As our final tour in Italy, we traveled to the famous areas of Florence that include historic works of art, the most notable being by Michelangelo.
The Accademia Gallery houses the 17-foot tall Statue of David and shows the true genius of Michelangelo. It reveals his understanding of the human body and must be viewed from all sides to realize just how superlative that genius was.
Our walking tour of Florence included the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in the Piazza del Duomo, the second largest cathedral in the world. We did not choose to climb the 463 steps to the Cupola Gallery, though the panoramic view from that height is said to be spectacular.
Next to the Cathedral is the Bell Tower. It is free-standing and decorated by colored marble and picturesque statuary. Bell towers are usually the highest point, but this one has 414 steps, slightly shorter than the Cathedral’s cupola.
There is also the octagonal Baptistry in the Piazza Duomo. It has three bronze gates on the east side that were referred to as the “Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo.
We included several other points of interest in our tour:
* Piazza della Signoria, Florence’s largest square. The Neptune Fountain is a famous landmark here.
* Palazzo Vecchio contains a copy of Michelangelo’s Statue of David and today is the City Hall of Florence.
* Piazza Santa Croce is notable for its tombs of famous citizens like Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli.
* Ponte Vecchio is the oldest bridge in Florence. It is lined with 42 goldsmiths’ shops and spans the Arno River.
This was just a ‘taste’ of Florence, only a few of the historic sights in the sixth largest city of Italy. I now understand why people who have visited Italy have told me that Florence was their favorite.
What a magnificent day! We explored the Cinque Terre area and then went to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Cinque Terre is located on the west coast of the Italian Riviera. It is a national park that encompasses five villages built on the steep hills. They are connected by a walking path which can be quite strenuous. We selected a tour that took us along a more even walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola.
The scenery is really beautiful, with the walk at the base of sheer cliffs that are along the water. The rock formations, the crashing waves, the beautiful wildflowers, and agave cacti provided impressive vistas.
The most notable part of the walk is the “Via dell’Amore.” This was named because of the route that was created so the young men and young women of the villages could meet and court without having to hike over the mountain to reach each other. It has become a symbol of love, with thousands of messages of undying love painted along the cliff walls. It is also considered good luck to make such pledges while attaching a padlock to one of the various wires or supports and throwing the key in the ocean below.
From Manarola we took a boat to Monterosso, and from there a bus to Pisa. Pisa is most noted for the Leaning Tower, of course, and it is just as amazing as we expected. To see this tower leaning at a five-meter inclination at its base really defies imagination.
The most surprising part of the tower is the fact that the corrective supports that have been added make the top almost straight. Our guide Andreas described it as “banana-shaped” because of this.
The Piazza del Duomo of Pisa includes the Leaning Tower, the Cathedral, and the Baptisty. This is also called the “Field of Miracles” and each building has its unique Romanesque style and pieces of art that are definitely worthy of a visit.
While this may have been our most tiring day, due to the long walks, the sights we experiences were truly awesome!
Cruises are famous for their unlimited food service. Being on a diet would be torturous when cruising.
The Azamara Quest is no exception. There are numerous opportunities for meals and for snacks.
The Discoveries dining room offers a varied menu that includes standard choices that don’t change plus daily new choices. When at sea, Discoveries offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner but is closed for lunch when the ship is in port.
The Windows Café buffet offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day, along with early and late morning continental breakfasts and a time for ‘afternoon delights.’ There is a special offering as part of the buffet each dinner, such as a pasta bar, a stir-fry bar, an Indian bar, etc.
There are two specialty restaurants. For a small upcharge, passengers can dine at Prime C or at Aqualina. Aqualina offers “contemporary American cuisine with a Mediterranean flair” and its lobster choices are delicious. Prime C focuses on meats – beautiful steaks and chops with a few fish choices.
An outdoor grill on the pool deck cooks up great burgers and hot dogs, nachos and a salad bar. This is a perfect place to enjoy lunch or an afternoon snack.
The Mosaic Café has tasty bites (sweets and pastries) to satisfy your sweet tooth any time during the day, too.
