Thursday, August 24, 2017

My August

Life started early today, feeling completely discombobulated from about 21 hours of playing plains, trains and buses yesterday.  I was up at a brisk 4:30am and just figured I may as well get the day of not-so-fun laundry and grocery shopping started.  We came back from a totally awesome 15 day trip to Europe after 10am last night.  Nobody knew what time it was when we got home.  The travel gets a little easier each time, which is a good thing since the airlines are crazy busy and sitting together is nearly impossible.
Where'd we go??...
In mid June, a mostly impromptu effort to get a vacation scheduled came to fruition in a matter of a couple hours.  I had been avoiding planning one because my eldest loathes the sight-seeing trips. We did Mexico last year, and much of it was great, but any visiting of ruins topped his grumpy scale. I start to feel underwhelmed with a vacation that is hotel/pool centric.  Like, seriously, kids, there really ARE places more interesting than a pool.

My husband was tossing around a couple of Caribbean islands, which given the boys' baseball schedules looked like ridiculous options because we had August to work with.  You just don't go there in hurricane season. It's not that we couldn't but then I'd have to purchase the cancellation insurance, and it would be a serious bummer if the trip did get cancelled.

I very easily convinced him that a cruise might be fun, and he bought it hook, line and sinker. I had done some homework, and knew it would be pricey for 2 rooms, but I also knew Europe was an option.  It might just satisfy everyone's wishes. What kid doesn't want to go on a cruise??

Mine did.  Even a 10-day Mediterranean cruise!

On August 9th, we arrived in Rome. We came a day before the cruise was scheduled to depart in the event we had flight issues. We had a day to travel to Civitavecchia (Rome's port) and to fart around town a bit.  It's not glamorous, but has that Italian Old-world charm. My kids spent one afternoon swimming in the Med. 

These two go nearly anywhere, happily most of the time. Wandering around town was plenty fun. The stigma of the words "sight seeing" does not adversely affect them, thank goodness.

We left on the Norwegian Spirit on August 10th. It's one of their smaller ships, but was plenty big. It may have been slightly more of a hit if it had the huge water slides that some boats have, but hey, can't have everything. Unlimited food and sodas were nearly enough for my 15 yr old.

 The cruise stopped in ports every day, 9 in all. I never thought I'd be a fan of "at sea" days because there is always more to see on shore.

Day 1, Pisa.
We were supposed to port in Livorno, but learned upon checking in the day before that we were diverting to dock at La Spezia, some 50 miles north. These things happen on cruises. We are lucky nothing was canceled.  I had prebooked a tour with -- a taxi tour company.  These are considerably cheaper than the ship's excursions, and they can be customized and private.  They knew the ports were changed, and still met us in La Spezia.  I cannot recommend this company enough. We did tours with them twice and they guides and prices were fantastic.

Our guide took us to Pisa.  We climbed the tower and saw things around it.  Guide books suggest you only allocate a couple hours to visiting Pisa, but seriously a 1/2 day would be better.
 View's from the top were wonderful. It was a crazy windy day, so it was a bit unnerving to be up there.  That first night at sea was the only point when I seriously questioned what were we doing taking a cruise.  The reason the ports were changed was because of weather. That first night at sea was very rough. I went with seasickness medicine and was really glad.  At one point in the night, the ship was rocking so much, the sliding closet door keep opening and slamming shut. The sound of the surf is calming, so I often left the balcony door cracked, but this night the wind just howled.
 After Pisa, we did lunch and a little shopping in Lucca -- a wonderfully quaint walled city.  I love the narrow walking streets.  I had forgotten how known Italy is for leather.  Yup...came out of there with a couple of purses!

From Lucca we went into the country to taste wine and olive oil. This diversion was great.  My kids could wander on the villa, visit with their cats and pony.
Italy has seriously the biggest aloe plants ever! 

