Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mediterranean Sunshine

Two hotels and a ship, 2400+ nautical miles, six countries, nine cities, and 700 pictures later, we're back from vacation, and finally getting around to posting about it! Our "babymoon" was absolutely fabulous -- we're so thankful we were able to get away for such a wonderful trip!

This is going to be a long post, with tons of pictures, but here's a brief list of some of the lessons we learned on this vacation:
  1. The second trimester is way better than the first -- my morning sickness disappeared on the first day of our vacation. What perfect timing!
  2. Always get to the airport at least two hours ahead of time before an international flight.
  3. Sky caps are much more willing to be helpful when tipped generously.
  4. Wear hats and SPF 70 sunscreen if you're going to be in southern Europe in July or August -- especially if you're of northern European descent and your skin freckles at the mere mention of the word "sun."
  5. If you must travel in the hot Mediterranean summer, do your city walking as early as possible in the morning before the sun is fully up, and before the crowds get to the tourist sites -- ideally finishing up by 11am.
  6. Visiting beautiful historical sites is so much more fun with your spouse.
  7. Michaelangelo's David is way bigger than you'd expect in person -- and a truly spectacular work of art.
  8. A cruise ship is the best way to see nine cities in two weeks!
And here comes the super long vacation recap... Links to our photo albums are at the very end of this post, if you just want to skip ahead to that. :)

Getting to Europe
We were scheduled to take a red-eye to Barcelona from JFK on Saturday, July 18. (Many thanks to our friend Liz for coming up with us to the airport and driving our car back!) We got to the airport an hour and 45 minutes before our flight was scheduled to depart -- a little later than we had hoped, due to traffic and some GPS confusion on our part, but still well within the recommended window of time. Or so we thought.

We were there in plenty of time to get our boarding passes printed out at the self-service kiosk. All we had to do was drop off our suitcases, to be checked through to Barcelona. The problem, though, was that Delta only had two agents working the checked baggage lines. And the lines were LONG -- snaking back and forth throughout the entire terminal, with no sign of any movement. It was at the point of chaos where no one knew where they were supposed to be, passengers were getting snippy with the staff, staff didn't know where to direct people to go...

We were getting close to the one-hour cut-off for international flights, so David cornered a Delta agent to ask what we should do. We were directed back outside to the sky cap desk, in the hopes that they would be able to check our bags quickly enough for us to make our flight. So we trekked back out with our suitcases, with three minutes to spare before the cut-off. But for whatever reason, the system had already closed down baggage checking, and the sky cap couldn't get us there in time. We had missed the flight.

What then followed was a long series of being directed to different desks, waiting in several different lines, having to go back to the agents we spoke to at first to get them to document in the system the fact that we had been there in plenty of time to make our flight... At the darkest moment of that long day, when I thought we would have to either pay an additional $3600 to get to Barcelona or walk away from our vacation, David saved the day by tipping our sky cap $10 to convince him to come inside and verify that we were there in time. Once we had a witness, everything was smoothed out, and our tickets for the next flight were comped by Delta.

I had held it together, mostly, throughout this whole ordeal -- but David telling me that he tipped the sky cap reduced me to a teary mess. He saved the day! He saved our vacation! What a wonderful husband I have!

Maybe the pregnancy hormones had something to do with my overreaction... :)

So our first night of vacation was spent in a JFK airport hotel... But all the better to increase our anticipation of our exciting vacation to come!

Barcelona, Spain

Ahh, Spain. We finally made it to Barcelona early on Monday morning. (It's a good thing we had built in the extra time before our cruise ship departed!) Above is a shot of the cute little street in the old quarter where our hotel was located.

One of the main things we wanted to do in Barcelona was to see the architecture of Antoni Gaudi, specifically the Sagrada Familia, an unfinished cathedral that is emblematic of his architectural style.

Visiting the Sagrada Familia was perhaps the one unexpectedly amazing part of our trip -- it certainly exceeded all of our expectations. Gaudi's work is a uniquely spectacular contribution to church architecture. His structures feel so organic -- pillars like trees, riotous sculpture facades, soaring ceilings -- and it was actually thrilling to see the cathedral first-hand.

The Passion facade of the Sagrada Familia

One of the scenes in the Passion facade

The Nativity facade, a riotous, joyful outpouring of statues depicting scenes from
Christ's birth -- what a contrast with the stark Passion facade!

