Monday, April 11, 2011

Italian Idyll

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cinque or Swim

The plan for today was elegant in its simplicity. After landing in La Spezia, Italy, we were going to take the Cinque Terre ferry to see some of the five nearby towns which, we were led to believe, were difficult to see otherwise. As it turned out, it is faster, but not as dramatic, to get to them by train. Even the destination guru, Frank, suggested the train rather than the ferry. Of course, he’s been wrong about everything we have asked him since our first encounter in 2006.

As it turned out, it did not matter what Frank said because we never left the ship. With D’s cruise cold in full bloom and MA’s back acting up, we opted for boredom over excitement so we would be in the best possible shape for Rome and Tivoli on Friday. Our day consisted of food and naps [and Trivia humiliation]. We were fortunate when Fermin, the Hotel Manager, asked to sit with us at lunch in an otherwise almost-empty Lido. We had a pleasant chat about nothing significant although we all compared being on a long cruise with being on a seven-day Caribbean trip. We introduce Fermin to an Americanism to describe the short voyages –Wham! Bam! Thank you, Ma’am. D’s mother would have been proud.

Just as we were seated with the captain for dinner recently, so many others have been eating with ship’s officers at that table on the late seating. We had heard a rumor that there was an effort to extend that experience to all of the passengers who are on board for the entire trip. Fermin said that doing that was a numerical impossibility since they are using the Captain’s table only during the 8:00 p.m. dinner; the 5:30 seating is so popular that they need every seat they can get then. Think of “early bird” specials back home. [Of course, that made us feel even more special and, once again, tonight we reminded Gildus, the dining room manager, that we were available if the captain ever got lonely.]

It seems that today’s report revolves round the dining room. Our MDR steward [i.e., waiter], Bahtiar, told us that we will be losing his assistant, Mega, tomorrow. Other stewards are leaving in Rome and Mega is to be promoted from assistant to full steward. It is a great honor for him, but it is our personal loss. We have had fun teaching him American clich├ęs like “All that and a bag of chips.” We made sure to tip him tonight for the month’s work he has done. We will give tips to Bahtiar and Gildus before we reach Venice and then again before our return to Ft. Lauderdale.

It is hard to believe that we are almost half-way through the cruise. As always, whenever we meet new people, D says we live on Deck 5, not in Palm Beach County. And we have met some people several times without remembering. We seem to be talking more and more with the rabbi, Arthur Starr, who is very pleasant and knowledgeable; we enjoy his company. Our Trivia team has come together, too, and we socialize with Sandra & Alan and Dave & Linda [whom we call Ginger in a tribute to Gilligan’s Island].

Tomorrow – Rome and Tivoli with Fabrizio

Friday, April 8, 2011

Roamin’ Tivoli

In looking back, it doesn’t sound like we did much today, but any time spent with Fabrizio is exhausting. We first met him two years ago when we were on this same voyage. He was highly recommended on Cruise Critic and was a real find. He is exuberant, knowledgeable and hysterically funny. He depends on divine help to get the traffic barriers raised at toll booths and lowers his visor to tap on pictures of popes and saints when the gate opens. He speaks lovingly of his mother but lives on his own. He is not married but claims he is looking hard. He is a clown at heart and a daredevil driver as well. And he is as cute as a button.

We were a group of eight today, our last large party. From here on out, we will be travelling in fours. Bill and Louise were with us as well as Anita and Howard [from Dakar] and newcomers Bob and Linda from Texas. There were no major fights and we all settled into what became our seats for the day – MA was in a corner of the back seat and D got to play kneezies with the gear shift in the front; Louise rode shotgun so she could get in and out more easily. Every time Fabrizio shifted gears in the minivan, D thought he was in love; when he fastened his seatbelt, D thought they were engaged.

