Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hedonism on the Sea, The End

I need to mention here that there are ports we stopped at that I haven't mentioned because we either didn't get off the ship or we just spent the day at a beach- not terribly interesting. :-)

Next time we did get off the ship was at Cadiz, Spain which is a very nice place- but we only had one day in port and I wanted to take my guys to Sevilla. I had visited there in 1973 with my high school Spanish class and along with Toledo it was my favorite city in Spain, so I dragged them onto a bus and we headed away from the cool coast to the hot interior.

Of all the castles and palaces we have visited in Europe, the Alcazar in Sevilla easily makes the top 3. It's huge and ornate without being gaudy and has the loveliest gardens anywhere. These agapanthus are everywhere throughout the grounds...

and the gardens go on forever...

The palace itself is full of tiles and mosaics and was constructed in the Moorish tradition

(with some ugly gothic additions by Charles the V).

There are tapestries on the walls, and lots of halls and stairs and windows and doors.

Doors for much smaller medieval people-

(note 21st Century boy for scale)...

We hired a horse drawn carriage and took a tour of town, then headed back to the ship.

If I was you, I'd be a little curious about the ship, so we'll take a break from our Southern European tour here to see a little more of the Monster of the Seas.

It's hard to convey how big it is with numbers like tonnage and stuff, so I'll tell you they put maps on every deck and after two weeks on board, we were STILL checking the maps for to see where we were or where we wanted to be.

Here's the one on our deck...

They have a little red dot for "You are Here", so no matter where you are, you're back at the red dot. :-)

On the Promenade they had little ship models to help you find your way around.

Hopefully you can make those pictures big enough to read some of the words- the "Promenade" was a shopping mall and elsewhere on the ship there was an ice rink (yes, we have been ice skating on the Atlantic!), a 30 foot rock wall, a mini-putt golf course, a basketball court, a Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream store, a Johnny Rockets restaurant, and the usual bars, casino, theater, etc. etc. etc.

There were vertical open areas that went five decks or more- it is a truly wild feat of engineering (there was even a program on our stateroom TV that documented the difficulties of building ships this massive with so much open space...).

Here's a shot off the lobby of deck 10 looking straight down. You can see the stairs on deck four and the center foreground is even lower.

The half circles on the sides are the glass elevators. Four elevators on each side. Incredible.

One of the coolest things was the "Peek a Boo Bridge".

You can go on deck at the front of the ship and hang out in front of aquarium-like windows, except instead of fish, it was the ship's bridge!

Very Star Trek.

Our favorite of all the bars was the English Pub because you could sit on stools at barrel tables out front and watch the passing parade.

And just in case you are curious about the staterooms, here is a picture of ours.

Cooper's bed is the fold out sofa on the left foreground. I'm standing next to our bathroom and facing the sliding glass doors to our private balcony. I'm telling you we were in heaven!

When we could tear ourselves away from our floating paradise, we got off again in Lisbon Portugal.

Lisbon is a very nice city- full of killer hills just like our beloved San Francisco, and sharing a Golden Gate Bridge 'wannabe'...

It's a double decker bridge and not exactly as majestic as the real Golden Gate, but it's cute and we got to sail right smack under it coming and going.

We started our Lisbon explorations in this pedestrian mall...

and wandered around until we found this:

It's what the Portugese call an "elevador" and it is used to hoist people up from one street to another on their massive hills. This particular one was designed by an apprentice to Mr. Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, and it shows. :-)

Just for local color, I'll share this picture of a major plaza in Lisbon,

and the sign contained on one side of it that cracked us up...

We have no idea what a 'bombeiro' is, but we like them anyway just for their name!

Back on the ship for a hop up to the northwest corner of Spain and city called Vigo.

They have jumped on the big decorated cow bandwagon that we've encountered all over America and Europe and they cracked us up. Here is a selection of Vigo cows (note that the last cow is the best because it has Ted in its picture)...

and two really nice fountains we stumbled on as we wandered...

and some gorgeous Hydrangeas in their city park...

It's a very nice little city that speaks a hybrid of Spanish and Galician which torqued my poor brain something awful.

So, over a period of two weeks we traded our usual explorations of a single country for little quickie excursions into many different places, but in return we got a stable, reliable, incredibly pampered experience on our giant Ship of Dreams.

On our last port stop, we took this photo of our home away from home and I'll put it here as my parting shot for a truly memorable trip.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Hedonism on the Sea, Part 2

First stop in Italy was Livorno, which is just a short hop from Pisa, and the leaning tower therein. As a side note, on the way to Pisa, the road was lined with large shade trees, underneath which were- at 100-300 yard intervals- pretty women wearing very little clothing. Some had plastic chairs, some didn't. One was speaking to a man in a car who had pulled over under her tree...