David on his way down one of the towers of the cathedral

Villefranche-sur-Mer, France

We had a day at sea after embarking from Barcelona, and then we arrived in the south of France! This was a more low-key day for us -- we got off the ship, wandered around for an hour or two in the little seaside town, took some photos, and then headed back. We wanted to ease ourselves into this vacation. :)

The harbor of Villefranche

Me on a sea wall, with our ship in the background

Florence, Italy

Florence was the stop we were the most excited about when planning this vacation -- we even called ahead to the Accademia and the Uffizi to make sure we had reserved tickets, in order to avoid long lines and to ensure that we'd be able to see the David (the one thing that we really, really wanted to see on this vacation). The city played such a huge role in the development of modern Western civilization -- the birthplace of the Renaissance, the home of the powerful Medicis... It's no wonder the city is basically just a huge museum these days! Above is David in front of the Duomo, the main cathedral in the center of the city.

Me in front of the campanile (bell tower)

David gazing up in awe at Michaelangelo's David

I sneaked a shot of the David, and the massive crowds in the Accademia

The Ponte Vecchio ("old bridge"), as seen from the top of the Uffizi Gallery

The tomb of Michaelangelo, in the Santa Croce basilica

Rome/Vatican City

Rome. The Eternal City. The ship docked at the port of Civitavecchia, about a 45-minute train ride away from Rome itself -- so we didn't get into the city until about 11am, when it was already really hot. Given the heat, and the fact that we had both been to Rome before, we decided to focus our energies on the Vatican -- see St. Peter's basilica above. It was so much more fun to visit Rome with David than it was to backpack through the city with other impoverished college students -- fun though those trips were, it's way better to see Europe with your loving spouse. :) Especially if you happen to be married to someone with an incredible memory for historical detail who can share all kinds of fascinating stories about the buildings you're climbing!

The two of us in front of St. Peter's

Michaelangelo's Pieta -- his sculpture really is miles above anything else we saw

The view from the dome of the basilica

The roof of St. Peter's

Naples/Pompeii, Italy

Naples was a crazy, chaotic southern Italian city. The traffic patterns were totally incomprehensible -- from what we could tell, from the relative safety of the inside of the taxi we took at the end of the day, it really looks like the direction of a given lane of traffic was determined entirely by who got there first and what direction he wanted to be going in. I'm so glad we didn't try to rent a car and drive ourselves around...

Pompeii was incredible, though. It was about an hour's train ride from Naples (during which we overheard a conversation between two Californian travelers who were completely snobby about the idea of going on a group tour, and missing out on the "real culture" of the cities you visited -- while at the same time bemoaning the fact that it was impossible to be a vegetarian or find a gym in Italy). And then we got to wander around the famous ruins of Pompeii.

It's one thing to see the few ancient buildings that were large enough or important enough to survive centuries of growth and development -- like in Rome, where you're walking down a busy street full of shops and high rises, when all of a sudden you're at the Pantheon. But in Pompeii, the entire city was blanketed with lava and ash, thus preserving everything. It was fascinating to see the random little family homes, the bakeries, the taverns, as well as the forum, temples and theaters.

So it was super hot and dusty, but these two history nerds were very much satisfied with their stop in Pompeii. :)

David demonstrating one of our attempts to hide from the sun;
it didn't really work, but doesn't he look cute?

Cart tracks in the cobblestones, created 2000 years ago!

The Via dei Sepolcri (the street of the tombs)

Mt. Vesuvius, as seen from our cruise ship -- it's crazy to see the volcanic crater,
and how close the current town of Naples is to possible destruction...

Santorini, Greece

Our first time in Greece! Luckily for us, our cruise ship helpfully catered to the Americans on board and prepared us for Greece by showing "Mamma Mia!" and "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" -- the best way to really get a feel for a country and its culture, right?

Santorini was breathtaking. The island itself is a volcanic caldera -- you can see the volcanic cone in the center, and the semi-circular formations around it were created as a result of the volcanic eruption. They say that Santorini is the likeliest candidate for Atlantis -- that's probably more in the touristy rather than the historically accurate category, but still interesting!

We rode a cable car from the dock up to the town of Fira, nestled at the top of the cliff. Town regulations require all homes to be white or blue, which makes for a really beautiful little town. We wandered around for an hour or so, checking out the architecture and enjoying the views off the cliff. We'd thought about taking a bus up to Oia, the more famous town on Santorini, but decided that we wanted to conserve our energy for Athens, so we headed back to relax on the ship for the rest of the day.

