Expectations Not Met but That’s OK

It was interesting to me that when we got our post-cruise survey from Viking, they had everything listed by expectations. For instance, a question might say, “Food in the main dining room: A) Exceeded expectations  B) Met expectations C) Did not meet expectations.” When I thought back on it, that was my problem with Viking. After listening to friends talk about how much they love Viking, reading a FaceBook group of Viking fans, and knowing that Viking clients are incredibly loyal, I was expecting an almost perfect experience. That was my problem and not Vikings. (Viking—do your surveys online. You are doing yourself a disservice because I truly believe you get more info that way. When I only have a tiny, multiple-choice survey with little space for comments, that’s all I give you.)

I also realized in retrospect that so much of what I knew I would love about Viking (I did a blog post about why we were moving to Viking, and you can read it here.) is things it does not have: kids, smoking (Ok, there is a tiny area outside, on deck 7 but Viking says “No Smoking” in their marketing), casino, ship’s photographers, art auctions and more. As little things went wrong along the way, I was thinking about those things, not the things that weren’t there that I loved them for. All those things were great; I just didn’t think about them because they weren’t there. But they really improved our cruise experience.

Since we got home, I have also been telling people who ask about the trip that “Now we know how long a vacation is too long.” A month is too long. Three weeks on a ship is too long. Especially when you are sick and quarantined or are self-quarantining. But if we were going to do three weeks, Viking is the cruise line I would do it on. So, without further ado, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of what w loved and what we didn’t.

What we loved

  • Our stateroom. We had what Viking calls a Penthouse Verandah. It was the largest non-suite stateroom we have ever had. 338 beautiful square feet. With so much storage. How much storage? So much so that we had an empty drawer and a junk drawer—on a ship. Here are some pics of one of the best staterooms we have ever been in.
  • The mini-bar. On every single one of our previous cruises (except Celebrity Flora), one of the first things we would ask our room steward to do was to remove everything in the mini-bar. On Viking, we left it all in there. Why? Because it was all free. And it got completely refreshed every day. And if there were something you would rather have in there that wasn’t, all you had to do was ask. For instance, it was full of Sprite and Diet Coke—neither of which we drink. But we do love the Schweppes Bitter Lemon they served in the bar. So we asked if we could swap out the two we didn’t like for Bitter Lemon. Well, they didn’t regularly stock it, but they ordered it up from the bar at no cost to us.
  • All the upstairs food on the 7th deck. That means that we found some of the best food we have ever had on a cruise in The World Cafe buffet, Mamsens and the Pool Grille. I can count on my fingers the number of times in 30+ cruises we have eaten dinner in the buffet. We usually just do the buffet for breakfast or lunch but hardly ever for dinner. On Sky, we did. Almost every night because the food was amazing. I have never eaten so much outstanding seafood.
  • The service in the buffet is amazing. One of my complaints about the buffet on other ships is the absence of trays. Not because I like trays but because I only have two hands. One for a salad and one for the main course. Now, how do I hold the drink(s) that I want as well? So, I go and set my food on the table, and I run back to get the drinks, and by the time I am back, my food is cold. This never happened on Sky. Ninety percent of the time, within seconds of sitting down at the table with my salad and my entrée, someone was asking me what I would like to drink. The buffet also worked like a well-oiled machine. The managers were always coming by to ask how things were. Once I told one of the managers that the veal I had just grabbed was dry and tough. He immediately turned around, went to one of the chefs and told him to remove it and get new. That was impressive. I really felt like they cared what I had to say.
  • The room service was outstanding. Again, before this cruise, I could count on one hand the number of times we had done room service on our other cruises, but because of our quarantine situation with Kathleen’s food poisoning, we ate a lot on this cruise. We loved room service, especially breakfast. The order was always right, delivered hot, and except for one small hiccup with a pepper shaker, it was all outstanding. I do wish their non-breakfast menu had more variety, but everything we had was great.
  • The wonderful quiet places on the ship. I did an entire post on this subject a few days ago and I posted pics. Just click that link to read it. Suffice it to say; there were so many great places to sit and work on my photos and write posts. Or for Kathleen to go and read but still see the sights out the front of the ship or just someplace to have a quiet conversation.
  • Television choices. They were awesome. I know, who watches television  on a cruise? People who are quarantined. People who are feeling sick. People who are exhausted from being in a port and touring every single day. And we got to choose from quite the variety of shows, an excellent interactive map of our itinerary, old TV shows we love and more.
  • Embarkation and disembarkation. Not the transport from the pre-extension or back to the post-extension. But getting on the ship was a piece of cake. Viking under-promised and massively over-delivered. When we were checking in, we were told that our stateroom would be ready no later than 3:00 pm. So we headed up to the buffet for lunch (lots of tables available), and just as we were finishing up, our cruise director announced on the PA that all staterooms were ready—about two hours early. Under-promise, over-deliver. Both getting on and off the ship was about as easy as we have ever had in all our cruising.
  • Size of the ship. We loved it. It never felt crowded (except one night in the dining room). You could walk from one end of the ship to the other in no time. With only 9 decks and us on deck 5, we could get anywhere on the stairs, although we didn’t have to because the elevators were easily accessible. Kathleen hardly ever had to wait for elevators. But even though the ship is smaller than what we are used to, we never felt that much motion which we thought we would.
  • Fewer people. With only 928 total passengers, we never felt crowded.
  •  Laundry and pressing. In 30+ cruises, we have only sailed on one ship that had a self-service laundry. It was super to have clean clothes whenever we wanted them. And it was so great being able to not worry about it when we did laundry. I would go and toss stuff in a washing machine, set a timer with Siri and then go back when she went off. Same with the dryer. And since we were in a PV-class stateroom, we also got free pressing. So I would wash and dry my shirts and send them off to be pressed and they would come back the next day looking perfect.
  • The included WiFi. This was excellent. Very few glitches. No, I could not watch a Netflix movie, but I was able to upload all my pics, post to this blog, FaceTime twice with our grandkids and even watch Seattle Mariner highlights on YouTube. All for free. And it was only out on very rare occasions and never for that long.
  • The chocolate desserts. My brother just reminded me that I raved and raved about every single dessert that was chocolate. I am NOT a chocolate person. I prefer my desserts to have fruit in them or as the main taste profile (think lemon-polenta cake), but when we went to Manfredi’s, I had the best chocolate dessert I have ever had. From that point on, I made a point to try everything chocolate and almost every single thing was just as good. If you love chocolate, it might be worth going on a Viking Sky cruise just to eat it.