 Since it is only a few weeks from harvest, the grapes were all on the vines too!
Stop 2 was Cannes, France
We wandered around their old towne, which like many others is a maze of narrow streets and cafe's.
 Had to sit for a bit for a cappuccino.  Life IS hard.
 The kids opted to take a dip in the noticeably cooler northern Med.  The only thing they really complained about was waiting while the clothes dried (nobody wanted to bring swimsuits!). Oh, life is hard.
 My favorite times were when we came into port, and when we left port.  Here we are at the very front of the very-windy ship as we were leaving somewhere. Mornings, I sat on my balcony while the remainder of my uber-lazy crew snored away.  What is it with non-morning people?
Stop 3: Marseille, France
I could tell my 15 yr old was not into the sight-seeing for the long haul, even though he came along with us.  Marseille is a large city, but not necessarily one that many tourists flock to.  There were more desirable excursions in Provence, but we opted to be more low key. We toured the city on a tourist train, which took us to the high point of Marseille to visit the Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral.  It was really impossible to get a photo of the entire church (above)...Both cathedrals we went in were distinctly this Byzantine style. I remember this from visiting Florence too - very ornate striping on the outside and inside.
 and overly grandiose mosaic work everywhere.
 The view from outside the cathedral shows all of Marseille's harbor for as far as the eye can see.

We went into another cathedral in Marseille, a similar style.  I love doors and the ornate ones we came across. I have at least 2 dozen door photos from this trip.
 Doors and floors...or maybe I should call them future quilt patterns.

 Stop 4 - Barcelona.
It is important to note that this was August 14th.
I was so looking forward to Barcelona.  The city looked so interesting and rich with a different style of architecture from France & Italy.  Having been to Spain at age 18, and having been robbed on the streets of Madrid, I have never wanted to go back until now. I'd love to spend time in Southern Spain exploring her nooks and crannies.
 And it definitely did not disappoint. Because I researched, I knew we could only visit the Barcelona Cathedral if we wore appropriate clothing (no tank tops, short shorts, etc). Vendors were at the front of the church selling people scarves to cover themselves with because may were turned away.  The church is simply massive, and sits smack in the center of the the Gothic Quarter.  The way this city is made up of narrow streets, you cannot even see this church until you literally stumble into it.

 The other big cathedral in this progressive, modern city is Sagrada Familia - designed by Gaudi.  It is modern and different, and unfinished.  There is still scaffolding. Workers are attempting to finish it to the best of Gaudi's initial designs. This place is like no church I have seen.
 One of the front copper doors has this leafy/buggy texture!
 Windows on the inside are brightly colored and not in the least bit religious.
 The towers around the outside can be climbed for great views -- clusters of "stuff" (is it fruit??) are on them and are embossed with mosaic ceramic. It is mind-blowing.
I loved wandering through the pedestrian streets, looking in the shops, which were mostly real goods and not the junky tourist trap stores.  I bought a couple pottery plates. And chocolate.  That may not have made it home.
And what would Spain be without a lunch of tapas and cava? 
The waterfront is beautiful, lots of big boats.  There may not be as many mega yachts as the south of France, but it is definitely pretty. My kid has a weird need to do a backflip in every port.  Here's flipping in Spain.

The Las Ramblas is a popular and wide pedestrian street.  Most probably never heard of it until 2 weeks ago. I hadn't.  It is packed with el-cheapo tourist trap souvineer stands, and these human statues.  The statue-people are pretty neat.  We were blessed to have been in Barcelona on the 14th, just 3 days before the terrorist plowed down people. It's sad and eerie.
 Stop 5 - Palma de Mallorca
My boys wanted to hit the beach, but Sophie did not for some reason, so I took her and we went into the town to explore. It was just another quaint maze of narrow walking streets.  Sadly, though, because of some fiesta, we couldn't go into the Barcelona Cathedral, which is supremely massive.

