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Other Mediterranean PortsDubrovnik, Gibraltar, Istanbul, Kotor, Kusadasi, La Goulette (Tunis), Lisbon, Madeira (Funchal), Malta, Odessa, Sevastopol, Varna, Zadar
Long Review of Brilliance of the Seas - Med/Greek Isles, July 22 - August 3, 2006
I had the pleasure of going on a Mediterranean/Greek Isles cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas, 12-day roundtrip from Barcelona, Spain between July 22 – August 3, 2006.
I am 26 years of age and I was traveling with my parents (mid 50s). This is our 9th cruise together, including cruises to Alaska, Caribbean, Mexican Riviera, Canada/New England, and Hawaii. Overall, I would have to say that this cruise ranked near the top, especially in terms of the port included in the cruise.
We reserved this cruise back in May 2005. When Royal Caribbean opened up bookings for 2006 Mediterranean cruises, we went for it and booked this cruise the week that bookings started. Therefore, I had 14 long months of waiting and research ahead of me. One thing I must say, when traveling to Europe, I think doing research in advance is an absolute must. Even with the tons of research I had done in advance, there are always hiccups in plans and there’s so much to do and see that you can’t possibly understand it all or take it all in, if you haven’t learned a little bit about it in advance. However, without doing research, I would have been completely lost, especially in cities where we decided to explore on our own.
Our itinerary for this included stops at: Ajaccio, Corsica; Livorno (Florence/Pisa), Italy; Naples, Italy; Mykonos, Greece; Kusadasi, Turkey; Santorini, Greece; Piraeus (Athens), Greece; Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy; and Villefranche, France.
We decided that in order to lessen the impact of jet lag and due to the fact that there were no direct flights from LAX to Barcelona that we would fly into Barcelona 2 days in advance. On all of our previous cruises, we had always arrived the day of the cruise and we had never had any problems before. However, traveling to Europe is much different with a lot more variables and potential for things to go wrong. In our case, I am glad that we ended up arriving early, or our problems could have been a lot worse.
Since our cruise departed from Barcelona on a Saturday night (July 22nd) at 7:00 pm, we decided that we would fly out of Los Angeles on American Airlines on Wednesday night with a change of planes in London’s Heathrow Airport for an Iberia Airlines flight to Barcelona to arrive Thursday night. To make a long story short, when I arrived in Barcelona, my bags did not. However, Iberia informed me that my bags were simply on the next flight scheduled to arrive in 1 hour to the airport and that the bags would be delivered to my hotel the next morning. I had no reason not to believe them. However, the next day rolls around and only 1 bag shows up at the airport. After about 5 phone calls, half the agents tell me they have no idea where my bags are, and half tell me that my bags are on a delivery truck to my hotel. After much nail biting and a wasted Saturday morning sitting around the hotel waiting for bags they the promised would be delivered, we ended up showing up at the ship with no luggage late Saturday afternoon. Low and behold, right before the ship set sail on Saturday, our bags were delivered to the pier. It certainly made me feel better that my bags would make my vacation with me, but left me steaming mad at Iberia for their lack of competence. If I can avoid it, I will never fly Iberia again. Just so you know, over 100 passengers on our cruise ended up with lost luggage, some didn’t end up having luggage delivered to them until more than halfway through the cruise, others never got luggage at all.
Then things went from bad to worse. We arrived in Barcelona with about 200€. We planned that we would use ATM’s to get the rest of the Euros we would need for the trip. When we exited the arrivals area of the airport, we walked to the far left wall (if you are facing the street) where there is a whole bank of ATM machines. We had 3 debit cards, all using the Star system by MasterCard, which means that it will work with any Star (in the US only), Cirrus or Maestro machine. There were 2 machines in the airport that were Cirrus/Maestro machines. We tried each of our cards on those 2 machines, and each time our ATM cards were rejected. Sometimes it seems like it would work, but then we would get error messages before we were able to get our money. We couldn’t figure out what to do, so we used the public pay phones to call our bank (there was a number on the back of the card for us to call collect with problems while outside the US). The bank told us that our cards were active and that there was indeed a message in the system that we would be in Europe so that our cards should work. We figured that perhaps there was something wrong with the airport ATM’s and that we should just try our ATM cards at a machine inside the city. Once at our hotel, we decided that the first order of business was trying to find an ATM to get Euros as we would need money soon. As you walk down Las Ramblas, the street is filled with ATMs on both the right and left side of the street. As we strolled down Las Ramblas looking at all the pantomimes, sidewalk artists, little shopping stalls and trying to dodge crowds, we tried our ATM cards at about 10 more machines only to find that our cards didn’t work anywhere. We were starting to get freaked out at this point about how we were going to get Euros as we didn’t want to get a cash advance from our credit cards as we would pay dearly for that. We finally gave up trying the ATMs and figured that since the next day was Friday, we would walk into a bank and ask them to help us. We found out that banks in Barcelona open at 8:30 am, so right before 8:30 am we headed out to find the nearest bank. Once inside, the bank receptionist for Deutsche Bank (who spoke wonderful English) told us that the problem wasn’t our cards, but that at that time, all of the ATMs in Barcelona were having connection issues. What that meant was that the ATM couldn’t connect with accounts outside of Spain and therefore couldn’t verify that we had funds in our account, which is why we were unable to get cash from the ATM. She suggested that we cross to the other side of Placa Catalunya to a large BBVA branch, go inside and they would be able to help us. So we did just that. The teller at the bank confirmed the same story to us that there were connection issues, but that she could try contacting MasterCard for us and see if she could get them to authorize a cash withdrawal for us. She was wonderful, she took all 3 of our debit cards, contacted MasterCard and got authorizations for all 3 cards to take out our maximum limit of $500 per day, that translated to 390€ per card. She was a life saver for us. We had calculated that the amount we got that day would be about 60% of the cash we would need for our trip, as we had private tours booked and they wanted to be paid in cash at the end of the tour. Since we could only withdraw $500 per 24 hours, we knew that was all the cash we would get that day and figured we would worry about the rest later.