What we didn’t love

  • The entire food poisoning incident. I have written about it pretty thoroughly here. I personally was not happy with the way Kathleen was treated. It comes down to not listening to women when medical treatment is involved as well as jumping to conclusions. Everything worked out in the end, but it just should never have happened to the extent and in the way that it did. Kathleen had to miss at least three places that we had never been to before.
  • Any dining on decks one or two. This includes the main dining room (AKA The Restaurant), Manfredi’s and The Chef’s table. I want to look at them individually and tell you why we did not love them. None of these restaurants passed what I now call the “Steve Standard.” My brother Steve wrote this in his review of our May cruise on Celebrity Millenium, and I have stolen it from him because I think it is the best way to describe and evaluate a cruise ship restaurant. Here’s the “Steve Standard”: If this restaurant were in your neighborhood and you ate there, would you pay to go back? Pretty simple. And the answer for us for all three restaurants is no. They did not pass the “Steve Standard.” Upstairs, the World Cafe, Mamsens and the Pool Grille all passed. I would pay to go to any of them.
    • The Restaurant. On every other cruise we have ever been on, we have eaten 95% of our dinners in the main dining room. On this 21-night cruise, we ate exactly three dinners in the main dining room. Now I will give you that part of the reasons this happened was Kathleen’s quarantine when we ordered room service and long days onshore when we were just too tired and not at all motivated to get dressed to go to the dining room. But the times we did go, we were not pleased. Two of those times we felt the service was just weird. We are used to having the same servers for our dinners, but not only did we not get the same servers on these two nights, but we also had different servers for every course. And it seemed none of them really wanted to wait on us. Both dinners took more than 2.5 hours. That’s too long. We would be seated and then wait 20 minutes to get water or bread. Then another 10  to get our orders taken, then another 10 until the appetizers came, and it went on like this. And things would be missing from orders, or they would be cooked differently than asked. We were never offered a wine list, and when we would ask for one, it would take 15 minutes to get it. In the meantime, another server would just come around with the bottles of the evening’s included wines and start pouring those. We gave up. The third time we went to The Restaurant, we joined our new friends Corky and Larry, who told us they had cultivated a relationship with an outstanding server…and they had. He was amazing, and the wine steward showed up immediately to ask us about other wines. It was the kind of service we loved. And the food was great that night. But the noise level was deafening. We were sitting at a small table for four and could not hear each other talk. I still have no idea what half the conversation was about. I got tired of asking the other three to repeat what they said, so after a while, I just gave up and nodded my head. All in all, we just weren’t happy with The Restaurant.
    • Manfredi’s. One of the things we loved about Viking was that the specialty restaurants were free. On most ships, you pay extra for those. A lot extra in some cases. For instance, on Holland America, we went to Rudi’s, the seafood restaurant on board and paid $50 per person to go. So when we heard that we could get into Manfredi’s for $0.00, we were thrilled until we ate there. We went twice. The first time was the same sporadic service as The Restaurant. That got fixed the second time, but the food was never up to snuff. This is supposed to be Italian. I am an Italian-American, and I LOVE to cook Italian. I have lots of Italian restaurants I love. This is not a good Italian restaurant. Example: On Celebrity cruise line ships, there is an Italian restaurant called the Tuscan Grille. I love their calamari. I have been known to have it as an appetizer and an entrée at the same meal. I looked forward to that on Sky, but it was horrible. Reminded me of eating those old snack food, Bugles. Remember those? And their ribeye steaks (which are supposed to be amazing) were some of the thinnest ribeyes I have ever eaten. And my brother (who is a steak person) ordered one and got an entirely different steak. The only thing I had that I liked was a risotto with escargot. I might get that take-out from a restaurant at home. Suffice it to say that Manfredi’s was better than Olive Garden, but not by much.
    • The Chef’s Table. This is a matter of personal choice. The Chef’s table has a fixed menu that rotates every three days. We had four reservations there, but due to quarantines, we lost our first one. Then the second and fourth time, they were doing a menu that had nothing on it that Kathleen could eat. She is allergic to shellfish (two courses) and duck (the entrée). So that was out. The one time we went was on a night that they were featuring California food. She had one course she could not eat (crab cakes) and they brought her a very nice cheese plate. And the food they did serve was pretty good…for what it was. But as I said, this is a matter of personal choice and at home I would never go to a fixed menu restaurant if I could avoid it. While I thought that dinner was fine, there was not a single thing on that night’s menu that I would have ordered in a regular restaurant. The menu for two nights later looked good but we could never make it work with our reservations.
  • The included excursions. Another thing that drew us to Viking was that they included an excursion in every port. But those excursions just did not work for us. Either they were too long, the guides were incredibly boring and talked as if they were being paid by the word, or they just weren’t our cup of tea. I did love that Viking provided free shuttle busses in every port where we weren’t anchored right in the center of the city (Kotor), but the included excursions were just not up to par. I wish that Viking would give you a credit for excursions if you don’t use them.
  • The optional excursions. Out of 21 days in ports, we booked an optional excursion seven times. Only two of them would I do again (Dubrovnik and Messina). Two of them were pretty good for half of the tour (Naples and Bari) , and one was good for about a quarter of the tour (Olympia ). One was just “fine” (Kotor), and one was downright horrid (Monaco) because it was way too long, had the worst guide of the trip and included way too much crapola (like shopping). Our buddy Corky said that Viking should offer tours that were listed as “shopping or no shopping.” I totally agree. When you compare these to the pre-cruise tour we did in Athens with George of Tours By Locals, the post-cruise tour we did in Barcelona with Olga, also of Tours By Locals and the Cinque Terre tour we did with the amazing Luigi, there is no contest—there were all bad. I will give you that they were less expensive than the tours we booked ourselves, but I would gladly have paid more for better tours.
  • The weird weeks of this cruise. Our friends Corky and Larry, who are long-time Viking cruisers, told us that our 21-day cruise (and their 28-day cruise—they started a week before us in Instanbul) was NOT like any other Viking cruise they had been on because it wasn’t really one cruise. It was (for them) four one-week cruises, and for us, it was three one-week cruises. Did this matter? It kind of did. For instance, we could not see, book or change our shore excursions until the next week’s cruise started. Or the number of people getting off and on really was strange. Our first two weeks were primarily with a great crowd of travelers in our age group, and it worked well for us. Most were doing two-week cruises. But when many of them got off in Rome, the new group that got on was louder, ruder and generally younger. They were only doing a one-week cruise, and that meant they wanted to get all their partying in right away. We preferred the older, travel-oriented folks we had with us from Athens to Venice. Corky tells me that this particular cruise on Viking Sky is one of the few where Viking does this. We hope to avoid that in the future.

