La Serenissima

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mediterranean Cruise, Barcelona to Venice

Last leg: Corfu to Venice


Corfu is part of the group of Ionian Islands, the most lush and green of all the Greek islands. It’s long been a tourist stop evidently, as Jason and the Argonauts stopped there in their voyage to find the Golden Fleece and Medea!! It’s had various rulers, including in ancient times, the Corinthians, Spartans and Romans, followed by the Byzantines. Then from the 14th century the Venetians took control, then the French, the British, and finally Greece, with unification in 1864. I could see the attraction – the harbour is quite pretty.

 The most striking thing for me as a first time visitor was to see the French influence in the gorgeous colonnades that border the main white marble Esplanade or Spianada (town square), and the Italianate buildings. 

As I was demolishing a very nice stuffed pepper for my lunch at one of the many cafes that line the Esplanade, I had the French/Italian architecture on one side, contrasted by the ever-so-English cricket pitch on the other! If you only had one thing to say about Corfu, it would have to be that it is a MOST multicultural place.

After lunch I strolled through the maze of tiny, winding alleys in the Old Town and stopped to look in many of the shops to buy gifts for friends. One of the specialities is amber jewellery. 
Then, on the way back to the boat, I passed the Old Fortress, built by the Venetians in the 16th century.


According to the notes provided by Celebrity Cruises, Dubrovnik is “known as the ‘Queen of the Adriatic’ and is renowned as the most flawlessly preserved medieval city in Croatia … with its magnificent stone walls, churches, palaces and piazzas, it is architecturally a living monument to its days as an affluent merchant state.”

I entered Dubrovnik through Pile Gate, and across the drawbridge then through the walls that surround the town, built between the 11th and 17th centuries. Onofrio Fountain was immediately ahead of me, with the Franciscan Monastery to my left as I began my walk down the Placa, tiled in white, shiny marble. 

It was all a bit like being in a fairytale, despite the fact that much of this city was badly damaged during the Croatian/Serbian War in 1991– 1992. I walked through to the end of the Placa, marked by a clock tower first built in 1444 (restored many times since) then on through some of the narrow streets behind the Placa.

Of course I found a café to my liking, enjoyed some lunch and partook of extensive people watching and generally “hung out” to take in the atmosphere! When we sailed out later in the day, we were able to see the huge modern suspension bridge with the newer settlements beyond.


Let me just say that NOTHING compares to sailing into Venice … it is an experience of a lifetime. I have always thought of Venice as dreamlike … an improbable stage set, with a gorgeously painted canvas backdrop, … if I could just find the corner of the canvas and lift it up … I might just see scaffolding and the discarded costumes of gondoliers past …

We sailed into the lagoon around mid-morning, with St Mark’s Campanile clearly in view but quite tiny in the distance. It sounds corny, but the entire male waiting staff had been decked out for breakfast in white shirts, and striped braces (suspenders) in the colours of the Italian flag. They looked great!! To go with the Italian mood for cruise-end, and to complement the Venetian scenery, a selection of Italian songs, including opera and popular Neapolitan tunes, were playing on the top deck. The music created a wonderful atmosphere, and as Nessun Dorma rang out, the atmosphere was quite emotionally charged, with not a dry eye in the house!

We glided soundlessly, except for the music, towards to entrance to the Grand Canal. I couldn’t believe that such a large ship – 11 decks high, casting St Mark’s Square into shadow! – could possibly be IN the Grand Canal. At Santa Maria della Salute we made a left hand turn into the Canale della Guidecca and headed to our docking place at Stazione Marittima. From here, tenders would run all day and well into the night, every half hour, depositing us at Rio de Vin, about 2 minutes from Piazza San Marco.

We disembarked early the following morning, collected baggage and made our way to bus transport that would take us near the Stazione di Santa Lucia from where guests could take a vaparetto (canal bus), train, or whatever. Well, after waiting a while for the mystery bus, I decided to take matters into my own hands! We were near the Canale di Santa Chiara, which goes into the Grand Canal; the hotel I was booked at was a Best Western right beside a vaparetto/gondola stop, Santa Maria de Giglio – so I decided to get a water taxi and hang the not inconsiderable expense! Got a taxi, then a couple of American women joined me, and suddenly it was only 20 euros each – a snip!! And a great ride!

