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Fall Family Trip to Italy, France, and Spain via Cruise Ship

SmarterTravel

Author: Nancy Lorentson
Date of Trip: November 2014

17 day trip to Italy, France and Spain

My family, 4 adults and a child, just returned from 17 days in Europe. We flew out from the east coast of the US on Lufthansa for the first time because it was the lowest price we could find. Great new plane with more comfortable seats and more leg room than most economy seats. Better food and drinks and more of them both as well. We had a short layover in Frankfort which is a big busy confusing airport in some places. The plane to Rome was very small, noisy and we could not sit together. We landed in Rome and the airport is about 1/2 an hour from the city center. Fortunately we had some one to pick us up in a mini van as we all had checked bag, three of us also had carry- ons, and we all had backpacks.

We did not book our hotel as we were supposed to stay with someone who lives there. But since that person was ill they booked a hotel for us. Be careful of Rome hotels. Make sure you get ratings. This one had tiny rooms, showers so small you could barely wash your hair because your elbows hit the sides of the shower stall, the elevator was so small we had to send the luggage and stroller up in two separate trips and with out us! And the mattresses were the Worst we ever slept on. They were like pull out sofa bed ones that had seen way too much wear. On the up side the room included a decent breakfast as long as you can get there before 9 am, which we could not do the first two days due to jet lag. It was 2x the price that a better one we had stayed in closer to the center of the city was a few years ago. But it was just a block from their house so easy for us to walk to a couple times a day. After a long day of walking it was great to relax in their heating swimming pool!

I suggest you research public transportation in Rome in your native language before you leave! I had researched all the sites we wanted to see via web sites, including this one, and books from the library. DK are my favorite travel guides. Great info and great illustrations. We made sure we renewed the library books before we left so we would not have to pay fines when we got back. But we had not looked into the train or bus routes which was a mistake. So we walked everywhere because we couldn’t figure out the public transportation and Rome is a big city. If you need help in the stations you have to pay for it with demands for tips. I think the subway (M for metro) is easier but we wanted to see the scenery above ground, but the buses don’t have the final destination on them, just the next stop so we were pretty clueless. Get a bus route map before you go and run the Italian through a translator! Like most places these days you can’t pay the driver. You have to buy tickets before boarding the bus. We didn’t know where to get tickets but if we go back we will make sure we do. Taxis are everywhere but traffic is heavy so you don’t know how much they will be because you could be stuck in a traffic jam. We only used a taxi to get our luggage to the train station when we were leaving. In fact they were so small we had to take two. Plan alternate transportation because they have frequent bus, train and taxi strikes.

In our four days with a lot of walking we managed to see pretty much all the places on our list which included the Vatican, many churches with art works inside by big names like Michelangelo and Bernini. We had a map but got lost a couple times when we missed a street sign. It didn’t occur to me until too late that the GPS worked on my phone and I could use Google Maps. I thought we needed different sim cards for that but I guess that was in previous times. I have T Mobile by the way and had free overseas texts which was a Godsend when trying to locate other family members. We saw many iconic buildings from the ancient ones (Forum, Pantheon, churches, Roman baths, etc) to the gov’t ones to the religious ones. The Forum is huge and sprawling and we did not see anywhere near all of it. Also nothing is labeled with signs in the forum, so bring info with you if you want to know what you are seeing! We did not see anywhere near all of it. That’s something to do if we have a next time there. The last week of Oct it was high 60s and low 70s during the day. We just walked to local sites around the Circus Maximus the first afternoon as we had been on the plane throughout the night.