That about covers all of it. So what’s the final verdict? Well, we booked another Viking Ocean cruise while on board. So I guess that says it all. We have booked a 14-night cruise in 2024 from London up to the Norwegian fjords and ending in Bergen, Norway. We have never done this itinerary before, and it will give us a chance to compare a regular itinerary with this three week mess.

I hope you have enjoyed following along on our journey. I also hope if this was the first time you have read the blog, that you would both subscribe for future journeys and go back and read about some of what we have done in the past. I have been doing this since before the pandemic, and there are a bunch of other trips you can read about. I will be back in a couple of days with my promised treatise on how I do my photography.

True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.   —Winston Churchill

Disembarkation and our trip to Barcelona

When we cruise, the first thing the real cruisers want to know about is the food. But the second is the embarkation/disembarkation. It’s been my experience after more than 30 cruises that if things are going to go wrong, one of these two times is when that will happen.

With this disembarkation, I am happy to say that nothing went wrong…except to say that they made us get off the ship (this is every cruiser’s lament). Pretty much everything went off without a hitch getting off the ship. We got up, had breakfast, and were asked to be out of our stateroom by 8:00 am. Sat for an hour in the Atrium, got our tag colors called, grabbed our luggage, took it to a van (since we were doing Viking’s post-cruise two-day extension), it was loaded into a van that followed our “luxury motor coach” into Barcelona from Tarragona.

That’s where thing kind of went bad. Viking now had to do something with the 35+ people on the “luxury motor coach” from 9:30 am when we got on until 1:00 pm when the Nobu Hotel in Barcelona would be ready to check us in. So they arranged a “luxury motor coach” tour that would drive us from the ship to Barcelona and then drive around Barcelona, showing us some of the sights. This started with them getting us lost before they even got the “luxury motor coach” out of the port (Seriously!).