From my hotel, which was good, I had a 1 mintue walk to get the vaparetto at Santa Maria del Giglio (I took the above photo from said place) and could choose to go back up towards the Rialto etc, or in the opposite direction to the Lido …  or I could take a 3 minute walk to San Marco. Not bad at all. Like Paris, Venice is the kind of place where you don’t really need plans for going anywhere in particular – anywhere is going to be great! The mix of architecture makes a ride down the Grand Canal a visual feast – there are palazzi from so many styles and centuries, Classical Roman, Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. Byzantine/Gothic, early and high Renaissance are also reflected in Venetian art.

Apart from nosing around on the water, I also like poking about in the little winding streets, across the small bridges and into some of the other campi, such as Campo Sant’Angelo. Between Campo San Angelo and Campo San Stefano there are some lovely cafes and beautiful small shops featuring hand made goods, such as Cristina Linassi, whose speciality is hand dyed and woven linen and silk. 

More walking then lunch of pasta, green salad and a vino rosso on the terrace at Hotel Monaco, looking straight at Salute and the myriad of gondolas going by – always a delight. Then threading my way through nearby tiny streets to admire little shops selling beautiful marbled paper covered diaries, leather bound note books and a gorgeous glass/gift shop – not like the usual fare, tucked away at the back of what looks like a private walkway.

 Another excursion saw me buying beautiful hand dyed velvet bags for gifts in a wonderful shop – Venetia Studio (spelt the Latin way, STVDIVM) – mentioned by Marlena di Blasi in her book “A thousand days in Venice”; then taking coffee and people watching at a nice café in Via Larga XX11 Marzo, where I watched West Africans selling knock-off Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags – right outside a real Gucci store!! Word that the police were coming buzzed around; they packed up hurriedly. Some time later 4 policia, with eyes averted and examining the prevailing cloud cover and the direction of the breeze, stumbled along, finding nothing wrong happening at all!! Pa-a-leeze …! The café staff just laughed and went on with their chores … they said this piece of theatre happens every day!

My departure from Venice was also memorable. I decided to take a water taxi to Marco Polo airport. I enquired at the hotel desk and the nice man said, but of course madam … and yes, the taxi goes from here … we’ll help you with your bags. Fabulous! But I didn’t realise how fabulous. I imagined my taxi would meet me at Santa Maria del Giglio and that the porter would assist me; it’s really close after all … When the time came, I was waiting in the lobby – I had noticed a door at the end earlier, but didn’t think anything of it … suddenly the door opens, and, presto! There’s a narrow canal on the other side of it, with my taxi waiting!! How good was that?! 

The ride to the airport was exhilarating and very scenic. We backed out into the Grand Canal, cruised along at a sedate pace until we were past Piazza San Marco, then turned left at Rio di San Lorenzo, zigzagged through a few more narrow canals and burst out into the lagoon behind Venice. From here, the driver opened up the throttles, and, as the Blues Brothers said, we HIT it all the way to the airport!! … Can’t wait to do it all again … Arrivederci Venezia; arrivaderci Italia …
 … gotta get that gondola! …

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mediterranean cruise, Rome (Civitavecchia) to Santorini

Civitavecchia  – Rome sea port

There were heaps of tour choices, but I knew Rome a little, and opted for the “Rome on your own” option. The drive from Civitavecchia takes about 1.5 hours to the centre of Rome, so you need transport to get there. We had a lovely Italian guide/courier on the bus who told us a million things – none of which I remember … oh, except that for some time before we got to the outskirts of Rome, right through to the centre, we were on Via Aurelia – the original Roman road that took Hadrian and like folk, to the English Channel.