Day two we walked all along the Tiber River from the Circus Maximus to Castel San Angelo, and then to the Pantheon which is free. Had some flatbread deli sandwiches from a place next door and visited two close by churches for the art and sculpture and then on to Piazza Narone for the Bernini sculpture and another church, and then hit the Trevi Fountain which was covered in scaffolding. and walked back to our hotel near the Circus Maximus via the huge Victor Emmanuel building which by the way has several other names, a WW memorial, museum, and an elevator to the top for a great view, and by the Colosseum which was all lit up as by that time it was dark. We walked ten miles that day and went out that evening for a rest and local Italian dinner courtesy of the couple with whom we were originally going to stay with, followed by dessert at a gelato shop.

Day three was the Vatican. We had gotten self guided tour tickets on line…20 something dollars each which is well worth it as the lines are long. You go in the back door museum entrance and we saw the entire museum. Try to get there at opening when it is less crowded. If you do a tour like we did the first time, we only saw a portion of the museum but did start in the Basilica. After the fabulous art works in the museum this time – and we saw all of it, and the Sistine Chapel (no photos there but photos are allowed everywhere else – I don’t know about flash as I used natural light) we relaxed in a nice quiet courtyard as the younger two adults did the 327 steps up to the dome which was after taking an elevator to get to the stairs. They took photos and so we got to see the fab view. Photo above taken by my daughter. But be forewarned…the steps are narrow and have curved walls and there is a stream of people behind you so you can’t turn around and go back. Once you commit you have to do the entire run up. It costs 7 euros. You can walk around the inside of the lower portion of the dome if there isn’t a mass going in the Basilica. If there is you can do some of the interior lower dome. When you get up to the roof there is a gift shop and a mail drop. You can buy Vatican stamps at the Vatican post office to the left (facing the front) of the Basilica on the corner across the street. If you do the entire museum, the Basilica and the Sistine Chapel and the dome it will take you well into the afternoon. We had a late lunch, relaxed in the pool and made dinner at the house, and then had to rest up and go to bed early for the next day. If you get up early enough and have not been to Pompeii you could do a day trip down there via train. We had already been, so we stayed to see more of Rome.

The next day we walked to the huge Baths of Caracalla and after exploring there had a picnic lunch in a park (nylon string bags are so useful for this as they fold up small when not being used). We then walked to the Coliseum and as the line was not long, went in. We tried but failed and were too tired to pursue St Paul’s which we knew was a few blocks away but not sure in which direction and was up hill. Something else for if there is a next time. We also stopped by to see another section of the Forum but this part had an entrance gate and it was closed two hours early. Not sure why. Made it back, did a load of laundry at our friends house and took a cab to the Jewish Ghetto which is a nice old section of town with plenty of restaurants that our friend recommended for dinner. When we returned we had to pack our bags for an early departure the next day. We did all we could to see everything on our list from the books and web sites we looked at at home. We didn’t make all of them but enough to be satisfied. Two of the we, by the way, are in our 60s and have joint problems. In spite of that we walked between 6 and 10 miles a day except for the one ‘at sea’ day. We had a pedometer with us. We found the restaurants to be more expensive than similar ones here plus the Euro to dollar conversion. We saved some funds by buying food in grocery stores and markets for some of our meals.

After our four days in Rome the next morning we took taxis to the train station and the train to the port city of Civitevecchia which takes about 1.5 hours which includes the time figuring out how to use the machines to purchase your ticket (which was quite inexpensive but I can’t remember exactly), and then getting to the correct track. The track numbers are marked overhead on bright green signs. We were told not to let our luggage out of our sight due to thefts. Were told the same about what we had when we walked the city due to pick pockets. Fortunately we were very careful and had no incidents. Upon arrival at the train station in Civitevecchia you walk a block of two to a wide avenue along the water front and another block or two to the shuttle bus area and board the shuttle for your ship. This port is huge so it could be close or quite far down the coast. Boarding went very well and quickly. We were there early because if the train was on strike we would have had to find a bus, so not a big crowd yet. It was our 12th cruise and although we had a great time there were enough snafus to say it was not our favorite ship or line. That honor goes to the 4 Holland America ships we have cruised on.

