Tuesday 26 July 2016

Vista Vacation: Life in Livorno

I've been told Florence is an architectural gem, a "city rich in history as it is in culture." I've been wanting to visit since our first trip to Europe, so I was excited to find out Livorno was one of the port of calls on the Carnival Vista, meaning I would get a chance to visit Florence. Unfortunately, Livorno is also the port of call for Pisa and Cinque Terre, which means it was going to be a tough decision. We didn't end up booking our excursion until the night before. There are several excursions that take you to both Florence and Pisa, but after our rushed excursion in Malta, I was hesitant to take on another heavy excursion. Cinque Terre is on my list as well but I wanted to explore Florence more.

The excursion we ended up choosing was Highlights of Florence and Shopping. Our walking tour of the majestic city of Florence began after a 1.5 hours motor coach journey. Our tour guide was great, I think her name was Patricia. She was very informative and very efficient. She told us about the shortcuts and gave us plenty of tips. She was very real and had no qualms in pointing out the con artists around us. Funnily enough, she was from Pisa! We first visited the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The cathedral is the main church of Florence. It also includes the Baptistry of St. John, located across from the basilica, and Giotto's Campanile (the bell tower to the right of the basilica). The exterior of the basilica has an elaborate Gothic style facade. The cathedral is recognized for its beautiful red dome, which can be seen from a great distance as it is the largest brick dome in the world.

In the Piazza della Signoria, we saw a replica of Michelangelo's David statue. The real statue is in the Galleria dell'Accademia, but alas a trip to the museum wasn't on our itinerary and we didn't get a chance during our free time. If you plan to visit the Galleria dell'Accademia, please purchase tickets prior to your visit. We walked past the museum first thing in the morning and the line was a block long already - and the museum wasn't even opened yet! Our tour guide told us the wait to purchase tickets can be up to two hours long.

From the Piazza della Signoria, we walked past the Galleria degli Uffizi through the narrow courtyard between the palace and into the view of the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. Ponte Vecchio is a bridge over the Arno river; it is known for having shops built along it. We didn't have a chance to walk along the bridge, but I imagine it is similar to the Rialto Bridge in Venice. I've seen beautiful pictures of the Ponte Vecchio lit up at night, but unfortunately we were only there during the day. From there, we walked to Piazza Santa Croce. Basilica of Santa Croce overlooks the square, but during that week, the square was set up for the annual historic soccer games. There was little room to walk around the square, especially since there were so many tour groups in the square. Aside from all the Carnival tour groups, another cruise ship was there as well, in addition to many Korean tour groups. It was a very busy day for Florence... or maybe it's like this every day!

Our walking tour ended at quarter to twelve in Piazza Santa Croce, and we were given about four hours of free time to "shop." What we really wanted was free time to explore the city! I enjoy these excursions because you still get a quick tour of the city, and the free time allows us to go back to revisit sites we are interested in. We quickly walked back to the beginning of the walking tour, to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The cathedral is the only church that didn't require an admission fee. There was about a two minute wait, and we were inside. The ceiling art in the cupola was just stunning. I stared until my neck started to hurt, but honestly, I could literally spend hours staring at it if it weren't for my neck!

We grabbed lunch in Piazza del Duomo. It was another expensive slice of pizza, but we did choose the heaviest topping (meatballs, below left)! This pizza tasted much better than the one we had in Rome (sadly, we never had pizza in Naples! They apparently make the best pizza in the world.). We chose this restaurant because it looked the most appetizing, and they had washrooms. It's hard to find washrooms in Europe. One tour guide had told us to eat at a restaurant with a restroom, that way you won't have to actually have to look for a restroom when you need to go, because you'll likely end up having to buy something a restaurant to use their restroom. We also stopped for ice cream at a cute little shoppe called La Strega Nocciola by the cathedral. It was pretty pricey, but the gelato was very delicious!

From there, we walked back to Piazza della Republica. In the middle of the square was an antique carousel (above right). Nearby was a dessert and coffee shoppe, Caffe Gilli, so we wandered inside to check it out. It was very busy as it was during the lunch hour. The sweets looked amazing, but they were pricey. There are many locals having a coffee in the cafe, so we each had a cappuccino at the bar. It definitely hit the spot!