Then they sent us a guide who admitted up front that he usually worked with Japanese tourists, so his English was not very good. On top of that, he also (like other guides we had previously toured with) felt like they had to fill every moment of the three-hour sojourn with the sound of his voice. He even started singing at one point. I overheard another passenger say, “I thought the guy with the flute yesterday was bad, but this guy is so much worse!” I had to agree. And since he was not confident in his English, he seemed to be much less confident in his directions and tour facts.

It took us about 70 minutes to get from Tarragona to the outskirts of Barcelona. He talked about 90% of the time. Mostly gibberish to us because his English was so poor. Our first stop in Barcelona was at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. This gorgeous art museum we thought was built high above and far from the city and not near anything. I took the header photo I am using today from in front of it.

We later learned that we were less than a mile from our hotel but that it would take almost three full hours to get there. And we didn’t stop to see the museum, just to use the bathrooms. Viking had bought tickets for us to get into the museum, but then we had 15 minutes to use the bathrooms and get back on the “luxury motor coach”…so we could be driven around and mumbled at while seeing the sights through a “luxury motor coach” window. As a photographer, this is my idea of torture. Seeing things I want to shoot but not being able to shoot them because the reflections in the “luxury motor coach” make it impossible to get a good shot. I did take a few when we got off at the museum. Here’s what they look like. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

Once we arrived at the hotel around 1:15 pm, we were told to go up to the second floor and that we would be checked in at a special desk just for Viking cruisers. When we got to the second-floor room they were using, there was about an hour’s wait to get registered. This is because they had planned well by sending the first “luxury motor coach” off and then not sending the second one for about 30 minutes. That way, we should have been staggered when we reached the hotel and able to check in without any lines. But this was not to be after our “luxury motor coach” driver got lost getting out of the port, and by the time he figured out how to get out, “luxury motor coach” number two was ahead of us, and we were not that far ahead of “luxury motor coach” number three. That meant we all pretty much got there at the same time. Viking had close to 250 people staying at the Nobu Barcelona. It was very much like the Marriott where we had done our pre-cruise extension in Athens. Both of them were four or five-star, high-rise hotels that were well outside (not in easy walking distance) of the main attractions of their respective cities. The rooms were nice, and the included breakfast at both places was delicious, but I would have traded that for something a little closer to where I wanted to shoot pics.

So instead of standing in line to register, we left our bags with the bellman at the front desk and took a taxi to a wonderful restaurant that Kathleen and I had eaten in when we were here in 2007—La Rita. The restaurant had been there for about 10 years before that and is still going strong. The menu was exactly as we remembered it. I made reservations almost a month in advance because when we go to Spain, we make our main meal, our lunch. People in Barcelona eat dinner around 9:30 pm, and we just can’t eat that late. So we have our main meal at lunch (around 2:00) and then grab some tapas in the evening.

After lunch, we came back and were able to check in easily, with no lines at all, and our rooms were ready. We unpacked, I did some posting on this blog and some photo processing, and we hit the hay for a very busy day on Sunday, our only full day in amazing Barcelona.

I had thought I could wind up the entire cruise with two more posts, one about Barcelona and disembarkation and one to sum up the cruise. But once I started talking about disembarkation, this one got too long to include our awesome day in Barcelona, so you will have to read two more. See you tomorrow. (BTW: we are home in Redmond after a hellacious day of flights and being up for 26 hours straight.)

You’d have a hard time finding anything better than Barcelona for food, as far as being a hub. Given a choice between Barcelona and San Sebastian to die in, I’d probably want to die in San Sebastian.  —Anthony Bourdain

 

Tarragona not Barcelona—it all worked out!

When we first booked this cruise with Viking, the itinerary finished in beautiful Barcelona. About three months later, we received a note from Viking that we would NOT be docking and spending an overnight in Barcelona. We would instead be docking and spending the night in Tarragona, a (we researched) small, industrial city south of Barcelona. (You can see how far apart they are above.) That kind of ticked me off because I was really looking forward to being able to wake up on the ship and then go for my pre-dawn photo walk and still be able to sleep on the ship that night.

We later learned that Viking had to switch because even though Barcelona is a HUGE port for cruise ships, there were going to be so many there over the two days (Friday and Saturday) that she would not have been able to stay for three full days. She needed four days tied up at a pier because we would have two days there (arrived Friday morning, disembarked Saturday morning) and then the cruise that followed ours would need the same (embark on Saturday afternoon, sail late on Sunday). Viking just could not take up a berth in Barcelona for that long. So that’s why we wound up in Tarragona.

In hindsight, I am so very glad that we did because it turned into one of my favorite photographic experiences on the trip. And I almost missed it once we were there. I almost missed it because we had tickets for the Viking-included excursion called “A Snapshot of Tarragona,” and when we got up, we just weren’t sure that we wanted to go. After being on the road since August 29, we were pretty much done. Kathleen wanted to just stay on board and pack, but she encouraged me to go ahead and take the excursion. I still (up until 15 minutes before it left) had not committed myself to go. But go, I did.

