|Secrets of the Mediterranean|
Jump Straight to Ports and Excursions
- France: Villefranche
- Greece: Athens, Fira, Mykonos, Oia, Piraeus, Rhodes, Santorini
- Italy: Cinque Terre, Civitavecchia, Herculaneum, La Spezia, Messina, Naples, Pompeii, Rome, Sicily, Taormina
- Malta: Valletta, Mdina
- Monaco: Monte Carlo
- Spain: Barcelona, Cartagena, Ibiza, Malaga
- UK: Gibraltar
- Vatican: Vatican City
Things To Consider Before Your Trip
We chose to travel in late April/early May as opposed to the Peak Season of Mid-June through August for 3 primary reasons: 1. it's less expensive, 2. it's a lot less crowded, and 3. the weather is significantly nicer.
B. Passports and Other Documents
Passports are required for airline travel, upon arrival and departure at airports, and upon checking in at our hotel and the seaport. Once on our cruise we were able to leave them locked in the cabin safe the entire trip once we were on the ship. We were never asked for identification of any kind other than our "Seapass" card. None of the ports we visited requested our passports. The Seapass card is issued by the cruiseline. It's used for charging purchases on the ship, access to your cabin, and for identification to get you through port security and back on to the ship. Most travelers do not need a VISA or any special immunizations.
I insured the trip through Travelex, which I concluded was a good choice due to: relative cost comparisons, ease of access and booking, good disclosures, excellent coverage for what I needed, well rated, and especially because their insurance is "primary", meaning that I do not have to involve any other insurance in the claims process.
I had no interest in proprietary insurance offered by a travel agency or cruise companies because if either goes under your insurance is worthless and defeats the purpose. We bought the insurance within 14 days of our booking to assure their would be no questions about "pre-existing medical conditions", although I am not aware we have any. Thankfully we never had a need for the insurance. Here are 18 great tips on How to Select Cruise Insurance.
D. Prebooking Excursions
Based upon the recommendations we got off the Ports of Call threads on Cruise Critic, we decided to prebook excursions in most of our ports --- which we arranged privately via email or online. We have found that researching excursions ahead of time and making arrangements directly with the tour operator has resulted in more enjoyable, and less expensive, tours.
Pack as light as you can. Try to get everything into one carry-on suitcase. We packed underwear, t-shirts, shirts, shorts, and pants that were easy to hand wash and dried quickly overnight. My day clothes included 3 pairs of pants, 1 pair of shorts, and 1 shirt that were made by Clothing Arts. These are comfortable, quick-dry, "pickpocket-proof" clothes.
Barcelona, Rome, and Athens are 3 of the world's top ten worst cities for pickpockets. This shouldn't stop you from traveling to these cities, but it should get your attention. We never felt unsafe, and we had absolutely no problems with pickpockets. We did hear firsthand from two women who had a purse stolen from the chair they had absentmindedly draped it over. We took the following precautions. I highly recommend all of these (or use something similar).
G. Cell Phones
- We read up on pickpocket methods and watched videos so we were better educated on how to help prevent becoming a victim.
- I wore comfortable Clothing Arts "pickpocket-proof" shirts and pants.
- My wife carries a Travelon Anti-Theft Cross-Body Bucket Bag. She likes these so much she now has 5 different colors and uses them as her primary everyday purse.
- My wife wore this Lewis N. Clark Hidden Travel Belt Wallet which was so comfortable it was easy to forget she was wearing it.
Cell phones can be an expensive proposition when traveling internationally. We did not wish to be tethered to our phones for work or family purposes but we did wish to keep in touch when it was convenient. Our goal was to incur no data or voice charges for the entire time we were overseas while still having GPS, and the ability to text photos and messages, as well as taking pictures and using a few other useful apps. We succeeded!
Set up your phone as follows to prevent unwanted data charges. As long as you maintain all of these settings, you shouldn't incur any data charges. Settings vary by phone.
Free or low cost wi-fi can be found in every city. We found the following free apps very useful.
- Turn off data: Phone Settings > Data Usage > Cellular Data.
- Turn off data roaming: Phone Settings > Data Usage > Settings > Cellular Networks > Data Roaming.
- Turn on Airline mode. (Very important that this is always on the entire trip).
- Turn on Wi-Fi (when desired).
We also used a cool wrist/neck strap for our cell phones that kept the phone secure from drops as well as thieves. It's called Phone Lasso. It features a strong peel and stick grip patch that you can attach to the back of your phone or inside your phone case. It includes a wrist strap and neck strap for wearing your phone which doesn't interfere with your USB charging port.
- WhatsApp: this needs to be installed on your phone and every phone you wish to communicate with. You can then text anyone with WhatsApp in real time via wi-fi, as well as send them photos and even conduct choppy video calls. I made a group "Europe Trip" chat and added everyone to it so we could simply post to everyone at once.
- Google Translate: easily translate text, spoken words, or use the camera to translate in real time.
- Airline App: download and logon to the app for your airline.
- Virtual Private Network (VPN): A virtual private network extends a private network across a public network. This will protect any of your data that you send while using a public wi-fi. I found two free VPN's (supported by ads) that we used: Yoga VPN and Turbo VPN. Activate the VPN immediately after you logon to wi-fi.
- Currency Converter: easily find and calculate the current conversion rates.
- Rick Steves Audio Europe: install and then download free audio tours.
- Google Maps - Navigation and Transit: GPS works without data or wi-fi, but the map itself requires data UNLESS you download offline maps of each city you will be visiting before you leave. Then when you arrive in each city, simply load the applicable offline map.
- City Specific Metro and Bus Apps: these can be very helpful.
H. Credit Cards, Securing Euros and Finding ATM's
We each carried an ATM card from our bank (which rebates all ATM fees up to $5) and a credit card which doesn't charge foreign exchange fees. We notified our bank and credit card companies of the dates and countries we were visiting so they didn't refuse our overseas charges.
When we traveled to the Mediterranean, the US Dollar was worth about 0.82 to 0.84 Euros (€). In other words it took about $1.20 to $1.24 to buy 1 Euro. Despite the US Dollar being worth about 20% less than the Euro, the value received oversees was very good.
Since bank ATM's are plentiful in most large cities, you should only need to take 1 to 2 days worth of Euros with you on your trip and hit the ATM as needed. Bank ATM's are generally more secure and will usually give you the best exchange rates. Use your debit/ATM card and never use your credit card for an ATM cash advance. Be sure to take your 4-digit numeric pin with you.
When possible, withdraw cash from bank-run ATM's located inside, or just outside, the bank. Ideally use them while the bank is open so that you can go inside for help in the rare event the machine eats your card. Many European banks place their ATM's in a small entry lobby. If feels more secure and gets you out of the weather. Look for a credit-card-size slot next to the door and insert your card to gain entry.
Avoid "independent" ATM's and currency exchange kiosks such as Travelex, Euronet, Moneybox, Cardpoint, and Cashzone. These have high fees and/or high exchange rates. "Independent" ATM's are often found near bank ATM's in the hopes of tricking travelers.
I. Customs Allowance
Each US citizen returning from Europe is permitted $800 worth of Duty Free goods, and adults 21 and older may include 1 liter of alcohol, 200 cigarettes, and 100 cigars. All you needed to do was to declare the total value. Anything greater had to be itemized (declared) and a duty paid.
A little information about us: we are in our late 50's and don't exercise regularly. This doesn't stop us from getting an early start to our day and exploring each port, usually on foot, and we have no problem jumping on local buses and metros. We thoroughly research each port for months in advance of our trip (and thus you'll significantly benefit from this report). We get a lot out of each day but, where possible, it's more important to us to spend time experiencing a few points of interest rather than doing a flyby been-there-seen-it-move-on Clark Griswold tour.
Each port has a lot to see and do --- some more than others. Therefore we can't see everything we want to see if we're going to spend time doing it, so we had to prioritize our sightseeing while leaving time to walk and enjoy the ports. We also hired tours when they offered a specialized experience or saved us from having to spend time in long lines. A good tour guide can really enrich your visit. I can't stress enough how much you can see and do between 7:00 am and 9:00 am in the morning, before the heavy crowds materialize. It's absolutely charming. I won't delve into too much detail in my descriptions of each place we visited as it could fill a novel. Instead, I'll look to just give you a quick idea and you can Google them to learn more.
A note about tours: We are major proponents of getting off the ship as early as possible and exploring each port. We didn't take a single ship-sponsored tour on this entire cruise. We have taken 2 or 3 ship's tours over our lifetime --- when the tour we wanted was far from the port and we were willing to pay up for the assurance we'd get back to the ship in time or when the tour we wanted was otherwise unavailable from a private tour operator.
Why take a private tour? We've taken over 4 dozen private tours and we have never failed to get back to the ship with plenty of time to spare. Private tours are significantly less expensive and have significantly fewer passengers. This makes them customizable, quicker, and more nimble to go places the big tours can't. All this helps (but doesn't guarantee) a better sightseeing experience. The key is to do your research to find the best tours and either join or build a group of 6 to 12 passengers to make the tour really affordable. The good news for you is that I've done a lot of the research for you.
A note about decorum: Proper attire (knees and shoulders must be covered) is required to enter most churches in Europe. You should remove your hat when entering. Keep your voice low and turn off both your camera's flash and the sound. Don't leave a live mass service before making an offering. And do not take pictures when it's not allowed (like "never" at the Sistine Chapel or in the tombs below St. Peter's Basilica, or during services at most other churches). Can you get away with sneaking pictures? Yes. I saw it occur. Did I want to take pictures too? You bet! Did I? No. Decent, civilized folks should respect local wishes and the sanctity of the venue.
