Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cruisin' Through Life

Warning: this is a VERY, VERY long post. You may want to read it in installments. Oh, and you should be able to click on the pictures to see a larger version of them, if you'd like.

So, since we knew our time here in the UK was getting short (but we didn’t realize HOW short at the time), we started looking into where all we still kind of wanted to see while we were on this side of the “pond”. Some good friends had gone on a cruise last year that we thought sounded amazing. It also seemed like a good way to get a taste of a lot of different countries. So we decided to copy them, and signed up for the same cruise, just a year later.

The cruise was with Norwegian Cruise Lines, and was a 12-day cruise through the Mediterranean. Its port of departure was Barcelona (Spain), and the ports of call were Rome (Italy), Athens (Greece), Izmir (Turkey), Alexandria (Egypt), and Valetta (Malta), before returning to Barcelona.

Needless to say, we were very excited.

We flew out of the UK to Barcelona on the 6th of March. We didn’t really have time to do much but get to our hotel that night.

The following day was our day of departure for the cruise, but as we didn’t really need to be to the ship until the afternoon, we decided to do a little sight-seeing quickly in the morning. We took the metro to the Sagrada Familia cathedral, which was really amazing. It’s a cathedral that was designed and begun by Gaudi in the late 1800s, and has been under construction ever since. Theoretically, they will be finishing it in 2030. The interior is still largely unfinished, and a little hard to appreciate around all the scaffolding, but you can get a feel for how unique and impressive it will be.

The exterior looks much more finished, and has two very different sides. One was built by Gaudi, and represents the birth of Christ. The other was done much more recently, and depicts the crucifixion. There has been a bit of controversy regarding the very different styling of the two. Eventually, there is going to be a third side, which will show the resurrection. I’m curious what style they’ll go with for that one!

We spent an extra few euro to be able to take the elevator to the top of the spires, which was well worth it (especially as we found the one in the back which had no line to wait in!). The views over the city were great, as well as the chance to see the cathedral itself from a different vantage point. The way down was by lots and lots of narrow, winding stairs, but Madeline was a trooper and made it the whole way without needing to be carried!

After we finished at the Sagrada Familia, we grabbed some lunch, and headed for the cruise ship. Bill took Madeline to explore a bit while I did some unpacking. After we had supper, Bill took Madeline swimming, despite the fact that it wasn’t exactly hot. Madeline is quite the little water baby, and the pools were one of her favorite parts of the whole vacation. Luckily for me (since swimming isn’t really my thing), Bill is also a bit of a swimmer, and he’s very good about taking Madeline to pools whenever we have one around.

After swimming, Madeline went to the Kid’s Club for the first, but definitely not the last, time. One of the things we had really been attracted to with this cruise was our friends’ report of the Kid’s Club. It’s for kids 2 years old and up, and is free anytime the ship is not in port. (If you’re in port, you can pay by the hour to leave them there.) As we’d hoped, Madeline really had a lot of fun in the Kid’s Club, to the point, in fact, that unless we were eating or taking her swimming, she’d rather be there than anywhere else! Since parents were NOT allowed inside the Kid’s Club, that gave Bill and I some nice breaks from parenting. We never knew quite what she’d look like when we picked her up, though, as they did a lot of face-painting. Her favorite activity was near the end of the cruise, when the pirate “Stinky Pete” hid some treasure somewhere on the ship and they had to follow the clues all around the ship to find it. We heard a lot about that night! In fact, we still do…!

March 8th was a sea day, and unfortunately, the seas were very rough—12 foot waves. It was also only about 40 degrees, cloudy, and windy. After breakfast, Madeline went to the Kid’s Club while Bill and I went to explore the ship a bit. We made it up to the captain’s bridge, but by then I was rapidly discovering that pregnancy and rough seas mix to create really bad seasickness, even in someone who’s never been seasick before. And of course, I couldn’t take anything for it. I spent the rest of the day curled up in the fetal position in the bed. Bill took Madeline swimming, at her request, despite the weather. They had the whole pool to themselves, for some strange reason… That night, I drug myself out of bed to go to the evening show with Bill—Spanish ballet. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I probably normally would have!

March 9th we docked in Rome. Well, actually Civitavecchia, which is about a 1 ½ hour drive from Rome. I was VERY glad to be on firm ground, although rather disappointed with the weather for our one day in Rome—it was raining and cold. Oh well. We paid NCL to be bused into the center of Rome (and back at the end of the day), but chose to actually “do” Rome on our own. By the time we got to Rome, we only had about 5 hours before we were to be picked up again, so we had a rather “whirlwind” tour of the city. We did hit all the big spots I wanted to see, though.

