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Two Weeks On The Mediterranean: The Vision of the Seas

SmarterTravel

Author: Justin Boot
Date of Trip: October 2015

I should’ve packed a flashlight. If there’s one lesson to learn from going on a cruise, it’s to bring a flashlight if you’re staying in an interior stateroom. It seems so obvious in hindsight. There are no windows; when you enter an interior stateroom and close the door, it’s as if you’ve inadvertently stumbled into a dark, otherworldly abyss, with only a tiny sliver of slight coming from the eyehole in the door. It’ll take a few moments to find the light switch – by the time my two weeks on Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas ended, I could’ve navigated my stateroom blindfolded – and you’ll see the serviceable, albeit limited amenities of your temporary home. There was just enough room for a bed, small sofa, table, trashcan, closet, a dresser built into the wall, a flat screen television, a bathroom with a sink, toilet, and narrow shower. Nothing more, nothing less. It wasn’t so bad after a day or two. As cruise ships are designed for space efficiency, the simple layout makes sense; these accommodations are just enough to keep you comfortable. Room service was thankfully prompt, efficient, and kind; it’d be all too easy for that cramped space to become filthy otherwise. On the other hand, the ship’s utterly repetitive television broadcasts got old within the first day. Aside from the news channels, everything was eternally on repeat, which made staying in the room more like some kind of bizarre, Kafkaesque travel story.

Needless to say, I only spent time in the stateroom when I absolutely had to.

When we weren’t at port or on a tour, I wandered the ship. The Vision of the Seas has 11 decks, most of which can be explored at any time. I spent most of my mornings up on Deck 10, using its jogging/walking track alongside dozens of other passengers. It took a few mornings for the chilly Mediterranean wind gusts to stop bothering me; I started the trip in jackets and layers, and ended up in t-shirts and shorts. Being constantly on my feet was both a conscious decision and a health necessity; the cruise provided more than enough food for everyone, particularly at the ever-bustling Windjammer Café/Buffet on Deck 9. The selection was impressive at all hours: cereals, bread, cheeses, all types of meats, fruits, salads, pastas, mini cakes, an ice cream machine, juices, teas, coffee…It was good. Pro-tip: Bring a small bag and an empty bottle with you to the buffet in the morning, then stock up on bread rolls, slices of meat, fruit, water, etc. You can smuggle them out of the ship and have free lunches whenever you’re at port, and have access to drinking water without resorting to the expensive beverage plan. The staff will be too busy to notice, assuming they even care in the first place.

I don’t drink alcohol, so I spent almost no time in the ship’s 8 bars and lounges aside from taking photos. Instead, I indulged more in the Aquarius, the ship’s main and semi-formal dining venue. After a day of adventuring, we passengers would return to our assigned tables and trade stories over fine international cuisine and desserts that resembled modern art. Don’t be late for dinner; the wait staff gives you several minutes of leeway to get to the table, but keep in mind that they’re serving multiple tables at once. Our server, Rajiv, was quite attentive and had a great sense of humor, so I didn’t want to mess up his already busy schedule. If you’re a photographer and want to capture a sunset during dinner, don’t bother shooting from the windows in the middle of the meal. Instead, show up a little early, place your order, take your photos on Deck 5 or 10, and come back when you’re done. That way, everyone else won’t have to wait for your return, and you’ll have something to show off to your tablemates! Steaks, fish, salads, and noodle dishes were common, but the menus (finely crafted with stylishly illustrated caricatures of the chefs) changed every day. Though I ate like a king, I actually lost weight; between the jogging track, taking the stairs everywhere, the superb indoor gym and pool facilities, daily aerobics, and being constantly on the move, I tightened another notch on my belt.