All Italians, and Italians-in-training, such as myself, begin a serious morning’s work with a coffee. So that’s what I did immediately, to find myself sharing a laugh with guide from the bus!
The hop-on hop-off bus left right outside the door, so that was my next thing. Ah, la bella Roma!

First stop for me, Piazza di Spagna. Yes, I know it can be touristy (although there are lots of Italians there too) but it is also quite lovely. First, an errand to Amex for a few more euros, then off exploring. I love the languidness of people lolling in the sun on the Spanish Steps; then down Via Condotti to look at goodies I’ll never own, watching a discreet limo driver looking the part in a dark grey suit – with matching BMW 7 series – and Armani sunglasses, parked outside Bulgari; into the little cross-streets like via Mario di Fiori, where vintage and new Vespers zoom past; then back via Frattina to via de Propaganda (love these street names) where I love to look at the glove shops and the myriads of soft kid gloves in every imaginable shade. (On a trip to Italy last year, Julian bought me 2 pairs of said gorgeous gloves, one in aubergine, the other in bright watermelon pink! Wonderful.)

Further down via de Propaganda, I follow my policy of stopping to look down driveways to see if the doors to the inner courtyard are open. I’m rewarded with the view of a beautiful wall fountain, set in a beautiful archway artfully draped with ivy.

I take the bus from via del Tritone, up past the Forum, Colosseum, the Palatine and Circus Maximus back up to Piazza Navona. I love this spot, especially by November when the summer hoards are gone and you can have a peaceful view of the fountains and palaces that fringe the piazza. So, second rule for Italians, after the coffee one, is lunch of course! La pranza. Rule three, NEVER pick the places with zillions of plastic tables and chairs and menus in English; for preference, pick one with Italians eating there. I chose a place at the end opposite the tourist trade, had a wonderful lunch, people-watched, enjoyed the soft sunlight and strolled a bit. 

There are many streets that join Piazza Navona. One of them, via del Governo Vecchio, is worth a look. There are some lovely shops, including one that does hand made wooden toys, cafes and ambience – oh, and quite a few bikes!!

Then back on the bus to the Vatican to join our tour bus back to the ship. All in all, a day well spent.


Now, I had good intentions of springing off to brekky early, catching   during the morning and taking the ferry to Capri in the afternoon. Well, my spring had lost it’s springiness, and by the time I was good to go, I deleted all reference to the hop on/off buses and decided I’d just go to Capri. After buying my ferry ticket, I heard the unavoidable ringing of the collective twelve o’clock bells of Napoli to signal “down tools – time for pranzo!!” So, my plans for Capri were set, no time to waste, the venue for lunch was decided.

The ride across the bay is stunning; the Isle of Capri itself outlines by steep volcanic rock cliffs with little sandy bays at their base. We got off the ferry, onto a lovely marina – Marina Grande, Porto Turistico – and walking through Piazza Vittoria I saw ahead the unmistakable incarnation of Rule 3!! … scooting past I noticed lots of tourist shops too … but then more regular stuff. 

A market was in full swing, mainly apparel, and the shops and cafes more stylish. I kept walking, with the sea, little beaches and colourful fishing boats to my left, until I reached a place I thought was my speed. I stopped at a restaurant right on a tiny beach, white umbrellas, palms and yellow tablecloths. A group of what seemed to be Scandinavian women, having a wow of a time!! The waiter was in his fifties I’d say, but was totally into his role as waiter/Casanova, and thrilling his new Scandinavian friends with increasingly romantic gestures, culminating with the dessert course, with lots of hand kissing! The food – and wine – were great though, and he treated me to lots of winking each time he passed from their table. One of the courses they had (I counted about 42 in all!) was, he assured them, a famous local dish and was the speciality of the house. It was a whole fish, baked in a thick crust of sea salt – so thick, it sounded like a brick as he smashed it open and then lovingly boned the fish, keeping it intact and worthy of a fine photo in a cookbook.

By the time I finished a leisurely meal, and got back to the marina to catch the ferry … well … it was almost time for an aperitivi before dinner!!