The drop-off and pick-up location was St. Peter’s Square, so we started off by taking the metro to the Colosseum. Somehow we managed to walk right past the entrance, so we ended up walking around the entire outer circumference before we got inside. We can just pretend that was on purpose, right?! Given the weather, there was no line for tickets, so we were able to get in pretty quickly. It was an awe-inspiring place, to say the least.

From there, we walked past the Forum (along with a bunch of demonstrators?!) to the building they call the “Wedding Cake”. It’s actually a monument to Vittorio Emanuele II. Given the weather, we didn’t stop at either the Forum or the Wedding Cake, but just snapped a few pictures along the way.

Next we headed to the Trevi Fountain, so I could throw in my coin for a future (sunnier, warmer) trip back to Rome. The fountain itself is so pretty, even in the rain.

After that, we found a place to stop for some traditional Italian pizza for lunch (and to dry out and warm up a little bit). This was one of the two parts of Rome that were probably all Madeline really enjoyed. We were extremely glad we had her stroller, complete with rain cover, all day long!

The next stop was the Pantheon. Like many other parts of the city, it was under a bit of construction. This was originally built for the pantheon of Roman gods, but has since been changed over for Christian worship. Since the ceiling is open to the weather, the floor is actually a bit concave in the center, so the rainwater drains to the holes in the floor there. Pretty ingenious, really.

It’s not too far from the Pantheon to the Piazza Navona, which is where one of the other famous fountains of Rome is located: the Four Rivers Fountain. Unfortunately, this was also under construction—so much so that we could hardly see it, especially with the rain spots all over what small areas of plexiglass they’d put in for the disappointed tourists. We had planned on getting some gelato (Italian ice cream) here, but all of the gelato places around the Piazza were closed—not sure if it was because it wasn’t quite the full tourist season yet or because with the main fountain closed up there was less to see? We did take a look at the two fountains at either end of the Piazza, though. I’ve forgotten their names, however.

It was a bit of a walk from there to our next main stop: St. Peters. But we walked past a few neat buildings along the way: the Justice Hall (I think) and Castel Sant’Angelo.

And we did finally find a place to get some gelato. This was the other of Madeline’s two favorite parts of Rome!

St. Peter’s Cathedral was amazing, as expected. It’s enormous—the other famous cathedrals of Europe could each fit inside it, in fact. I was glad we weren’t there in the busy season, though—it was pretty packed as it was. We did not, unfortunately, have time to see the Vatican or the Sistine Chapel. Maybe on our next trip… There’s only so much you can pack into 5 hours, after all! In fact, as it was, we only had about 15 minutes to try to find a souvenir of Rome. I didn’t have much luck under those kinds of time restraints!

On the 2-hour bus ride back to the ship, we were told that all of the port workers in Athens were on strike, so we would be unable to stop in Athens as scheduled. Instead, we would be stopping in Sicily the next day. We spent the drive trying to decide which of the Sicily excursions to do instead of Athens. I was very disappointed, but obviously there wasn’t much NCL could do about it.

We had a late supper back on the boat, and then Madeline went to the Kid’s Club for a little while. We picked her up in time to take her with us to that evening’s show. It was called “Showdown”, and was kind of like a staged “American Idol”. We thought Madeline would like it, since she likes to sing and dance, but she got tired of it fairly quickly, so we didn’t stay for the whole thing.

March 10th we had a fairly low-key morning, as the excursion we’d chosen didn’t leave until 1pm. Bill and I decided to pay to have Madeline stay on the boat in the Kids’ Club while we did our excursion, rather than paying to have her come with us. It was only a half-day trip, and after she’d had so much “fun” in Rome, we thought she’d be happier in the Kid’s Club anyway. The excursion we chose was to see Taormina and the Greco Roman theater there.

The ship docked in Messina, which was about an hour’s drive from Taormina. They drove us past some of the main highlights of Messina before taking us to Taormina. Although the day started rainy and quite windy (another reason we left Madeline on the ship), we ended up having some nice sunshine and decent temperatures once we got to Taormina.

We walked with the guide through the quaint/touristy town of Taormina on our way to the theater.