A view of Fira from the very top of the cliff

The semi-circular sweep of the island, with the central volcanic cone off to the right

Us at the top of the cliff, in our very sophisticated sun hats

A Greek Orthodox church in Fira

Athens, Greece

Athens ended up being our favorite stop on the cruise (above: David at the foot of the Acropolis). By this time, we had our touring technique down to a science -- be the first ones off the ship as soon as it's docked, make it to the sites we wanted to hit before the sun was at its strongest and before the group tours descended, find an air-conditioned location for the late morning, and then head back to the ship for the afternoon. It may sound a bit constricted, but it ended up working really well for us. We saw the things we wanted to see, and we didn't wear ourselves out -- which was really important, especially given my "delicate condition." :)

In Athens, we took the metro to the Acropolis, and hiked up the hill to see the ruins of the Greek temples. We stopped on the way up Mars Hill to think of the Apostle Paul and his sermon to the Athenians in Acts 17 (see picture of David below!) -- it was interesting to see how the street names in the area reflect both early Christian and ancient Greek influences.

After prowling around the temple of Athena Nike, the Parthenon, and the Erechtheion, we headed down the other side of the hill to check out the new Acropolis Museum, which had just opened the month before. The Greeks had basically built this new museum to prove to the British that they could take care of their own antiquities, and to argue for the return of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum. The museum was beautiful -- floor-to-ceiling windows so you could see the actual Parthenon as you explored the exhibits, glass panels in the floor on the ground level so you could see the excavation of a series of ancient temples on which the museum had been built, well-organized exhibits showcasing the Acropolis antiquities... complete with plaster reproductions of the marbles that are currently held by the British Museum or the Louvre.

David on the Areopagus (Mars Hill)

The Parthenon

The Erechtheion (complete with recreated Caryatids on the left)

Outside the new museum, with some of the excavations below

Dubrovnik, Croatia

What a beautiful town! We decided that our excursion for Dubrovnik would be going to the Old City and walking the walls -- and we're so glad we did. The Old City section is completely walled in, so you can do the whole circuit; half of the wall abuts the Adriatic Sea, and the other half separates the town from soaring hills and cliffs. So pretty much anywhere you go, you have breathtaking views.

Not to mention the views of the Old City itself. Full of red tile roofs and beautiful architecture, Dubrovnik was a real treat for the eyes. And totally worth the exercise of climbing up the stairs to the entrance of the walls (85 steps), climbing up stairs to the section facing the sea (about 50 steps, I lost count this time), and climbing up the old tower to see the whole city (again, I lost count, but somewhere around 60 steps).

They say exercising while pregnant makes the baby smarter. What with the exercise and the exposure to culture and history provided by this vacation, our baby will be super genius!

We weren't sure what these ruins were from -- possibly the 1992 war?

David and a cannon -- he was so happy!

Us at the top of the city walls, after having climbed up a huge tower

A fun shot through a tower window, of the city walls and the sea

Venice, Italy

The last stop on this amazing cruise adventure... For almost all of our city stops, the ship pulled into the harbor at about 7am, and we could disembark shortly thereafter. Sometimes, David and I would be up early enough to watch us come to anchor from our balcony. But for Venice, we sailed into the lagoon at about 10:45am, coming to a stop at about noon. So the Venice sail-in was a much bigger deal -- tons of people went up to the top deck of the ship to watch as we sailed through the lagoon, passing gorgeous buildings that came right up to the edge of the water.

Venice really is a beautiful city. Of course you have the Renaissance architecture, and beautiful churches, and many of the same types of sites that characterized the other stops on this cruise. But add to that the novelty of getting around by water -- we took water buses (vaporetti), and saw water taxis (complete with little yellow "TAXI" flags) and gondolas -- plus all manner of quaint and beautiful bridges, and you get a really fun European city experience!

The view from our vaporetto as we floated down the Grand Canal
(what must it be like to have a front door that opens directly onto water?)

The Rialto Bridge, over the Grand Canal

A gondola with a lovey-dovey tourist couple
(note that Venetians only use gondolas on their wedding nights -- they're expensive!)

A view of Venice from the top of the Campanile di San Marco

One of the facades of the Basilica San Marco (complete with horses stolen
from the Hippodrome in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade...)

This post is way long, but it's also too short -- there was so much more that we saw and experienced on our trip. But for the sake of posterity on this blog, and for those of you who were clamoring for a vacation write-up, here's our little snapshot. We had such an amazing time, and were so thankful for the opportunity to get away together!

For our full albums, check out the following SmugMug galleries:
** Barcelona and the ship
** Villefranche-sur-Mer
** Florence
** Rome/Vatican
** Naples/Pompeii
** Santorini
** Athens
** Dubrovnik
** Venice

1 comment:

Ivy Mom said...

What a great snapshot of your trip! Great pics and it sounds like you did it right - ie: out in the a.m. and getting the best of both site seeing AND relaxing. So glad you were able to take the trip!

BTW, you look great Christina! Pregnancy suits you quite well!