Ports Research/Strategy:
The big thing that struck me from reading Mediterranean cruise reviews is that everyone emphasizes how exhausting they are. Well, everyone was right! Going in, I knew that my parents are not very used to walking (being from the Midwest where you can drive everywhere), so my strategy was to pick a couple ports where we didn’t try to go the whole day so that they could rest up. I think that’s a good idea for most people – even living in NYC where I walk a ton, this cruise still left me tired each day!

The original plan was:
- Barcelona: We arrived 2 days before the cruise, so DIY the major sites
- Sea day: enjoy the ship and the slides
- Naples: DIY Pompeii only in the morning via train
- Civitavecchia (Rome): DIY for the full day via train and public transit
- Livorno (Florence/Pisa): Use Rome in Limo for a driver/tour
- Cannes: DIY for the full day to Nice via train
- Marseille: Wild Card – based on how we felt after all the other ports!

Things worked out mostly as planned, although Cannes turned into more of a half day after a late start and Marseille we didn’t even get off the ship for (more on that later).

I did a lot of research before the cruise as I wanted to minimize cost and do nearly all the ports on our own. The 3 most helpful resources I found were:
- Rick Steves’ Mediterranean Cruise Ports: A book the size and weight of a brick, but very comprehensive and written with DIY in mind. Although almost all the information could be found for free online, this book did an excellent job of compiling it all in one great resource along with maps and general advice. Because of the weight of the book, I copied out the helpful info I wanted to remember into a Word document and printed that for each port, but saw some passengers who had torn out the pages. There’s also a Kindle version available which would be nice if you have one of those. Highly recommended!
- Cruise Critic Europe boards (http://boards.cruisecritic.com/forumdisplay.php?f=19): There are so many experienced cruisers and experts who gladly provide advice and answer questions on this board. However, be sure to search for the topic first as it’s probably come up before already (trains, where do I get Euros, etc.)
- Tom’s Port Guides: This is a site that someone on the roll call shared and it has some PDF port guides with maps, pictures, instructions, etc. geared towards DIY as well. Not every port was covered, but it was still helpful and you can’t beat the price – free!

As I mentioned, we arrived in Barcelona 2 mornings before our cruise and managed to see the major sites. On the day we landed, we walked around Sagrada Familia, opting not to go inside, but still amazed by what’s completed so far. There were many gift shops around the church with models of the completed work and Gaudi-inspired souvenirs. We ate lunch nearby at Els Pollos de Llull, which is only 3 blocks from Sagrada Familia. They are known for their juicy rotisserie chicken and had a lunch fixed menu that included soup (broth), entrée and side dish for around 10 euros and was a very good deal.

After that, we took a taxi to Parc Guell, which I had been warned is a steep uphill climb. The park is free to walk around and we had a great time exploring every level and admiring Gaudi’s work. We walked downhill a few blocks and found a small café where we bought some sandwiches to take back to the hotel for dinner. It was the perfect amount of sight-seeing so that we could better adjust to the time difference without exhausting ourselves.

The second day, I had purchased tickets in advance online (67 euros for 4) for Casa Mila/La Pedrera – another one of Gaudi’s famous works. The chimneys on the room are very famous and the background of our “My NCL” site was of them! There was a line for tickets (but not too bad) that we got to skip and we started at the roof and worked our way down. The roof has all the chimneys, but be warned that it’s also filled with a lot of stairs that would be easy for children, the elderly, or people with limited mobility to fall. The views of the city are fantastic though! The next level down from the roof is the attic and filled with information on Gaudi and his most important works. The next level down are the period apartments to give you an idea of how people lived around the time Casa Mila was built. My mom really enjoyed this part and it was interesting. After that, we walked towards Plaza Catalunya and passed Casa Batllo, another famous Gaudi house that looks like a dragon or melting ice cream. I chose not to buy tickets to go inside as I figured one house tour was enough and most people said there was more to see inside Casa Mila. It was also a cost-saving measure as Casa Batllo entrance fee is 18.15 euros per person!

We kept walking and stopped at La Txapela, a tapas restaurant, for lunch. Their style of tapas is all served on top of small slices of bread. The food was good and the prices very reasonable, but the staff went out of their way to ignore us. For example, we weren’t sure of how to order and couldn’t get anyone’s attention, even with my sister speaking Spanish to them. At first I just thought they were busy, but I think they made a conscious effort to snub the tourists. Be warned that there is also no free tap water, so you pay for a tiny bottle of water. I have very mixed feelings about this place and probably wouldn’t return as there are so many tapas options in Barcelona.

We walked to Plaza Catalunya and admired the square before walking down Las Ramblas – the main tourist destination of Barcelona. We stopped at the Boqueria market and spent a lot of time wandering around and looking at all the delicious food. It was very crowded though, so be aware of your surroundings as I can see it being a pickpocket paradise! After all that, my parents were pretty tired out, so they headed back to the hotel, while my sister and I walked down to the Columbus Monument at the end of Las Ramblas, which was gigantic and provided a great view of the ocean. On the way back, we took a small side street to see Palau Guell, yet another Gaudi house, but didn’t pay to go inside. It was also very hard to take a picture of the exterior, as the street was pretty narrow. For dinner, we found a kebab place nearby that had giant, delicious kebab wraps for around 4 euros – a very cheap and hearty meal!

The other nice thing on Las Ramblas is the Carre-four supermarket where you can find reasonably priced water and soda, which we purchased to carry onto the Epic. After one more night, we boarded the Epic and had no problems at embarkation, although we showed up around 2pm, so there was almost no one checking in at that time.

Safety note – I was very concerned about visiting Barcelona and read many horror stories of pickpockets. To prepare for this, I purchased a money pouch that hangs around your neck, under your clothes, and it worked very well. I also purchased a money belt to wear around your stomach, under your clothes, and it was fine. We used the hanging money pouch in all the ports as Rome is also notorious for pickpockets and made sure we didn’t keep anything important in our pockets other than some change. We didn’t have any issues, but I think a money pouch or wallet is a wise investment.
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