A MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE
A photo-illustrated travelogue of the Western European and Mediterranean port cities.
If you want to see Mediterranean Europe and you have only a limited amount of time; and you don't want to pack and unpack every day; and you want to avoid anxiety over transportation and lodging, take a cruise ship. That's why we booked this cruise on Holland America's Rotterdam. We began the trip with two days in Paris, then on to The Netherlands to board our ship. Our cruise itinerary gave us ten port stops in the fourteen days. Plus we tacked on a couple of hotel days at the end of the cruise in Athens.
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We flew non-stop Los Angeles to Paris aboard a brand new Air France 777. The in-flight meals were exceptionally good, but, not surprisingly, they have found a way to squeeze more passengers into less space than ever before.
Our hotel (Paris Hilton) was conveniently located only a few hundred yards from the River Seine and the Eiffel Tower. We couldn't resist, so we were off to the tower even before unpacking. It's awesome. Pictures can't do it justice. It's painted a light bronze color, which, when illuminated at night glows in bright gold. And at night, every hour on the hour for 10 minutes, thousands of colored lights twinkle and sparkle. It's difficult to believe that at one time it came close to being torn down.
Most of the conventional sights to see in Paris are located quite close to the River Seine and there are several river boat companies which operate up and down the river constantly. We chose one which offers an all-day pass with "jump on-jump off" privileges at the various stops. This proved to be a most convenient and efficient way to see as much as possible in our compressed time frame. A river boat is the way we were able to tour, Notre-Dame, The Assemblee Nationale, The Louve, Trocadero, Place de Concorde and the Tuileries. We wound up our exploration with a walking tour up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. A day and a half is not nearly enough time to see this "City of Lights". I hope we will return someday.
The next morning we took a cab to the Gare du Nord train station for our three hour rail trip to Rotterdam. The seats were comfortable and the scenery delightful. We made stops at Brussels and Antwerp, but a short time later it was announced that there was an obstruction on the tracks ahead and we made an unplanned stop at a small station where passengers for Rotterdam were to leave the train and another train would pick us up and find an alternate route to Rotterdam. The Stationmaster at this station knew nothing of this and that caused a bit of panic to spread through the anxious crowd. But all's well that ends well and we finally arrived in Rotterdam with about an hour to spare before the ship's final boarding time.
The embarkation process on the Rotterdam went quite smoothly and our luggage was delivered to our cabin within minutes of boarding. We had cruised on the Rotterdam previously and were able to find our way around the ship quite easily. For the record, Rotterdam is 780 feet long and is rated at 59,653 gross tonnage. Passenger capacity is 1260 and has a crew of 600. Rotterdam was put into service in 1997. By 5:30 PM the gangway was removed and we were underway. That night we passed from the North Sea through the Strait of Dover and into the English Channel.
Our first port-of-call was La Havre on the coast of Normandy at the mouth of the River Seine. La Havre is the gateway to one of the most interesting and picturesque areas of France.. It was here that Claude Monet painted many of his masterpieces. It is also near the D-Day landing beaches. The ship offered a number of tours, but our party of four chose to find a taxi and travel the short distance to the south side of the Seine and the Village of Honfleur, "City of Painters and the Cradle of Impressionism". Our driver who had grown up in the area was young, enthusiastic and spoke passably good English. He was proud to show us around his town. The heart of the village was the the Old Dock and St. Catherine's Quay which is surrounded by high houses, quaint shops and restaurants.
The following two days were spent at sea on our way to Portugal. We needed this time doing nothing, just resting and regenerating after the long flight and the rush around Paris.
When we awoke on day five we were safely docked in Lisbon. Unfortunately, it was Monday and the Lisbon museums were closed. This eliminated planned visits to The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, The National Museum of Coaches and The Torre de Belem. Undaunted by this disappointment, we found a driver who had a van for our group of six. Our altered itinerary included the Estrela Church, The Se Cathedral, the lookout point at St. George's Castle, the Alfama, a tour of the Palace at Queluz, a lunch stop at Sintra and then back to the ship by way of Cascais and Estoril with another stop at the Boca do Inferno (Mouth of Hell) where the ocean waves crash into the caves and blow holes of the rocky coast. This full day of Lisbon sights cost only 35 euros per person including tip.