Aside from food, there was a decent variety of activities to enjoy. When you’re traveling with thousands of people crammed on a single ship, it’s important to keep everyone entertained. That’s especially true on those long haul days between Salerno and Venice, and Kotor and Barcelona. I didn’t rely on the cruise’s Internet data plan; it was too expensive, and I found less and less use for it. Movies were shown every few days; I enjoyed Ant-Man and The Lego Movie, though the projection screen in the interior theater was too bright and blurred. You’re better off bundling up and coming to Deck 9 at night and watching films on the poolside screen. If you prefer staying warm, try hanging out at the Centrum on Deck 4; you can sit back, relax, and listen to live jazz and pop culture covers, and watch whatever performances are being held. One of the more memorable ones was a Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatic act and light show that featured dancers climbing all over chandeliers. If you want to see such shows from an unusual angle, try taking the elevator up to Deck 9 or 10; you can watch the show unfold from below. There are also some terrific theater stage shows, particularly a Spanish magician and a four-man a capella group. There’s also a surprisingly robust casino, though it reeked of smoke and was usually empty. I don’t gamble anyway; the only competition I was interested in was a one-off Wii Bowling contest in one of the lounges, though my lone opponent was a 5 year-old.

Speaking of which, there is a small, cramped video game arcade tucked away on Deck 10. Most of the games are a little dated – does anyone even still play Guitar Hero? – and I never saw any kids there. There is a small assortment of books and board games on Deck 5, though you’ll probably have brought better options. If you’re like me and prefer to read someplace quiet, sneak up to the Viking Lounge on Deck 11 during your days between ports; most passengers simply ignore it in the mornings, so it’s easy to find a nice, comfortable corner and relax. If you prefer something a more hands-on, there’s a rock climbing wall at the back of the ship. It not tough – I watched a child finish it with minimal help from the attendant on hand – but it’s still an interesting diversion.

For the rest of time, I was far too busy touring. This trip went to a lot of stops, and it was impossible to see everything in one shot. Here are the highlights:

Villefranche/Nice, France: A beautiful port town brimming with cafes, colorful buildings, and history. If you’re going on a tour, it’ll probably boil down to a visit between Monaco or Nice. If you don’t want to spend the money on a Nice tour, you can climb up the hill to the nearest bus stop at Octroi (the locals were friendly and thankfully forgiving of my inability to speak French) and ride to the marina in Nice. Bring a map and walk to the Old Town section of the city, which is a crowded, convoluted mass of alleyways and tourists. Watch your pockets, and keep an eye out for the numerous churches and war memorials scattered around. The Fontaine du Soleil is worth checking out, though be sure to climb Castle Hill before you go back to the bus. It looks arduous at first, but 300 feet of stairs leads to a huge observation deck with an absolutely gorgeous view of the coastline. If you have time when you get back to Villefranche, visit Citadelle Saint Elme. It’s an impressive piece of old architecture that also houses multiple art museum galleries.

Florence/Pisa, Italy: This is one of the few ports in which getting taking a tour is absolutely necessary. The ship is docked in Livorno, which is about an hour’s drive away from the main attraction and far less bright and cheery than the French Riviera. If you’re going take the Pisa tour, keep in mind that it just takes you to the Piazza dei Miracoli, not inside the Leaning of Pisa. If you want to go up, you’ll have to buy tickets there and stand in a huge line; they only allow a certain number of people in there at a time, and its entrance is protected by armed guards. If you do go through the wait, you might have just enough time to climb to the top and snap a few photos, then run back to the bus. You might be better off just wandering the Piazza and enjoying the architecture, but be sure to ask when and if the buildings are open; there was a high-profile funeral going on when I visited, so tourists weren’t allowed inside the cathedral. Also, keep a very close eye on your personal items; Piazza dei Miracoli is crammed with tourists distractedly trying to take photos, which makes the place a haven for pick-pocketers and thieves. I came across one woman who put her bag down to take a photo, only to have her belongings snatched away the second she wasn’t looking. Also, be wary of overly aggressive souvenir vendors outside of the Piazza; if you buy something, try to keep the transaction quick and low key as possible.