HOTEL CONTINENTAL LAS RAMBLAS
We decided that in order to get to our hotel, Hotel Continental Las Ramblas, we would take the Aeroport Bus from the El Prat Airport to Placa Catalunya (the main square in Barcelona) from there, it was a one block walk to our hotel, made lighter by the fact that we had no luggage. Once we exited the airport, the bus was right there at the terminal. The fare for the 20 minute ride was about 3,75€ per person. Very reasonable. If you take the Aeroport Bus, Placa Catalunya is the 3rd stop after Placa Espanya and the University.
Our hotel was located right at the north end of Las Ramblas, the main pedestrian street in Barcelona. At night it’s easy to identify. If you are at Placa Catalunya and you transition on to Las Ramblas, the hotel will be on your left hand side about 3 or 4 buildings from the corner. You can look up and see the lighted “Hotel Continental” signs that hang from the balconies. The hotel is actually on the 2nd floor the building. You enter the building into the lobby and directly onto an elevator. Once off the elevator on the 2nd floor there is a sign indicating that Hotel Continental is on your left at the end of the hall. There is a black door, and on the other side of that door is the reception of the hotel. Its all security controlled and monitored 24 hours a day. We had made reservations for 2 nights pre-cruise at a rate of 110€ per night for a double room, plus a rollaway bed for the 3rd person. Check in was a breeze, we were assigned room 255 and soon we were in our room. I knew in advance that the room would be small. But it was clean, had a private bath, had really cold air conditioning, a TV inside, a nice sized closet, a chair and makeshift table/dresser and a small safe. For its location, it was worth the price. In addition the hotel offers 24 hour free cold soft drinks, bottled water, coffee, juice and beer, as well as free internet and a free snack bar. Can’t get much better than that. On a really hot and humid day, it’s great to have those free ice cold drinks! The way the hotel works is that when you come in, they give you a key to the room, when you leave the hotel, just drop your key at the front desk and they will hold it for you until you come back.
7/13 - Sun Princess - Southeast Asia
8/12 - Brilliance of the Seas - Russia & Scandinavia (Review)
7/09 - Ruby Princess - Greek Isles (Pictures)
7/08 - Grand Princess - British Isles (Review)(Pictures)
7/07 - Veendam - Scandinavia/Russia (Pictures)
7/06 - Brilliance of the Seas - Mediterranean/Greek Isles (Review) (Pictures)
7/05 - Serenade of the Seas - Alaska (Review)(Pictures)
9/04 - Jewel of the Seas - Canada/New England (Review)(Pictures)
7/04 - Zuiderdam - Western Caribbean (Review)(Pictures)
7/03 - Zaandam - Alaska
4/03 - Norweigan Star - Hawaii
7/96 - Noordam - Alaska
7/96 - Golden Princess - Alaska
8/94 - Jubilee - Mexican Riviera
Barcelona has an amazingly easy, and convenient tourist bus called Bus Turistic. It is a hop-on, hop-off bus. The red route (running north through most of the Gaudi sites) picks passengers up right in front of El Corte Ingles (department store). The blue route (running south through the Gothic District to the shoreline) picks passengers up at the north end of Placa Catalunya. When we got to the red route pick up at 9:00 am, the buses had just started arriving to pick passengers up. The cost for a 1 day ticket is 18€ per person. I believe that a 2-day ticket is only 22 or 24€ per person, which is a great deal if you are in Barcelona long enough to use it. The fare includes the ability to hop-on, hop-off as many times as you wanted between the 3 routes (including the new green route that runs exclusively along the shoreline), it also comes with a discount booklet for each passenger. Included in the discount booklet, is discount admission to almost every tourist attraction that the bus stops at along its 3 routes as well as discounted food coupons for local eateries. The cost of the bus ticket and the discounts it can get you on admission is well worth the price you pay. I believe that between the 3 routes there is something like 33 different pick up/drop off locations. The buses run everyday during the busy summer period starting at 9:00 am at Placa Catalunya. The last pick up from Placa Catalunya every night is at 8:00 pm. Both the blue and red routes take about 2 hours each if you sit through the whole route without getting off the bus. As you travel through the city, explanations of all of the major sites are made in Spanish and English (and sometimes French if you get a guide who knows French). The buses are quick and efficient and they claim that the run every 5-8 minutes (this we found to be true).
