Friday, September 7, 2012

The Western Mediterranean Experience

Given that we're living in Germany, we obviously have a fantastic opportunity to travel all over Europe.  However, even with a nearly perfect geographically centralized starting point, we still feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of places we would like to visit.  Time is flying by and we feel like we have only scratched the surface (if even that).  Therefore, we decided a cruise would be a great way to see several places in a short amount of time while not necessarily breaking our legs (or car) from over ambition.  And, of course, we were excited to sit on our butts and drink Mai Tai's and Bahama Mamma's all day.

Our trip began immediately after my 12-hour night shift.  After leaving work at 6:00am, we managed to pack up the car and be on the road by 7:00am (don't worry, I drove a bit, but Lori drove most of the way).  The drive was nearly straight south from Stuttgart to the Italian port city of Savona.  In reality, the drive itself was certainly part of the vacation as it was the most beautiful drive we have ever taken.  We drove over and literally through (dozens of long tunnels) the Swiss and Italian Alps.  The views were breathtaking and almost beyond words.  Sheer mountain peaks, crystal clear turquoise-water lakes, waterfalls, along with storybook villages made up the landscape as we drove.  We even lucked out with beautiful weather.  People often say, "pictures just don't do it justice," and there are several times where I feel like that's the case, however there are two particular things that I've seen in my life where I feel that description fits more than the others: the Grand Canyon and our drive through the Swiss Alps.  We couldn't stop saying, "Wow!" and "Holy crap!"  Anyway, here's a couple of those pictures that "just don't do it justice," taken with the I-phone:

This was probably the most pleasant rest stop/store we've ever been to
There were tiny villages sprinkled throughout the landscape. You can begin to see one on the left

Dozens of tunnels.  One was over ten miles long!

The drive from Stuttgart to Savona took roughly 6 and a half hours and Lori did a great job driving the majority of it (especially through mountains and amongst Italians...)!  Our ship was the Costa Serena.  It had 13 decks open to passengers, 1,100 crew and around 3,500 passengers.  I'm sure this is by no means one of the largest cruise ships out there, but the scale was enormous.

There were 12 bars, a casino, discoteca (dance club), three pools, six hot tubs, and about a dozen other amenities.  Here are a couple pictures of the ship:

Every time we passed Lori made fun of these mannequins

The theater.

The casino

Our first port of call was Civitavecchia, however most people take day excursions to Rome, which is what we did.  We hitched a ride on a charter bus where we were dropped off right at St. Peter's Basilica.  Since we only had the afternoon, we decided it was best to only stick around the Vatican City and see as much possible there, rather than trying to see the other major sites of Rome since we will definitely go back.  It was also very hot that day, so we decided we didn't want to exhaust ourselves like we usually do.  Lori had visited Rome/Vatican City in 2005, but this was my first time to see the incredibly impressive micro-nation.  Vatican City, in case you don't know, is the political and religous capital of Catholicism.  It is a separate sovereign nation completely surrounded by the city of Rome.  It's widely considered the smallest country on Earth.  Dominating the center of the this 110-acre city-state is St. Peter's Basilica and the accompanying Vatican Museum.  The dome of the Basilica was designed by Michelangelo and is truly massive.  Right as you walk in, one of Michelangelo's masterpieces sits just to the right; his La Pieta (Mary holding Jesus after he was taken off the cross).  We wondered around for a while and then made our way outside to the Vatican Post Office.  Here, I sent my parents a postcard with an official Vatican stamp.

Afterward, we headed over to the Vatican Museum where we saw over 2/3 of the galleries (which span a total of 7 kilometers!).  We saw the famous "School of Athens" by Raphael and, of course, the magnificent Sistine Chapel!  They don't allow photos in the chapel, so I can't show you here, but I did get a shot of the "School of Athens."  Here are a few shots from the day:

St. Peter's Square
Just inside the Basilica
Not a great picture, but this is Michelango's La Pieta (It is protected by glass because someone went after it with a sledgehammer in the 70s.)