This is another port with way too many cool things to see. To make the best use of our time, we opted to join a fellow passenger's private all-day 6-passenger tour that he pre-arranged with MyAthensTour.com. The cost was a bargain at $95 pp, plus tip, lunch, and about €39 in various entrance fees.
Stavros Striligas was our driver and tour guide. He's a very educated and smart guide intent on showing us all the key sites while proving good historical context. He was also able to get us to most of the sites when they weren't too busy. Since this was a private tour, we were able to give Stavros our personalized list of sites we wanted to see and allow him to figure out how to best achieve it and add anything else interesting that he could fit in.
Our first stop was The Acropolis Complex featuring the Parthenon, Erechtheion, and Herodion Ancient Theatre. Other than the Colosseum in Rome, the Parthenon was the only other site that gave us goosebumps. It's just an incredible feeling to explore this amazing historical building and surrounding structures and artifacts on the plateau.
The Temple of the Olympian Zeus was also an impressive site which also featured the remains of a Roman bath and The Arch of Hadrian (Hadrian's Gate). The ruined Temple, now primarily a series of impressive columns, was built in 6th century B.C. on the site of an ancient outdoor sanctuary dedicated to Zeus.
Our next stop was the Old Olympic Stadium (Kallimarmaro), site of the first modern Olympic games in 1896. The first marathon commemorated the run of the soldier Pheidippides from a battlefield near the town of Marathon, Greece, to this spot in Athens in 490 B.C. to announce Athens victory over the Persians. Legend has it that he covered the distance of approximately 42.195 kilometers (26.219 miles) which is today's official distance of a marathon.
We went to the House of Parliament to watch the changing of guards, but rather than watch the "show" in front of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier along with hundreds of other tourists, we watched a semi-private changing of the guards on a side street and these guards had to cover a lot more ground! Since we arrived a few minutes early we were also able to take pictures with a guard, after getting permission from the guard's superior officer. (The guard was a stoic non-participant who appeared next to us in our pictures).
We stopped for lunch at The Greco's Project (located on a plaza next to a Greek Orthodox Church in the Monastiraki Flea Market area) which offered really big portions of Greek lunch favorites at very reasonable prices. The cafe was only a block away from Hadrian's Library, so we quickly checked out that site before being picked back up by our driver. Not much of the Library, created by Roman Emperor Hadrian in AD 132, remains but the north facade with its Corinthian columns is pretty impressive and worth a quick visit.
We had the option of visiting either the New Acropolis Museum or National Archaeological Museum. Based upon my prior research and our guide's recommendation, we opted for the significantly better National Archaeological Museum where we spent about an hour before heading up to Lycabettus Hill, the highest point of Athens, for close to 360-degree views of Athens, and a return to the ship.
We briefly stopped at Aristotle's Lyceum (the remains of his former school where he taught), and drove by the Presidential Mansion among numerous other sites. Athens has a lot to offer and, like Rome, we'll need to plan for a future return trip.
The ship was docked overnight so we had the opportunity to spend the better part of two days in Barcelona. If you plan to stay in the city, the general wisdom is to spend the first day on a tour or HOHO bus and then take local transportation (metro and buses) to specific places you wish to explore in more detail on your second day.
When visiting Barcelona, it's important to know something about Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926), a very gifted architect with a unique modernistic/gothic/naturalist vision. Hint: you'll think you're walking into the world of Dr. Seuss. His collective works in Barcelona have been blessed as a UNESCO Heritage Centre. I recommend learning a little about Gaudí and his works before visiting.
There is a small terminal building next to the pier where we docked. However the port entrance/exit into town is a long way off. Upon exiting you can either walk a long 30 minutes; buy a shuttle day-pass from Celebrity for €5; take the T3 (aka Cruise Bus, €3 one way / €4 roundtrip) to within a half block from the Christopher Columbus Monument (essentially ground zero for most directions); arrange a tour that will pick you up here; or jump in a taxi.
There are two different double-decker HOHO (Hop On / Hop Off) buses in Barcelona. One has two routes and the other has three. The price is about the same and the reviews are mixed on both. Previous visitors liked that they will take you past all the major sights with commentary in several languages and you can get on and off at will. They didn't like that the commentary was pretty minimal and not well synched at times; and that the buses are hard to reboard due to massive crowds at some sights.
BARCELONA DAY 1: Barcelona Highlights Tour
I wanted something better than the HOHO experience so we booked a 4-hour semi-private "Barcelona Highlights Tour with Skip-the-line tickets at Park Guell" with Barcelona Day Tours online. There were 12 passengers in our van, plus a driver and a guide. Cost was €59 pp + €6 pp Park Guell tickets + tip.
Quick note: our tour guide was late, though it was due to having been involved in a traffic accident on her way to the port. This got us off to a late start and caused some confusion as we weren't really sure what our delay was. Give her credit for seeking other transportation to meet up with our van. Our group quickly forgave this unusual and unfortunate event. Thankfully our guide was not injured and was able to give us a very enthusiastic and informative tour.
We were picked up at the terminal building next to the ship, met up with our guide, and started our tour through the city. Our guide gave us historic context and explained sights as we passed them. We alternated between a driving tour and a walking tour. The walking portions included the exterior of La Sagrada Familia and two of Gaudí’s other famous buildings; about an hour touring Park Guell; and a visit to the
National Museum of Art for a bathroom break and great views of the city. Following the tour about half of the passengers got off in town and the rest of us were returned to the ship. This was an excellent overview of the city and a fun first day.
BARCELONA DAY 2: Sagrada Familia and Castell de Montjuic
If you've spent any time in Europe, you may have already gotten your fill of churches. They seem to be on every corner and many are truly spectacular. I've got news for you. Few are as breathtaking as Sagrada Familia. It's a must-see.
The #1 tourist attraction in Barcelona is Sagrada Familia, a basilica unlike any other in the world. Designed by Antoni Gaudí, its a work still in progress. While the exterior is genuinely unique --- my wife thinks it looks something like a sandcastle --- it's the interior that is jaw-dropping. Nothing really prepares you for the experience that awaits once you set foot inside.
We bought the "Basic" self-guided tour tickets (€15 pp) online at their official website for the 9:00 am entry time, which is when they open. All tickets are time-controled and they only let a set number of visitors in at 15-minute intervals. Miss your interval and you will be refused entry. However, once in, you can stay as long as you like. And they do have restrooms in the complex, but outside of the basilica on your way towards the museum, souvenir shop, and exit.
Note that you cannot upgrade your tickets upon arrival. So if you want an audioguide, a guided tour, and/or wish to climb the tower, you need to make this choice online and pay for it in advance. We bought our tickets online over a month in advance of our early May visit. No tickets were available on site the day we visited. It had sold out online. If you enjoy sightseeing without the crowds, I highly recommend you get tickets for 9:00 am.
We got off the ship at 7:30 am and shared a taxi with 2 other couples (€30 total / €5 pp) to Sagrada Familia. We arrived before 8:00 am and got a good look at many of the statues on the exterior prior to getting in line at street level for security which opened about 8:30 am. We queued a second time in the courtyard one floor above security.
If you prefer to take the metro, and the Cruise Bus is running, take the Cruise Bus to the Christopher Columbus statue. Then walk NW 2 blocks from the Christopher Columbus statue to the Drassanes Metro station. It's located just the other side of the Comandància Naval de Barcelona building. Take the green L3 metro 1 stop to Paral-lel station, then change to the L2 Purple Metro and take it directly to the Sagrada Familia stop. The Sagrada Familia can be seen immediately upon exiting the metro.
At 9:00 am the Sagrada Familia doors opened and welcomed the first group of ticketholders. There is some massing just inside the door as you become enthralled at the grand beauty and begin capturing the first of over 400 pictures. Thank goodness for digital photography! The beautiful colored light you see in my photos is natural sunlight coming through stained glass windows. The colored glass and window placements were carefull conceived and orchestrated to provide a changing light show from sun up to sun down. No artificial colored lighting is used, and most of the pillars are actually white.
We spent close to 2 hours exploring the basilica, watching the lighting change as time passed, and visiting the museum displays below the church. The church was practically empty for the first 15 minutes, but got fuller every succeeding quarter-hour. There were maybe 100 visitors when we arrived and few thousand (inside and out) when we left about 10:45 am.
Our next stop was Castell de Montjuic, a fortress with roots dating to 1640. It sits atop a 567-foot hill overlooking the port with panoramic views of the city. But first we had to get there. A metro station sits on a corner across the street from Sagrada Familia. We purchased a Metro T-10 pass which allows 10 rides for €10.20. Everyone in your party can use the same pass until its used up. This is the only place on our entire trip where our credit card didn't work. We used coins.
The metro couldn't be easier! Simply take the purple L2 metro to Paral-lel and get off at the end of the line. For reassurance, a list of stations can be found above every other door on the metro. Stations that have already passed are lit up. It's easy to see which stations are coming up and confirm the direction you are heading.
Upon arrival at Paral-lel, follow signs and board the Funicular. No additional fare required. Do not leave the station. The funicular is a 2-minute steeply angled mountain train that will take you to the Funicular du Montjuic station. From here you can walk (free; over 30-minutes uphill), get in line for the Montjuic Cable Car ride (€12.70 roundtrip/€8.40 one way; less than 5-minutes), or take the Red 150 Bus (use your T-10 pass; 10-minutes) to Castell de Montjuic.