The first thing to note about leaving the ship was that it was docked a VERY long way from the gate to the port. In other words, this was NOT a port I could have walked out of. And then, once you got out of the port, it was a long way to the city. To say it was a very long way is an understatement. When we got on the “luxury motor coach,” we were then driven for about 30 minutes, and we were still in the port. It is a HUGE industrial port, and we were moored all the way out as far as you can get before still being at sea. And the road out of the port had what seemed like continuous speed bumps that the “luxury motor coach” could not go over quickly. Once we were out of the port, it was another 20 minutes before we were off the coach at the edge of downtown.

At this point, I am beginning to think that I made a mistake in coming. Viking was running shuttles all day long, about every 15 minutes, so I knew I could go back whenever I wanted. Our guide for the day was another guide that seemed to be paid by the word. She walked us around some Roman ruins (as much as I love Italy, if I never see a Roman ruin for a few years, that will be OK with me), which were pretty cool, but they didn’t really hold that much interest for me. I have so many photos from my Tarragona day that I will put the Roman ruins and what we could see from them here. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

What did grab my interest were explosions and gunshots going off about three blocks away. We had been told that there was a Catalunya-wide festival going on that weekend (Catalunya is the “state” that both Tarragona and Barcelona are in) so we were pretty sure that this was what we were hearing. We could also see fireworks and a parade at the end of those three blocks. Here’s what I saw when I looked down the streets and then walked around to do some more investigating.

No, I did not get to see the human pyramids in Tarragona. To show you the photo above, I took a picture of a picture. But we did get to see one being built on Sunday in Barcelona. We weren’t able to see one built in Tarragona, because around noon, it started to rain, accompanied by quite the thunderstorm, so they were canceled for Friday. After looking at a few more ruins, the guide said we would now have some free time, but not to go downtown, it would be too loud and dangerous near the parades. So you know what I did…I went right downtown where the parades were. I am so glad I did. An amazing experience, as you will see.

On the way downtown, I found people getting ready for a parade. It turns out they do the parades twice in the morning. Once from the square and once back. So I ran into a bunch of people getting ready to march on my way down. Here’s a quick gallery of those people.

When I finally reached the city square, I could tell they were getting ready for something. At this point, I thought I had missed it all. Then I heard (from a side street) firework explosions. I headed from the square to where the parade would be coming from, and this is what I saw. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

OK, sorry to post so many photos, but it was a photographic bonanza where I got to combine travel photography with street photography, my two favorites. I spoke to so many other photographers during the parade. They would see my camera and comment on it, and I would ask about theirs. Or about what was happening in the parade. They all spoke some English, and I speak zero Catalan, but they were so hospitable, and they did their best to tell me about their city and the festival. This, to me, is what travel is all about. What an incredible time I spent shooting in this awesome city.

After I had shot all these photos, it was back to the ship (I actually shot more than 900 photos of the festival—aren’t you glad I didn’t put them all online?) I was actually back on the ship in time for lunch with Kathleen. Then we spent the afternoon with Kathleen napping and packing and my processing photos, posting the photos and writing about our adventures. Speaking of processing and writing, I have had a couple of people ask about what cameras and lenses I use and how I decide what to post and not to post. I promise to do a separate post about that when I have finished the cruise write-up.

Two more posts will finish this trip. One for our disembarkation and full day in Barcelona and another to sum it all up and review the cruise. We are sitting in Barcelona airport, ready to board our flights home. See you soon.

I saw a human pyramid once. It was very unnecessary.
—Mitch Hedburg

 

Marseille and Seti finish our time in France

Let’s get this out of the way quickly. We have been to Marseille before. We were not impressed the first time, and the ship was moored a VERY long way from anything worth seeing. So to make a long story short, we stayed onboard. No reason to get off and see the same 500-year-old churches and museums we had seen before.

Now let’s talk about Seti. It seems to us that in every country we have visited (except tiny Montenegro), Viking has planned a stop in a small but interesting village that did not have a major draw; they just gave the visitors a taste of what life is like in the real world. Sibenik, Croatia, Crotone, Italy and now Sete, France.

Sete is a tiny (by French standards) fishing village. It is so small that we could do a tour of downtown without leaving the port on a “luxury motor coach.” We did have to take that “luxury motor coach” from the ship to the front of the port because it was a very industrial port, and they didn’t want people walking around. It was kind of funny that the “luxury motor coach” we got on to go less than half a mile was the nicest “luxury motor coach” we were on for the entire 21 days.

We were doing the Viking Walking Tour of the village, and we had a guide who we thought was going to be great. He led us along by playing the flute. We looked like the rats being led to the sea by the Pied Piper. But once we were in town and he got down to the actual touring, he became just like every other guide—paid by the word. Instead of telling us that the town’s main canal held its fishing fleet, he had to tell us how you fish for this and that fish. To be honest, if I want to know how to fish for tuna, I will look it up. I wanted to know about Sete, France. Here are my pics from Seti. At least the ones that are interesting enough to share. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

That about sums up our time in France. Of course, we had Eze and Nice yesterday, but this tiny town, Sete, was the real deal. Just a sleepy fishing village.