I should say that I have absolutely no interest in religion or going to church.  I was not raised where it was a critical part of my upbringing.  I simply find European churches to be splendid displays of amazing architecture, design and art. They are inspirational from a completely different persective.
 The sweets...
 Not sure I know who this nutjob is.
 Stop 6 - Cagliari, Sardinia (said Sardegna by the locals)
We didn't plan anything this day, which is a good thing because we spent 2 hours on a bus, first going the opposite direction,  before realizing it didn't do a "loop" route, only to get to the castle of our destination to discover it was closed until 4pm!  DOH!  Southern Italy is HOT, and this castle was in the middle of nowhere.  No place to get water, lunch or to pee.  Stupid tourists!  The fun is in the journey?  "are you sure, mom"

We did find another nice spot for some lunch. Cruises do feed you 12 meals a day, but you have to be ON the boat to eat them.
 Cagliari definitely had the most crap tourist shops of all stops, but we still found a few to grab some local edible treats. Maybe we will try them this week.
Stop 7 - Valletta, Malta
This port wins the most scenic of all.  It is unbelievable. The baroque style is everywhere, and just oozes with old-world charm from the first moment.  

 We did a taxi tour with  Our driver took us to Mdina, an old walled city first.  Somewhere I have some photos, but time was mostly spent roaming the narrow streets, and drooling in the blown glass shops.
 Our driver took us across the island to the Blue Grotto, a place where you take a boat along the coastline to see the gorgeous cliffs and clear turquoise water.

 Did I say blue?
 Then there is a place to jump into this warm water. We just sat and sweated while the kids swam.

 Malta is a very small island, something like 19km by 29km. Prices were very reasonable too.
 Stop 8 - Messina, Sicily

 We did a ShoreBee tour this day. It was only supposed to be a 5 hour tour, but turned into 7 hours. You do get your money's worth. This one used a small bus.

We toured two places - Castlemola and Taormina.  Sicily is crazy picturesque, with mountains on one side (and Mt Etna) and sheer cliffs and gorgeous water on the other. I kept wanting to see groups of "the Mob" men, but was proven false.  Good thing probably!
 Both of these towns were to die for - so cute and quait. Sicily is the BOMB for buying pottery, so I was in my happy place.

 Here is the view from Castelmola.  The ride up there in a bus was definitely not for the faint at heart. Trust me.

 All over these countries, the beauty of everything from the flowers to the mosaics, to the pastries is revered.  No detail is forgotten. That is something that is missed in our country. Places in Europe have withstood the test of nearly 1000-2000years because they were built differently.  Makes you wonder what America will have in 1000 yrs.

 There was this lounge at the very front of the boat.  It was kind of a sad lounge, mostly with just a handful of older people. But it was a fantastic place to sit at sunset. My kid loved to pretend drive too!
 Stop 9: Napoli (AKA the Last stop)
This was the only place we did a ship excursion. In 2000, Eric and I went to Italy, and did a tour to Sorrento and Pompei. We wanted to do it again.  This is one place Sophie came home from school wanting to go, so it seemed appropriate. We were short one kid this day, but it was better to let him stay on the boat and play basketball than to come where he didn't want to go and whine.
 Sorrento is very busy in August. But the views from the cliffs are amazing!
When you need a potty, sometimes you have to stop for a coffee and doughnut to get it!
FYI - the pottery in Naples and the Sorrento coast is also amazing, but much of what I have acquired from my mom or SIL (who lives in Naples) has it's distinctive lemon motif, so surprisingly I didn't buy any here.  You'd be amused to know though, that I did buy a suitcase in Naples to help bring back all of the other pottery and stuff!

