ready, we ventured out in search of lunch to eat and sights to see.

After a restorative lunch (the specifics of which elude me), we took in Venice’s greatest hits; the next morning we enjoyed a vaporetto (water bus) ride up the Grand Canal the next morning. In a city overstuffed with must-see sites, there are some that still stand out.

The Piazza San Marco, the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs, and the Rialto Bridge are deservedly iconic, combining beautiful design with rich history.

The Rialto Bridge

The Rialto Bridge

(The Piazza, the Palace, and the Bridge of Sighs are contiguous; the Rialto Bridge is no more than 15 minutes away; just follow the “Per Rialto” signs.)

View up the Grand Canal

View up the Grand Canal

Cruising up the Grand Canal, spectacular mansions sporting Moorish filigree and ornate stonework alternate with narrow canals accessible only to gondolas.

Mansion along the Grand Canal

Mansion along the Grand Canal

Smaller pleasures include admiring the colorful and brilliantly crafted Murano glass figurines and watching the Vaporetti, water taxis, gondolas and private boats putter, splash, and weave about.

The Bridge of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs

 

My unconventional advice to anyone visiting Venice is to get lost. We had no intention of doing so, but our hotel-provided tourist map bore an at-best aspirational relation to reality. We wound up in narrow passages that the map designated as broad thoroughfares, streets whose names arbitrarily changed mid-block, dead ends where the map showed through routes, and alleys that, on paper, didn’t exist. No matter; there’s history and charm at every turn, so losing one’s way in Venice is a bonus, even when dopey from jet lag.

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