The cable car is located on top of the Funicular du Montjuic station, while the bus stop is on the same side of the road as you exit the funicular (out the exit, slightly to your left). As my wife is afraid of heights, we opted for the bus --- and also saved €25.
Castell de Montjuic (€5, free 1st Sundays) is open 10:00 am to 8:00 pm from March 1 to October 31. We missed the opportunity to take the 90-minute english tour (€5) which runs daily at 11:00 am with an additional tour on weekends on holidays at 4:00 pm. The tour has access to "off-limits" places such as the watchtower and the cistern.
It's an impressively sturdy-looking castle with lots of good photo opportunities, including the ships in port and panoramas of the city. They also have a few small exhibits. The old weapons display, suspended in air behind glass, was by far my favorite. The fortress itself is a bit of a letdown as there are no underground passages to explore. However, the views are still worth the visit.
We returned the way we came. Red 150 bus (T10 pass) to the Funicular (T10 pass) back down to Paral-lel station. Located the green L3 line and took it one stop to Drassanes. Walked two blocks to the Christopher Columbus statue. (Can't miss it). Then another block South (towards the ship) and where we found the Cruise Buses lined up (€3 one way, if you didn't get a roundtrip ticket earlier). Tell the driver which ship you're on and he'll make sure you get off at the correct terminal.
The port is in town, next to the marina, and doesn't require any transportation from the ship. This was a good port to sleep in since nothing opens until 10:00 am. Still, we were in the mostly vacant city by 8:30 am since it's nice to explore unimpeded by crowds. Siesta is generally from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm during the heat of the day. Shops then re-open until 10:00 or 11:00 pm.
We exited the ship, walked though the port security gate and found ourselves on a wide walkway splitting a marina in two. We wondered around town, taking exterior pictures of interesting buildings, Parque Arqueológico Cerro del Molinete, and a few other parks while we waited for the Castillo de la Concepción to open at 10:00 am.
From the port walkway, walk to the first street and turn right (don't go up the stairs). Turn left at the next street you come to and walk until you come across the Ascensor Panorámico (Panoramic Lift, €2 or €4,25 with admission to Castillo de la Concepción; climbing the lift is free). Walking to the narrow observation point as you exit the elevator to the right is a bit scary as the walkway moves a little with the wind.
Upon exiting the walkway to the left, you'll find yourselves in Parque Torres which offers walking trails, wild peacocks, and good views of your ship in port, as well as Torres Park Auditorium, and Roman Amphitheatre beyond that; especially from the expansive Plaza Puerta del la Villa lookout.
The best views of the surrounding area are reserved for visitors to the rooftop of Castillo de la Concepción, aka Castillo de los Patos. Offering 360-degree views with picture boards that pinpoint the most interesting buildings and places, the rooftop can be reached via an interior ramp or turret stairwell. The castle has some interesting displays inside as well.
Exiting Plaza Puerta del la Villa via a stairway to the north, will take you to the Puerta del la Villa ("The Door of the Villa"). Walk through this short archway tunnel and down the ramp and you'll find yourself overlooking the Roman Amphitheatre, a must-see site in Cartagena, and ruins of the Old Cathedral of Cartagena "Catedral de Santa María La Mayor" beyond.
You can get good pictures from several vantage points as you walk along the top of the amphitheater. If you wish to walk inside the amphitheater, tickets are available for €6 at the Museum (MVSEO) directly across the street from the distinctive Palace Hall of Cartagena on Plaza Ayuntamiento (about three blocks to your west).
Since the ship was so close and easily accessible, we headed back to the ship to drop off the light jackets we didn't need, stayed for lunch, and then ventured out again. We set out to see a pair of museums, the National Museum of Underwater Archaeology and the Maritime Museum.
National Museum of Underwater Archaeology (€3) is located on the marina, just 5 minutes from the ship. The Museum has a permanent exhibition in which the methodology of underwater archeology is discussed as a scientific discipline. Models, and actual recovered artifacts, help tell the story of over 2,500 years of navigational history. One highlight is a large display of coins from the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a galleon that was sunk by the British navy in 1804. 594,000 gold and silver coins were among the items salvaged.
We walked along the marina to The Maritime Museum only to discover that it was closed that day. Now tired and enjoying stellar warm weather with nice cool breezes, we took a siesta under the shade of a Palm Tree in the Plaza de los Héroes park next to the Palace Hall clocktower.
Rested and comfortable, we checked out the art statuary in the immediate area, then walked along the marina until we found an empty bench. We sat looking at the marina and decided to watch people go by until it was time to return to the ship. A huge futuristic silver sailing vessel caught our attention.
We were looking at the world's largest sailing ship, an 8-deck superyacht, 468-feet in length with ship masts nearing 300-feet high, owned by Russian billionaire Andrey Igorevich Melnichenko. (Note how it dwarfs the shipping cranes). Named the "A", with a crew of 54, it was berthed in the harbor. The hull is made of steel and carbon fibre. Security is enhanced with bombproof glass and 40 CCTV cameras. In addition to the expected helipad and pool, it also features a 193-square foot glass underwater observation pod in the keel which is 1-foot thick.
We found contrasts in two interpretations of the Christopher Columbus statues quite interesting. While the Columbus statue in Barcelona (at left) is pointing to the New World, the Columbus statue in Cartagena appears to be giving the finger.|
Cinque Terre, Italy
We traveled by train from La Spezia. I understand you can walk from the port to the train station. We are really glad we didn't. Six of us got off the ship about 7:00 am and shared a €20 cab ride to La Spezia Centrale train station. (Yes, it's further away than La Spezia Migliarina terminal but their trains to Cinque Terre don't start running until 10:46 AM; and yes, cabs to and from the port are expensive although I understand a cab for 4 is €15).
All six of us had purchased our 1-day Cinque Terre Train (Treno) Card online before we left the states. The cost when visiting from April 1 to November 1 is €16 pp. The Treno gives you unlimited train travel for the day between La Spezia and the 5 Cinque Terre villages, along with admission to the walking paths of Cinque Terre, free wi-fi at the train stations, and use of the Cinque Terre shuttle bus between Corniglia station and the village of Corniglia in the hill above --- allowing you to avoid the stairs. Additional helpful information can be found here
One of the charms of the villages are the walking trails included with the Treno pass. Most of the trails are best left for folks spending more than one day in port, or who have chosen not to visit all of the villages. We actually wanted to walk one easy coastal trail, the Manarola to Riomaggiore segment known as "Via dell'Amore", but I learned that it won’t reopen until at least 2021.
If you don't buy tickets in advance you can queue up and buy them at the train station. I've read warnings were you must stamp the Cinque Terre Card into one of the validating machines at the train station before taking your first train. Failure could subject you to fines if you are randomly checked by a conductor. The printed online passes will not fit in a validation machine (I tried) and apparently are not a problem (as we were indeed randomly checked by a conductor, while riding the wrong train).
From La Spezia, the 5 villages in order of distance are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso el Mare. By train, it's only 10 minutes to the nearest village in Riomaggiore and 25 to the furthest in Monterosso. Trains run at least every 30 minutes but not all trains stop at all stations. Our plan was to take a train to the further town first (Monterosso) and then work our way back towards the port.
Once at La Spezia Centrale, with preprinted tickets in hand, we simply looked for the platform that had the first train heading for Cinque Terre. The final train destination was Levorno. We got off in Monterosso about 25 minutes later. There is a little Cinque Terre office in the station with really helpful folks. Show your pre-printed passes and they will give you a map, a train timetable, and your personal wi-fi password.
Monterosso is the most northern and western, and second largest, of the villages. We exited the station and found ourselves overlooking a very pretty and impossibly empty beach on a clear blue sea. This is by far the largest beach in Cinque Terre, and we figured it was a good time to tip our toes in the Mediterranean. It was cold. In the summer, Monterosso would make for a nice beach day.
Walking 4 blocks North (to your right as you face the water) you'll come across IL GIGANTE (The Giant), a pretty cool statue that you can't currently see because it's being rebuilt. So we walked South instead, around the point and into the old town. There was almost no one on the beach or in town while we were there. It was a great start to our day.
Next up was Vernazza, about 10 minutes away, but I led our party onto the express train to La Spezia by accident. This is where we were randomly checked for tickets. 40 minutes, and two trains later, we were finally in Vernazza.
Vernazza is a beautiful small fishing village surrounded by steeply-terraced olive groves and colorful houses. It usually ranks as one of everyone's favorite villages. Follow the crescent-shaped road downhill from the train station, past shops, a farmers market (with huge sweet peppers over twice the size of your fist) and cafes, to the rocky waterfront with a beautiful piazza right on a little beach.
A rock wall protects a small natural harbour. We shared a Margherita slice (€3) from the Focacceria to hold us until lunch.
Our next stop was Corniglia, an ancient Roman town with grape vine terraces and no port. We got off the train and headed straight for the shuttle bus behind the station to take us up the hill to Corniglia. For whatever reason, the shuttle bus was not running on May 8 and rather that walk up the 377 - 382 stairs (depending upon the source) we jumped back on the train.
Although beachless, we found Manarola's coastal view to be the most picturesque. She's the second smallest of the villages. Colorful village pictures can be yours by following the pedestrian pathway to the right from the crystal clear waterfront. This is where we had hoped to walk the beautiful shoreline trail that ends at the Riomaggiore train station, but since it is closed we simply took the train.
Riomaggiore is the largest, easternmost, and southernmost of the five coastal villages. It has two halves linked by a long tunnel from the train station. After visiting the waterfront half, we found lunch at Il Grottino on the mountain side. They specialize in fresh fish and pasta, with a local house red wine that accompanies both really well.