I woke up one time coming out of a blackout, and I was on an airplane, descending to land in Charles de Gaulle Airport in France. And all I can think is I must have decided it was a good idea to go to France, and got my passport, and got on a plane.  — Joe Walsh, lead guitarist of the Eagles.

 

A very long day in Eze, Nice and Monaco

The morning after we left Livorno, we awakened in Monaco. That’s the best part of cruising. You go to bed at night in your hotel, and when you wake up, your hotel is in a brand new city. And you don’t have to unpack again.

In Monaco we were doing an eight-hour ship’s excursion that would take us to the hilltop village of Eze, the beachside city of Nice and then the old and new parts of Monaco. The afternoon before when we were watching the port video on the TV in our room we noticed that they had changed the rating of the excursion from “moderate” to “demanding.” Well demanding was fine for me but not for the rest of the group, especially Kathleen and Jamie but they came along with us hoping they would be able to find a place to sit and wait when it got “demanding.”

Hilltop Eze

Our “luxury motor coach” first took us to Eze. We had been to Eze back in 2007 and had loved it but it is quite a climb. So Kathleen and Jamie stayed at the bottom while Steve and I climbed up. Here’s my pics from Eze along with captions which will tell you even more. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

On to Nice

As soon as we climbed back down and collected our waiting wives, we were back on the bus for a short drive (again on crazy, twisty roads) to Nice, France. We did a 20-minute drive-through with our guide pointing out sites as we went. Then the driver dropped us off near the huge farmer’s market and the promenade that lined the beach. After a short walking tour, the guide told us we could wander off on our own and meet her back at the bus at a particular time. Of course, we walked in and found a place to have a seat and an Aperol Spritz (our clear choice of drink on this trip). While Kathleen, Jamie and Steve sipped their spritzes, I, of course, took a lot of pics. Here they are! You know the rules.

The Principality of Monaco

From Nice, we were off on the low road to Monaco. Although Monaco is less than one square mile, it is divided into two parts. The older section on top of the rock is much more historic. The newer section where you would find the casino (where James Bond plays cards) and the “fancy” shops are down the hill. It is amazing how many people have slammed into this tiny country. Since we were here in 2007, they have almost doubled their population yet; the area is still the same…although they are building out over the sea now.

We first stopped in the older part of Monaco, where you would find the cathedral, the palace and an awesome place for lunch. Our guide walked us up from a really strange underground parking lot that was so big about 20 “luxury motor coaches” could fit inside. When we reached the surface, it was a hike past the Oceanic museum to the cathedral. By this time, it was getting pretty late (lunch-wise), and Kathleen needed to eat, or she would get a headache. So she and I broke off from the group and walked up and found this awesome place that served us our favorite Aperol Spritz and a pizza Margherita. It was just what the doctor ordered.

After lunch (Steve and Jamie joined a few minutes later), we went back down, and I went into the Cathedral, took some shots, saw the grave of Princess Grace, remembered why I am not Catholic anymore and left. Took a few more pics of the outside, walked over and did the same at the palace, including a cool pano of the rest of Monaco, and that was about it for the old town. We met our guide at the yellow submarine outside the Oceanic Museum and went back down to the bus to be driven to the newer side, which the locals consider Monte Carlo.

On the Monte Carlo side, we did even less. Kathleen and another woman from the bus had had their fill of stairs, so they found a bench in the shade and waited while I went around and took a few more photos. We got back on the bus and went back to the ship. Here are the pics from Monaco. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

That concluded our day. It was a long one. Many hours on a “luxury motor coach” going around tight bends above high cliffs, seeing where rich people live. Eze was the best part. Just wish we could have stayed for some crêpes like we did the last time.

It’s true that Ferrari and Monaco are the two most important things to F1.   —Albert II, Prince of Monaco

Pisa and its Tower

This one will be short and sweet as I am still high as a kite about a photographic experience I just had in Tarragona, Spain, today (it’s Friday, September 23 as I write this). Besides, our visit to Pisa was not the best day of our trip. Not because the Tower wasn’t leaning, but because it was just kind of a ho-hum experience. After so many days of getting on a “luxury motor coach,” testing our Vox earsets (so we can hear our guide while we walk around), driving to wherever, getting off the bus, having the guide rush away like a madperson, having to go and ask them to slow down, listening to them tell you the history of everything while wearing the headsets, then going from place to place quickly and standing while the guide talks (you would think the guides are paid by the word), it was getting really old.

This was another of Viking’s “included” excursions, so we were on the bus to Pisa at 8:30 am. We are glad we went in the morning (we had a choice of the afternoon as well) because those who went in the afternoon said it was a total zoo with huge crowds. We were able to at least move around the square.