Athens, Greece

We berthed in Piraeus, which is quite an attractive place. The port itself is large, accommodating lots of ships.

Having been to Athens before and done the BIG climb of the site of the Acropolis, I opted this time to do a half day tour around the city and sites. The tour included stopping by the Olympic Stadiums – the one in Maroussi, Athens, that hosted the 2004 Olympic Games and also the Panathinaiko Stadium, built in 566 BC and renovated in marble in 329 BC (see where we get our urge to renovate from??!!) and further renovated in the 19th and 20th centuries for the Olympic Games. Panathinaiko Stadium was also used for the 2004 Olympics archery.

We also stopped at the temple of Olympian Zeus, the Ancient Agora, the Acropolis, the Parliament and the Plaka. The Acropolis looks spectacular, even from ground level.

Note: on a previous occasion I visited the National Archaeological Museum. It’s definitely worth it. Standing so close to works of art and sculpture that are around 4,000 years old is quite staggering and very humbling. The piece that amazed me was the Horse with the Little Jockey – it would pass as an example of modern sculpture now, no curlicues at all! The Museum also includes extensive collections of the even older Cycladic and Mycenaean periods. And the New Acropolis Museum is something else … you can read more about that in a future segment in Adventures in the World.


Well, lots of places don’t quite live up to the hype and luminous photos that rave noisily about the place … Well, not so for Santorini. It IS every bit as enchanting as the pictures lead you to believe. AND it has a long and interesting history. The name, by the way, comes from “Santa Irini” and this group of islands – the Cyclades – are the most visited of all the Greek islands.

It was colonised by the Minoans in 3000 BC and got its distinct crescent shape about 1500 years later when the volcanic island erupted! The main tourist destination is Fira, which is more or less in the centre of the crescent and was settled in the late 1800s. Our tour ended here, with free time to do what you pleased and catch the tender back to the ship throughout the afternoon until sailing time at 6pm. The island itself clings around a huge water basin – the caldera or volcanic core – with cliffs ranging from 150 – 300 metres high! It should be said that the ships anchor in the caldera, as there is no port to berth such enormous vessels … I think the volcano is extinct … maybe not? …

According to Wikipedia “In 1707 an undersea volcano breached the sea surface, forming the current centre of activity at Nea Kameni in the centre of the lagoon, and eruptions centred on it continue — the twentieth century saw three such, the last in 1956. At some time in the future, it will almost certainly erupt violently again. Santorini was also struck by a devastating earthquake in 1956. Although the volcano is quiescent at the present time,” (very assuring to us all!!) “at the current active crater (there are several former craters on Nea Kameni), steam and sulphur dioxide are given off”.

My tour started at the other end of the island, Akrotiri, where the climate is dry and quite harsh. Not surprisingly it is a good wine growing area and we were able to sample some whilst taking in the breath-taking views.

Then we went to the opposite end of the island, Oia (pronounced Eeya) which is more verdant and also packed with ultra scenic views. Yep, it’s the end that is sooo photographed, especially the blue-domed church (seen here in an original pic by moi!) which I am sure you will have seen. We took a pleasant stroll around Oia (along with a cast of 1000s – but that didn’t matter, it is just lovely anyway). There are lots of boutiques and craft/sculpture/art galleries; the streets are tiny, narrow cobbled affairs.

I got back to Fira for free time and stopped for coffee and something to eat at a lovely café I visited previously, sitting almost in the same spot ( the photo below was taken from this café – the view of the steep cliffs and the buildings hanging on to them is quite dramatic). Last time I sat here, I was travelling independently and had come from Athens by air. As I sipped my coffee then, and gazed out into the caldera, I was secretly scoffing to myself about the enormous cruise ships lying at anchor, and the hoards from them that assaulted Santorini’s tiny streets … well, look at who’s scoffing now, eh? … 

After roaming said streets for a while longer, I took the gondola ride down the cliff to sea level. But here's a last shot of the beauty of Oia's bougainvillia clad white buildings. What's not to like?