At this point you may draw your own conclusions.

We, of course, opted for the smutty conclusion.

In all our travels I believe Germany is the only place (Ghana and the U.S. included) where we haven't seen practitioners of the world's oldest profession, and that's probably because we just weren't looking. It's the one thing that just about every country has in common.

But on to more enlightening stuff...
Pisa is one of those places that it's fun to go to after a lifetime of reading about it. Once you enter the city walls, it's an easy shot to the Leaning Tower and it's exactly as advertised.

It's actually a bell tower, and this is the church to which it belongs...

If you get up close, this is the view to the top...

And on the face of the tower just about eye level are lots of these details...

We headed down this street just looking around...

and here's a shot of the Arno River as it runs through town.

All in all, a very satisfying stop.

The next day we were off to Rome.

I'm not sure what I expected exactly, but it was so different from my imaginings.

I always had a mental picture of Rome as a big flat city full of open piazzas and lots of ancient Roman stuff I guess.
What it actually is, is a big, hilly city full of narrow streets and hidden piazzas with lots of ancient, old, new and indeterminate stuff all jumbled together.

To my shame, most of my ideas about Rome were apparently all obtained through movies. But the Rome of Roman Holiday and Three Coins in the Fountain bears little resemblance to what is actually there.

So we sucked it up (it's so hard when your illusions are shattered) and started exploring.

First myth busted- The Trevi Fountain. It's not round, it's not in the middle of a big piazza, and it's stuck on the front of a building. Had I not seen the street signs...

I would never have known what I was looking at. It's a lovely fountain - just not what I ever thought it would look like in person.

As you can see from these two shots to either side, it's strangely situated on a small wide spot deep in the city, surrounded by buildings and basically isolated from everything.

From there we headed for the Roman Forum. Ha!

For this monumental misconception, I blame Zero Mostel. :-)

The gaps in my historical knowledge of Rome are wide and deep and apparently the place that knowledge should occupy in my brain is filled to the brim with dippy Hollywood images and ideas.

It's not a single place- Forum to the Romans meant "market" basically, and it goes on forever. There are tons of ruins running through the center of Rome...

in all sorts of conditions and ages...

And it includes the actual Caesar's Palace (thanks for nothing Las Vegas!) high on a hill above the forum...

Lots of good history and interesting building practices here- new things were built on top of the old things and unfortunately, things built by unpopular leaders were destroyed to keep them from being remembered.

A flawed practice at best, since basically everything Nero did here that didn't burn was destroyed and he's probably as famous 2000 years later as many of his more recent peers.

Note to Roman Tourism Authority: Lose the Centurions.


Although there was no shortage of tourists happy to pay costumed locals to have their picture taken with a guy who has a Mohawk whisk broom on his helmet, it doesn't add to the atmosphere in the forum, but does contribute to the wacky Hollywood view of Rome.

Not good.

Now all this time we have been catching glimpses of the Coliseum as we wandered in that general direction, and that was the big draw for Coop (teenaged boy + place where people were eaten by lions on purpose = worthwhile tourist attraction).

Finally, we headed for the Coliseum itself.

It's very cool, and even today it's easy to imagine it whole and filled with people.

The original stadium.

If you stand to one side you can see the cross section that shows the outer ring that used to circle the entire Coliseum.

We had a great time picturing the ancient equivalent of a TicketMaster admission ticket on papyrus or something that designated one's personal seat in the Coliseum as Gate LII, Row VI, Seat XXIV.

All the gates were really numbered that way!

No matter what, Zero Mostel, Mel Brooks, Monty Python and the rest of those jokers pop to the front of my brain. ;-)

That left the Vatican.

It was fun to see the plaza where all the people gather on important occasions and check out the windows in the Pope's apartments and stuff. My big aim here was to see Michelangelo's Pieta, and I wasn't disappointed.

The picture quality is not great because of the security surrounding the sculpture (this is the one that the crazy guy with the hammer went after a few years ago...), but in person it is a terrific piece to see- you'll have to trust me on that.

We didn't make it to the Sistine Chapel, mostly because although we have always loved the "Spark of Life" painting (known in our family as "Pull My Finger"), we had to choose between going there and missing the boat.

We chose the boat, and a gorgeous sunset from our balcony...

(Ted took this picture, and I made fun of him at the time,
so now I have to tell you all that it's his picture or he'll pout.)

Next up, the second week of vacation and some tidbits from The Monster of the Seas...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hedonism on the Sea

Longtime readers have slogged along with us on our vacations as we wander aimlessly through Europe checking into and out of hotels. This time we decided that even though there were still lots of places we wanted to see, we were tired of packing and unpacking.

Our solution? A Mediterranean cruise!