Rome/Vatican City, Italy: This will probably be the most strenuous part of the trip. Wake up extra early and stock up on food. You’re going to need the energy. Most of the tours cover a lot of ground, but are insanely expensive and fast-paced. I chose one of the simpler tours, which involved riding out to St. Peter’s Square and exploring on my own for most of the day. The guide gave each of us the option: Rome or Vatican City. There would only be time for one; the lines at the Vatican are Disneyworld-level long; you’d blow the entire day just on the Basilica interior, museum, and the Sistine Chapel. I followed the guide’s advice: If this is your first time, go explore Rome. This is one of the oldest and most important cities on the planet, and there is so much – too much – to see on a single self-guided walking tour. But I gave it my best: The Vatican, Castel Sant’Angelo, Piazza Navona, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and the Colosseum. Pro-tip: Don’t rely too much on those little tourist maps the guide provides; they don’t display all of the streets, and use drawn caricatures of the landmarks instead of precise positions. Trevi Fountain is to the left when you’re facing the entrance to the Pantheon, no matter what the little map displays. Follow the signs and bring your own guidebook if possible. Also, do not under any circumstances go to the McDonalds around the corner from Trevi Fountain. It’s incredibly crowded and the upstairs bathrooms are astoundingly filthy, to the point where the stench can be smelled out in the hall. If you need a sanitized bathroom without a huge wait, hit up Melograno instead. It’s right next to the fountain, and you can get some good gelato and pizza as well.

I ended up taking a taxi back from the Colosseum. I was far away from the meet-up point at St. Peter’s, and didn’t to risk getting lost on the way back. The driver got me there pretty quickly and for a reasonable price, and I another 45 minutes to kill at the Vatican. If you want to do something unusual/cool for your friends and family, buy a postcard at one of the vendor stands, and then send it back home via the Poste Vaticane. Yeah, you read that right. Vatican City has a small, but well-furnished post office hidden behind the columns on the north side of the square, near the papal apartments. Not only did my postcard make it home, but I got a Vatican-exclusive printed euro as part of my spare change. In a moment of touristy weakness, I also picked up a bottle of holy water from the gift shop just outside of the square. They also sell all kinds of jewelry and ornate crosses, but I found this one to be a little more interesting. Overall, it was a fascinating, if exhausting tour.

Salerno/Pompeii, Italy: The Amalfi Coast is often regarded as one of the most beautiful places in the Mediterranean, and for good reason. Next to Villefranche and Kotor, this was arguably the most visually stunning. Salerno has a rich history of culture and art, and once housed royalty. It was pretty ugly at first glance; it was raining when we first docked, but the clouds eventually gave way, lighting up the gorgeous hills and colorful buildings like a huge spotlight. The cruise offers free shuttle buses from the docks into town, but I heard about it too late; I had only about an hour and a half to spare before having to return for my tour. There were plenty of interesting little niches and alleyways, and the main drag on Corso Vittorio Emanuele is a huge draw for tourists with money to spend. If you have time, try tracking down the bus that goes to Arechi Castle, an old ruin perched proudly on the upper slopes of the coastline.

The cruise offers a variety of tours at this port, and I narrowed the decision down to hiking Mount Vesuvius or going to Pompeii. As I’m a huge history geek, I couldn’t pass up the latter. Word of advice to any first-timers in Pompeii: take the guided tour. It’ll save you a lot of hassle, and guides are engaging and knowledgeable. I went in armed with only a map provided at the entrance, and in retrospect I feel that I missed out on a lot. Pompeii is much bigger and more complex than most people would assume a ruin to be. It’s impossible to see everything in a single afternoon. Even with a detailed map, it’s surprisingly easy to get turned around in the labyrinth of stony streets, all crammed with a never-ending swell of tourists and camera crews. I ended up relying on whatever snippets I could overhear from passing tours. Oh, and one last thing: Please respect the rules when it comes to littering. Pompeii isn’t just a tourist site; it’s a haunting, but wonderfully crafted piece of history.