The Greco Roman theater was pretty neat. You could see the differences between the oldest parts, built by the Greeks, the expansion built by the Romans, and the new stuff added in modern days. The theater is actually still used for productions during the summer. We got lucky and were even able to catch a glimpse or two of the snow-covered peak of Mount Etna in the background!

We had about an hour to shop in all the little stores along the way back to the bus. We bought some marzipan for Madeline, some pistachio pastries for Bill, and a little painted ceramic pot for me.

We got back to the ship and picked up Madeline in time for supper, but then just rested that evening, as I was still not exactly feeling 100%.

March 11th was another full sea day. Happily, by now the seas were calm enough that I wasn’t so horribly sick. We pretty much just chilled out a lot of the day. Madeline went to the Kid’s Club after breakfast, and Bill went to the “Captain’s Talk” so he could learn all about the finer points of the ship. After that, he and I just walked around the ship a little bit, to enjoy the sunshine. It was probably about 60 degrees. We did a little “sink laundry”, then picked up Madeline and had some lunch.

Bill and Madeline went swimming after lunch while I tried to write down some of what we’d done so far on our trip. I’m enough of a wimp that it just wasn’t ever warm enough on the ship for me to want to go swimming!

After supper, we all went to the show—“Extreme Vegas”. The Kid’s Club was going to be taking the kids to it anyway, so we took Madeline with us. It was a husband/wife team. The man did magic, and the woman was really good with hula hoops and aerobatic tricks.

March 12th we docked in Izmir, Turkey. Madeline had a really hard time waking up, as she hadn’t slept well the night before. But our excursion left at 8:45am, so we didn’t have much choice! Luckily, she settled down okay by the time we were on the bus. It was about a 1 ½ hour drive from Izmir to Ephesus, which was where our shore excursion was centered. We really enjoyed Ephesus quite a lot—it was probably one of our favorite stops on the cruise. It helped that the weather was good and that we had by far the best tour guide of our whole trip. She and Madeline became quite good friends very quickly! Madeline got lots of special treatment throughout the cruise, in fact. It probably didn’t hurt that she was one of VERY few children on the ship, and she’s so outgoing that she was always waving and saying hello to anyone we saw. Madeline enjoyed Ephesus not just because of her new friend, though—she also loved climbing around on all the rocks (as well as moving a few of the smaller ones around—I hope the archaeologists were done with all the areas we visited!), plus there were lots of “wild” cats around for her to see, even if I wouldn’t let her pet them…

After we finished at Ephesus, they took us to a place where Turkish carpets are made. We had a bit of a demonstration, both of how they get the silk for the carpets, as well as how the carpets are actually made. Then we got to sit down and were shown gorgeous carpet after gorgeous carpet. We saw several we’d have loved to bring home with us, but they didn’t quite fit into our budget at the moment. Maybe someday! Madeline wanted to know which ones were the flying carpets!

We took the bus back to port and did a little shopping in some of the stores right in the port area, then got back on the ship in time for supper.

Madeline went to the Kids’ Club for some “Blues Clues” playtime, while Bill and I went to the evening show—a man who could play more different kinds of instruments than I think I even knew existed.

The 13th of March was another sea day, as well as being Bill and my 6th wedding anniversary. We actually didn’t plan it that way on purpose—it was just a happy coincidence that it happened to be during the cruise.

Madeline went to the Kids’ Club in the morning, while Bill and I just walked around a bit and relaxed. After we all had lunch, we had a nice long nap—something that Madeline had not had anywhere near enough of on the cruise. Plus, we knew the next day was going to be a long one, so we were trying to prepare for it as much as possible. After the nap, Bill and Madeline went swimming again, while I watched. We took Madeline back to the Kids’ Club, which conveniently enough was having a special “Kids’ Club Dinner” that night. So Bill and I took the opportunity to have an anniversary dinner all by ourselves! We booked in a spot at the Japanese restaurant, which we did have to pay to go to, but it was definitely worth it—it was one of those where it’s as much entertainment as food, since the chef cooks it all in front of you, while doing tricks with his knives and such. The food was awesome—I even had calamari for the first time ever, and it was yummy!

We did pick Madeline up before going to the second half of our “date” (the evening show), in case she was getting tired, since by the time we finished supper we’d missed the earlier showing.