We started off the day on the red route visiting Casa Mila, better known as La Padrera, La Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell. Then we transitioned to the blue route so that we could stop at Estadi Olimpic, the site of the 1992 summer Olympic Games, the Christopher Columbus statue/Port Vell area, and finally Barri Gothic, or the Gothic District to see the Cathedral. In the afternoon we went back to our hotel for a short rest before we went out again to catch the last blue route bus from Placa Catalunya at 8:00 pm, to take us to Placa Espanya to see the Magic Fountains show. Before sunset, the water show occurs everyone 30 minutes and by itself is pretty nice to see. However, after sunset, starting at 9:30 the water show is combined with light and music to be pretty spectacular. Its similar to the fountains of Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas show if you’ve ever seen that. I never knew that this show was so popular. The area was jam packed with people. I would say probably 10,000 people saw the 9:30 pm show. Right on cue at 9:30 pm, we were all treated to a 20 minute show of glorious light, music and water. It was really well done and very entertaining. The choreography of the water was perfect.
The morning of our cruise departure, we decided to walk along Las Ramblas. During the day, Las Ramblas is filled with flower stalls and animals stalls selling everything from birds to lizards. Halfway down Las Ramblas is a fresh fruit/seafood/meet market called La Boqueria. Even if you have no intention of purchasing anything, this open air market is worth a stroll through, just to see what a local market is like. You’ll see some of the most colorful fruits, fresh fish and most interesting seafood you’ve ever seen. I couldn’t even identify some of the things I saw.
GETTING TO THE SHIP
When it was time to leave the hotel, the receptionist told us to take our luggage to the taxi stand right at the corner of Las Ramblas and Placa Catalunya. The taxi’s are metered, and our hotel front desk receptionist, told us to make sure that the taxi driver turns the meter on, or else we shouldn’t go with him. She also told us that the trip to the pier should cost around 8,00€. The trip to Moll D’Adossat, where Brilliance of the Seas is docked is 8,50€, plus a 2,20€ surcharge for the luggage we had. We ended up giving our driver 13,00€. To our surprise, not only is Brilliance of the Seas in port today, but since this is a Saturday departure, Voyager of the Seas, doing roundtrip Barcelona 7 day cruises on Saturdays is also in port. Brilliance of the Seas is a huge ship, but next to Voyager, it is clear to see that Voyager is a much larger ship! Once we got inside the check in terminal, we discovered that there was a pretty long line to check in. There were RCI stewards serving cookies and cold water while we waited in line. However, the line moved quickly. We had filled out our Sea Pass information on-line, so that streamlined the process. By 2:30 pm, we had checked-in and were onboard the ship. That means it took only 30 minutes from the time we left the hotel, to get to the pier, to get checked in and to get on board. That’s pretty impressive!
On this cruise, we booked a Category H, oceanview cabin. We specifically chose cabin 3108 on the port side. We knew exactly what our room would be like since we have sailed on Brilliance’s sister ships, Jewel and Serenade. On Jewel in 2004, I had the same exact cabin 3108, and on Serenade in 2005, I had the cabin next door, 3106. I guess you could call me a creature of habit. Basically the cabin is located right below the Centrum. We like its central location to all that is happening around the ship. Since there are 3 of us, the room has 2 beds and then a pull down bunk bed that comes down at night and gets stowed away during the day. There are a few differences though between this cabin on Brilliance than what we had on Jewel. On Jewel the 2 lower beds were put together to create a queen bed, and the step ladder for the bunk bed was at the foot of the bed. On this ship, we were told that it wasn’t designed in that fashion, therefore there was no way to put the 2 lower beds together, they needed to be separated so that the step ladder could go between them and would be located in the middle of the bunk bed. Kind of unusual. Also, on Jewel, in the bathroom, with the shower, there is a shower door, on Brilliance there is only a shower curtain, which often leaves the bathroom floor wet if you aren’t careful. Unfortunately, with everything that happened, I didn’t get the name of our cabin steward, but I do know that he was from Nicaragua. He was very efficient and we never had any complains. At the beginning of the cruise, I asked that he clean out our refrigerator so that we could put our own stuff inside, that wasn’t a problem for him at all.
