Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Around the Mediterranean in 16 days - a summary


I know I been MIA for awhile now, but I am finally back and jet lag free. Ever since I went on a cruise back in Dec. of 2009, I been wanting to take another one. Finally that wish has been fulfilled with my 16 days trip to Europe.

Well, the trip started in Rome, after a 14+ hour connecting flight, we finally arrived. Being inside the Roman wall is literally like living in the past. Every corner you turn, you are faced with beautifully preserved ruin sites. To top it off, their October weather is just fabulous, warm (~20C) and sunny (big contrast to what our weather is like).
Spanish Steps
On our day in Rome, we did all the tourist areas: Trevi Fountain, Villa Borghese, Piazza Navona, Capitoline Hill, Pantheon and Spanish Steps. I know it sounds like a lot, but these places are all within walking distance, but do prepare to be drop dead tired at the end of the day. The one place that really didn't impressive me much was Spanish Steps, just look at the amount of people there, it was chaotic.
One of the most well known place in Rome is the Colosseum, so I definitely couldn't skip it. Because we were so tired on our Rome walking tour day, we didn't actually make it. So we ended up putting this off until the last day after our cruise. After actually going inside, I understand why it's so famous, to think this was actually built in the 80 AD, there were some pretty sophisticated mechanics built into the place.

(World renown spiral staircase at Vatican Museum)
Of course, no trip would be complete without a visit to Vatican city, since it's right there. We went on a Monday, which is consider busy because of its closure on Sundays. There were tons of group tour vendor trying to get you to buy their skip the line pass for the museum by telling you the wait is over 2 hours. In reality we only waited for 1 hour despite the fact that the line up looked more like it would be 4 hours long. There was so much to see at the museum. So if you are really into the history of everything, be prepare to spend a day there.
Since we only had a day at Vatican city, we went to visit St. Peter's Basilica in the afternoon. This church was truly impressive. The ceiling was at least 3 stories high. Detailed artworks and sculptures were everywhere. Although the line up maybe long for this place as well, but it's well worth it. (we didn't actually line up, see next picture)

(no picture allowed once you are on the tour, also remember to dress appropriately)

A couple month before I left for my trip, I did a lot of homework and thus found out about a St. Peter's tomb (Scavi) tour. I booked with the excavation office directly and was told to be there at a certain time for my English speaking tour. Finding the office prove to be difficult, base on the basilica picture above, it's on the left hand side. along the edge of St. Peter's square (just ask any Swiss guard). The tour itself was certainly highlight of the day. Our guide (a priest from Connecticut), was both humorous and detailed, so it made a huge difference, as we learned a lot on this short tour. The evidence they present to us was very compelling, and I do believe the remains we saw was indeed St. Peter's.

Tip: I highly recommend this tour to everyone, except people who are claustrophobic. It was pretty tight and humid down in the tombs. Also if you purchased this tour, I would suggest you go first before checking out the basilica, because the exist of this tour was right inside the church, so no need to lineup, and save you a good half an hour to an hour.
Because of our limited time in Italy, we tried to maximize it by booking a trip to Venice via the Eurostar train (3.5 hours). If you went by regular train, it would be more than 7 hours. Venice was our favorite city. I know I've said it too much already, but really this was very impressive despite the rainy weather. Water bus, taxi, or gondola served as the only forms of transportation in the city. Their street were purely for pedestrians. We went everywhere either on foot or by water bus, because I couldn't really justify spending 80 Euro (listed price, but they try to charge your for more) for 40 minutes on the Gondola, as romantic as it may sound. Plus it was rainy that day and I get sea sick very easily. XD

Tip: booked your train tickets early at Trenitalia, because it's a lot cheaper than buying it there. Look for something called mini fare.
Finally was our embarkation day on the NCL Jade. The day didn't really start out well. First, there was heavy rain in the morning, luckily it cleared up when we were headed towards the train station. Once we got there, we barely made the early train. As we were getting on, there were some 'nice' people who offered to help haul everyone luggage on board. It turned out these were gypsies, and they turned right around to ask for money. It wasn't really a problem for us, as we were firm on the tip we were willing to give, but they did hold some old lady's luggage and demanded more money.