It was also a shopping area in Piazza della Republica, so after the quick recharge, we walked back into the busy streets to check it out. There was a Kiko Milano on the next street over, so I was excited to stock up on my favourite makeup products. I discovered Kiko Milano during our last trip, and I was surprised with the incredible quality of their products. It was very affordable (even with the exchange), and the quality was comparable to brands like MAC and MUF. For all my makeup lovers out there, do give their products a try!

This is when we kind of got lost. We continued walking down the street until there were no more shops, and we turned a corner, and another, and somehow ended up back at the cathedral. It started sprinkling, so the boyfriend and I were both very frustrated. Our meeting point was in Piazza Santa Croce and we had ended up at the beginning. We had forgotten the shortcut our tour guide told us about, but I still remembered some landmarks during our walking tour, so we re-walked the original walking tour. When we finally got back to Piazza Santa Croce, we still had a little bit of time to walk around the square. We stopped by a souvenir shop and bought some souvenirs and a drink for the road. Most of the shops around the square sold quality leather items. I would recommend checking it out if you're interested in buying leather purses or wallets, there are some pretty gorgeous designs.

We reunited with our tour group, and walked to the motor coach. It was about a 10 minute walk in the (light) rain and it was starting to get windy, so we were really happy to be back on the bus. We arrived at the terminal for boarding at 5:30, and we were back on the Vista in no time. It was formal night, so we started to get ready.

Guess what I had for dinner again? Yes, that's right, fish! I honestly cannot believe I had fish every night! Tonight, it was salmon with an Asian flair (rice, teriyaki sauce, and one piece of bok choy...). I remember this being one of my favourite dishes, so I highly recommend it. As usual, I started with a soup, and had a side of pasta. The boyfriend started with crab cakes, and he had the beef tenderloin for his entree. We both had soufflé type dessert.

After dinner, we rushed to the Liquid Lounge for the show, American Rocks! It was like a high-energy rock concert of American rock anthems. It was a very fun show. I had a great time singing along to the songs!

Because we watched the show, we missed Steve White's comedy show. The night was still young so we went to check out John Dicrosta, who was unfortunately still not impressing me.

Our next port of call is Marseilles. Unfortunately, it is our last port of call, and our cruise will be coming to an end in Barcelona soon. Stay tuned for Marseilles!

Saturday 23 July 2016

Vista Vacation: Roam in Rome

Isn't that a super fun play on words?!

The boyfriend was super excited to be back in Rome, but I was a little less enthusiastic. We had stayed in Rome for four days during our last European cruise about a year and a half ago. Rome was by far my least favourite city in Italy. I guess it was a combination of aggressive street vendors, mediocre food, and busy, crowded tourist destinations that turned me off. Especially since we headed to Venice right after, and I truly fell in love with it. I wanted to stay on the Vista when we docked in Rome, but since I had been picking most of the excursions during this cruise, I let the boyfriend have Rome. He chose Rome-On-Your-Own.

Rome-On-Your-Own with Carnival is basically a $70 bus ride (round trip, and per person) to and from Rome. Now I'm not sure how much it would cost with a local tour company, but whenever we decided to do excursions, we always stick with the ship. I know many will disagree on this with me, but we personally feel safer knowing we won't be left behind if the excursion runs late. Sure, we may end up paying more, but it's better to be safe than sorry. I don't recommend Rome-On-Your-Own to someone who hasn't been to Rome before. Rome is a big city. It's overwhelming, and while everything is within walking distance, it is a challenge to get to know the city in eight hours. You really do need prior experience to be able to get around the city smoothly. Rome is an hour and a half away from Civitavecchia. Once we were dropped off in the city, we wasted no time in purchasing a one day pass for the red City Sightseeing HOHO bus. We didn't want to spend all day walking around, so this was the most efficient way to go.

Rome is a city we know well. After our four days there, we knew the tourist areas like the back of our hands. So naturally, during this second visit, we knew we had no problem in hitting all the major tourist sites.

Stop #1: Castel Sant'Angelo. Castel Sant'Angelo was our first stop during our first trip to Rome. Admission was free, since it was the first Sunday of the month. Castel Sant'Angelo was initially commissioned as a mausoleum, but it was used as a fortress by the pope. Today, it is a museum. We weren't interested in re-visiting the museum, so off we were, on our way to St. Peter's.