During the night the Rotterdam rounded the Iberian chin at Cape Saint Vincent and set a course for Cadiz, Spain, where we docked at about 9:00 am. Cadiz can lay claim to being to oldest city in Europe, but outside the city center it is somewhat less than beautiful.
We passed on the tour to Seville and chose instead to go to Jerez de la Frontera, the world capital of sherry production. It is also the home of the Royal School of Equestrian Art where andalusian horses are trained and exhibited. We were in luck for on this day a special performance of the horses and riders would be held in the hippodrome. We tried to find a van for our traveling party of six, but none were to be had. We settled for two taxies instead. The grounds and buildings of the school were well kept and beautiful. The horses and riders were amazing, but no photographs of the performance were permitted.
The next port was to be Barcelona, but first we had another day at sea and the second of three formal dress nights. 'Formal' isn't as formal as it once was. Thirtysome years ago a clear majority of men wore tuxedos. On this cruise it appeared to be less than ten percent. The ship's Daily Program now describes formal dress as "Jacket and tie for men. Tuxedo suggested". During that night we passed by Cape Trafalgar and through the Strait of Gibraltar.
Day eight dawned in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia and the most popular tourist city in Spain. We took the ship sponsored half-day city tour. We visited Montjuic, a 900 ft mountain which is just one big civic park and is the site of the 1992 Olympics, numerous museums and art galleries, a large performance theatre and also where the Spanish Grand Prix is held. Next stop on the tour was the Sagrada Familia an amazing architectural wonder which is still under construction; and finely, the Gothic Quarter, the oldest part of the city which contains parts of the original Roman walls. Here, also is the Barcelona Cathedral of Santa Eulalia which was begun in 1298 and completed in the 19th century.
We left the tour at the Gothic Quarter and walked the few blocks to the Picasso Museum. The museum is now housed in five adjoining medieval palaces. This is one of the most popular attractions in Barcelona; and the hour-long waiting line attested to this. But the wait was well worth it. The 3,000 piece collection was augmented by a traveling collection of the artist's post-war works from the Antibes, France museum. The Picasso Museum allows no photography of any kind.
Just before noon the next day we docked in Monte Carlo, Monaco. The harbor was filled with multi-million dollar yachts. This must be how the REAL other half lives. We six were able to negotiate a 7-passenger Mercedes van with a young personable driver who spoke near perfect english. The cost was 30 euros per person for a three hour tour.
CAPTAIN ALBERT'S BLOG The Captain of the Veendam writes daily of what it's like being the captain of one of Holland America's cruise ships.
The first stop was medieval Eze, high up in the mountains overlooking three countries, Monaco, Italy and France. After Eze we drove along the cornishes back to Monaco where we visited the Place du Casino, the Hotel du Paris and a parking lot filled with Rolls Royce, Porche, Lamborgini and Mercedes. From there we drove up to the old section on the high ground overlooking the city. Here was the Royal Palace, the Cathedral, Oceanographic Museum, and various public buildings. We spent a lot of time here exploring the narrow streets and shops and the Cathedral where Prince Ranier and Princess Grace are interred.
The next day was Saturday and the 10th day of the cruise. We docked in Civitavecchia, Italy, the port for Rome which is some 50 miles away. We decided that it would be best to take the ship sponsored shuttle to Rome to insure we got back to the ship by the 8:00 PM sailing time. The shuttle took us to the Piazza Barbarini at the foot of the Via Venato. From there we boarded the "'hop on-hop off" red bus (11 euros), a double decker that stops at eleven designated places around Rome. It's a great way to get an overview of the city before setting out on your own for the places you really want to see. We got off at Saint Peter's Square and headed for the bacilica. The slow moving lines to get in wound around the huge square and it was obvious we could spend hours standing there in the sun.and get nothing more done that day.