We did what we always do when getting on the ship: drop our bags in our room, put our bathing suits on, go up to the buffet for lunch, relax in the hot tub, dress for dinner and walk around exploring the ship until dinner time. And get to bed not too late as we had an early call for our excursion to Florence. Hard to get to bed early on a ship because of all the entertainment. This ship had less than others so it was a bit easier.

Our first port was Livorno. We opted to skip Pisa as we have seen more than enough leaning tower photos, and go straight to Florence which has much more to see. We normally travel on our own but this time we sprung for the ship excursion to make sure we didn’t miss the ship getting back. It’s an hour bus ride and if the bus or train does not run you are in trouble. It was expensive but the guide was so well versed in everything about Tuscany and Florence it was worth it for the info, and for peace of mind that if our bus was late the ship would wait for us. On the very early mornings with a time we HAVE to be off the ship we generally order room service which we did this day. That way we can eat while we dress and get off early without going up to the top of the ship and finding a table and getting our food from the buffet or waiting for table service in the main dining room. This was one of two of the only days we did not eat in the Lido for breakfast. The other was on the at sea day when we weren’t in a hurry to get off the ship to see a port and we had and enjoyed our breakfast in the main dining room. We had a 2.5 to 3 hour walking tour in central Florence with head sets to hear all the information as she talked as we walked. Then a few hours on our own. The must see in Florence is the Duomo….the big Basilica in the center of the city. Interesting to see inside but fabulous on the exterior of it and the next door bell tower. Both of which you can climb for a fabulous view of the city if you are up to a 400 plus stairs climb. The dome was the first of it’s kind and a feat of engineering. Also next to it is the Baptistry which also has fabulous frescoes inside but is known for the detailed carvings, I think in brass but might have been gold. This was the city that began the Renaissance so there are great works all over the city with all the big names of the time… Michelangelo, Donatello, Da Vinci and many more. Besides the buildings and gardens and great gelato and across the Arno river great huge steaks, and the markets this is a city of museums of art and sculpture. The two big ones, the Uffizi and the Academia with Michelangelo’s David, have very long lines so buy your ticket in advance, or if you will be there for a while buy a city pass. The Uffizzi, which has a huge collection of paintings funded by the long time ruling family the Medici, is closed on Monday. Others might be but I don’t know. The oldest bridge in the city, the Ponte Vecchio (others were bombed by the Nazis during the WW II) is also of interest for the shops (it used to be butchers but now most are gold shops) and after crossing it to the other side there are many hand made items from leather goods to mosaics and musical instruments in shops handed down over generations and you can see some of the items being made by the craftsman. There are also gardens, overlooks, and at least one palace on the other side of the Arno river to visit. The markets on both sides of the river have great cold cuts, cheeses, breads and wines so you can gather ingredients for a picnic in the city if you choose. We have done both…eat at a bistro and made our own picnic lunch. When our narrated walking tour was over we split up. Our daughter and her friend continued walking in the center of town area getting food and shopping. We got a nice cold cut and cheese sandwich on foccasia bread and gelato which Florence is famous for. We had been to the center city before for 1.5 days so after eating we walked across the bridge to check out the other side of the Arno river which also has attractions to see. On the way back on our bus we had a fantastic view of all of Florence spread out below us from the top of a hill. The guide pointed out Galileo’s home as well as a church designed and built by Michelangelo and she also pointed out the hills where all the Carrara marble comes from. Interesting to us because we have some Italian Carrara marble in our home. Upon arrival back on the ship we hit the hot tub, dressed for, and had dinner, and saw one of the musicals in the theater. Again, not as good on this Royal Caribbean ship (Serenade of the Seas) as we have seen on other ships but most of it was entertaining enough to be worth the 45 minutes.