Today’s guide was a speed demon. She went so fast that the people at the back of the line lost track of her leading the group. And worse, there were numerous other groups from bus tours who had parked where our bus did, and we were mixing in with our crowd and we with them. It was horrible. And this was the day the Vox system that we bring from our rooms (headsets so we can hear the guide) decided to fail. We knew it wasn’t our headsets but the guide’s microphone because no one could understand about 80% of what she said—too much static.

So there we were in the square in Pisa, with the Tower and the basilica right in front of us and not able to understand a word the guide said, so we ditched the tour. We just took off on our own, went at our own pace and made our own plans. The guides kind of know you are going to do this because they tell you in advance where to meet to go back to the “luxury motor coach.”

So I shot some pics; it started to rain; we sat by the church and then decided to take refuge at a sidewalk cafe with huge umbrellas and have a cappuccino. It was delightful just to sit and people-watch. After a while, Steve and Jamie joined us, and we started walking back to the “luxury motor coach.” Then we found out that we were just going back to the same place to meet the “luxury motor coach.” If they had told us that, we could have turned the almost mile-long walk into something where Kathleen and Jamie could have rested every so often instead of their version of the Bataan Death March. These guides just do not get it. Usually, I tip our guides quite well. So far on this trip, I have tipped two. Just two. The others have either been rude, in a huge hurry, rambling or worse. Of course, we all tipped Luigi and Alessandro in Cinque Terre, but they weren’t Viking guides.

After the march, it was back on the “luxury motor coach” and back to the ship where I wrote you another blog post and processed my photos, which you can see below. Hope you enjoy them. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

That was our day in Pisa. Pretty boring, to be honest. I could have done the entire thing in an hour instead of the two-and-a-half that Viking thought we needed. But I truly think that’s because the guide was paid by the word. Too bad we couldn’t hear more than twenty percent of them.

I’ve been to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s a tower, and it’s leaning. You look at it, but nothing happens, so then you look for someplace to get a sandwich.  —Danny DeVito

The Best Day of the Entire Trip—Cinque Terre


The day after we took our day off in Rome was absolutely the best day of the whole trip from Amsterdam to Athens to that day. The ship was docked in Livorno, Italy, which is the port for Florence. And about 95% of the passengers on board were headed to either Florence itself or the Tuscan countryside and Pisa to see the Leaning Tower. We, on the other hand, had decided to do our own thing.

As I said about Rome in my last post, you can’t see Rome in one day. I also believe you can’t do justice to Florence in one day. If you really want to see the Uffizi or the Academia, you need half a day in each. That leaves no time for the Duomo, the baptistery, the Ponte Vecchio, or so much more that is Firenze. Besides, we had been there before. So we opted out. But sadly, that was the only place that Viking was offering tours to. So we created our own.

About three months before the cruise, I started looking for someplace else to see in the general area of Livorno that we had not seen. We had never seen the Leaning Tower and the rest of Pisa, but that was a two-hour tour, and we would be in Livorno for two days and would see that on the second day. So where to go? I searched maps and Cruise Critic for ideas, and in doing that, I looked up the coast, and lo and behold—Cinque Terre. We had heard so much about it but had never been there, and we really wanted to see it, but for some reason, Viking does not do any tours in that direction (although it took us the same amount of time to get there as it did to get into Florence). That meant I had to find us a tour. So off I went to Google, and the first tour that popped up was a “Tour to Cinque Terre from the Port of Livorno” by BellaItalia Tours. That sounded like just what we were looking for, so I contacted them.

Like most tours, this had one price—the price of the tour. Actually, there were two possibilities—a tour with a driver who got you there and got you off on your way into the first “land” and then picked you up and took you back to the ship after you finished touring everything. The other option was a driver AND a guide. The driver got you there, but the guide accompanied you throughout the day from village to village telling us all about them on the way. We wanted to do this because we were looking for someone to walk us through the entire thing.

If you got the driver and the guide, the price was just about 800 euros for two people. But if you could find more to join you, the price went down because you were paying for the car, driver and guide no matter what. Up to 8 people could come along. To find someone else to join us (the other four in our party had never been to Florence, so they were going there), I went on Cruise Critic to our roll call (click here if you need Cruise Critic and Roll Calls explained) and found Corky and Larry from Maui who said they would love to join us. This meant our price was basically cut in half. And not only did that make this tour a bargain, but we made two great friends in the process.

As soon as the ship had been cleared by the port authorities, we were off and looking for my name on a placard being held by our guide, the amazing and hilarious Luigi. And he and our driver (Alessandro) were waiting right where they said they would be, we jumped in their Mercedes van, and we were off. What joy it was to ride in a van and not a “luxury motor coach.” It meant that there were two of us to a seat, with plenty of legroom and Luigi giving us non-stop play-by-play as we drove along.