We had requested, for the first time, second seating. Due to the fact that this cruise was very port intensive, and that on a few nights, the all aboard time was well after first seating had started, we didn’t want to feel like we had to cut our port time, or rush to get back to the ship in order to eat dinner, therefore, we chose second seating. The dining times on this sailing were 6:00 pm, 6:30 pm, 8:30 pm and 8:45 pm. We were told though that starting with the next cruise, through the end of the season, they would go back to 2 seating times rather than 4. The way the dining seating was arranged, if you had a table on Deck 5, then you were seated at the earlier of the 2 dining times (6:00 pm or 8:30 pm). If you were assigned to a table on Deck 4, then you had the later of the 2 dining times (6:30 pm or 8:45 pm). We had table 546, that meant an 8:30 pm dining time, this was perfect for us. In retrospect, we are glad that we chose second seating as there were a few times were we arrived back at the ship either after first seating started or too close to first seating to want to get ready for dinner. Our dining room team was the best we’ve had on a cruise so far. Our waiter was Ajit from India who has been with RCI for 9 years, and on Brilliance ever since she started sailing in 2002. Our assistant waiter was Catalina from Chile, this is her first ever contract, but she did her best to get what we needed and she was really funny and entertaining. We had requested a private table, and our request was fulfilled. In fact, it worked out a bit better than we had anticipated, as the table we were assigned was connected on one end by a long booth. We were at one end of that booth. That meant that there was a table right next to us, that was also a private table for a family of 4. But since we were sharing a booth with them, it was kind of like sharing a dining room table, but also still having our own privacy at the same time. And it turned out that the family of 4 next to us was great company each night in the dining room.
The food itself on this trip was pretty good. Not the best food I’ve had on a cruise ship, but not the worst either. I never had trouble finding something I could eat every night, although some nights I did wish the selection was better than what it was. The best night, food wise, in the dining room was Italian night. The food that night was excellent. In the Windjammer, the food was pretty good. There was a pretty decent selection of food each day. There was always fresh fruit to be found as well. On the last day of the cruise, the lunch in the Windjammer included grilled shrimp, which was a big hit. Throughout the cruise there were 3 lunch BBQ up on the pool deck. There was also a midnight buffet/chocolate buffet up on the pool deck the night we had the toga party. I never tried either of the specialty dining rooms, though I have eaten at Chops Grille on Jewel before. This time, I really felt no need to give alternate dining a try.
The entertainment on this cruise, was average. Not the most entertaining cruise I’ve ever been on, but it didn’t really matter since the cruise was so port intensive. With late dinner seating, half of the nightly shows are pre-dinner shows at 7:15 pm (which we liked a lot better) and half of the nightly shows are post-dinner shows at 11:00 pm (really late after a long port intensive day). We made it to a little more than half the shows. With both the pre-dinner and post-dinner shows, with the exception of about 3 shows, most of them were half empty. I kind of felt bad for the entertainers to be up on stage, entertaining such an empty theater. There were 2 amazing shows on this cruise: Motown Live! and Tango Buenos Aires. Both shows commanded packed houses and were very entertaining. The production shows put on by the Royal Caribbean Singers & Dancers was pretty entertaining as well. Other than that, the shows consisted of jugglers, comedians, violinist, a dancing couple and a few others.
Live music all around the ship through all hours of the evening is what I really enjoy about Royal Caribbean. They have bands that play all genres of music suiting all ages of passengers throughout the night. And this cruise didn’t disappoint. I just enjoy sitting in the Centrum before and after dinner and listening to music as I watch the sea outside or sit and write in my journal. Its very relaxing.
As for daily activities, I felt like this cruise was a little lacking. I wasn’t all that impressed with our Cruise Director, Mike Hunnerup from Australia. Not that he was horrible, but I’ve had better. There were times where I felt that not much was going on around the ship, or the scheduling of activities could have been much better. For instance, there were a lot of activities that I wanted to participate in, however, most of them took place during a port day when we were in port for 12 hours and the majority of people were away from the ship on excursions, therefore almost guaranteeing that no one would show up for these activities. Then on the 2 sea days we did have, I felt like the days really lacked in activities. I found myself taking a nap most of the time because there was nothing better to do. The icing on the cake was the day that one of our ports was cancelled due to weather conditions. On this day, instead of coming up with a back up plan of afternoon activities for guests to participate in, nothing happened, no activities were planned and ship full of unhappy guests basically spent the afternoon sitting around.
We were lucky in that approximately 1 month after booking of this cruise opened up, Royal Caribbean decided to take away 1 of our 3 sea days and add Corsica to the itinerary, therefore leaving us with only 2 sea days. Corsica, being an island off of the coast of France, and part of France is a tender port. Since it was difficult to find much information about Corsica anywhere, I decided to sign up for a ship tour. It was a half day tour called Scenic Ajaccio. Ajaccio’s claim to fame is as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonarparte. Signs of Napoleon can be seen all over the city. In the morning we tendered to shore and spent a few hours just walking around and exploring the area. Since it was Sunday, we were warned in advance that many shops may be closed. There was a nice open air locals market that we walked through. We also walked to what seemed to be the central part of town where we saw multiple Napoleon statues that had been erected to their hometown hero. In the afternoon, we took the Scenic Ajaccio tour with our guide Martine who had moved from Paris a few years prior. The tour started off with a scenic drive through the main streets of town, and then out to the southern part of the island towards the Sanguines Islands, a small island chain just off the coast. Once there, we were given 40 minutes to explore the area, and climb up this steep pathway to a watch tower built for maritime protection if we so chose to do so. After that little jaunt, we came back to the center of town where we stopped off nearby Napoleon’s boyhood home and playing area where there is a huge Napoleon bronze statue erected as well as a marble plaque commemorating all of his major military victories. Then from there we began the walking portion of our excursion with a stroll through town to Diamond square where there is a statue of Napoleon as Emperor surrounded by his 4 brothers, over to the main Cathedral of Ajaccio and then to the home where Napoleon’s mother gave birth to him.