With a little searching were able to find a van and a willing driver to take us around. He did just that. We explored the Forum, The Palatine, the Piazza Venezia, Circus Maximus, Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Piazza Popolo and Borghese Park. Our driver took us for lunch at a family restaurant where we had great lasagna. We were back at the Piazza Barbarini in plenty of time to be picked up by our shuttle back to the ship.
The original itinerary for this cruise included Tripoli, Libya as our next port of call. However, due to current political conditions, Valletta, Malta was substituted. Our route during the day took through the Tyrrhenian Sea and close by the island of Stromboli and it's active volcano. Later, we picked up an Italian pilot who guided the ship through the Strait of Messina, that narrow body of water which separates Sicily from the Italian mainland.
The Rotterdam arrived in Valletta, Malta in early morning when the light reflects off the limestone rock of the sixteenth century buildings and battlements. Perhaps nowhere in the world is a harbor so picturesque and so architecturally imposing as here. One of the Rotterdam's chefs remarked that Valletta is just one big sandcastle.
So as to avoid the hordes of tour bus passengers from the the four cruise ships in port that day we were off the ship as soon as it was cleared by the Malta authorities. We took a cab up to the Triton Fountain and City Gate and from there we walked to Fort Saint Elmo and back to Republic Square where we entered the Armoury Museum and then the Grand Master's Palace. By this time St. John's Co-Cathedral was open for visitors. The cathedral's floor is wall-to-wall marble slabs and under each is the tomb of a knight, identified by Latin inscriptions and their coats of arms. Of all the churches and cathedrals we saw on this trip, this was by far the most interesting.
The next day at sea we were on our way to Kusadasi, Turkey. A strong wind was blowing from the south and the seas were rough. With the Rotterdam's stabilizers there was no noticeable roll. That night was the last formal night and the Captain's Dinner.
We arrived at Kusadasi just before 8:00 am, and we were off the ship with the first busload of ship sponsored tours to Ephesus. It is said there are more Greek and Roman ruins in Turkey than in Italy and Greece combined, and Ephesus is a grand example. It was, in it's time, one of the great cities of the known world. Originally founded by the Greeks in the 4th century BC, it reached it's greatness under the Romans in the 1st through the 4th centuries AD. It is a "pure site", as there are no modern buildings intermingled with the ruins as you will find in Rome or Athens. For me, the was the most impressive day of the entire trip.
The next morning was our last aboard the Rotterdam. We docked in Piraeus the port for Athens and passenger disembarkation began very quickly for those with early flight schedules. We had indicated we had no flight plans that day so we were in the final group departing the ship. When we emerged from the cruise terminal we saw a line of about 200 people waiting for taxies. There were no vans, shuttles or limos anywhere to be found. Welcome to Athens! More than a hour later our turn for a cab came, and we were finally off to our hotel for the two days until we were scheduled to fly home.
Our two days were not nearly enough time to see and do Athens, much less the surrounding areas. But we made the most of our time. We were able to visit the the Acropolis, the Agora, and the Plaka. We thought it to be a good idea to be at the Acropolis when it opens at 8:00 am. It's cooler and uncrowded then. We walked from the Acropolis down the hill to the Agora and the Plaka . Later we took a taxi to Archaeological Museum and finally to the changing of the guard which is held every hour on the hour. And that's the high points of Athens in ten hours.
The Rotterdam was everything we've become accustom to with Holland America. The ship was in top notch condition. The bar service was excellent. Our Room Steward was always cheerful and available. The dining room waiters were polite and friendly (although on a few occasions at our table for 6, not all of us got our courses at the same time).
The itinerary was the best and included several ports new to us. The sea days were nicely spaced. Transportation ashore was in some places surprisingly inexpensive and in other ports, namely Cadiz, a ripoff. Drivers are aggressive and city traffic is hectic, but it seems to move well even during rush hours. The rule is, if the nose of your vehicle is ahead of the car beside you, you have the right of way. And it all seems to work quite well.
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NEW! Lots More Pictures from this Cruise.
NEW! Pictures from the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
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