We took a train back to La Spezia Centrale train station and 10 minutes later caught a taxi back to the port. Had the La Spezia Migliarina train come first we might have taken that one and walked back to the port. I understand it's a pleasant 1.25-mile (20 to 30 minute) walk from that station.
Once you get used to finding the right platform and learn to read the monitors, the trains are a fun, quick, inexpensive and easy way around Cinque Terre from La Spezia. We completed our tour of the Cinque Terre including lunch in Riomaggiore in 6 hours, so we had time to spare in returning to the ship.
Gibraltar, United Kingdom
Gibraltar is a small British territory off Spain’s southern Mediterranean coast just 2.6 square miles in size. It's the only port where the British Pound was the currency of choice. It's a heavily fortified British air and naval base that guards the Strait of Gibraltar (the only entrance to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean). The Rock of Gibraltar is made of limestone and shale and is the focal point of the peninsula.
Not really sure what was going on in this port. All signs pointed to the port being over-booked. Our original schedule was cut back by 5 hours (thankfully we got a couple months advance notice) and we saw other ships waiting in the harbor for an opportunity to berth (including the Celebrity Constellation which we passed on our way out. At one time they were scheduled to dock at 9:00 am).
There is a lot of cool things to see in Gibraltar. With our abbreviated stay, we thought it best to take a private tour that would shepherd us to all the major sights while allowing us the some flexibility at each stop. We joined the "Intermediate Tour" booked arranged by a fellow cruise critic member through Gibraltar Inside Out Rock Tours (£55 pp, plus tip, for a group of 8, which included all admission fees).
The tour takes approximately 3.5 hours and consists of 7 stops which include: 100 Ton Gun, Europa Point, The Pillars of Hercules, St Michael's Cave, Top of The Rock, Upper Apes Den, the Great Siege tunnels, Europa Point, and The Moorish Castle. We also saw the continent of Africa from several viewpoints, drove through the old town and over the airport runway towards the Spanish border.
Our first stop was St Michael's Cave inside the Rock of Gibraltar. Upon arrival we found ourselves in The Cathedral Cave, a very large cavity with great acoustics (it's even used as a concert hall) and beautiful stalactites and stalagmites highlighted by green, blue, and purple spotlights. There are several staired pathways that allow you to venture deeper. They all work their way back to the Cathedral.
From here we headed up The Rock to visit the "Rock Apes" --- about 160 tailless Barbary macaques living on the rock. They are the only population of wild monkeys in Europe. The apes are really fun to watch. Lots of picture opportunities to be had with the apes and the views. We ascended the top and headed down.
The Great Siege tunnels were built inside The Rock in the late 18th Century to defend Gibraltar against the Spanish and French forces who were trying to recapture Gibraltar from the British. The tunnels include defensive gun emplacements, uniformed mannequin, dioramas, and window holes from which you can take great pictures. It's worth walking all the way through to the other end of the tunnel.
Tunneling was expanded during the wars that followed. There are now 34 miles of tunnels, most of which are off-limits. It would have been cool to visit the World War II tunnels had we more time in Gibraltar.
There is a statue commemorating the Pillars of Hercules, the top two peaks on either side of the straight with The Rock being one of them. Jebel Musa in Morocco is thought to be the other. Beyond the pillars is the Atlantic Ocean. In antiquity, the pillars were the point of no return if you ventured beyond.
"The Moorish Castle" is really a complex with the "Tower of Homage" being its main feature. Rebuilt around 1333 AD, it's a great example of Islamic architecture. 30 minutes is plenty of time to explore the tower and climb to the top to take pictures. It's pretty steamy inside though and the passages leading downstairs were off-limits during our visit.
The 100 Ton Gun is one of two left in the world. (The other big gun is in Malta). Gibraltar's gun was never fired, and frankly it's not all that interesting. However, it does provide a good opportunity to visit the restroom here.
Europa Point and the historic 1841 Trinity House Lighthouse occupy the southernmost tip of the peninsula and offer views across the Straight of Gibraltar to Ceuta (a small independent Spanish enclave) and Morocco. Having never been to Africa, it was genuinely cool to see the Dark Continent on the other side of the Straight, less than 15 miles away. Had we been given an overnight stay in Gibraltar, I would have liked to take a day tour over to Morocco (less than 90-minutes by speedy ferry each way).
Europa Point is also home to the Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque built in the mid-1990’s with money donated by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, as well as views of the backside of The Rock.
The Gibraltar Airport's terminal building is adjacent to Gibraltar's border with Spain. The easiest way to cross the border into Spain is on foot and supposedly takes less than two minutes assuming your passport is in order. (Taxi's are prohibited to cross). The ONLY road from the boarder (Winston Churchill Avenue) literally runs across the airport's runway and is closed temporarily anytime a plane arrives or departs. We drove across the runway to the boarder and back.
This was a really fun port that I wish had a longer stay.
We were up and off the ship by 8:30 am. Today's goal was to explore Ibiza Old Town (aka Dalt Vila), an UNESCO World Heritage site. The Old Town is encircled by colossal 16th Century protective walls reaching over 82-feet in height and include seven bastions (each providing picture worthy views).
Dalt Vila plays host to Ibiza Castle, also known as Eivissa Castle. As you would expect, it sits atop the hill overlooking the port. The town is a joy to explore. Most of the pleasure is in the walk and seeing what's around the next corner. You cannot go in the castle, but if you are determined to in something, there are museums, old villas, churches and a necropolis.
Transportation from the ship will take you to Terminal Formentera on edge of town. There are fours ways to Terminal Formentera from our dock at Estación Marítima Ibiza-Botafoc:
Upon arrival at Terminal Formentera building, walk about a half block towards town and stop in at the small air conditioned Ibiza Travel information booth (it's easy to miss) for a great map entitled "Ibiza: Routes Through Dalt Vila". It's similar to this map except it actually shows three suggested routes with detailed information about the sites.
- Take the ship's shuttle for €10 roundtrip.
- Ignore the overpriced ship shuttle and simply ride the blue "Ibiza Port Bus" which leaves every 30 minutes (at approximately '15 and '45 after the hour) from the same parking lot. Costs €2,50 one way or €4,50 roundtrip.
- Take a taxi
- Walk 1.7 miles (35 minutes) on relatively flat terrain to the bus drop-off point at Terminal Formentera. I recommend you map this out ahead of time. If you make a wrong turn the walk will get a lot longer.
With map in hand, we continued straight up the road and made a left at Carrer d'Annibal (just a block before the street deadends into the old fortress wall). Two blocks later on your right you'll see the ramp that will take you over a small drawbridge and into the Portal de Ses Taules entrance to Old Town. This entrance, flanked by a pair of statues, was featured in an episode of Game of Thrones. There are other ways in. This is the most dramatic. And it's only a 10-minute walk from Terminal Formentera. We arrived here about 9:15 am.
You'll find yourself in a beautiful cobblestone courtyard with a huge stone fireplace and several support arches. Pull out your map and start following your route of choice. We primarily took the red Classic Route but quickly adopted the blue route at times to explore the Bastions, starting with the Santa Llucia Bastion which offers the best pictures of the ships in port, and when you turn around you'll be able to capture iconic pictures of Dalt Vila.
We had the town pretty much to ourselves for the first hour then we began to encounter pockets of tour groups around 10:15 am. We spent about 2.25 hours exploring the Old Town before heading into New Town and working our way back to ship via the Ibiza Port Bus at Terminal Formentera.
Terminal Formentera is also host to 4 different ferry companies that do a booming business taking passengers to, well, Formentera, a 32 square mile island about 12 miles of the coast of Ibiza that can easily be seen from Old Town. Known for its bright green lizards, clear waters, snorkeling, caves, and long stretches of beach, Formentera is a very popular day-trip destination.
The closest beach to the ship is Playa de Talamanca. It's a nice big sandy beach with full service and clear water, just a 3/4-mile (15-minute) walk to the northeast.
The port terminal situation here is rather annoying. On the way in, they make you walk a long way out of your way to force you through the terminal building for the benefit of a couple of shops. On the way back to the ship you also have to take this circuitous route but Ibiza also throws a really poorly executed security checkpoint in there too. I'm guessing they either charge ships for this pretend service or its simply an employment gimmick.
La Spezia, Italy
La Spezia is a coastal port city in northwestern Italy. Most folks take excursions rather than explore the port city itself. Among your choices here:
Since you cannot walk on the pier, Celebrity provides free shuttles from the ship to the Largo Fiorello Port Entrance. It takes just 5 minutes. Walk through the small terminal and you'll see taxis lined up across from the port traffic circle. The earlier you get off the ship the more time you will have to explore.
- Explore the city of La Spezia: Highlights include walking around the picturesque waterfront parks, The Italian Naval Technical Museum, Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, Chiesa di Nostra Signora della Neve church, and San Giorgio Castle.
- Visit Cinque Terre: Located Northwest of La Spezia, Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is comprised of 5 very picturesque coastal villages and the first village is just 10 minutes away by train.
- Visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa: about a 75-minute train ride to an iconic site.
- Visit Florence: 2 hours each way.
- Visit other quaint towns: Camogli, Chiavari, Genoa, Rapallo, and Santa Margherita Ligure are also accessible by train.
- Other nearby options: Visit Isola Palmaria, Parco Naturale Regionale di Porto Venere, and Lerici.