Our second port was Nice, in the south of France on the Riviera between Cannes and Monaco. The actual port town was Villa France sur mer. And we were tendered into it. There was a nice visitors center with nice restrooms at no charge. There were ship excursions and public transport for pretty much all towns and cities on the Riviera. We had hoped to visit the old hill towns of either St Paul or Eze or both, but were advised they would be very difficult to navigate with a stroller due to many steps and large cobbles. So instead of the bus up there we took the bus from the little port city of Ville France sur mer to the center of Nice. We were dropped off close to one large square called Garibaldi with large handsome yellow buildings and cafes in front, along with public transportation stops. We asked a waiter which way to the square we wanted to get to on our map and he pointed us in the right direction and we walked over to the large wide flower lined Promenade with walkways on both sides and with a grass center with fountains and play grounds, past lovely old ornate pastel buildings down to the Avenue along the beach front (which is more rocky than sandy) and a flight of stairs down from the street and wide sidewalk level. We stopped at a local farmers market for fruit and bought panninis and crepes with Nutella filling from a bistro. Also a bit more than home but good. When the walking became an uphill climb (we could see villas and fortresses and a castle up there in the trees) we turned left and walked back into town on a different avenue than we came down on, walking past a large WW monument in a hill and a large sail, power boat and yacht harbor. We asked, and found, the bus stop for bus 100 back to the little port city and and when we got off the bus we stopped at the playground on top of the tow hill with a nice view of the town and over the water. When we got back down to water level we spent the last of our time there talking to a very nice artist while he painted. Back in Nice we had asked several people for directions and most shook their heads no. I am guessing they just don’t like to, or can’t, speak English or don’t like Americans or all of the above. I suggest bringing a phone with a translator app. And if you want to blend in with the locals dress very stylishly! After several attempts at each question we got a friendly English speaking helpful person. A word here for people who have not been to southern Europe…rest rooms are a downside of travel here. Public ones are very few and very far between and generally cost .50 Euros each person so for a family of four to go to it’s more than 2 bucks per trip. Hard for families with little kids with small bladders, as well as seniors. Often they are not clean. The locals will say just head in to pub or cafe, which works for locals, but not for tourists. They can tell. They say you need to buy something. I have heard many tour guides say buy a coffee or a bottle of water, both of which of course will put you back in the same position soon! I took a water bottle with me (with a filter) and just took tiny sips when I was really thirsty and then when I got back to my hotel drank my daily water as soon as I got back and well before bedtime so I didn’t have to get up through the night. There were exceptions. A big beautiful posh hotel in Barcelona (sorry I don’t remember the name) not only let us use the restroom, but were super nice about it.

Our next port of call was Corsica. The terminal had rest rooms but we didn’t see any others until we went out of town to a park on the water, and they were closed for the season in spite of the fact that it was still warm enough to go in the water. We tried to get to one by buying gelato in town but they said they didn’t have one. I slipped into a cafe unnoticed but when my husband went in they threw him out. But back to sightseeing in Corsica. The main town, Ajoccia is small and easy to walk around. The language is a mix of Italian and French as the island was part of both countries in the past. We walked around the square closest to the terminal and they had a market in the middle. Then we opted to take the reasonably priced open top bus 1.5 hour tour along the coast to see more of the island which is beautiful… high rocky mountains in the center and homes stacked up the hills and down to the coast line. Reminded me of Malibu and the other areas of the coast line of California but some buildings where quite a bit older. Then back in town we checked out the Napoleon (who was born there) places including the big square with the monument, his home and the church in which he was baptized. And finally we went to the beach for an hour or so before going back to the ship. The water was warm even in October. Just so you know…some women were topless sunning themselves on the sand both here and in Nice. And also like Nice, you have to go down a flight of stone steps to get to the beach.