March 14th we docked in Alexandria. We had to get up early, as our excursion to Cairo left at 8am. It was a 3 hour bus ride from Alexandria to Cairo, and unfortunately, we had a rotten tour guide. She spent the majority of the ride selling us stuff, rather than giving us information about any of the things we were seeing, or any of the things we were going to see.

Our first stop was a place where it was safe to get a quick camel ride, as well as a good place to get a few shots of the pyramids from more of a distance. I say “safe” for camel rides because if you take a camel ride in any of the other areas, evidently they will tell you it’s either free or very cheap: until you’re ready to get down. Then they’ll charge you exorbitant rates to get off! Anyway, I didn’t feel the need to ride a camel, but Madeline wanted to, so Bill took her. It was only about a 5 minute ride, but it was probably just about perfect for her!

The next stop was up close to the pyramids. It was ridiculously hot that day—well over 90 degrees, which was a real shock to the system, when we had just been having 60s everywhere else. Madeline and I in particular had a hard time with it, despite drinking loads of water. Poor Madeline would turn bright red within seconds of getting off the bus. She lost interest in seeing anything pretty quickly. We were at this stop for about 40 minutes. Unfortunately, due to our horrible tour guide, while we knew that in theory you could go inside one of the pyramids, she hadn’t given us any information about it. By the time we figured out which one it was, and were told we needed tickets (which we had not been given); we only had about 15 minutes left, so we had to settle for just seeing the outsides of the pyramids. They were impressive enough on their own, I must admit. It’s mind-boggling to even try to imagine them being built with so little technology.

Our third stop was at the Sphinx, which is just down from the pyramids (you could easily walk). Here we were given the tickets that we should have had at the second stop, but at least they got us into an area where you could get some good side shots of the Sphinx. We tried to get Madeline interested by talking about how the Little Einsteins went to the Sphinx, but she’d pretty much had it with heat by this point.

From there, we were taken to our “5 star” lunch and river cruise along the Nile. Suffice it to say, their criteria for 5 stars must be rather lower than they are in other places! But at least it was cooler inside the boat. They had a belly dancer and a whirling dervish for entertainment. Madeline had fun learning to “belly dance”, and stole the show, if I may say so myself! If you happen to have Bill as a "Facebook friend", it's well worth checking out the little video he posted of her dancing...

We then were taken to the Alabaster Mosque, also known as the Citadel of Salah Al-Din, which was interesting, but not quite as pretty as I had somehow pictured. We bought Madeline some ice cream, and I left her and Bill for a few minutes to grab a few extra pictures. When I came back, I found them absolutely mobbed by a group of extremely curious local teenage girls, who were evidently on some sort of school field trip. They spoke almost no English, but they were just fascinated by us, and especially by Madeline. Unfortunately, while they took oodles of pictures of her, I didn’t think to take any of them!

Our last stop was the “Papyrus Institute”, which was really a store, but they did do a 5 minute demonstration on how papyrus was made before leaving us to shop.

The bus ride back was long—we got back to the ship about 9pm. We had a late supper, spent a little time in our room decompressing, and got to sleep about midnight. All in all, it was a long day. We are VERY glad we have seen the pyramids and the Sphinx, but we feel no real need to ever go back to Egypt. It was very dirty, rather depressing, and the people were so pushy—especially those who were selling things everywhere. We’ve experienced pushy tourist sales in several places before, but I have to say, the Egyptians took it to a whole new level. Here are a few pictures showing our impressions of Egypt, other than the tourist attractions:

March 15th was our second day in Egypt. It was another port day, and while we hadn’t signed up for another excursion, we had planned to go and walk around Alexandria some on our own. But given how long the previous day had been, and how dirty everything had been, I really just wanted to stay on the ship. It wasn’t too hard to talk Bill into skipping the trip. Plus, when we woke up, we found that one of Madeline’s eyes was quite swollen. We decided to take her to the ship’s doctor, despite knowing it would be expensive. Our first assumption was that it was pink eye, but given everything she’d been exposed to the previous day, we didn’t want to take any chances. The doctor said it was probably just an allergic reaction, and said the best thing would be to just give it some time and keep an eye on it. It was mostly better by the end of the day.

After the doctor, we had a late breakfast, and then Bill took Madeline swimming while I did some more “sink laundry”. We ate lunch together, then watched movies in our room and rested. After supper, Madeline went to the Kids’ Club and Bill and I went to the evening show—an Italian tenor singer. Actually, first we complained about our experience on the previous day’s shore experience. That tour guide really was horrendous. They ended up reimbursing us a little bit, which was a nice gesture, if nothing else.