In Livorno, I arranged for a private driver for myself, my parents and another family of 3 we had met on Cruise Critic through Driver In Rome. Our driver that day was Guiseppe, who is actually from Rome. We were glad to have a private driver that day because it was so convenient to have him drop us off right in front of the major attractions rather than us having to walk everywhere. However, the only downfall was that since Guiseppe wasn’t originally from Florence or Pisa, he didn’t know much of the history of the area or the history of the buildings we saw. We specifically booked a private tour though because all 6 of us on the excursion wanted to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and with a ship’s tour this is not possible. Prior to our cruise (45 days in advance) we booked our Leaning Tower of Pisa tickets through the internet. The drive from Livorno to Pisa took about an hour. We had reservations for the Leaning Tower at 9:00 am, however since we showed up a little late, they moved us to 9:30 am. There are a limited number of spots to climb the Leaning Tower each half hour. The climb in total only takes about 15 minutes. Its not nearly as tall as you would think it is from looking at it on TV. However, I must say climbing it was a bit of a workout. It was interesting that as you climb, you can definitely feel the lean of the tower. Its fascinating how that works. Once at the top, there are actually 3 levels that you can stand at. Once down from the Leaning Tower we did some quick shopping and the requisite photos with the rest of the buildings at the Field of Miracles, but didn’t go into any of them. It was then off to Florence. Since it was a Monday, we knew that the Accademia Galleria would be closed, so seeing the real Statue of David was out of the question. We started off by being dropped of right in front of the Duomo in Florence. The line to get inside was only 15 minutes long. They were pretty strict there about women having their shoulders covered, however, if you didn’t bring anything to cover your shoulders, they did provide you with a smock you could put over your shoulders. They were definitely more lenient about the covering of the knees. The inside of the Duomo was gorgeous. The painted ceiling is a masterpiece. I went downstairs and saw a bit of the excavation work that they are doing on an ancient Cathedral that was built prior to the current Duomo that is there, but I didn’t pay the fee to go inside. Once outside of the Duomo, we had time to explore the area. The architecture of the Duomo along with Giotto’s Bell Tower was amazing. The pink, green and white marble are gorgeous. The bronze doors, also known as the “Gates of Paradise” on the Batistery are pretty spectacular. We didn’t have time to climb up to the top of the Bell Tower or the Duomo, but I hear that the view is said to be amazing. From there we went to an Italian café near Mercato San Lorenzo for lunch. It was the most amazing and authentic Italian food. Everything was so fresh and full of flavor and color and was pretty cheap with most items only costing between 5-8€. After lunch, we took a stroll through the open air market of Mercato San Lorenzo until we reached the Medici Chapels, dedicated to the powerful Medici family of Florence. When we got there the sky opened up and it started raining unexpectedly. We chose not to go inside the chapel, but instead ran back to the car. From the Medici Chapels we drove to the Church of Santa Croce. This is a gorgeous church with a beautiful façade. Admission to get in only cost 5€. Inside are buried some of Florence’s grand sons, including Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante and Galileo. While inside Santa Croce, the sky literally opened up right over our heads. I thought I was hearing cannon blasts, when in reality was thunder that was booming right over us. I’ve never heard thunder so loud in my life. Rain came pouring down and the sky lit up with lightning. It was an amazing and yet scary sight. Luckily our driver was parked right out in front of the church and we were able to hop back into the car. We saw some people from ship tours, running 2 blocks away to their parked motorcoach. That would not have been fun. From there we drove past the Uffizi Gallery and Ponte Vecchio up to Piazza Michelangelo. The Piazza is located high on a hill with a great lookout over Florence. From this vantage point, you can really see how the Duomo dominates Florence. Then it was an easy 1.5 hour drive through the countryside back to the ship.