Venice, Italy: Fun fact: I actually spent my birthday in Venice. Yes, it was amazing. But it wasn’t without problems. There are several tours to take, most prominently the Venice Panorama. You’re whisked away on a small ferry boat (equipped with a bathroom with questionable plumbing) and taken around the exterior of the city and its surrounding islands. You’re given the option to take this either in the evening, or in the morning. I made a huge mistake of taking the evening tour. It got foggy in the afternoon, and visibility was abysmal by the time the tour started. Imagine trying to do photography in one of the most gorgeous cities on Earth, but on a chilly night, during heavy fog conditions, all while standing on top of a small and moving ferry. Yeah, that was an adventure. Instead of taking the tour boat directly back to the ship, I opted to be dropped off at Piazza San Marco (AKA Saint Mark’s Square) and see what I could. I stopped for an obligatory shot of the Bridge of Sighs, and kept walking. The dinner crowd had left hours before, most of the shops were closed, and a handful of live classical bands were still playing for the dwindling crowds. I bought a small Murano glass pendant as a memento, and then treated myself to some Crema dei Dogi for my birthday. As I stood there in the dark with my gelato, I listened to the music drifting into fog and knew that I would never forget that moment.

The next morning, I didn’t bother with any tours. I didn’t rely on the cruise’s exclusive – and expensive – shuttle back to Saint Mark’s. Instead, I rode out on a local water taxi. I marched back into the square, determined to see more than the night before. Instead of shelling out hundreds for guided tours of the museums, I bought an all-use pass instead. Pro-tip: Instead of waiting in line at the Doge’s Palace, go across the square to the Museo Correr and buy the pass there. Everyone overlooks Museo Correr (which is mistake, as that place is amazing), which means prices are cheaper and early morning lines are non-existent. Armed with the relatively cheap all-use pass, I was given free reign over St. Mark’s extensive museums. The Doge’s Palace is indeed worth the visit; it gives Versailles a serious run for its money in terms of opulence. Artwork, libraries, relics, weapons…The sheer history was overwhelming. I’ll reiterate: It is impossible to see everything in a single day. It’s true of any major city, and it’s especially true for Venice. I was furious with myself when I realized I hadn’t left enough time to see the Rialto Bridge or most of the Grand Canal. As the Vision of the Seas left port, I climbed up to the exterior of Deck 11 and took as many shots of the city as I could. After all, it was the highest point for miles around. I felt as if I had missed so much, and wanted to capture what I could. I came down over an hour later, silently vowing that I would return to Venice.

Kotor, Montenegro: Coming into this trip, the only thing I knew about Montenegro was that it was the setting of Casino Royale, a 2006 James Bond movie. There were few travel guides for it, and even fewer people I knew who’d even heard of it. In retrospect, that made the experience even better; I didn’t have any expectations going in, and Montenegro took me by surprise in the best way. The Bay of Kotor is one of the most naturally beautiful and serene places I’ve ever seen. Coming from someone that lives in California and has been to Hawaii multiple times, that’s really saying something. The cruise ship had to navigate a narrow inlet for over an hour, passing by numerous small villages and hills that gracefully sloped up into mountain ranges. The water was clean, calm, and looked almost like a perfect mirror. It’s as if we’d somehow traveled back in time, to a medieval European era. That was debunked upon closer inspection, of course; Kotor is modernized, but it’s still got a firm grasp of its ancient roots. The entire town is surrounded by old fortifications; not only can you climb the 1,350 steps up to the Castle of Saint Giovanni, but the walls light up at night in a spectacular show.

There are a few cruise tours, but I went in blind. When you get off the boat, don’t bother with the taxi drivers trying to talk you into going up to scenic viewpoints. Instead, walk down the road a bit and find the red Open Tour bus service. For 20 euros, this local business drives you around the bay and drops you off at various stops. You can hop on or off any of its buses, thus letting you enjoy the towns at your own pace instead of being stuck with a group. I took a ride out to Risan and Perast, and checked out their Roman mosaics and historical museum respectively. When you get back to Kotor, they’ll even throw in a guided tour of the Old Town. Be sure to pick a town map/poster provided just outside of the gates! The tour is fairly brisk, stopping at the clock tower, the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, and other landmarks. Oh, and be sure to ask why there are so many stray cats in the town; there’s an interesting history behind it! Before you leave town, be sure to check out the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the interior is brimming with artwork and the sweet aroma of incense. The back walls are illuminated by dozens of burning candles, which looks even more awesome than it sounds. When comparing experiences with other passengers later, those who toured the famous Our Lady of the Rocks island said it was an amazing experience, but admitted that I got to see much more than they did.