The worst part of the day was the drive to Tivoli which is east of Rome. We circumnavigated Rome, but the drive was still almost 2-1/2 hours. Mamma Mia! Much of the trip was on toll roads, but they can have traffic jams, too, and ours did, making the journey even more tedious. Fabrizio jockeyed between lanes but that did not help very much. Eventually we left the highway traffic behind us and rode toward Tivoli only to have things slow down in town – one lane in each direction through town on a Friday. Mamma Mia!

Eventually, we made it to the top of the hill to Tivoli itself. There was a small square around which Fabrizio drove relentlessly searching for parking. Frustrated, he dropped us off and told us to get a coffee while he parked. We got a Coke, another couple got gelati and we did not have to wait long until he reappeared to escort us to the Villa d’Este. Around the corner, down a cobbled slope to the entrance and the fun really began.

We entered through the house, stopping to buy tickets inside, then proceeded through a courtyard full of students and their guide. With Fabrizio’s help, we found the elevator to the ground floor [marked “0” in Europe] so Louise and Bill could avoid the steps. We caught up with them at the ground level but not before we walked through the former residence. Although age-worn, the procession of rooms was reminiscent of Katherine’s palace that we saw in St. Petersburg last summer. Rooms opened to rooms rather than hallways [which were for the servants primarily], each room containing elaborate art frescoes on the walls and ceilings. One even resembled Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” except that Venus was not on a clam shell; we will never do the research to see which might have been painted first.

Arriving at the 0 Floor was the least of the problems. We were still at the top of a very high, very steep hill. We had driven up from the valley below, and the panorama before us was stunning. We could see for miles. Much closer, of course, were the fountains which made Villa d’Este famous. There were dozens in various sizes and configurations, and many could be seen from the parapet outside the bottom of the building. There were stairs leading down, down, down, and ramps as well, but Louise knew that she could not traverse any of it in either direction. MA wasn’t so keen on tackling the hill, either, so she stayed with Louise while the rest of us made the Ed Pilgrammage, taking pictures to both share and to prove we had actually made the trek down and up the hill.

In its use of water, Villa d’Este reminded D of both Versailles, with its large sculpted fountains full of Greek gods, and the Summer Palace at Peterhof outside St. Petersburg. At the Summer Palace, many of the fountains were whimsical; at Villa d’Este, there were animal faces which spouted water like a Gothic cathedral’s gargoyles; gravity fountains in which water flowed down the handrails on staircases; even a ship which spouted water both straight up and straight out. It was magical. All of these were enhanced by large pots of jonquils and tulips which were mostly past their prime but still colorful. The areas we saw between the fountains were surrounded by hedges so that their interiors were hidden. Louise’s husband Bill and D went as far as the largest fountain before circling back to the top. A bit breathless from the climb, they discovered only MA waiting for them an hour later; the others had already left to meet Fabrizio at a ‘slice pizza” shop.

The pizza shop sold square slices of a zillion types of pizza, but most were devoid of tomato sauce. Some were stuffed with either ham, mortedella or vegetables; others were more traditional but had unusual toppings [potatoes?]. We chose a cheese and sausage slice and a cheese and broccoli slice plus a coke. The pizza was light and a bit crunchy and quite flavorful but was no match for the pizza we had with Fabrizio in Sorrento in the district where pizza was invented. This was okay but that was sublime.

Once again, we piled into the van in our usual places. There was some grumbling about who sat where but no one asked to change seats, so off we went to Rome. Because we had circled the Eternal City on the way to Tivoli, it was not such a long ride this time. Fabrizio drove us past assorted monuments and fountains [but not the Trevi Fountain or Spanish Steps]. We had a good look at [but no pictures of] the Victor Monument named after the King who unified Italy. Built between 1898 and 1912[?], it is an elaborate marble construction which is called the Wedding Cake because of its resemblance to the top tier of one. We passed by but not through the old Jewish section and the synagogue which appeared closed on a Friday afternoon; we did not ask to stop so we will never know.