I decided in Naples to take the ships all day, 10 hour tour called the “Amalfi Drive & Pompeii.” I had heard great reviews about this excursion. Our guide met us bright and early at 8:30 am. His name was Rafaele and our driver was Mimo. We left Naples and drove towards Sorrento. From Naples, we could see Mt. Vesuvius in the distance looming over the city. We caught a glimpse of Pompeii as well in the distance. Our first stop before we really reached the Amalfi coast was at an inlaid wood factory. They made some gorgeous hand crafted wood pieces. This was also a restroom stop. Then it was on to the Amalfi Drive. Someone once described this to me by comparing it to driving Pacific Coast Highway up the California coast. That description doesn’t do this area justice. The Amalfi Drive is a long winding road with plenty of switchbacks and hairpin turns that runs along the coastline of Italy. If you take this excursion, remember when you get on the motorcoach to choose a seat on the right hand side of the bus when you face forward. The view of the coastline will be on the right side of the bus, the view of the hill and the other late of traffic will be on the left hand side of the bus. The roads here are so narrow that its almost impossible for 2 cars to pass each other, let alone when you have a coach on the road. When it’s a coach and a bus trying to pass each other, look out. You need nerves of steel and great driving ability to drive through here. It was entertaining to see as we rounded curves and the reactions of drivers on the opposite side of the road. Sometimes they would be forced to back up, or drive up on sidewalks in order to pass us. Our driver was amazing. We drove through some of the most picturesque fishing villages built up on the side of the mountain, the most famous being Positano. After about 1.5 hours of driving, we came upon the small village of Amalfi. We were given about 45 minutes here to explore the small city. Limoncello was every where! This is the local lemon liqueur specialty of the region. It was nice to just wander the streets and do some shopping and buy a cup of great gelato! After that, we drove another 10-15 minutes to have lunch at a hotel along the coast. From there it was a 1 hour drive to get to Pompeii. We were taken on a 1.5 hour walking tour of Pompeii with our guide Rafaele. He was extremely knowledgeable about the ruins and the people and it made everything really come to life. Its amazing to think that this huge city was destroyed by ash almost 2,000 years ago and that some of the ruins that they have found are so well preserved! From Pompeii it was a quick 30 minute drive back to the ship in Naples. We arrived back around 6:30 pm.
This was the biggest disappointment of the cruise. It wasn’t because Mykonos wasn’t gorgeous, it was because we only got to admire Mykonos from just off the coast. When we arrived in Mykonos it was extremely windy. In Mykonos the cruise ship pier is first come first served. By the time we arrived around noon, the Aida was already docked at the pier, which meant that we would be tendering. You could tell that the Aida was struggling to keep herself docked at the pier, using her engine thrusters just to stay docked. I knew we were in trouble when the tendering process was to begin at 1:00 pm, and I went out on deck and noticed that none of the tenders had been lowered into the water. At 1:15 pm, we got the announcement that we would not be able to tender into Mykonos today due to the water conditions. The wind was blowing at over 40 knots and the seas were extremely rough. The captain did say that we would remain anchored off shore for a few hours to see if the weather conditions improved or not, but that it was highly unlikely we would make it. Therefore we were forced to enjoy Mykonos from just off the coast. It looked really nice. I was disappointed that I would be missing my excursion to Delos.
Before coming on this cruise, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Kusadasi and Ephesus. I had heard that Ephesus was amazing, but I didn’t realize how amazing until we actually went there. We booked the ships tour of Ancient Ephesus. We went with a ships tour rather than a private tour because we were uncertain as to whether or not the ship would make it to Kusadasi due to the political situation in the area and terrorist attacks in other parts of Turkey leading up to our arrival there. However, once in Turkey we didn’t feel any of that and were never worried for our safety. We were met in the morning by our tour guide, Mahmud, who used to be an elementary school teacher. The drive to Ephesus was about 20 minutes long. The incredible thing about Ephesus is that it is incredibly well preserved and what they have excavated is only 10% of the total area of the town. What you can see is amazing and much more intact that what is at Pompeii. We had a 2 hour guided walking tour through Ephesus. At the Library of Celsus, Ephesus’ most famous ruins, there was a little performance put on for us by local actors. There is also an amazing 25,000 seat amphitheater there at Ephesus. Before being taken back to the ship at the end of the tour, we were dropped off at Turkish carpet factory to see a demonstration/presentation on how Turkish rugs are handmade. They provided us with drinks and snacks and then displayed over 100 Turkish rugs as they attempted to sell these rugs to us. Now, you’ve probably read about all the shopping there is to do in Turkey and how you can find fake everything here. It’s true. However, I must say that after a little bit of time walking through the bazaars there, I couldn’t handle it and just went back to the ship. They are extremely extremely aggressive in trying to get you to go into the stores and sell you their merchandise. All of the vendors stand in the middle of the walkway right outside their store and call to you as you walk by them. If you so much as glance at the merchandise inside their store, they are all over you. I didn’t like it, for me it was just too aggressive. I would rather be left alone to shop in piece. I even had a shop owner yell at me for taking too much time to decide on a purchase by telling me it wasn’t a house or a large purchase I was agonizing over and that I was thinking about it for too long. I didn’t really appreciate that.