We considered visiting the Leaning Tower of Pisa since it's very easy to get to Pisa by train from La Spezia. You can take the regional train that leaves La Spezia Centrale at 9:12 AM on weekdays and Saturdays, arriving at Pisa San Rossore at 10:20 am. The fare is €5,20 in second class and €7,80 in first. "San Rossore" is the station where you get off since it's only a 5 minute walk to the tower at Piazza dei Miracoli. (Don't wait for "Pisa Centrale"). If you're traveling all the way there, you'll likely want to climb the tower, in which case you should reserve your tickets in advance.
We decided instead on visiting Cinque Terre, a series of five very picturesque fishing villages on the coast, just northwest of the port. Cinque Terre means "The Five Lands". They are also known for their terraces of olives and grapes (and you guessed it, locally produced wines). Although we considered taking a ferry to Cinque Terre, we instead took the train as it got us there quicker and much earlier. The train was also less expensive and made it easy to move from village to village.
Be sure to take water today. Celebrity offered a shuttle bus service for €5 pp roundtrip between the ship and Plaza de la Marina port gate. It's about a 10-minute ride. We were off the ship about 8:15 am and opted to walk into town. The ship will tell you it's a 40-minute walk. It's not. It's an easy 25 to 30-minutes --- only 15-minutes if you're just going to the marina shops (on the left) or beach (on the right). This was the largest and one of the most accessible beaches we saw the entire voyage.
Our first stop was Alcazaba, an early 11th century fortified palace featuring arches, gates, towers, and marble columns. The entrance can be difficult to find. Head for the Roman Theater entrance (to the right of the theater) and then look for signage to Alcazaba. There is also a secret entrance/exit with an elevator across the street from Calle Francisco Bejarano Robles on Calle Guillen Sotelo.
It's open from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm from April 1 to October 31. Cost is just €2,20 or you can buy a combo ticket with Gibralfaro Castle for €3,55. Both are also free every Sunday from 2:00 pm to close. However, it's worth paying a couple of euros to avoid the Sunday afternoon crowds. To get back down to the city, you can either return back to the Roman Theater or take the elevator from the Nazari Palace down to the secret street level entrance. Just for fun, we took this exit once we happened upon the elevator.
After exploring Alcazaba, we walked 10 minutes to meet up with our Free “Explore Malaga” Walking Tour that met at southeast corner of Plaza de la Constitución. We made reservations online. The tour started at 11:00 am and lasted about 2.5 hours. Our guide provided a ton of information as we made our way around town. The Malaga Cathedral is really interesting both inside and out. We tipped €25 for the two of us. The suggested tip for "free" tours is €10-15 pp.
The Roman Theater (Free) was build in the 1st century AD and used for about 200 years. A lot of its stone, marble, and columns was appropriated in the construction of Alcazaba. It's open Tuesday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm / Sundays and holidays from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Even if it's closed you can still get good views of the theater from several vantage points.
Malaga is known for its tapas bars. We ate a light lunch, sharing 1 dish and 2 tapas at one of the cafe's near the Roman Theater before heading up to Gibralfaro Castle. The castle, built in 925 AD, is located on the hill above Alcazaba, with no easy access between the two. You can take a taxi, bus 35 (€1.95 fare), or you can do like we did and walk. (Admittedly, our first choice was the bus, but we had just missed it).
It was a 30 minute winding uphill walk with stops for pictures. (Okay, they were rest stops where we also happened to take pictures). Walk up Calle Cister, turn left onto Plaza de la Aduana, then a quick right onto Paseo Don Juan Temboury and keep left. Turn right onto Subida Coracha. Take the stairs on your left. Turn left. Quick right. Take the stairs. Long walk. Your destination will be at the top of the hill.
Since it was after 2:00 pm on a Sunday when we arrived there was no entrance fee. (Normally the cost is just €2,20 or you can buy a combo ticket with Alcazaba for €3,55). We explored the castle and took lots of pictures of the surrounding area.
Upon exiting, we bought soft drinks at a little shop near the bus stop. Before we could begin our descent, bus 35 arrived so we hopped on (€1.95 pp), rode it down to the Plaza Marina stop, and walked back to the ship from there (via a walkway past the busy marina shops).
Messina / Sicily, Italy (Taormina)
The highlight in Messina is the bell tower of the Cathedral of Messina "which contains the biggest and most complex mechanical and astronomical clock in the world. Designed by the firm Ungerer of Strasbourg it was inaugurated in 1933 and is the city’s main attraction even today. At noon a complex system of counterweights, leverages and gears, determines the movement of the gilded bronze statues located in the facade. The mechanism moves every day at 12.00am and lasts twelve minutes."
Prior to the show at the Bell Tower, we wandered around town for about 90 minutes and climbed up to the Santuario della Madonna di Montalto church that offers 180-degree views of the immediate area down to the port.
Other than that, the recommendation is to travel to the nearby town of Taormina. "The climate is a dream, its position, perfect panoramas, monuments and luxurious flora and fauna render Taormina a location admired by all who visit it. The city lies on a terrace, with a view of the ancient Greco-Roman theater against a backdrop of citrus groves with Mount Etna engulfed in the glory of the Ionian Sea beyond."
So we arranged in advance with TourShuttle.com for roundtrip transportation for 8 to Taormina at a cost of €31,50 per person. The driver was waiting on us when the Cathedral of Messina tower completed its multiple level show. Travel time is about 49 minutes each way which conservatively gave us about 4 hours to enjoy Taormina before returning to the ship. That was the plan anyway.
Unfortunately, the A/C in our van quit almost immediately and the engine totally quit while on the highway. Our driver pulled over onto the shoulder where we were safe and immediately called for a rescue. No worries. Within 30 minutes we had a new taxi with cold A/C pick us up and take us to Taormina, leaving our original driver awaiting assistance. For us, this minor setback was not a problem. We only needed about 2.5 hours to fully explore the town and the Greek Amphitheater (€10 per person), see the beautiful views, and enjoy a fresh cannoli. We returned a little early in the same taxi that rescued us, and we paid him in full.
I highly recommend watching the show at the bell tower and then heading over to visit Taormina. That's a good and inexpensive plan for the day. Kudos to our original driver for his skillful handling of a bad situation. However, since I received no response from TourShuttle.com when I informed them of our transportation problems, I cannot recommend them, and suggest you book transportation with someone else.
Monte Carlo, Monaco
We explored Monte Carlo from our port call in Villefrance (Nice), France. Our original plan was to simply walk to our right about 10 minutes to the Villefrance train station and catch a quick 10-15 minute train (€3 Euros) to Monte Carlo, Monaco. What could be easier? Well, we were thwarted by a rail strike which cancelled most, but not all, trains in France. It was announced well in advance so, not to be deterred, we went with plan B.
We took the bus (just €1,50 pp each way, pay when you get on). The only problem in taking the bus is you have to walk up a hill. Everyone will tell you how horribly difficult this task is and look at you like you're crazy to attempt it. Ignore them. From the port, you walk uphill and slightly to the left and follow the bus stop signs to the Octroi bus stop. When going to Monte Carlo, simply wait at the covered bus stop on the sea side of the street (Avenue Du Marechal Foch) in front of a small park (Jardin François Binon Community Garden). There is a tourist information booth, open odd hours, on one corner of the park.
Your return stop is across the street by the stores. Buses run about every 15 minutes and it's normally a 20-minute ride. Take the #100 or #100X eastbound "Menton" bus to Monte Carlo. The road was more congested today due to the train strike and it took 45 minutes to get to Monte Carlo.
It's easy to miss the border crossing. It's a non-event, no different from driving from one town into another. Ask the bus driver to drop you off at the palace stop. It's the second stop in Monaco. Get off and follow the sidewalk to the right and up the ramp to the Prince's Palace.
There is lots to do up here. In no particular order: we enjoyed the great views of the mountains, sea, spectacular marinas, and surrounding areas (You can easily see the stands and the street barrier preparations for The Grand Prix which runs here in late May); walked the gardens; watched the changing of the guards (11:55 am); visited the Saint Nicholas Cathedral where Princess Grace (Kelly) and Prince Rainer are buried; and two blocks later, explored the Oceanographic Museum (aquarium downstairs/museum upstairs).
It only takes about an hour to explore Oceanographic Museum (€14, opens at 10:00 am). Buy your tickets outside the museum to the left. The self-guided tour starts in the aquarium and leads you upstairs into the museum. Both halves were equally interesting, though kids are more likely to enjoy the aquarium. The Museum has more than 6,000 specimens on display. It's worth the visit.
After departing the museum we shared a sandwich from one of the shops and wandered the streets near the palace until the changing of the guard ceremony. These never get old. While we were practically alone when we arrived around 9:00 am, the palace ground was crowded for the 11:55 am event. Following the guard ceremony, we walked back down the ramp and checked out the shops and farmers market at the bottom of the hill.
We thought about visiting Jardin Exotique which features beautiful cactus gardens and city views high above Monte Carlo as well as a neat cave with stalactites and stalagmites. We opted to return to Villefrance and explore there instead.
Returning, we walked around the traffic circle and waited for the #100 or #100X westbound "Nice" bus across the street (Boulevard Charles III) from where the original bus dropped us off. The return trip took just 25 minutes.
There are basically 3 things to do in Mykonos: wander the town, go to a beach, or take a ferry over to Delos (the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis and a UNESCO archaeological site). Unfortunately, on May 1, the water is too cold to go to the beach and Delos is closed due to their Labor Day holiday.
Delos Ferry provides half-day guided tours to Delos from April 25th through October 31st for €50 pp inclusive of the roundtrip transportation by ferry and an authorized tour guide. Mykonos is also a good beach island and Paradise Beach can easily be reached via local bus for €1.2. Since both of these options were out, we wandered the town. All of the buildings are painted white; with blue, red, or yellow trim, and the occasional blue domes.