The 16th was a sea day, and we didn’t do anything all that spectacular. I finished off the “sink laundry” I hadn’t finished from the day before, Madeline went to the Kids’ Club, there was more swimming for Bill and Madeline, we went to the evening show… a lot of the same kinds of things as other days. It was nice to have a combination of busy shore days and slower sea days. That way we didn’t get quite as worn out with all the things we saw and did. This was the evening that the Kids’ Club had the pirate evening I’d mentioned at the start of this post, though, so I guess it was a pretty spectacular day from Madeline’s point of view in that respect!

March 17th we arrived in Malta. Like Sicily, this was only a half-day shore excursion, so we decided to leave Madeline on the ship in the Kids’ Club again. The excursion we’d chosen left about 12:30, and focused on some of the historic towns of Malta.

We saw St. Paul’s Catacombs, so named mostly just because everything on Malta seems to have a connection with St. Paul, since he was shipwrecked here on his way to Rome. They were pretty neat, but a little hard to get good pictures of due to the lighting.

The catacombs were in the city of Rabat, which has St. Joseph as its particular saint. As the feast of St. Joseph began that weekend, they were in the process of decorating the whole town, which was neat to see.

We walked through the town a bit on our way to the walled city of Mdina, which included the really pretty church of St. Paul and St. Peter.

From here we were taken to an area with lots of shops specializing in local handicrafts. Malta is known for its silver filigree work, lace, and glass. One of the common themes in their craftwork is the Maltese cross, which is their national symbol as well. We got to see both filigree work and glass blowing, and did a bit of shopping.

Our last stop was the church in Mosta. It has the third largest dome in Europe (1st is St. Peter’s in Rome, and 2nd is St. Paul’s in London). It’s also known for the “miracle of the bomb”. During the bombing of World War II, a bomb went right through the ceiling of the church (you can still see the spot on the ceiling where it went through), bounced off a wall, and landed on the floor without exploding. The exterior of the church is modeled on the architecture of the Pantheon in Rome.

We were back to the ship and picking Madeline up in the Kids’ Club by about 5:30. Unfortunately, she hadn’t had a particularly good day—unbeknownst to us, she was the only child in the Kids’ Club the whole time we were gone! Also, her favorite “teachers” weren’t there, either. I felt soooo bad! But she perked up pretty quickly, and in fact, after supper, she was already asking to go back! Luckily by then, all the other kids were there, as were the staff members she liked best. Bill and I actually went to two shows that night—a “musical” with music from the 60s, and the NCL Crew talent show. We picked Madeline up at the Kids’ Club in time to head to the Chocolate Buffet, which was at 10:30. So obviously it was kind of a late night for her, but she didn’t seem to mind…

Our last day on the ship, March 18th, was another sea day. After breakfast, Madeline went back to the Kids’ Club (we sure did make good use of the place, but it was nearly always at her request!). Bill and I settled up our account, wrote a few appreciation notes to some of the staff (including the Kids’ Club), did a bit of “sink laundry”, etc. After lunch, Bill and Madeline had one last chance to go swimming. We had some supper, then Madeline wanted to go back to the Kids’ Club—they had a “farewell pajama party”. So Bill and I went to the last evening show, which was a Gypsy Kings tribute group.

Friday, March 19th we arrived back in Barcelona. Although NCL makes a big deal out of their “relaxing, no-rush, freestyle” disembarkation, you do still all have to be off the ship by 9am. We got to our hotel in Barcelona by about 10ish. Our plan for the day was to walk along La Rambla, see Barcelona Cathedral, and maybe a few other sites, as our flight for England didn’t leave until the next day. However, I woke up in the morning to find that I’d had some bleeding during the night, and was still bleeding some. Being a little more than four months pregnant, that made us pretty nervous. Happily, to skip to the end of that particular story, once we got back to the UK, we were able to ascertain that everything is fine with the baby. But we did decide to take it pretty easy for our last day of vacation. I took a nap for awhile, while Bill kept Madeline quietly entertained in the hotel room. We did go and walk (slowly) along La Rambla afterward. Madeline especially liked the section with all the animals for sale.

Our flight home was fairly uneventful, though we did end up taking off about an hour late.

All in all, it was an amazing, very memorable trip. We are so glad we took the opportunity to take this cruise while we were here. We saw so many places we might never have seen otherwise.

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