This is one port stop that I was looking for to and had been for a long time. The gorgeous pictures that you see of Santorini on TV or in magazines doesn’t begin to do this place justice. The beauty of the island can’t be bottled up and photographed. You need to see it for yourself. Santorini was formed due to the eruption of a volcano that is still active enough today to produce hot springs. The ship needs to tender passengers here to the bottom of the caldera. Then guests have 3 options as far as getting to the top of the very steep caldera where the city of Fira is located, you can take a cable car, ride a donkey, or walk. If you are going to walk, I would recommend doing it down the caldera rather than up because its really steep. When you get off the tenders, you can already smell the donkeys. Is it adventurous, probably. But I didn’t want to smell the rest of the day so I opted for the cable cars. You can either purchase the cable car ticket on board the ship for $4.65 one way or on land at the cable car station for 3,50€ one way. They both end up being pretty equivalent in price. Once in Fira, we decided to make our way to the bus stop at the main square in town for a bus ride to Oia, on the northern tip of the island. All of the famous pictures from Santorini of the blue domed churches, etc. are all taken from Oia. The bus ride was only 30 minutes long and cost 1,10€ per person. We were able to make it there before any of the tour ship buses arrived. The city was just waking up for the day. We explored all over the city. Everything is gorgeous and white washed with blue roofs and shutters. There are tons of little alleyways and streets that you can just wander down. Its amazing how they built houses right on top of each other, literally into the side of the mountain! The great thing in going on your own is that you can explore at your own pace. While we were in Oia, the cruise ship tours came and left as they had a limited amount of time there. We probably spent 3 hours just wandering around on our own and buying tons of souvenirs and artwork. We then caught a bus back to Fira and spent the rest of our time in Fira exploring there. Fira is also a nice town with great views from the top of the caldera. Its definitely a lot more busy than Oia is. There are some great shops in Fira. The blocks that surround the cable car station are just jam packed with shops. At some stores you were able to bargain marginally. This was certainly one of the best days of the cruise.
We decided to hire a private guide for Athens. From Cruise Critic recommendations we went with Paul of Greek Taxi. We requested that either he or his son Nick be our guide, to which he agreed. It turned out to be Paul who personally came to pick us up at the agreed upon time of 7:30 am. The drive from Piraeus to Athens is only about 20 minutes long and along the way Paul gave us a full description of the city and its history. His English is superb as he lived in New York for 25 years. We arrived at the Acropolis right before it opened at 8:00 am. Paul was nice enough to run into a local bookshop and buy us an excellent tour book for us to keep on the Acropolis and the buildings that are there, not that his explanations and descriptions wouldn’t have been good enough. He also told us that the ticket we needed to hold on to the ticket we bought at the Acropolis (12€) because it is also good for several other attractions we would go to that day. We were in the Acropolis as soon as it opened. A lot of the buildings there are going through renovation, especially the Temple of Athena Nike. Nonetheless it was pretty amazing. These structures and how they were built are gorgeous. The Etrechion with its famous carytids (lady’s whose heads are the pillars that hold up one end of the building) are amazing. There is a great museum there that houses a lot of the original ruins that have been found at the Acropolis. The museum also houses 4 of the 6 original carytids. From the Acropolis we went to the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Arch of Hadrian. The Temple of Olympian Zeus was the largest temple ever built. You can certainly see that from the 16 pillars that remain standing. Next, we drove to the stadium built for the first modern Olympics in 1896. Its still in great condition! From there Paul took us to the Prime Minister’s residence so that we could take a picture with a traditionally dressed Greek solider. From there it was on to Syntagma Square and the Parliament building. In front of the Parliament building stands the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is guarded by traditionally dressed Greek soldiers. Every hour, there is a guard changing. However, on Sundays at 11:00 am there is a large ceremony that involves a band and 52 soldiers. We were lucky to be there on Sunday. The changing of the guards ceremony was certainly memorable. We then left Athens and drove an hour south along the shoreline to Cape Sounion to the Temple of Poseidon. It was a gorgeous spot and the ruins are amazing. Its supposed to be a great spot to watch the sunset. We then made our way back to Athens via the freeway this time. Paul drove us to the Olympic Stadium that was built for the 2004 summer Olympics. It was gorgeous. We then made our way to the Roman Agora and the Tower of the Winds. Paul then gave us 2 hours to walk around the Plaka. We grabbed giros for lunch and walked around and did some shopping. We ended up the day making a stop at the Greek Agora and the Tempe of Hephastos before heading back to the ship. We arrived back around 5:30 pm after a long, but rewarding 10 hour trip!
This is one city that I was really looking forward too. I knew that there was so much to see and do in one day that I wouldn’t be able to see it all. We decided to go with a private driver from Driver In Rome here as well. We shared the tour with the same family of 3 we shared our Florence/Pisa tour with. Today, our driver was Ottavio. We started off our tour by stopping in Orange Park on the outskirts of Rome. The park is located high on one of Rome’s 7 hills and from this vantage point we were able to get a bird’s eye view of Rome. We saw the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance and could see the Victor Emanuel monument. We left Orange Park and drove to Circus Maximus. We passed underneath remnants of the wall that still surrounds the city. From there we headed down to Capitoline Hill. Our driver dropped us off so that we could walk up to Piazza Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo. The replica of the statue of Marcus Aurelius is located here, the original is inside the Capitoline Museum. On the back side of the Piazza, you can catch a glimpse of the Colosseum in the distance and also see portions of the Roman Forum. From here we drove to Vatican City. We had hired a private licensed guide for a 2 hour tour of the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. We met our guide, Lucca at the front entrance to the Vatican Museum at 11:00 am. The line to get a ticket was well over an hour long. But Lucca had his own private “technique” for getting us into the Museum. The tickets were 12€ each. Once inside the Vatican Museum, we realized right away the importance of having hired Lucca. We realized the vast enormity of the Vatican Museum and knew that had we done this on our own, we would never have know where to go or what we were even looking at. We wouldn’t have been able to appreciate all that there was to see. Lucca guided us through the most important rooms and gave us descriptions of the most important pieces. He told us all about the Sistine Chapel and then took us into St. Peter’s Basilica and told us all the most important parts of the chapel. In reality, it would take a week’s time to get through the Vatican. But for the 2 hours we had, Lucca was perfect. After the Vatican Museum, Ottavio took us to a nearby pizzeria and gelato shop for a fast lunch. After lunch we went to Piazza Navona and saw the Fountain of the 4 Rivers. From Piazza Navona we drove to the Pantheon where we had a few minutes to look around. After that it was off to the Spanish Steps for a quick photo stop and a drive past Via Condotti, the Rodeo Drive of Rome. Then we made a stop at Trevi fountain for the requisite coin toss. Finally we went to the Colosseum, Forum and Arch of Constantine. Since the line for the Colosseum was long and we were running out of time, we only took photos from the outside. By then it was 3:50 pm and time to head back to the ship. We arrived back right around 5:00 pm.