One last thing to take away from Montenegro: It is easily one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever visited. In terms of physical geography, this was the furthest I’d ever been from home. Walking down the road near Perast, taking in the sheer silence and stillness of the bay…it is a memory that I will carry with me. But it won’t last. Kotor isn’t on the mainstream travel radar yet, but it will be very soon. It’s one of the few places in the Mediterranean that’s been relatively untouched by the rest of the world. However, resorts are already being built near its shores. In another ten years, its natural serenity will have been overtaken by the tourism industry. If you have any interest in that area whatsoever, go before it loses its magic.

Oh, and Casino Royale was never filmed there. The real thing is so much more beautiful.

Barcelona, Spain: This is where the cruise began and ended. I spent an extra 2 days here after docking. This was my second time in Spain. I was in Málaga and Seville back in 2011, so I thought I knew what to expect. But Barcelona has a life all its own. It’s over 2,000 years old. It has survived kingdoms, wars, invasions, plagues, and so much more. Its varying neighborhoods, churches, landmarks, and architectural designs are a testament to its rich history. Of course, there was too much to do. Most travelers will advise you to hit up the Boqueria, and I agree completely; I hadn’t seen such amounts and variety of fresh food since my time in Tangier. There are also several restaurants near the waterfront; I enjoyed some awesome paella after touring the Museu d’História de Catalunya. Which, by the way, has an awesome rooftop bar/observation deck overlooking the marina. After you’ve spent a few learning about the history of Catalonia, go up there if you want some nice sunset photos.

But if you’re in Barcelona, there’s one name that’ll constantly come up: Gaudí. And for good reason; his architectural designs are unlike anything else, and add even more to the city’s unique cultural flavor. If you haven’t heard of the Sagrada Familia, you need to put it on your bucket list. Even if you don’t care much about religion or architecture, you need to see this place at least once. Preferably in the afternoon, when the sun is shining through its massive stained glass windows and bathing everything in a multicolored light. There is a very good reason this is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The Sagrada Familia isn’t just a cathedral; Gaudí envisioned it as walking through a forest, and built it accordingly. The arches curve up like massive tree trunks, culminating in a ceiling that resembles a flowery canopy. There’s an underground section that displays Gaudí’s works, as well as a window looking into his crypt. You can also pay a little extra to take an elevator up one the church’s many spires, giving you one of the best views in all of Barcelona. Be warned, though: this place is overflowing with tourists. If you’re going to go, schedule and order your tickets through the Sagrada Famila’s official website. It’ll save you a long wait and even more grief.

While you’re waiting for your appointed meeting time, there are plenty of options in the immediate area. Most tourists will flock to the nearby McDonald’s or KFC (seriously!), but you can do better. Try Brasa y Vino, a quiet little restaurant over on Carrer de Sardenya. They serve tasty seafood and chicken dishes, as well as freshly-made jamón. There were also numerous food and chocolate stands throughout Avenue de Gaudi, but that made have been due to the Castanyada celebration. If you prefer your churches to be a little more…traditional, be sure to visit Barcelona Cathedral. Built between the 13th and 15th Centuries, it is a prime example of Gothic architecture and is arguably one of finest in all of Spain. It’s easy to be awestruck by its incredibly ornate altars and ceilings, but be sure to seek out the elevator hidden inside. If you bought a ticket, you’ll be allowed to take the elevator up to the roof of the cathedral and get an excellent view of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. There’s also the nearby Arc de Triomf and its surrounding park areas, but I sadly didn’t get enough time to see all of it.

That can be said for this trip as whole. The last two weeks of October 2015 were some of my busiest and most demanding adventures in my life. The cruise’s pace was utterly grueling. But for all rush and stress, it was worth every second. I saw so much of Europe, places normally reserved for dreams and bucket lists. France, Italy, Vatican City, Montenegro, and Spain, extended glimpses of humanity far removed from my daily life. It’s not about the amount of places you see; it’s the memories and experiences you have there. It sounds so cliché, but it’s true. I will cherish those moments, and I look forward to going back someday. I hope you make it out there, too. There’s a lot of world out there. Go see what you’re missing.

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