Stop #2: St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. We were in Rome during a Jubilee year, so St. Peter's Basilica was very busy. However, foot traffic moved smoothly so it didn't feel crowded at all. There were friendly volunteers in yellow vests directing traffic and answering questions. You can see all the wooden gates that that have been put up to direct traffic. We also noticed they had installed metal detectors on the edge of the square (not pictured) - not sure if they were permanent or temporary during the Jubilee, but they definitely weren't there a year and a half ago! After a few pictures and about fifteen minutes of debating (fifteen minutes was actually the wait time to get in St. Peter's), we decided not to go in. We felt that there would be more crowds inside during the Jubilee. We headed back towards the HOHO bus stop by Castel Sant'Angelo, but not before stopping for a cappuccino along the way! We absolutely love the cappuccinos in Italy, so we make an effort to stop for one wherever we see a coffee shop.

Stop #3: Trevi Fountain. Last time, the Trevi Fountain was under construction. We were disappointed but we did what all tourists do - we threw a coin over our shoulder to ensure a visit in the future. What do you know!? Here we were. I'm not sure what the Trevi Fountain looked like before the renovations, but with water in the fountain, it was gorgeous. It was also very crowded, so it was very difficult to get a picture of the entire fountain. We tried our best, but unfortunately, if you want a full shot, you'd have to get a postcard... or maybe we'll just have to come back sometime in the future on a less busy time and day! It was noon, and we were a little hungry, so we decided to share a cup of ice cream from the same store we visited last time. We sat in front of the fountain eating our ice cream, but the sun was on full blast at that time of the day, so it was melting fast. Be sure to sit down and take in the view if you visit the Trevi Fountain. It's truly stunning!

Stop #4: Pantheon. The Pantheon was close by, so we decided to walk over for a brief visit. There was a small queue outside, and a guard was monitoring the number of people being let in. We waited for about five minutes. After admiring the Pantheon, we were starving, so we grabbed a couple of pizzas. I wished we had time to sit and eat a proper meal, but we were short on time! Pizza in Rome is charged by weight, and it's quite expensive. Two medium sized slices costed us over €7.

Stop #5: Spanish Steps. Rome is playing jokes on us! The Spanish Steps were closed for restoration during this visit. We had some fond memories sitting on the steps, so we were sad to see that it was closed. The Spanish Steps are surrounded by upscale merchants, like Prada and Gucci. We didn't have time or funds to shop, but it's a fun area to window shop in, and definitely very crowded during the day! We walked around the Spanish Steps, and I passed by a cute store called Blue Sand. The prices were affordable and the clothing seemed well made. They have some very nice, classy pieces. I ended up purchasing a dress, which I wore to dinner that evening.

Now, remember that HOHO bus we had taken twice thus far during the entire day? We finally made it to a stop near the Spanish Steps after my shopping stop. It was about four - five stops to our meeting point with the motor coach. The problem was the next stop was a train station - and 30 minute break for the driver. Now these busses come by every 5-10 minutes, so I didn't understand why we couldn't hop on a bus that had been at the train station for 30 minutes already. Maybe not all drivers took a break? We had such a hard time communicating with the tour guide on the bus, so we gave up on the bus. The meeting point looked like a walkable distance, so we asked how long it would take us to get to the meeting point. He said twenty minutes. We had an hour to get there, so we decided to walk. If you are doing Rome-On-Your-Own and you are planning on taking the HOHO bus, be aware of this break! There are many other HOHO buses in Rome, and I definitely recommend doing some research prior to choosing one. Last time around, we chose the Roma Cristiana bus, which had significantly less stops than the red bus, but it was less expensive.

We definitely took the road less travelled. There was not one tourist in sight. I had downloaded an offline map of the area on Google maps the night before - I highly recommend doing this - so we were following the shortest route, and it was only a brief twenty minute walk. We were on quiet street with a lot of cars, but no pedestrians. As we rounded the corner, we spotted the Capitoline museums. Finally, we were in familiar quarters.

Stop #6: Roman Forum. We didn't quite get to the Colosseum. It was within view, but I really didn't want to miss our bus! So close, yet so far. We had an amazing tour at the Colosseum last time, so we really didn't need go again. However, our tour was also extremely uncomfortable. It was melting hot, and we were completely exhausted after the tour. As we walked along the Roman Forum on the street, it was starting to get really hot. We still had 25 minutes, but we were getting thirsty, so we turned around and walked towards the bus. Luckily, there was a Carrefour across the street, so we grabbed a few drinks and a snack before boarding the motor coach. All the passengers on our coach arrived before 5 PM, and we were the first out of three buses to leave on time. It was another hour and a half to the port... Nap time!