Fabrizio promised us a surprise and so he started climbing one of Rome’s seven hills. He said the Capitoline hill was number one and the Palatine hill was number two; this was number three in the pantheon of Roman hills. He zigged and zagged over under around and through narrow streets until we emerged into a small courtyard surrounded by walled estates. At one, which turned out to be the Embassy of Malta, there were people crowded around a solid gate in the wall. When we got the chance, we placed our eyes over the keyhole in the gate and discovered that it was perfectly aligned with the Dome of St. Peter’s. An out of focus picture yielded a great view of the canopy of trees behind the gate with the glare of the Dome barely visible, but an in-focus picture was the prize of the day – a perfectly centered photo of the Dome worth framing [and e-mailing to those who weren’t so lucky with their cameras]. Back in the van; grumble, grumble; and down the hill we went.

Fabrizio started a countdown as we approached a congested intersection. As we made the turn, he gave a “Ta Da!” and all we could see was the back end of the truck ahead of us. Oops! The best laid plans and all that. He pulled around the truck and we were staring at St. Peter’s and its square. The street was lined with shops, of course, selling everything from religious memorabilia to t-shirts to gelato. On the left as we approached the square were life-size bronze depictions of the Stations of the Cross erected in anticipation of Holy Week which is two weeks away.

After circling a bit, Fabrizio created a parking space outside the Colonade and we hopped out for what became our final stop before heading home. Some in the group wanted to shop but we wanted to gawk and watch the people. There were so many it was easy to do. We saw nuns in habits not seen in the US in an assortment of colors and styles, from the ultra-conservative with a full wimple to more modern but still modest dress. The priests all looked like penguins. There was even an Orthodox family with a teen-aged son in full regalia – yarmulke and tsitsis [prayer shawl].

D took pictures of the Bernini columns and the obelisk in the center of the square before we sought some shade from the hot sun. While MA continued to watch the crowd, D went to photograph some of the bronze Stations and to get a longer view of the center of Catholicism. On his return trip, he stopped for a pistachio gelato which he shared with MA. We spent some time debating whether St. Peter’s Square or the plaza at the Hassan II Mosque is the bigger; D says St. Peter’s and MA says Hassan II but we will probably not look it up later.

After an hour at St. Peter’s, we reassembled [miraculously], grumbled our way to our usual seats and headed home. It took only an hour to return to the port of Civitavecchia [the old city] and we tramped up the gangway at 5:15, exhausted and happy.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Look at Lipari

The Aeolian Islands rise from the Mediterranean just above Sicily which is the rock the Italian boot kicks on a map. They were named after Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds. The Aeolians are now called the Lipari Islands after the name of the largest in the group of seven; none of them are big. The best known is Stromboli because it is home to an active volcano. From our ship anchored at Lipari, we could see steam rising from Stromboli which erupts once every ten years or so except when it doesn’t.

We were late leaving Civitavecchia last night and were, consequently, late arriving at Lipari. Noon became one o’clock on the schedule and then even later in reality. We were finally able to get tender tickets at 2:00. One small consolation was that 4-Star status let us jump to the front of the tender line, so we got our tickets and went directly to the boat.

When we got ashore, we found one half of the village, the small half. Most of the town is built around the harbor and our protected parking spot was closer to one end than the other. A taxi could have taken us to see the rest of the town, but we were content to walk crooked cobbled streets and have a light lunch. The 1:00 lunch we envisioned turned out to be 2:45 after we walked and shopped, but like the cookies in Rabat, it hit the spot. Once again, we had a slice of pizza each with a glass of red wine and a Coke [guess who had which]. D finished off lunch with dreamy chocolate gelato which had a tang of hazelnuts in it. “Mamma Mia!” as Fabrizio would say.