The amount of food that is prepared and consumed on a daily basis on the cruise is amazing. From fresh breads and pastries to soups and salads, appetizers to entrees to desserts, there is something for everyone. There are even sugar-free desserts for those who are on restricted diets.
Oh, and just in case you miss a meal, there is always 24-hour room service! A hot cup of coffee first thing in the morning is very nice. It is also possible to miss a meal time if you are on a shore excursion, so having the room service option takes care of this.
With all of this wonderful food comes coffee, teas, soft drinks and wine at no additional charge. And even more importantly, with all of the time onboard the ship comes superb service.
There are 47 nationalities represented in the crew and staff. All speak English (did you know that the world’s maritime regulations are in English?!), and service is friendly, efficient, and ever-present.
There is no doubt that taking a cruise is going to appeal to your taste buds!
One of the most surprising stops for ships on Mediterranean cruises is Dubrovnik, on the coast of Croatia. It is filled with tourists and is an interesting, delightful place.
The religion is 80% Catholic, and that makes the number of churches not surprising. The Old Town is surrounded by high walls of stone. It has suffered from such things as a major earthquake and fire in 1667, an earthquake in 1979, and the siege of Serbs in 1991-92. It has been restored, however, and invites tourists to dine and shop along the Placa, a pedestrian promenade of shops and cafes.
Just inside the walls of the city is the Major Onofrio Fountain where travelers can rinse their hands in the flowing water. Just across from the fountain is the Franciscan Monastery, dating from the 14th century. It includes the third oldest functioning pharmacy in the world and a vast library of books and manuscripts, choral books, and Croatian music.
Where the Placa comes to an end at Pred Dvorom, St. Blaise’s Church is situated. It was constructed in the early 1700’s and its dome is currently being reconstructed. At the altar is a statue of St. Vlaho (St. Blaise), holding a model of the city. Outside of the church is the Minor Onofrio Fountain.
On a bluff just outside the city walls is the Lovrijenac Fortress. Inscribed there is a Latin phrase which translates to “Freedom cannot be sold for gold.” The beauty of this structure, the city of Dubrovnik, and the incredibly clear blue waters of the Adriatic surrounding it may be considered Croatia’s “gold.”
No description of Venice would be complete without elaborating on the Grand Canal, the S-shaped waterway that separate Venice into two parts. Those two parts are further divided into six regions.
The largest, best-known bridge over the Grand Canal is the Rialto Bridge, lined with shops. On Sunday, May 23rd there was a large sailing race on the canal. Rowing teams from other countries and regions competed and were loudly cheered from the Rialto Bridge, as well as along the route.
The canal serves as the main route of transportation for all manner of boats: canoes, kayaks, motor boats, and gondolas. The story of gondolas and gondoliers is an interesting one.
There are now about 450 gondolas, used mostly by tourists. Each gondolier owns is own gondola. Prior to the 15th century, there was competition for decorating them, trying to own the most beautiful. A law was made then that all gondolas must be painted black, and the design is symbolic to represent the S-shape of the canal, the six districts of Venice, and the doge’s hat.
Gondolas are handmade of 250 pieces and 5 kinds of wood., costing 40,000-50,000 Euros.
That, however, is much less expensive than the cost of a gondolier license. A gondolier license is passed down from generation to generation. Our evening gondola ride was conducted by Roberto, whose father and grandfathers were gondoliers before him. The training is given by the father but there are also a number of tests that must be passed, including English language and Venetian history. The value of the license is now 700,000 Euros.
For the investment of gondola and license, a gondolier makes approximately 10,000 Euros a month. All of that money so we, the tourists, can enjoy a romantic ride through the canals of Venice!
Oh, my! The city of Venice is absolutely amazing! As the Quest (and six other cruise ships) sailed in and docked, the port area became a starting point for exploring the Grand Canal and particularly, St. Mark’s Square. Piazza San Marco is the center of so much in Venice. To travel there from the pier, we took a vaporetto (a water taxi).