Now our cruise director, Matt, had warned us about Rome. It is challenging to get in and out of the city on your own. Many cruise passengers miss the train returning to Civitavecchia, so this port usually has the most ship runners. During the last cruise, two passengers were left behind. When it came to sail away time, we were missing about seven (or eight?) people. We were on our way to dinner, but we stopped by deck 5 to see if there were ship runners. Many passengers were watching on their balconies as well. Ten minutes after sail away time, a family of four arrived by shuttle. Twenty minutes later, a bus with two more people arrived. We were getting hungry, so we left for dinner. Sail away time was 8 PM, but we didn't actually leave until after 9 PM. One of our head waiters told us the ship will usually wait for all the passengers to return. There is more paperwork for the captain to fill out if they leave behind passengers. I'm never did find out if everyone made it back on the ship, but I sure hope they did.

Tonight was another two entree night for me. I guess they figured out I really liked mac 'n' cheese since I'd been ordering it every night! When I ordered tonight, one of our head waiters gave me a full entree size plate of mac 'n' cheese! I'm not sure what the boyfriend had for dinner. We can't remember to be honest, but we only have pictures of yet another fish plate. I can't believe I had fish everyday, I don't even like fish that much! On the other hand, the tuna tartare appetizer was amazing! For dessert, we shared a fruit plate, and I had the apple crumble, and he had the creme brûlée.

We had two new comedians on board the Vista, Steve White and John DiCrosta. Another confession, we cannot remember if John Dicrosta was funny or not but I do remember he went off topic - a lot. He would start one story, and jumped to another story, and never finish the original. His jokes were completely scattered. Oftentimes, he often started to laugh so hard, he could't finish his jokes. I didn't enjoy him that much. Steve White, on the other hand, was hilarious!

We did pretty good right? Granted we didn't enter some of these stops, but we were there! If you interested about our first trip to Rome with more details, you can read it here.

I'm so glad we visited Rome again, and I'm even more happy that we got to see the Trevi Fountain in all its magical glory. Kudos to the boyfriend for making this decision! Rome is an amazing city, and there is so much to see and do, you can't possibly do it all in one day. It's one of those cities you have to visit at least once in in your lifetime. I hope you enjoyed our reading my review... I certainly had fun writing this entry. Next up is Livorno - also known the port of Florence and Pisa!

Monday 18 July 2016

Vista Vacation: Navigating Naples

Hi Readers!

I'm back from a short unintended blogging break... I downloaded Pokemon Go last week, and it took over my life. Also, it took me a little while to think of this alliteration.

I'm a little sad, because we're on our fourth last port of call on the Carnival Vista (meaning the cruise is almost over!) and we are halfway through our European vacation.

Naples, Naples, Naples. If only I had known you had so much to offer.

In terms of choosing an excursion, Naples really did have a lot to offer. There were just so many many things to see and do! We knew we wanted to explore the famous ruins of Pompeii, but we also wanted to see the Amalfi Coast, so Amalfi Drive and Pompeii it was! Our Carnival excursion cost $180. It was about 9.5 hours long, and it included lunch (thank God!). Docking in Naples was also a little bit different. Passengers disembarked on Deck 3 into the terminal. However, since we were on a Carnival excursion, we left the ship as we usually do, via the gangway.

Our brilliant tour guide, Andreas, obviously knew what he was doing. He switched the order of our day's activities. The first thing we did was visit the local cameo factory. I learned that cameo was a method of carving an object, such as a piece of jewellery. We weren't interested in making a purchase, so we waited outside for the rest of our tour. Luckily, there was a wall of flowers outside, perfect for a photo op.

Immediately after, we drove straight to Pompeii. We arrived before the gates opened, so Andreas gave us some time to grab a bite, and look around the souvenir stands. We had just enough time for a cappuccino, and a few postcards. By the way: Tip #1, don't try to be cool and hide your number, Andreas gave me crap for doing that - for good reason. It was ridiculously crowded inside Pompeii and it was easy to get lost or end up following another tour group. Right at 9 am, we entered Pompeii. Pompeii is one of the most famous excavation sites in the world. At the time of its destruction, it was a flourishing modern Roman city. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, the entire city of Pompeii was covered in a thick layer of volcanic ash. The city remained buried and undisturbed for centuries. It wasn't until 1599 when the initial discovery of the ancient city was made.