We got off the ship at 7:30 am and took the first free shuttle bus to town (about 8 minutes). Walking takes about 30 minutes, but I'd advise against it. There is no sidewalk or shade once you exit the port and the road doesn't look safe due to the turns, hills, and traffic. Another option is to take a Sea Bus Water Taxi for €2 from the port directly into the heart of town.
Since we arrived early, we explored an empty town and got lots of good pictures before the rest of the 6,000 passengers from 3 cruise ships descended upon the pretty town and clogged the narrow streets. We walked beyond the windmills, coming back into town from behind them. We stopped in at Katrina's for a coffee and their homemade hibiscus lemonade. They also offered free wi-fi. We sipped our drinks on their open-air shaded balcony on the edge of the Aegean Sea with a great view of the town's iconic 16th-century windmills.
We wandered through the thick crowds, past the now-open shops, to explore more of the town before returning to the ship for a late lunch.
Naples, Italy (Pompeii, Herculaneum)
Naples, a city in southern Italy, is another port with too much to offer. Among your tour choices here:
- Explore the city of Naples: Highlights include Duomo di San Gennaro, the city's cathedral, which is filled with frescoes; the Royal Palace; Castel Nuovo, a 13th-century castle; the spectacular Piazza del Plebiscito; Maschio Angioino castle, surrounded by deep moats; Galleria Umberto I with its marble floors and world's largest glass-roofed arcade; and several museums including The National Archaeological Museum of Naples, displaying the most valuable heritage of works of art and archaeological artifacts in Italy (including some of the best finds from Pompeii).
- Visit the Island of Capri: One of the most picturesque and visited locations in the region. Also features the Blue Grotto, a dark cavern where the sea glows electric blue due sunlight passing through an underwater cave.
- Visit the Amalfi Coast: Explore the picturesque coastal towns of Sorrento and Positano.
- Peek inside Mt. Vesuvius: Journey to the top of this still-active volcano that destroyed nearby Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
- Explore Pompeii and/or Herculaneum: Explore the ancient ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii which are now vast archaeological sites.
The one place my wife specifically requested to visit on this entire trip was Pompeii, so we set our sights on seeing Pompeii and the lessor-known city of Herculaneum. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You can find tours and taxis to both ruined cities, or you can get there easily and inexpensively on your own. Pompeii is just a 30-to-40-minute train ride away, and Herculaneum is just 15 minutes away. Thankfully they can both be accessed from the same trains, but you still need to get to the train station from the port.
Both sites are free on the first Sunday of each month. Sure, we saved €13 pp at Pompeii and €11 pp at Herculaneum, but we had to deal with much heavier crowds than we otherwise would have. Since we only had one day in port we got off the ship as soon as we docked at 7:00 am and headed into town to catch a metro to the train station in hopes of reaching Pompeii when they opened at 8:30 am.
The Naples cruise port is located in the historic center, facing the medieval Castel Nuovo. You can walk from the ship, through the Maritime Station, across the parking lot, and past a snack bar and smack into a 7 lane road Via Ammiraglio Ferdinando Action. There will be a very obvious cross walk in front of you. Cross the street and walk up a ramp alongside the castle which will take you to its entrance.
If that's your destination, turn left and go in. Another 1.5 blocks up the road (Via San Carlo) is Galleria Umberto I, across from the San Carlo Theater (18th-century Opera House). Just one block past that is Piazza del Plebiscito with equestrian statues fronting Basilica Reale Pontificia San Francesco da Paola which features Greek-style columns lining the facade of this Pantheon-style church filled with sculpture and paintings. The Royal Palace is across the street (as you head back towards the port).
If you're heading for the metro, turn right instead and walk two blocks down Via Vittorio Emanuele III to Piazza Municipio, a small one block plaza. The metro station, designated by a big "M" can easily be seen. Buy your metro pass (€1,10) in the little shop on the right before heading downstairs to the station. Use your metro ticket to enter the turnstiles and go down several floors following signage for Garibaldi. Once at the correct station, take the first subway arriving from your right and traveling to your left, regardless of the "next train" time shown on the overhead monitor.
You'll arrive in 5 to 10 minutes. Follow the crowds or signage to the exit upstairs. You'll find yourself in a mall. Turn left and stay to the right. Ignore the first escalator you pass on your left and instead take the first escalator on your right. At the top turn right and follow the signs to Circumvesuviana (train). You will see ticket booths. Buy your one-way (€3,30) train ticket to "Pompeii Scavi". Go through the turnstiles, go down stairs and wait on the middle platform #3.
You are going to take the train toward "Sorrento". The trains run about every 30 minutes. The monitor will tell you when the next Sorrento train is scheduled to arrive. "Pompeii Scavi" is one of the stops. You'll arrive in about 30 minutes. Follow the crowds to the right, past a few shops and cafes, and a half-block later you'll be pleased to see that you've arrived at the entrance to Pompeii!
We arrived around 9:00 am. Since admission was free today due to being the first Sunday of the month, we bypassed the ticket booth and headed straight for the turnstiles. Wrong! We still needed a ticket. So we went back to the ticket window and secured our free tickets. We also picked up a free sitemap in the little room to the right of the ticket windows. This was the only place we saw maps all day. With tickets and maps in hand we went through the turnstiles and headed in.
Once a thriving Roman city, Pompeii was buried under tons of ash and pumice courtesy of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The preserved site features excavated ruins of houses, buildings, and streets and you can freely roam. The nicer houses (with tile mosaics, infrequent statuary, courtyards, and columns) open and close on a rotating schedule. The site is massive and a lot of fun to explore. Photo opportunities abound.
We easily could have spent the whole day there, but we also wanted to see Herculaneum and get back to our ship before it left. On our way out, we noticed the entrance had closed to new visitors. The policy is to close by 12:30 pm, with expectations to reopen again after 2:30 pm, to regulate the flow of crowds on the free Sundays. (If they reach 15,000 people before 12:30 they will close earlier.)
We were sure glad we arrived early. Pompeii did seem to get crowded by 10:00 am. However, the further you get from the Forum (central square about 3 blocks in from the entrance), the less crowded it feels. Heading back to the train station, we bought our tickets (€2 each) to "Ercolano Scavi" (the stop for Herculaneum) and waited on platform #2, which requires that you take the stairs which directly across from the ticket office down and go under the tracks to the other side. Take the first train that comes as they'll all stop at Ercolano Scavi on the way to Naples / Napoli.
Carefully watch for your stop as signage isn't great and the stops are short. The train to Ercolano Scavi takes about 15-20 minutes depending upon the number of stops your particular train makes. We accidentally got off one stop too soon and had to use the GPS and offline maps on my phone to journey, mostly downhill, to Herculaneum's rear entrance. Assuming YOU get off at the right stop, walk directly downhill about 6 blocks on Via IV Novembre and you'll be at the rear entrance to Herculaneum. You can't miss it. If you're hungry, stop in at Bar Sandwich / Herculaneum Cafe across the street for an inexpensive meal. We shared a caprese sandwich with a wonderfully tasty fresh roll.
We secured our free tickets and map and walked into the site. Although Herculaneum is a significantly smaller city (about 1/4 the size, and only a fraction of that has been excavated), it's a much better preserved site than Pompeii. It's therefore easier to feel transported back in time. Herculaneum was smothered by the same volcanic event that destroyed Pompeii, albeit a later phase.
While Pompeii is all on "street level", Herculaneum is in a huge open pit. Pompeii was buried under just 12 feet of mostly volcanic debris, whereas Herculaneum was buried in 60 to 70 feet of mud and volcanic ash. Keeping in mind that Herculaneum used to be an oceanfront city, you instantly get a better idea of the magnitude of what they were buried under. Nearly 80% of Herculaneum is still unexplored, mostly due to being hidden underneath present day buildings.
The solemn visual representation of the death of each city's respective inhabitants is starkly different. Pompeii enthralls visitors with the bodies of victims that have been recreated through casting of plaster of Paris into soft cavities in the ash. These cavities were actually the outlines of the bodies that retained their shape despite decomposition --- though they still held the bones of the cadavers. The bones became incased when the plaster filled the soft ash. By contrast, visitors to Herculaneum can view boat houses with hundreds of skeletons waiting in the shade for a rescue that never arrived. So far, about 300 skeletons have been unearthed in 12 arched chambers.
Exiting Herculaneum, we headed for the Ercolano Scavi station, bought out ticket (€2,60 pp) and caught the first train back to Napoli, which turned out to be a train to Porta Nolana. (If you want to catch a train to the metro, essentially reversing the original route, be sure to catch a train to Garibaldi / Napoli Centrale instead). Upon exiting the station you can take a taxi or bus #151 back to the port; or turn left and walk. We walked three blocks, turned right, and walked 30 minutes (about 22 long blocks) along Via Nuova Marina back to the port. Walking wasn't hard but it wouldn't be my first choice next time.
The medieval city of Rhodes is a UNESCO World Heritage site and formerly the site of the Colossus of Rhodes --- one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We got off the ship about 7:30 am and walked into town, bypassing the first Gate and entering the city at the main Marina Gate. At that hour shops are still closed and almost no one is around. We enjoyed wandering the near-deserted streets of this old town which dates back to 407 BC. We ventured up the cobblestone Street of Knights and came upon the Palace of the Grand Masters which had just opened at 8:00 am. A €10 combo ticket is valid for the Palace and the Archaeological Museum.