Next port of call after our at sea day was Palma de Mallorca. We took the shuttle bus from the pier again (usually a few Euros – this one was 5 E) from the ship to the center of town and stopped in at the Tourist Info Center for a map, which they gave us, but also told us that the city provides free walking tours guides who do tours for tips. They are there between 9 and 11 am I was told. They wear bright orange jackets. When we were there, there was one who spoke French, one English and one German. Of course they all spoke Spanish as we were in Spain. There are two public restrooms that I know of in town. One is in the underground parking garage under the area by the tourist info kiosk across from the huge Gothic Cathedral and the other is in the big market downtown. Our young guide was awesome. He narrated our over 2 hour walk around the city with all sorts of interesting facts. After he finished, with a generous tip from us, we did some more walking until it was time to get back on the ship. Other excursions out of Palma were underground caves and beaches. That night we had a chance to check out the piano player. His name was Simon John and he was very good.

Our next port was Valencia (photo here on the right is the Unesco World Heritage site there) and again we took the shuttle bus from the port to the center of the old town. We walked around the square, and the square behind it, and checked out the market which was in a really nice building, some old churches and the Unesco World Heritage site which was a few Euros. The building was nice but was empty. Good example of that architecture though which seemed to me to be a combo of Spanish and Moors. And it had a clean rest room, with no extra fees. Across the large strip of park there was a large art museum just opposite the shuttle bus. One person told us it was the building with the cobalt blue dome. Another said it was opposite that building so you’ll have to check, but it’s there somewhere near (in walking distance) of the old center of town. All the ports being ports and being on the water had many many boats of all kinds and sizes and this one was no different. Lots of boats.

Our final port was Barcelona…a large beautiful city with a large port, long beach, and many types of architecture. We stayed for four days after leaving the ship. We began our first day there stopping at the tourist info center which is in the base of the tall Columbus, aka Colon, statue down near the water front. The center is in the basement. For I think 6 Euros you can take the elevator to the top and look out over the water and the city. We did not do this as we had a very similar view from the top deck of our ship. We proceeded by walking to our hotel and fortunately the sidewalk was smooth so rolling our bags was a lot easier than on the cobbles in Rome. Once we checked in and dropped off our bags we then walked the entire length of Las Rambles, the main boulevard, with a side trip into and around the Gothic Section and visiting two churches seeing only the exteriors as both were closed, but we could see the massive walls and other architecture features. There was a priest standing in front of one and he invited us to mass at 5 pm. Then we went back to walk the rest of the avenue. We picked up some meat stuffed pies to eat then, and food at the big market and at a bakery. We also visited a grocery store to get supplies for our room which had a frig. Most of the grocery stores we saw all over were very small. It seems people go to the butcher for their meat, the baker for their bread, the grower for their fruit and veggies like it used to be here at all the ports we went to but we did find one large grocery store off Las Rambles. Because the store fronts are narrow it was on two levels. There were both local and US based company products sold. All the refrigerator foods were down the escalator. Makes sense as cold air sinks. We easily figured out with the aid of maps and our hotel desk clerk the metro system and the bus system. You can save a lot by buying a T10 which means ten passes for ten dollars which works for both the buses and the subway. Otherwise it’s 2 something Euros a ride. It also works for one of the two airport shuttle buses so you’ll have to ask which one. We also found a couple Starbucks in the city which was a good place for a rest room. My daughter got her latte fix and we all got to use the restrooms. We met some nice residents there and our little guy played with their little kids, and we got some useful info from the locals. They seem to be more open to using English than the French or the Italians for the most part. There are always exceptions. On the way back to our hotel we checked out the Gaudi palace and a local store and bought two mosaic magnets for gifts which is all we brought on this trip. We have too much in our house already including things from other trips. I should have gotten one for me though as I am now sorry I did not! When we got back to the hotel we checked our list of attractions we wanted to see and went over our route with the desk clerk for the next day and made sandwiches as we had eaten out for lunch.