The weather was cool in the morning, and the cobblestone was difficult to navigate. Tip #2: Wear proper shoes! My pretty sandals were no match for Pompeii's cobblestone roads and dusty dirt grounds. I stepped into a crack, and my foot got caught between the cobblestone. I ended up scraping my shin (it's now a nice little nano sim card sized scar). Pompeii reminded me of Ephesus, but it was nothing like I had imagined. Ephesus felt magical and godly. Pompeii truly felt like a town that had just stopped living one day. It was an eerie and sad feeling. As we exited Pompeii, we went through an exhibition with a video of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, showing us the events of that fateful day. The exhibition also showcased a preserved plaster cast of a body found buried in Pompeii. It was a very surreal experience.

It was a smart choice to visit Pompeii in the morning. While the sun was peeking through the clouds, we could feel the heat in the air. Our tour was only about two hours long. By the time we left mid-morning, the temperature had shot up - it was hot! Parking was limited in Pompeii, so we had to walk a little bit to meet our motor coach driver. Off we were to the Amalfi Coast!

It was a two hour drive to the Amalfi Coast. Unfortunately, we sat on the wrong side of the bus, and we missed a lot of the gorgeous views you see in pictures and postcards. The left side of the bus, which we were on, saw the walls of the cliffs, while the right side had the incredible ocean and coastline view. It was a challenge to drive on the coast as well, as the roads were narrow and windy. Only one bus can pass at a time, so there were a lot of traffic jams along the way. We arrived at Il Calaianara Restaurant (at the Hotel La Conca Azzurra) at 1:30 for lunch, where we were served lasagna, vegetables, parmesan chicken with a sweet rum cake and a cappuccino for dessert. It was quite delicious. The ocean view at the restaurant was beautiful. I could live here for a week or two!

After lunch, we continued on our drive along the coast. We finally arrived to our destination at 3:20, but with only 40 minutes of free time. We entered through the Porta Della Marina gateway, one of the Medieval entrance stop the city from the waterfront. We first decided to take a leisurely stroll to enjoy our time in the marketplace, then when we realized we only had 15 minutes left, it was a flurry of rushed purchases, and we ended up running back to our meeting place. It was a gong show. Our tour guide had told us about a few amazing ice cream shops, but we didn't have time to try it out. I ended up buying some limoncello, lemon soap, lemon candy and postcards; while the boyfriend had stopped by a deli to buy some salami.

It was a long drive to the port. Traffic was bad and there were a few times when we thought we wouldn't make it back. We both fell asleep during the bus ride. All aboard time was 6:30, and we finally arrived at the port terminal at 6:15. The lines to boarding were ridiculously long. In Naples, we had to go through X-ray with the Italian port officers prior to boarding. And yes, the salami made it back on board!

We were exhausted when we finally got on board, but we knew there was a clear, gorgeous view of Mt Vesuvius during sail away, so we rushed up to the deck to take photos. It was pretty magical view, alright. On one side, it was Mt. Vesuvius with blue skies, on the other side, the sun was setting. Don't miss this view!

Dinner is served... On the menu for me was lobster bisque, a salad and fish again. Did I just have fish three nights in a row!? The boyfriend had fish (no chips) and beef wellington. We both had bread pudding for dessert. Hmm.. there has been a lot of fish on the menu during this cruise. 

Tonight was officially the last night for Anthony Scott in the comedy club. We enjoyed his shows so much! In the Liquid Lounge for an evening of comedy and hypnotism was Rich Guzzi. We had previously seen him on a Royal Caribbean ship so we decided to pass this time.

This was the best excursion thus far. We had the best time exploring Pompeii, and an even more amazing time at the Amalfi Coast. We did feel rushed and naturally, we wished we had more time at the Amalfi Coast. I would love to go back to Naples to visit Positano, Sorrento and Capri one day. I definitely recommend this excursion, and Carnival did a great job in selecting this tour company. It helped that our guide was so invested in our group as well. Andreas truly wanted us to have a memorable experience in Naples, and we sure did. Thank you, Andreas!

I hope you enjoyed this entry. Next up is Rome! Don't worry, I promise I won't take an entire week to update this time!