After exploring the Palace, we walked past the Temple of Aphrodite and exited the walled city to catch the first Rhodes Little Red Train (€7), a 45 min tour "around the more out of the way sights of Rhodes town". The "station" is on Pl. Eleftherias in front of Aktaion bakery (a worthy stop in its own right for inexpensive sandwiches and Greek baked goods). Unfortunately, as of May 2, it hadn't yet opened for the season, so we walked back towards the walled city and ended up taking a fascinating 1 mile walk around the outside of the city walls, primarily circumnavigating the Palace of the Grand Master, past strewn stone cannonballs, before reentering the ancient city via a moat entrance near the Gate of St Antonios.
Back on the street inside the walled city, we found ourselves surrounded by interesting souvenir shops and cafes. Looking up, we saw the Medieval Clock Tower Roloi and were drawn to it. Upon arrival, we found the entrance guarded by a pretty local woman who required €5 to pass. Inasmuch as we were parched and the tribute included a free drink at the tower's shaded courtyard bar, and free wi-fi, in addition to accessing the tower's 360-degree panoramic views and picture-taking opportunities, we gladly handed her our Monopoly money and went in. This was a bargain. It was a great place to enjoy a couple bottles of Mythos beer and unwind in the middle of the day.
After our respite, we headed for the Archaeological Museum to make use of our combo ticket. This is a huge and interesting museum with lots to see. The more you explore, the more you'll find and the more you'll want to look. About 90-minutes later we found our way out and headed back to the ship. The streets were packed and highly festive with shops and cafes lining our route out to the Gate of Virgins, which is closer to the ship and is a different route out than we came in. Lots of beer (some in big glass boots) and Greek food specials were advertised by the cafes along the route. Hint: avoid a potential scam and confirm the price of the big glass boots of draft beer before you imbibe.
We stayed 3 nights at the Vittoriano Luxury Suites. It's on the 4th floor of a building in a great location just 3 blocks south of the Pantheon. The hotel is serviced by a small elevator and a very friendly and helpful staff. They only have 6 rooms of varying sizes. We booked the Matrimoniale Superior (Room 102). It is a very modern and comfortable room with free wi-fi, and includes a nice buffet breakfast each morning. Highly recommended. We walked to many of the major sites in Rome (for example: Pantheon - 5 minutes, Emanuele Monument - 10 minutes, Capitoline Museum - 10 minutes, Piazza Navona - 10 minutes, Trevia Fountain - 15 minutes, Colosseum - 20 minutes, Spanish Steps - 20 minutes) and caught a bus to The Vatican. Although The Vatican is also walkable in 35 minutes, a bus stop is just a half block away.
ROME DAY 1: Pantheon, Emanuele Monument, Chiesa di Sant' Ignazio di Loyola church, Piazza Navona and More...
We arrived from the airport too early to check in to our room but were invited to enjoy a free breakfast and leave our bags until the room was ready. After breakfast, we left to explore the area on foot. Hint: Rome is 6 hours earlier than Eastern Standard Time. To better acclimate to the new time zone, it's advised to keep active during daylight hours and not to nap. Out first stop was the Pantheon, just 5 minutes away.
The Pantheon is a former Roman temple built circa 120 A. D. It's now a church and a tomb (including Renaissance artist Raphael, and a couple of Italian Kings) so reverence is to be observed. The most impressive feature of the Pantheon's architecture is its domed ceiling with an oculus in the top. This dome is still the world's largest unsupported dome at 142 feet.
After about an hour, we wandered the streets for about 8 to 10 blocks in all directions just for fun and to get our bearings. (Hint: the free tourist newspaper-thin map of Rome is worthless. Bring a small decent street map with you). We explored several churches, Emanuele Monument, and came across several other monuments including Trajan's Column, Elephant and Obelisk, the ornately carved Column of Marcus Aurelius, Largo di Torre Argentina, Piazza Navona, and the Temple of Hadrian. Late in the afternoon we found ourselves at the Spanish Steps (pretty, but overrated).
You will get thirsty walking around Rome. However, you'll never need to buy water. Just carry a water bottle. Rome has 2500 drinking water fountains --- some are more ornate than others. The water is pure spring water piped in from the mountains above the city via an aqueduct created centuries ago. Hint: If you don't have a water bottle just cover the spout with your finger and water will come out of a small hole in the top.
We chose a couple of cafes with outdoor seating and free wi-fi for lunch and dinner. Both were good (but not spectacular) for food and people watching. More than anything else, they gave us a chance to rest.
ROME DAY 2: The Colosseum, The Forum, Trevia Fountain, Chiesa de Gesu, Capitoline Museum, and More...
Since we went to bed early last night, we were up early and arrived at the Trevia Fountain by 7:00 am, an easy 15 minute walk. There were very few visitors when we arrived and it was easy to take good pictures and enjoy the fountain. By 7:50 am, the tour groups and crowds began arriving in ernest so we headed for Chiesa de Gesu Catholic Church, a block from our hotel.
While the exterior is nondescript, it hides one of the most impressive interiors we saw in all of Rome. In addition to the magnificent frescoes on the ceiling (including a "dome" which is actually an optical illusion) and the beautiful architecture, Chiesa de Gesu also has a pair of relics: a chapel with the tomb of Saint Ignatiusa; and a reliquary containing the right arm of Saint Francis Xavier. He was co-founder of the Jesuits. It was said this arm baptized 300,000 people. If you want to see the rest of his body, it's entombed in Goa, India.
We headed over to the Capitoline Museum (Musei Capitolini) which is close to the Emanuele Monument. This is the first site we visited that required admission (€15) and it was well worth it. This immense museum is comprised of a pair of buildings on either side of a square designed by Michelangelo. We spent 2.5-hours exploring the museum and want to go back to see everything we missed. It's filled with paintings and sculptures, bronzes, and statues; including originals of the Capitoline Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus, Marcus Aurelius, Dying Gaul, and Discobolus (Discus Thrower). While exploring one of the lower floors, I came across a breathtaking passage with a panoramic views of the Forum and Palatine Hill.
We grabbed a quick bite to eat from a cafe on our way to the Colosseum for our 1:30 pm tour "Colosseum Arena Floor with Roman Forum". We booked this 2.5 hour tour online in advance with The Roman Guy for €49 per person (using a 10% off "ricksteves" discount code). It was well worth it. Our meeting place was just outside the Metro station across from the Colosseum (one of two places on this trip that gave us goosebumps just being there. It truly is an impressive site). Our group was small, with only 9 folks including our knowledgeable English-speaking guide. She gave us some history and an overview before we went inside. We skipped the ticket line and our security line took less than 2 minutes since we were able to enter through the lesser used "Gate of Death" on the backside of the structure. We went up some stairs, through an arch, and found ourselves on the reconstructed arena floor for about 15-20 minutes. This was AWESOME!
Only about 25% of the arena floor has been rebuilt, giving you a glimpse at what it once looked like as well as excellent views of the underground hypogeum and a rebuilt animal trap door. From here we explored a couple different levels of the Colosseum (but not the underground nor the recently opened upper lever Bob Uecker seats, which require a different access pass).
Leaving the Colosseum, we walked past the Arch of Constantine to the Arch of Titus at the entrance to the Roman Forum. Our escorted tour included Julius Caesar's Temple, The Eternal Flame, Vestal Virgins Atrium, Senate House, Basilica of Atoninous and Faustina, Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. Following the tour, we briefly hiked up Palatine Hill for some light exploring before heading back towards our hotel. We located a small grocery store where we purchased fresh bread, smoked meats and cheese, and took them back to the hotel to make a sandwich for dinner.
ROME DAY 3: The Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica, Scavi Tour, Castel Sant'Angelo, and More...
We got up early and took a 6:15 am bus to The Vatican (the smallest county in the world at 109 acres) for our "First Entry: Express Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums Entrance Tickets" tour, prebooked online with Dark Rome (City Wonders) for $58.75 per person (after discount). This tour granted us pre-ticketed special entrance access to the Sistine Chapel at 7:30 am. The selling point for this tour was access "30 minutes before any other group and 90 minutes before the general public, finding this incredible room empty" along with a group size of 20 people or less. We met our group across the street from the Entrance to the Vatican Museum at 7:00 am. Our tour guide led us into the museum, through the Gallery of the Candelabra, Gallery of Tapestries, and Gallery of Maps, to the Sistine Chapel where we had a lot of room to view and enjoy Michaelangelo's work. At 8:30 am, we had the option to exit the Sistine Chapel via a special skip-the-line exit to St. Peter's Basilica, or go back into the museum, unescorted, to explore. We chose to explore.
Our tour guide was good, the museum spectacular, the 90 minute jump start on crowds and the special skip-the-line access to St. Peter's Basilica were priceless. With 20,000 visitors a day, the Vatican gets very crowded. While the tour was entirely worth it, City Wonders didn't meet their promises. Our group was over the size limit by 15% and we had around four dozen other visitors in the Sistine Chapel with us when it opened. However, contrast this with the enormous hard-to-move-around crowds we encountered after 9:00 am and we considered ourselves very fortunate to have selected an early-entry tour.
Our second tour for the day was "The Scavi Tour". It was scheduled for 11:15 am, with an 11:00 am meeting time about a block from St. Peter's Basilica. This gave us only about 90 minutes to explore a few key exhibits in the Vatican Museum before exiting at 10:00 am via a special skip-the-line tour group exit for a quick visit to St. Peter's Basilica. This exit allows you to enter St. Peter's Basilica without going all the way back to the museum exit, walking 10-15 minutes to the Basilica, and then waiting in a two hour line! I'm told that this line, which we saw snaking all the way across St. Peter's Square in the sun, is a fairly constant 2.5-hour line all day long. While it's actually free to get into the Basilica, it's worth booking an official vatican partner tour just to skip this line.