The next day we did our first Barcelona metro trip to see the very famous Gaudi church (the large center building in the photo right) Sagrada Familia which is very complex and not yet finished. We walked all around it to see it from every angle. We had not bought tickets on line to see it inside and the line was very long. I said we need to come back when it is finally finished! We then walked up to the St Pau Unesco World Heritage site hospital and grounds. There is also a museum. We stopped at some benches in the center of a long park like avenue and had our sandwiches and then took a taxi up to the Park Guill. It was a short distance but a steep hill and we had already walked up hill to St Pau. The park is huge. It is on a hill and continues to go up hill. There is the free entrance that is most of the park, and the section with the Gaudi monument, famous benches, and buildings and tower in the lower center which is about 7 Euros. Depends on if you get them online or in person. At first we didn’t think we could do the entire park when we saw all the steps but then realized that there was also a ramp like sidewalk so we could do it with a stroller and managed to get all the way up to the top of the park and what a stunning view from up there of the entire city of Barcelona and the water beyond! Many nice plants and flowers along the way. And many parrots in the trees. They are hard to see with green feathers in green foliage, but make a lot of noise so you will spot them. The red on the head helps. Also a few Gaudi stone bridges in the park. We elected to walk down to the main street which meant my husband and daughter had to carry the stroller down several flights of stairs. We passed a large church..I think it might have had a school or some regional offices in it, and also had nice gardens in front. When we got to street level we went a couple blocks over to the metro stop passing and interesting mix f some old and modern buildings along the way. We took the metro to the Garcia area, rested up at a Starbucks where my daughter got her latte and we all used the restrooms and met a local family and our kids played together while we chatted. Then we walked along the Garcia Avenue to see the modernist and Gaudi buildings. Even with Metro and the taxi we walked over 7 miles that day so we headed back to our room, had our dinner and planned out our next day which was our last. And started packing.

For our last day my daughter wanted to start out with the Mariners Museum which I was not that hot for. I have been to quite a few in the states and elsewhere already, but I am glad we went. The historic building itself was interesting…an old fort and shipping warehouse. The exhibits were good and they had a nice restaurant. I was thrilled to see the elaborately decorated huge Spanish Galleon. There were also exhibits of the harbor centuries ago as well as now, and art works depicting it in varies stages. There was an exhibit about the history of under water exploration, lighting and photography, as well as Jaques Cousteau. Also one on pirates, multiple style ships old and new, and one on the history of cruising and some very well preserved antique maps and antique navigation equipment plus a bit on current navigation. Next we took bus 64 to see the beach which was very nice and had lots of sports areas behind it as well as cafes and restaurants. And a nice view of the city because it wraps around. After the beach we took the bus to the large center city park called Citaduilla or something like that. It was a large park with a few buildings…one was a botanic garden, a kid’s playground and a huge monument with large fountain. Very striking. Just beyond was the Arch de Triumph and then to the Musica Square with Gaudi style and other modernist buildings, the very elaborately decorated theater, a beautiful building that was a school, and a Gaudi church. Elaborate but not on the scale of the Segrada Familia. As we were going by the old section of the city we found the church we had been looking for on the first day, Maria de la Mer. It is a large Gothic building known for it’s beautiful stained glass. After visiting the church and hunting down our last gelato we stumbled upon a Culture Center build around a late middle ages (1700) excavation of the town with lots of info to tell us what we were seeing. Very well done. The center is free and there are two places that have fees…the reenactment theater and the museum of the pottery and other items from the excavation. Also has rest rooms. I thought the building was a train station. I’m glad I asked some one! We walked up the avenue and happened upon the 64 bus that we had taken to the beach so we hopped on and in route saw the beach and area lit up at night and then back up into the city and our couple block walk to our hotel. Finished packing and up early the next morning (5 am) we walked to the metro to the airport shuttle bus at 6, checked our checked bags and boarded our small Lufthansa plane to Frankfort where we had to run from gate A 16 to Gate Z 50 but we made it in time. Again we had a great plane, great seats and great food and accommodations for the little one on our overseas flight home. I hope this info is helpful to travelers considering any of these ports.

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