In Villefranche we decided to go on our own. I was armed with bus and train schedules and a plan of what I wanted to do. The plan was to take a train from Villefranche to Eze Bord du Mer, catch a bus from Eze Bord du Mer to Eze Village, explore Eze Village then catch a bus from Eze Village to Monaco in time to see the changing of the guards at 11:55 am, then catch a train from Monaco back to Villefranche and explore Villefranche for an hour. As I stated before, even the best laid plans have hiccups along the way. We were in Villefranche early, before anything was even open. You could already see the beauty of the French Riviera from here. Once you get off the tender and get on the street, you will see the train station on your right, about a 5-10 minute walk down the street. As you get closer you see a sign that points to a staircase that says SNCF trains. We bought our tickets and waited for the train. The ride from Villefranche to Eze Bord du Mer only takes 7 minutes. From there we should have had a 20 minute wait for the bus to Eze Village according to the schedule I had printed from the internet. When we got to the bus station, it appeared that bus schedules had changed and we now had over a 1 hour wait until the bus came. This would mean that if we wanted to make it Monaco in time to see the changing of the guards, we would only have 40 minutes to explore Eze Village. Of course, on our tight time schedule, the bus shows up about 5-10 minutes late. Eze Village is a very medieval cobblestoned village that has largely remained untouched for centuries. From the village there are gorgeous views looking down to the sea. The bus ride from Eze Village to Monaco is meant to be 20 minutes, putting us in Monaco with 25 minutes to get to the Palais and see the changing of the guards. The bus arrives in Eze Village in time and we are on our way. However, we didn’t anticipate there being traffic. It was bumper to bumper all the way to Monaco. What should have been a 20 minute ride ended up being a 1 hour ride. By the time we arrived in Monaco, it was already past time for the changing of the guards. That was a little disappointing. We however, caught a bus nonetheless so that we could see the Palais and see the spectacular views from the top of the “Rock.” The view did not disappoint at all! I’ve never seen so many expensive yachts in my life. Everything was gorgeous and immaculate and screamed money! We also stopped at the Cathedral where Princess Grace and Prince Rainier are buried. Then it was on a train back to Villefranche. The French Riviera was gorgeous, I just wish I had more time to explore it all.
Overall I thought that this was a great cruise. I will say that on sea days, the lounge chairs up on the pool deck where packed with people. And though there are signs that say there is no reserving of deck chairs, this was a big problem. Half the deck chairs were always empty, but reserved, so unless you reserved your own deck chair in the morning, it was almost impossible to get a chair! However, the cruise experience itself was great. I met some really great people on this cruise and shared lots of laughs and stories with people from all over the world. I had an incredible dining room staff who always did their best to satisfy us. Going on Brilliance just reaffirmed that I love the Radiance class ships. I’ve now been on 3 of the 4 and have yet to be disappointed. With all of its wonderful glass, and its size, this is the perfect class of ship for me.
As I stated before, this is an incredibly busy and port intensive cruise. The ports are really the highlights of the cruise. There are so many wonderful impressions I had of Europe. I couldn’t really pick out one favorite port, but a combination of different things that I liked from different ports: the changing of the guards in Athens, the awesome beauty of Santorini, the incredible history of Rome, the magic of art found in the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, the amazing architecture of the Duomo in Florence, the experience of climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the understated beauty of the Amalfi coastline, the humble, yet majestic ruins of Ephesus, the sad and power casts of victims of Pompeii just to name a few. Every where you turn in Europe, you are bombarded with color and culture and history. To think that there are ruins and buildings that have withstood the test of time even though they were built B.C. is mindblowing. The people of the cities are charming and heartwarming. I definitely want to go back to this region again in the future on my own and take some time to really explore these cities, but also to get out into the countryside and explore the less touristy areas.
If you ever get a chance to take this cruise, go for it. You’ll never regret it. While this cruise did cost dearly, I felt that it was worth every penny I spent. And as I stated before, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of planning in advance. So get out there have some fun and adventure!
I took over 2,000 pictures of this trip and in the next few posts, I will share some of them with you. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. I took tons of notes!