Once we got to Civitavecchia port, that was another mess. Apparently there were shuttles that took you from port entrance to the actual ship, but there were Nobody around to facilitate this. After a good 10 min pass by, we saw a bus labelled NCL Jade, so decided to hop on. Once we got off that bus, it did not get any better. There weren't any clear signs anywhere, so we followed this huge crowd into a warehouse that was apparently the luggage drop off zone. As we were all slowly moving towards the drop off, some officer point us all to another entrance, which turn out to be the check in. At this point, we were in line for the check in, so decided not to go back for the drop off. However once we were on board, everything was great. Good thing our room was actually ready ahead of time, so we were able to drop off everything before grabbing lunch. So, if any NCL staff is reading this, your check in process could definitely use some improvements:
- more signage
- more staff to direct the passengers, facilitate line up, so it won't be such a mess.
Our first port of call was Katakolon, in fact the picture of the cruise ship above was taken at that port. It was a charming little town with lots of local flairs. One of the main attraction near by was the ancient site of Olympia where the Olympic games was started. Although interesting, but really it's all up to the imaginations, as this was one of the least well-preserved ruins. Olive trees were everywhere at this place, I guess there is a reason why people in Greece use a lot of olive oil.

Tip: we didn't do a excursion, so we used Geo-travel right outside the port, and it's only 10 Euro/person for return tickets to Olympia.
A day later we docked in Athens, well technically it's Piraeus port. After a short metro ride, we were at the foot of the Acropolis. The hike up to the top was beautiful and not really steep. It was super windy up there, so it was a bit chilly at time. The Parthenon was magnificent, but part of it was under renovation. Also the marble stone up there was super slippery because of its smooth surface polished by the millions of visitor yearly.

Tip: before you get to the metro station, there is a good 20 minute walk from the port. Just ask the locals, they will point you in the right direction. Also, take caution with your belonging while riding the metro, especially if locals start to talk to you and try to help you without asking. We were actually pick pocketed, which I actually witness, but because there was nothing in R's bag, so we didn't make a scene.
Next country we visited was Turkey (Izmir Port). One of the most famous site is the House of Virgin Mary. Of course the top of the house was reconstructed base on studies done, but the bottom layers are the actual remains of the original house.
The ancient site of Ephesus was another stop on our guided tour. This was the best preserved site we saw during the whole trip. Does the above symbol look familiar? Well, you are actually looking at the first documented sign for medicine which probably dates back to at least 1st century BC.

Did you know Nike was a Goddess, before it became a brand? Don't believe me, just look at the sign underneath the right arm, looks familiar?

Tip: skip the Carpet/Leather factory if you can, they really wasted so much time (at least 1.5 hr), the the prices are also insane.

Last but not least, the highlight of this cruise: Egypt. I booked this cruise mainly because it stopped in Egypt, because seeing the Pyramid was just one of those things that was on my list since forever. I have to say we were very lucky, because at the time, there was no protest or any form of violence. In fact, the people there are generally happy and friendly, with the exception of the vendors. Visiting the Pyramids were great, it was definitely breathtaking. Now, if only there weren't hundreds of vendor running around trying to push you to buy things by placing things directly on you, it would have been a better experience. Despite this, I wouldn't trade this experience for anything.

Also, Egypt was definitely an eye opener for me. They don't have any waste disposal system, so they would throw garbage into the streets. Once it piles up, they would just burn it down and start the cycle again. All I can say is we are truly fortunate for where we live, how we live and our clean environment.

Tip: if you are not planning to buy, then just ignore the vendors as rude as that may sound, it's the only thing that worked. Also, get a local guide (we used Ramses tour), because it definitely helps when dealing with the camel ride operator and local vendors. We were pressured for a lot more tips at the camel ride. Although we paid the high tips, but eventually got part of it back after we told the guide of our experience.

* more detailed reports coming soon :). If you have any question, just let me know.


Ben November 22, 2011 at 8:00 PM

Nice report. Looks like you had a great trip! Ben

Anonymous November 28, 2011 at 1:33 PM

How much did the trip cost? I would love to save money and do that amazing trip!

Jenny November 30, 2011 at 3:00 PM

It was a great trip which cost us about $3400 per person for 16 days which included flight, cruise, accommodations, train tickets, food, and spending money.

Jenny November 30, 2011 at 3:01 PM

Also, if you have any specific question, just email me.

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