Looking up through Bernini's altar at the dome designed by Michelangelo

Mailing my post card to Mom and Dad
One of many galleries in the Vatican Museum
A view out of a gallery window.
Raphael's School of Athens!  Raphael is the guy in a black beret at the far right
Cool stairwell/ramp
Laocoön and His Sons created ~25 BC (We highly recommend you Google this artwork)
After returning to the ship, we set sail for our next destination: Sardinia (Port of Olbia).  This Italian island is the second largest in the Mediterranean and was not quite what we were expecting.  Grant it, we only saw a small portion of the island (far northern tip), so the other parts of the island could be wildly different, but the portion we saw was like a rugged moonscape with short trees and shrubs.  Fun fact: Italy gets 95% of their cork from this island for their wine industry. 

We took a day trip to see the Emerald Coast and two coastal cities, San Pantaleo and Porto Cervo.  It was a unique and beautiful drive through the very rocky landscape.  We spent only a little amount of time in San Pantaleo, which we were told was more affordable and calm.  Porto Cervo was more developed, had high scale shopping and a fleet of yachts.  We decided that if we visit Sardinia again, we would like to have a yacht. :-)

Our next Port of Call was Ibiza Town, Ibiza, Spain which, in the last few years has probably been most known for its night life and party atmosphere, along with its hippies.  While that seemed true, the city was quite picturesque with old-world winding streets and narrow walkways, many of which led to a hilltop castle built in the 16th century, but Roman and Phoenician structure remains have been found there.  The walls of the fortress offer fantastic views of the surrounding bay as well.

Young boy cooling himself with a bottle of water on a hot day

Cooling down with a milkshake

The Costa Serena docked in Ibiza Town overnight, so we felt obligated to go out and see some of the night life.  The clubs ran nearly 50 Euro per person though, so we said “no” to that idea.  However, we did have some nice drinks at a bar by the water.  We could definitely see how the city has gotten its party reputation.  Definitely a fun town, buy we had long day of sunbathing and girly drinks ahead of us the next day, so we didn’t stay out too long.


Of course people are enthralled in a soccer game
After doing a bunch of nothing the following day, the ship set sail for Palma de Mallorca (pronounced more like “ma-yorka”), which is the capital city of the Balearic Islands of Spain.  We would definitely like to come back here because it was beautiful, but also because we really didn’t touch land much because we chose to do a catamaran excursion.  We boarded the catamaran straight from the cruise ship and sailed nearly an hour to a little alcove next to some low cliffs.  Here you could decide to snorkel, sunbath or just hang out on the boat.  We did all three, although we both figured out that we’ll never be champion snorkelers.  I inhaled a pint or so of sea water and Lori cut her leg (no sharks were drawn).  Anyway, the water looked as if someone had dumped blue dye into it.  It was some of the bluest water we’ve ever seen, while some of the shallow areas were a brilliant turquoise color.  Amazing!  I didn’t bring my camera, fearing it would get damaged, but we took some shots with Lori’s I-Pod:

Enjoying the view of Mallorca

Caves in the cliffs

Our last stop of the Cruise (but not the trip) was Aix en Provence, France, by way of Toulon.  We were supposed to have ported at Marseille, but bad weather forced the ship to dock at Toulon, a few dozen miles away.  However, the excursion to Aix en Provence was still on, so we took the hour drive to the city through the Provence countryside.  This region is famous for its rosé and red wines as well as rosemary, fennel, thyme, basil and oregano.

Aix en Provence is a beautiful, historic college and spa town.  Like many towns and cities in Europe, it dates back to the Roman times.  Lori was enthralled by the thought of Impressionist artists once wondering the streets.  The town is exactly what you would picture a small town in the French countryside to be with fountains, narrow roads, town squares lined with cafes, and bakeries.  We did a short history tour here followed by some free time to soak in the French-ness.  We will  definitely be going back to this town as well as the surrounding area, as one afternoon was not enough. 

 We ended our cruise the next day back in Savona, Italy.  However, that was not the end of our trip.  On our way home, we stopped overnight in Como, Italy on Lake Como, which we'll talk about in a blog post coming soon!  Here are a few last fun pics from our cruise.

Enjoying a last look at Sardinia
Italian night on board at dinner.  Italians started a conga line to a traditional favorite song.

Ooooh, a surprise dessert!

Buongiorno, mi amore
Enjoying show tunes at a random drag concert on board. 

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