St. Peter's Basilica is the largest "church" in the world. The opulence is breathtaking, from the high ornate ceilings (the dome is 385 feet up) and statuary to the marble and gold that is employed throughout. If you have time, visit The Vatican Grottoes. They are in the level below the floor of St. Peter's where many popes are buried. You can access the Grottoes by taking the stairs near the papal altar.
Below the Grottoes is the ancient Necropolis and excavations of St. Peter's tomb. These can only be seen on The Scavi Tour. The tour features everything from papal tombs to an ancient Roman street and St. Peter’s mausoleum. This incredible 90-minute escorted tour into the Excavations of the Necropolis (City of the Dead) underneath St. Peter's Basilica, is one of the most fascinating tours we took our entire trip. It's also one of the toughest tickets to come by in the Eternal City. Only around 250 visitors per day are permitted to enter, and groups are composed of approximately 12 people. Tickets (a bargain at just €13 per person) can only be purchased in advance (typically months in advance), via their official website.
The Scavi office is accessed on the left (south) side of the colonnade (columns) as you're facing the Basilica, through the Sant' Uffico gate. They do not let you go through security until it is almost time for your tour. Go through security, show the Swiss Guards your reservation and say "Scavi". You then walk to the Scavi office which is a short walk up a driveway and to the right where you'll be checked in. If you are late, they will leave without you. Our tour guide was excellent and he was full of good historical information. This tour literally ends inside the main floor of St. Peter's Basilica. Had we not already explored it earlier, this would have been a good time to do so.
After lunch we walked over to Castel Sant'Angelo, also known as Hadrian's Tomb. It's a 139 A.D. fortress located on the bank of the Tiber, close to the Vatican City. The castle (€14) offers some interesting rooms and panoramic views from the top. Unfortunately you need to pay extra for a tour that runs only twice a day in English that will take you into the interesting subterranean sections, like the prison. The castle once protected the Ponte Sant'Angelo (Bridge of Hadrian) which now features a series of angelic statues.
Santorini Island, Greece
Santorini was the only port where every ship has to tender. And not only must you tender into the small port, you then need to find a way to the top of the 700-foot cliff that greets you upon arrival. Of course, once you're up there, you also have to find a way down. You have four choices:
- Ride the cable car (€6 pp, one-way, 3 minutes after you've boarded). There are only two sets of cars (one going each direction) with six cars per set, each seating six passengers. Upside: quickest option, and they offer great views. Downside: can be scary, and the lines are known to reach over two hours (especially coming back down in the afternoon) since they can only service about 600 passengers in each direction per hour.
- Walk the 588 steps (Free, about 15 to 25 minutes). I understand it's not as bad as it sounds as long as you watch your step and take it slow. There are lots of opportunities to rest. Upside: cost, exercise, and great photo opportunities. Downside: you're taking the exact same route as the donkeys, so you need to avoid the donkeys and their droppings.
- Ride the donkeys (€5 pp, one-way, 10 to 15 minutes). There are dozens of healthy-looking donkeys and mules that allow you to ride in the old traditional way. Upside: it might be better than standing in a long line, or walking. Downside: can be frightening, uncomfortable, and you'll smell like the donkey you rode in on. (Our ship's cruise director vehemently discouraged passengers from riding the donkeys).
- Take speedboat to Oia and bus back to Fira. (~€25 pp, one-way, over 60 minutes). Upside: avoids all of the above. Downside: might only be one way, takes a long time, is costly, and you still have to get down. This is really only a good option if all you want to do is visit Oia and Fira.
According to the ship's officers, the heaviest tender time was expected to be between 8:30 am and 11:00 am. We avoided prime time and simply went straight to Deck 2 at 7:00 am when the ship was cleared and caught the first tender to shore. From there we waited about 5 minutes to board the cable car.
Once up top we explored a little then met our tour guide. We joined a fellow traveler's tour that he set up in advance with Santorini Tours. It was a private 6-hour Santorini sightseeing tour in an air-conditioned minibus with a driver and a tour guide for only €42.50 pp (plus tip) for the 12 of us. Our guide provided us a lot of good information about the island and its history. She took us to lots of picturesque lookouts and photo opportunities.
We started in Fira and in no particular order, we enjoyed stunning caldera views from the cliff-terraced villages of Imerovigli and Oia; visited the Prophet Ilias Monastery at Santorini’s highest view point; saw the famous blue dome churches; visited the old towns of Emporio, Megalochori, and Pyrgos; and saw both Red Beach and Black Beach. We covered the island pretty thoroughly. By mid-afternoon the group was hungry and opted to enjoy lunch at Forty One which is located on the black sand beach --- instead of doing a wine tasting (€10 pp); and we ran out of time to check out the Akrotiri excavations (€12 pp).
Valletta, Malta (Mdina)
Hint: Get up early and don't miss any of the sail-in to Valletta, it's one of the most beautiful harbors in the world. And if you get off the ship early, you'll have the to yourself until about 8:45 am.
Malta has way too much to offer for a single day in port. We decided to keep it fairly simple and inexpensive on our first visit: attending mass at St. John’s Co-Cathedral, visiting Mdina, enjoying lunch, then returning to Valletta for further exploration.
St. John’s Cathedral aka "Co-Cathedral" is a must-see. However, due to services, it's closed to tours on Sunday and pictures are prohibited. You can still visit the church if you'd like to go to mass (no charge) at 9:15 am. On any other day, you can get a ticket for €10 per person, and visit Caravaggio's painting of the beheading of John the Baptist. Either way, the interior of this church, built in the 1570s by the Order of the Knights of St. John, is spectacular with it's painted ceiling frescos, marble and gold columns and arches, and ornate inlaid marble tombstones that cover the entire floor! They commemorate some of the most illustrious knights of the Order and date from the early seventeenth century into the late eighteenth century.
You have to work your way up since the old city is on the cliff top. As long as you use the elevator it shouldn't take you longer than 20 minutes to walk to the Co-cathedral from the ship. Turn right upon exiting the cruise terminal and walk towards the Barakka Lift (€1,00 up / free down). The Lift will let you out at the Upper Barakka Gardens which offers nice views overlooking the harbor. Start walking down Castille Street and turn right on either Republic Street (three blocks). Walk down 2.5 blocks to Triq San Gwann. You can't miss the Co-Cathedral.
Following mass at St. John’s Co-Cathedral, we walked back down Republic Street and out the City Gate to pickup a taxi near Triton Fountain. I prearranged roundtrip transportation online with eCabs to Mdina and back (just €5 per person each way for a party of 8). A comfortable van was waiting on us when we arrived.
The driver dropped us off at the Mdina Gate. Mdina is a small, walled town with narrow streets. “The elegance of the architecture, the pop of colors, the panoramic views and the sheer beauty of the town are all incredible. You can really feel as if you are in another time when here.” This is one of the “Game of Thrones” filming locations. After exploring the walled city, we went back out the front gate to get lunch at BOTTEGIN PALAZZO XARA, a reasonably priced restaurant which had received rave reviews online.
It's only a 6-minute walk to the restaurant at Palazzo Xara, Triq San Pawl, Rabat RBT1243, but we had some trouble finding it despite the building's distinctive dark royal blue doors and shutters. We chose to eat outside in their courtyard. Two of our fellow travelers enjoyed pasta dishes while my wife and I loved our locally raised roasted rabbit with pumpkin-infused mashed potatoes and a glass of Serina Merlot. Highly recommend.
We met our driver back at our prearranged pickup spot at 1:45 pm and were dropped back off at the Triton Fountain. This gave us about 2.5 hours to walk the streets and explore Valletta before returning to the ship.
Villefrance (Nice), France
Villefrance (Nice) was the only port on this cruise where every ship has to tender. We got in line for the tender about 7:15 am and just missed catching the first boat to shore. Other than the time spent loading the boat, it was a quick 10-15 minute trip to shore. We exited the tender, walked through a small cruise terminal and found ourselves on the street. Citadelle Saint-Elme, a 16th Century fort with museums and gardens, is to your left.
We walked around the traffic circle and waited for the #100 or #100X westbound "Nice" bus across the street (Boulevard Charles III) from where the original bus dropped us off. The return trip took just 25 minutes.
At this point it was about 1:30 pm. We walked down to Citadelle Saint-Elme (Saint Elmo), located literally on the other side of the park where we got off the bus. The entrance faces the cruise terminal. While not an awesome "castle" experience, it's still worth a visit. It hosts 1 large and 3 small museums, nice gardens, statues, great views (including of the ship) and photo opportunities, has public restrooms, and it's free! We spent a leisurely hour exploring the site.
We intended to go swimming in Villefrance. This is, after all, the French Riviera! They have a great sandy beach here, just in front of the train station, not more than an easy 15 minute walk from the terminal. Had we taken the train we would have also brought our swimsuits and gone swimming upon our return from Monte Carlo. But we didn't, so we explored the town instead.
We wandered the narrow streets and climbed many sets of stairs in the main section of Villefrance just above the port. We enjoyed an awesome homemade blackberry gelato (€3,80 for 2 scoops) at Solea. This was easily the best gelato we enjoyed during our entire trip. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
Come late afternoon we headed back to the cruise terminal. Finding free wi-fi, we sat down on one of the many public benches when we got through the security checkpoint and spent maybe 30 minutes checking email and sending pictures before boarding the tender to head back to the ship.
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