France (Paris, Chantilly), Spain (Barcelona), Italy (Naples, Florence, Sicily, Rome, Vatican), Greece (Athens), & Turkey (Istanbul, Marmaris)
03.10.2008 - 18.10.2008
My boyfriend's family organized a 12-day Mediterranean cruise with friends. So, we decided to make the most of our europe vacation by spending the week before the cruise in France and Spain. We flew into Paris first and stayed at this cute little hotel, next to the metro and a little grocery store and just a couple of blocks away from La Rue Cler! We spent a day touring Chateua de Versailles and had an amazing night on a boat tour of Seine river. The Eiffel tower comes alive at night with all the dancing blue colors in it with the accompanying music, which you can hear when you're near it. After a long day, we grabbed some crepe at La Rue Cler and called it a night. On our second day, we were pretty much all over Paris - touring museums, tourist spots, and local hang outs. I specially enjoyed Musée de l'Orangerie where I was able to wind down and just enjoy Monet's wall-sized paintings. The place is so relaxing and so intimate. We didn't get to visit Musée d'Orsay. Maybe on our next trip to Paris.
Now, here's a really memorable part: we missed the last train to Chantilly and we had to spend the night in the streets after Gare du Nord station closed at 1AM. Fortunately, we were able to pass some time at the bar restaurant across the street until it reopened at 4AM. We packed our day so tight and got lost finding Notre Dame. On top of that, we squeezed in a little trip to Moulin Rouge and walking around Montmartre really put us behind schedule. But, it was the lack of english-speaking staff at the train station that really cause us to miss that last train. If you get in the train without a ticket, you can get heavily fined or probably go to jail (I'm not sure). The kiosk stations are just not getting us the ticket we need. By the time we get to an open window to purchase tickets, the last train was gone. So, by the time we board the first train to Chantilly, I was so tired and sure enough, I got sick the next day. But, that didn't stop us from enjoying our trip. Chantilly is a beautiful town. We didnt' get to tour Chateau de Chantilly but it looks grand and beautiful! We stayed at my friend Susie's house. It's such a beautiful home at the quaint town of Gouveaux. She toured us around to a local winery set at La Cave (homes built in huge boulders/rocks).
The most amazing part of this trip for me is Barcelona. We were going to fly Ryanair but decided to fly easyjet for time and convenience. I fell in love with Gaudi's work at La Pedrera and Parc Guell. I love the area by Santa Maria del Mar and we actually had the best tapas in one of the restaurants behind the church. Barcelona is so rich in culture, history, great food, and warm people. I would never forget the night my husband and I danced with the locals in a square and in another occassion - randomly crashed some guy's birthday in a restaurant with such a huge crowd! We got carried away from the streets on our way home from the gothic quarter. I can hardly speak or understand Spanish but it doesn't matter. The Mercat de Sant Josep at Las Ramblas is our favorite market. All sorts of ham and interesting fruits! But, for souvernir shopping, the shopping mall at the end of Las Ramblas (facing the fountain) has lots of great stuff at such a good price. Plus, they have a food court on the top floor with great view! There were still a lot of Gaudi's work that we didn't get to see on this trip. Sagrada Familia was under renovation. Also, there are just so much other attractions, like Montserrat, that are a bit of a drive to get to. So, I promised myself that I will come back in Barcelona in 10 years and spend more time in Spain.
We flew in to Rome and navigate our way to a port in Civitavecchia, where Carnival Splendor first sailed the Mediterranean. It's far from the train station so we split a taxi cab ($5/person) with friends. You can take a local bus but it'll be a lot of waiting and figuring things out. Having a big group helped us get discounts on the cruise and tours. I shared a room with my boyfriend's sister and grandma. Cruise ships are fun. There were a lot of shows and activities (outdoor movies, karaoke, games & contests), themed buffet, shops, a night club, bars, casino, a library, swimming pools, a game arcade, a mini-golf, spa, gym - and the list goes on. You wake up in a new port (or country) each day and hop in to your tour bus on a full belly! The only disadvantage is that you don't get to enjoy a night life at your destination and you have to be back in the ship before a certain time (usually around 5pm). The rooms are always made up with towels folded into cute animal shapes with some chocolates. Each time you leave a port, they have themed bazaar and serve ethnic/international food. During our dinner one night, we were surprised when the servers started singing and dancing and put up a number. They're super friendly and very entertaining.
In Italy, we sailled to a port in Naples, Sicily, and Florence. Each place has it's own beauty. I enjoyed the lazy town feel of Amalfi Coast (off Naples) and I was mesmerized staring into the Meditterenean sea from the cute little fishing towns. It's so blue and very scenic. It warms my heart reliving that experience. Sicily wouldn't have been a great trip if we weren't rushed as much - between train and transportation from the port in Palermo. It's a beautiful town with a lot of local artisan shops and you'll forget climbing all the stairs after yo go from shop to shop. I had the best cannoli there. The mosaics at Palatine Chapel and the Duomo of Monreale is spectacular! In Florence, you don't have to go to the museum to enjoy history in art. It's in the plaza and everywhere you turn. You can even have David in your apron from one of the street shops! We also did a quick tour of the leaning tower of Pisa. I didn't realize how dramatic it is when viewed next to the cathedral. People made several silly pose taking pictures of the tower from a distance.
In Greece, we met up with Alejandro's friend, Ryan, and his girlfriend. They moved there for almost a year and Ryan had been working in archaeological sites. He showed us around Athens and brought us to a really nice and huge market where we had the best gyro... ever! I don't think I can easily get around Greece on my own. I haven't spoken to any locals in english and all the signs are in Greek! We had a hard time finding our way back to the port from the train station due to lack of English signs/translations.
In Turkey, we visited Ephesus from port of Izmir and also visited Marmaris, which is such a scenic port with calm water. In Istanbul, we had a busy day touring Hagia Sofia and other museums and going inside the Blue Mosque. The Grand Bazaar is out of this world! You will easily get lost in all the mazes in this huge market place. I wish I can bring home all the beautiful lanterns and wonderful spices they have. What an amazing place to shop!
I learned many things on this trip when it comes to packing light and saving money, as well as shopping for souvenirs and coping with sickness during your trip. I had an amazing time and despite of the rough times from hustling around and making it to our flights, it was an amazing experience that I will never forget and I am already looking forward to our next trip back.