St. Mark’s Basilica contains beautiful Byzantine architecture and mosaics that depict so much in the Christian religion. The Bell Tower and the Clock Tower hold prominent positions in Piazza San Marco. The bell on the Clock Tower is rung on the hour by being struck giant Moor statues.
Next to the Basilica is Palazzo Ducale, the Doge’s Palace. It was the home of the government and leadership. Connecting the palace with the old prisons was the Ponte del Sospin (Bridge of Sighs).
The most prominent bridge over the Grand Canal is the Rialto Bridge. It is unique in that it is lined with a double row of shops and has another row of steps outside the shops.
And shops there are… everywhere! It would be so easy to get lost in Venice, with its walkways winding here and there. Leaving a trail of ‘bread crumbs’ would be smart — if the pigeons wouldn’t gobble them up, that is!
The other way to get from place to place, other than walking, is via the waterways. Water taxis are reasonably priced, but if you are looking for the traditional gondola ride, those are certainly available, too. An evening gondola ride with an accompanying singer and accordionist is a very special treat to include in your plans for Venice.
Venice includes many churches and museums to add to your itinerary. To get an idea how the real Venetians live, however, you should visit the Jewish Ghetto. This area was settled by the many Jews who came to Venice from Spain and central Europe after 1492.
Venice is famous for many things – its canals, Murano glass, Burano laces, elaborate masks, and wonderful shopping.
Trieste has been a vital port on the Adriatic Sea for 2,000 years. Positioned as it is on Italy’s border with Slovenia, it is a blend of Italians, Slovenians, Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Dalmatians, Germans, Istrians, and Greeks, making culture cuisine quite rich.
The dock is across the street from the main downtown area, and walking a couple of blocks brings you to Piazza Unita d’Italia. This large town square is surrounded by such buildings as the Palazzo del Governo and the Palazzo del Municipio.
Surrounding the Piazza is shopping areas, and walking just a couple of blocks begins to bring the many churches and museums. The approach to Castello di San Giusto, built between the 15th and 17th centuries, requires a steep walk, but as the symbol of Trieste, it is definitely worth the walk.
A Roman theatre dating from the first century sits amid the wealth of sights to see. We also saw several churches, including the Scalinata Delle Medaglie D’oro and across San Maria Maggiore, another one constructed of rock. Many museums can be found in Trieste — arts, archeology, shrines, natural history among them. Very near the dock is Civico Acquario Marino, the municipal marine aquarium.
Back on the ship in the evening, we were serenaded by the local marine band. Their impromptu ‘concert’ was a thank-you for docking at Trieste and brought many passengers out on the port side to watch and enjoy.
Tomorrow brings the long-awaited Venice, city of canals!
A visit to Ravenna today showed the incredible masterpieces that were created in the V and VI centuries in mosaic.
We docked and took a shuttle bus* into the city. The drop-off point was a convenient walk to most all of the points of interest we wanted to visit, so we went. We first walked to the main square, Piazza del Popolo and from there to Mercato Coperto. This market of fresh fruit and vegetables, meats and fishes showed the products of the agricultural economy of Italy.
We then purchased a ticket that gave us entrance to five monuments that show why Ravenna has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The Basilica di San Vitale is known as one of the most important monuments of early Christian art in Italy. The mosaics in the central octagon of the building are extraordinary depictions of the Byzantine Empire. (The pictures here don’t begin to do justice to the rich colors and pictorials.)
On the same grounds as the Basilica is the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. Here again, the mosaics depict important Christian events and representation of the skies and stars and the flowers. Supposedly, Cole Porter wrote “Night and Day” thinking of the starry sky shown in the ceiling mosaic of Gallo Placidia.
A lunch break was spent in an Italian ‘self serve buffet’ that included various pastas, meat dishes, salads, breads, and desserts. As with most buffets or cafeterias, the eyes were bigger than the stomachs and we left more than replete!