We only got 2-1/2 hrs at Pompeii, which is hardly enough, but it was so hot, I thought we'd melt if we were there longer.
 Another backflip for posterity.
 Pompeii is cool on so many levels.  Just imagine that this ornate civilization was built and destroyed 2000yrs ago.
 I mentioned this area is known for lemons...they are growing everywhere (kind of like olives grow everywhere in Italy).  They would never make the cut for an American grocery store...many shapes.  I find them interesting, though far from perfect.
 Last night on the boat.  Just a few kir Royale's in the front lounge.  FYI - that is Capri in the distance, where we went 16 yrs 17 yrs ago prior to getting married.
My on-again, off-again eldest child even joined us for some Shirley Temples and a completely silly set of photos. It was fun. Maybe he snuck too many sips of my drink.  Who knows.

 When we left the ship on the 20th, we took the train to Rome and spent 2-1/2 days there.
 As an enticement to my eldest, non-sightseer (and because he just couldn't stay at the apartment because it was not ready), our first sight to see was Rome's Cat sanctuary.  It sounds odd, but there is a block of ruins where 130 cats live.  They feed and care for them, and they can roam the ruins or come inside. We could only visit with the ones near the office/inside area.  There were plenty enough to get your cat fix.
 This one was a total sweetie.

 I more or less tricked my 15yr old into walking past the Trevi Fountain and Panthenon, because they "were on the way to the Metro".  Both were very busy.
The next day, we had tickets to the Colosseum. Hayden did go here, but I was able to walk him back to the apartment afterwards before we went elsewhere.  We stayed a 3 block walk away - great location. 
 It was busy too, but entrance lines were very reasonable.
 Ruins are EVERYWHERE throughout this city.  It is so very interesting because if this.
 We took the 2 younger kids to the Castel Sant Angelo, which was nice. It has great views of Rome, particularly the Vatican.  We did not go to the Vatican because none of the males were interested in the dress code.  Did I mention it has been the hottest summer in Italy in about 100 yrs?

 Later, we walked back to the Colosseum to see it under night lights, minus a few hundred thousand tourists too. This was really neat.
 Everybody was losing steam by the last day, so we just took the kids to the zoo -- kind of sad by our zoo standards, but they didn't complain.  It was their preferred version of sight-seeing.

 These were made from bread!
Today has been fun. Fun in that I have gotten to unpack my suitcases and unwrap all my treasures, and "fun" because I am getting to do 4 loads of the absolutely most sweaty, stinky laundry ever.  Oy...

Wanna see some of my goodies...
These are pottery from Barcelona. I love them because they are playful and colorful, and are very different from most of my other pieces, except perhaps the Mexican.
 I have several pieces kind of like this (below), which I love, but did not want to replicate.
These little creatures were also from Spain, painted in the Gaudi style. Bryce bought the frog.
In Sicily, I bought these two platters.  They said that the pomegranate is one of their native motifs, and I just LOVED the red/orange other one.  It screams me. I am all about the bolder colors. One will hang on the wall.
They were all so neatly wrapped, it was almost hard to open the papers.  OK, not.
There were a few foodstuffs as well as clothing (that is boring tho).  A bottle of wine, squid-ink pasta that we thought we'd eat at the Rome apt, cookies and candies from Sardinia, some herbs from somewhere. Yum!
  My mom gave each kid 50 euro to shop with. I buy them each treats and sweatshirts, but let them buy most other things.  Wonder what a 10 yr old chooses?...volcanic rock cat from Sicily, fan from Sardinia, soaps from provence, two hats (yes, the girl has style...and nobody squashed that bonnet on the flight home!) and anklets (she had to stop at about 14 cheezy vendors along Las Ramblas to find just the right one!)
 Here's my sad little fridge, with what is nearly my most prized purchase.  You cannot buy this vermouth anywhere near here, and since I quit traveling to Italy for business 15 yrs ago, I have not had any in ages...Cannot wait for it to chill.  It means summer.

 Time to go fold 4 loads of wash.

Next time, I promise I hope to have some quilting to show. I did not stitch anything, nor did I set foot in a fabric store. Come Monday, it will be client quilting as usual though.  Cheers & arrivaderci for now.