We do not fit the 'cruise' profile, but then- alot of people on cruises don't fit the profile. Basically, you buy a stateroom and choose to participate or not in a strange floating summer camp for adults and children while someone else cleans your room, makes your meals (in an endless loop of breakfast/brunch/lunch/snacks/dinner/snacks/room service), entertains you, and generally makes life as easy as possible.

If you are disciplined (or one of the folk we affectionately called FREAKS), you can use the well stocked fitness center (treadmills, stair machines, weights, etc.), take Pilates/Spinning/Aerobics classes, and just ignore the food and the lounge chairs and the hot tubs.

We prefer the food and hot tubs. And free room service. And the nice people at any one of the seven million bars on board who will, upon being presented with your 'Sea Pass' (room key/charge card/passport) which bears a special sticker, give you unlimited soft drinks for free (after you pay a fixed fee on the first day and then try to soda pop your way through more Cokes than you actually paid for).

Anyway, that was our solution to the hectic driving vacations we have been taking, and it began on one of Royal Caribbean's Voyager Class ships in Southampton England.

We flew to London, spent a day there making our annual pilgrimage to the Apple Store on Regent Street (coincidentally on the same day yet another batch of critical-thinking dropouts decided to try blowing up London again), then drove a rental car to Southampton where we traded our Vauxhall Intermediate car for The Navigator of the Seas, or as we call it, The Monster of the Seas.

This ship is massive. It has a 29 foot draft, is more than a thousand feet long, weighs almost 140,000 tons, and can hold more than 3,000 people. The top deck of the ship is more than 200 feet from the water, and it is a mildly worrying puzzle how the whole thing stays upright, although the Captain assured us that they had plenty of ballast and computer programs running 24/7 to make sure it was distributed correctly.

This is what The Monster of the Seas looks like...

and here's a shot looking down its length from the backend (or stern, as they fruitlessly tried to teach us)...

Our stateroom was deck 9 (second row from the top of the five rows of rooms with balconies) second one from the front. Except on the other side of the ship
(starboard) from the picture.

Right by the flying bridge, which meant we could watch the Captain and his crew dock each time we came into a port.

We hung out on our balcony, clutching our binoculars, ready to help out, but they never seemed to need our input.

So we left England and sailed out into the Atlantic, just like the Titanic.

And for two days, this was our view...

For us, this was heaven.

Electricity and water on demand.

More food than we could eat.

A slight chill in the air on deck, but with our choice of five giant hot tubs.


Maid (or rather Steward) service.

Room service.

And did I mention electricity and water on demand? Whoot! We would have been happy if nothing else had happened for two weeks. Africa tends to re-order your priorities. ;-)

After two days, we sailed into Gibraltar and watched a shockingly small cadre of people (four on the pier, four on the ship, and three people steering) dock the Monster of the Seas without so much as a bump.

I can't even dock our ski boat without bouncing off the side bumpers, so I bow to the masters (and covet side thrusters on our little Larsen- THEN I could navigate, by god!).

We had arranged to join a tour of Gibraltar, a move which turned out to be terrifically smart on our part when we found ourselves being whisked through some of the narrowest, most congested, rock wall lined streets we have found yet on a bewildering ride through a maze of unmarked, twisty roads straight up the side of the rock, through narrow tunnels into wildly popular spaces with no parking lots. Eek!

But all we had to do was sit and watch while our driver/guide Phil did it all with ease and made sure we saw the sights of his country while keeping us in stitches with his sit down comedy routine.

Part of the show in Gibraltar are the Apes that inhabit the rock itself. They are smart, greedy, people wise, and way too eager to play the part of delinquent children.

The warnings about the Gibraltar Apes are plentiful and accurate- don't feed them, don't carry anything they can snatch (they will only play with stolen items if you are alarmed and show distress- if you ignore the theft they lose interest and toss the item over the side of the hill...), don't try to pet them, and don't stare at them because they take it as a sign of aggression.


Then we get to the top of the hill and Phil rolls down his window. An ape jumps onto his shoulder. We quickly realize that all the driver/guides on Gibraltar are on a first name basis with the apes and that if we follow the basic rules about food and loose items, we will be able to play too. Here's a couple who kindly posed for me...

At one point, Phil looked at me and said, "Hey! You want one?"

And the next thing I know, I have an ape on my shoulder.

Who quickly moved to my other shoulder. And then to my chest. And then back to my shoulder.

As I turned to find Ted, I saw Phil unloading another ape onto Coop. Here he is with his own pal...

He is doing exactly what it looks like he's doing- grooming the human. He dug through Coop's hair looking for tidbits, and thankfully found nothing to eat.

Anyway, there is a lot to see and do on Gibraltar. The place is lousy with history and was a fun place to spend time.

Here's our parting shot of the rock...

Next up: steaming to Italy.