At this point our group split up, and one couple went to visit Battistero Neoniano, the most ancient monument of Ravenna, and Museo Arcivescoville, which contains the throne of Maximian, an ivory masterpiece. The remainder of the group went to Dante’s Tomb and the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (and the other couple stopped there before leaving Ravenna). This is another example of masterful mosaics of the Byzantine style, with processions of Virgins and Martyrs and the Three Wise Kings.
Back on the ship, we enjoyed a special buffet dinner on the pool deck. The ornate ice carvings, fruit and vegetable displays added to the superb grilled fresh Ravenna fish and other meats. Entertainment was provided by a guitarist, and the lovely weather made it wonderful to be outside for dinner.
A day filled with beauty… the ornate mosaics were incomparable!
* NOTE: not all ports have shuttle bus service, so be sure to check that out ahead of time so you can plan accordingly.
Cruises have a reputation for providing lots of entertainment and abundant food, and this one is no exception!
Today was our first ‘day at sea’ with no port, as we sail from Sicily around the south of Italy and northward.
From an art auction to tango lessons, from a cooking demonstration (how to make lobster bisque) to card games, from computer classes to the expected game of bingo, there were plenty of things to do. Of course, just enjoying the fresh air at the pool or taking a walk around the track (13 laps = 1 mile) appeals to many passengers.
The bingo game was interesting. The numbers called were marked by pushing through the number, making “hanging chads” a reality for the passengers just as they were for Floridians a few years ago. The winner of the game was awarded the Club World Owner’s Suite for the remainder of the cruise, no small award at all. Needless to say, we had plenty of hanging chads but no winners in our group!
As we passed near the southern coast of Italy today, we saw a number of wind farms, just like those we see in the U.S. We also saw what appeared to be large areas of oil exploration and/or production, with huge generators and many smokestack structures (though we didn’t see any smoke). A few towns seen were nestled in the hills with high cliffs nearby.
And now to the “oink” title… We opted to dine tonight in one of the two specialty restaurants. There is a smallupcharge for these and I assure you, it was worth the fee. Aqualina is listed as American cuisine with a Mediterranean flare, and while there were many things on the menu that fit that description, five of the six of us opted for lobster.
Of course this was a multiple course dinner and each course was excellent. The lobster entrée was prepared steamed, broiled, or as lobster Thermidor. Wow! All were declared delicious. The sixth person had Osso Bucco and said it was equally delicious.
Before the entrees were served, guests were asked to select from the dessert menu so the desserts could be prepared fresh in a timely manner. Creme brulee and tiramisu were obvious choices, but the waiter recommended the soufflé, either chocolate or Grand Marnier. Taking his recommendation, most of us ordered and thoroughly enjoyed the soufflés, and the other sampled the tiramisu.
So now you can understand the comment when dinner was over… “oink” may be spelled A-q-u-a-l-i-n-a on the Azamara Quest!
Today the cruise ship dropped anchor at Taormina, on the coast of Sicily. What a charming place we found this to be!
Sicily is a triangular-shaped island at the “toe” of boot-shaped Italy. It is primarily agriculture land, but Taormina is filled with shops for the tourists who invade periodically. It is perched on high cliffs and getting anywhere requires an energetic walk or a taxi or motorbike ride.
Outside of Taormina is Mount Etna, an active volcano that is over 10,000 feet high. As with Mount Vesuvius at Pompeii, Mount Etna has generated rich volcanic soil and the fruits and vegetables seen in the ‘supermercato’’ and delivery trucks were lush.
We had the opportunity to observe a mass at the Taormina Cathedral – The Church of the Immaculate Mary. Some of our group saw the procession from the church carrying an iconic statue and the blessing of the many schoolchildren who were there for this special ceremony.
We strolled along the main street of the Old Town and continued to the Greco-Roman Theater. It is situated on a high point overlooking the bay, offering panoramic views, and is renowned for its acoustics. It is still used for summer festivals and modern productions of Greek tragedy.
Lunch at one of the many sidewalk cafes was the first meal we’ve had off the ship, and sitting outside in the sunshine and gentle breeze was as delicious as the food.
The artwork and pottery, laces and flowers made this a beautiful stop on our cruise. Be sure to include it in your itinerary!