On the way, we got to see some things we hadn’t expected, like the famous marble mountains of Carrara. I suppose if I had thought about it, I would have realized that the Carrara marble that makes up so many buildings in the Mediterannean or our very own tile floors at home comes from a huge mountain of marble. The mountains are magnificent to look at, as you can see in this small gallery. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

A little while after passing through Carrara and some amazing hilltop towns on either side of the AutoStrada (Italian for freeway), we reached La Spezia, a coastal community that is the gateway to Cinque Terre. You climb far above it and that puts you about even with those hilltop towns, so here are some views from the hill above La Spezia and some hilltop towns we had seen between there and Carrara. Don’t forget; they can be viewed as a slide show.

As soon as you have seen La Spezia go by, you go over the hill, and you are looking down at the first of the five “lands” of Cinque Terre (literally translates to “five lands”), Riomaggiore. It’s a beautiful little village built into the side of a very steep hill. Alessandro dropped us off, and we walked down into the town itself. We would next see our illustrious driver at the other end of Cinque Terre. From this point on, our transport was the Cinque Terre ferry. Luigi led us down through the town, pointing things out to us as we went. We all took a much-needed restroom break and then met Luigi to board the ferry to move to the next land.

Luigi was a font of knowledge all about the region. We all learned a lot, especially that we should wait for the fourth village, Vernazza, to get gelato because they had the best, then have lunch at the end of the journey in Monterosso because they had the best food. We liked that—eat dessert first.

The second stop on our visit was to the village of Manarola, which might have been the most picturesque. The photo at the top of this post was taken there. Luigi was more than thrilled to help me find my shots because he said we had something in common. His real vocation in life was a guitarist, and he loved it. He told us it was “his art.” And he said photography was mine. I truly appreciated his interest, and from that point on (he had this conversation with Kathleen on the ferry while I was outside taking photos) he took me to what he thought would make great pictures…and he was right.

The ferry to the next of the five lands (actually four because the ferry does not stop in the middle land of Corniglia as there is no place for it to dock—it is only accessible by train) comes just about every hour, so once we landed in Manarola for instance; we had an hour to take photos and look around before we got back on the next ferry and left for Vernazza.

Vernazza was the village where we heard about the awesome gelato, and again, Luigi proved to be correct. He had advised me that if I truly wanted to try what the locals loved, I would have basil gelato (seen at right). So I did, and it was wonderful. Kathleen had lemon, and when we put the two together…perfection. Vernazza was a great village for photography, so again, I took more shots until the hour went by and we boarded the ferry for Monterosso.

Monterosso was the final village and is the most commercialized of the five. It has bigger hotels, sandy beaches, etc. It also has amazing food, and this was where Luigi said we should get lunch. He was all set to drop us at a restaurant to fend for ourselves when we insisted he join us for lunch—our treat, which he did. He said that like the gelato I had tasted, the people of the five lands believed their basil was better than any other basil in the world and therefore, their pesto sauce was the best anyplace—hands down. So, of course, we had to try it. The traditional pesto pasta is improved in Cinque Terre by the addition of potatoes and green beans to the mix. This came about when they started making pesto at a time when those things were plentiful, and the recipe stuck.

Besides the pesto, there was one more thing I wanted to try while we were having lunch. It is something that Rick Steves had mentioned in his Cinque Terre video—fresh anchovies. Rick said that if you come here and order them fresh, you would be amazed how little they would resemble the anchovies you see on a pizza or a caesar salad and he was right—almost. I ordered (with Luigi’s help) “Tris di acciughe del marinaio” or Lemon, salted and stuff anchovies. The salted looked very much like what we put on pizza but bigger. It tasted like you might think but much less salty. Luigi told me that this is what it should taste like when brined, but it is much saltier when we get it because it has sat for weeks in a can on its way to America.

Then there was the stuffed version, filled with some rice, some veggies and who knows what, but it was delicious. But the winner of the three was anchovies marinated in lemon juice and olive oil. I could eat those every day, all day long. Delicious.

After we finished lunch, we walked around Monterosso for a while longer before we walked up a hill (thankfully much less steep than the one we walked down in Riomaggiore) to the top of the village to be met by our faithful driver Alessandro and transported back to the ship. This was around a nine-hour trip from ship to ship, but I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it.

This brings me to the subject of shore excursions. One of the reasons Viking appealed to us was that they included a free shore excursion in every port. But we are just not sure if that is a selling point anymore. After our day in a van with a guide and being able to move at our own pace, we think if (probably when) sail with Viking Ocean again, we will book our own shore excursions again. We had pretty much always done that in the past until COVID came along, and you couldn’t book a lot of private excursions. Now you can again and we likely will. It is so much more personalized, and you meet incredible guides. We had done three tours on this entire trip with private guides (in Amsterdam with Hans and Athens with George), and those were the best tours. Far better than being put into a “luxury motor coach” with 26 other people and a guide who is just a monotonous voice in your “whisper headset.” This really hit home with us after touring all day with Luigi and Alessandro. Luigi became a part of our group. Just look at the photo at the top of this post. Don’t we look happy? Cinque Terre—what a day. And here are the photos from that day. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…ESPECIALLY THESE!