We returned to the ship where D went to the top deck to take pictures, including ones of Stromboli’s white plumes of steam, while MA struggled with the Times crossword. When she took her nap, D finished the puzzle, checked e-mail via Kindle and then updated the blog. Today was a very relaxed day, just what the doctor ordered after yesterday. Dinner was simple tonight; we both ordered Cobb salads which were just what we needed. After checking e-mail and writing to the Egyptian tour agency, we went to the show. It was unusual to say the least – a four-person, 45-minute edition of La Traviata. The voices were good and some of the melodies familiar to D, but we did not understand a word of it. Fortunately, the pianist gave an act-by-act account before the singing began. Long story short – boy meets girl with consumption [TB]; girl gives up boy at his father’s insistence; boy and girl reconcile; she dies.

And so to bed.

Tomorrow -- Siracusa

Sunday, April 10, 2011

‘cuse Me

We are not in New York today, but we are in Siracusa, Sicily, home of Archimedes and Aeschylus, both deceased. Our dock is in the Marine Port [Porto Marina] at Ortigia. We had planned to see some Greek and Roman ruins, but MA was under the weather and eventually chose to stay home.

D did some reconnoitering after breakfast and learned from a local vendor of a free circulator bus which would carry him to the free “mainland” bus and then onward to the Greek Theater. He set out at 10:00 to wait for the bus. It wasn’t long before the bus came and he flagged it down. Not surprisingly, he was the only tourist [read: person who did not speak Italian]. He told the driver he was heading to the Teatro Greco and the driver responded with a string of unknown Italian. The little bus would have held about twenty people when full, but it wasn’t. Eventually, we reached the transfer point and the driver and another passenger motioned to D to exit. “Bus 1 or bus 3,” said the driver several times. D said thanks and hopped off.

The wait for the second bus to the mainland of Sicily was not long. As D climbed aboard, he was joined another CCer who was also heading to the Greek theater. The mainland bus seemed to go as far as Naples before it turned around. We had been riding for more than 20 minutes in a small city on a small island. Where else could the driver go? Finally, D approached him again. “Teatro Greco?” The driver practically smacked his head as if to say he had forgotten and pulled over, opened the door and pointed. CCer Denise and D climbed down and saw a sign pointing toward the theater.

Before we found the antiquarian ruins, we found a small church next to a large public park. There are a number of public spaces in Siracusa and most of them have playground equipment. This did, too, and was filled with families enjoying a warm Spring day. The church we had seen was obviously very old and was closed as far as we could tell. There was an interesting cross on the top since it stood on a death’s head [skull and crossbones]. Hindsight led D to suspect that the death’s head indicated the presence of the adjacent catacombs. We walked into the lobby and explained that time precluded our taking the half-hour tour, but we were able to get directions to the theater. We hoped.

We continued walking in the direction indicated by the English-speaking clerks at the catacombs. A little unsure that we were in the right place, we were relieved when Denise recognized friends from the ship who reassured us we were on the right track. We needed to get tickets to get in, but the tickets were free today. We turned where indicated, passed stalls offering tchotchkes and finally found the ticket booth. Then we had to schlep back past all of the stalls to the road and cross a street [dodging Sunday drivers] to enter the park area.

We proceeded to walk down a steep hill looking for the Greek theater, the Roman amphitheater, a movie theater – any sign that we hadn’t messed up the directions. We got to the bottom of the hill without seeing any signs of a theater, but we did see a map of sorts and figured out where the area should be. Sure enough, the entry had been there all along but had been hidden from view. We showed our tickets to the attendant, who tore them ever-so-slightly, and started climbing, first a steep pathway and then broad wooden stairs to see the Greek theater. When the steps ended, we had more climbing ahead of us before we finally could see the remains of the theater of Siracusa.

Aeschylus produced most of his plays here and the theater has not changed for the better since pre-Christian days. The theater was carved out of solid rock in a hillside from which the ocean is still visible if you are in the cheap seats. Much of the theater has eroded or degraded over time.

Many of the original stone benches have been replaced by what appeared to be aluminum giving some areas the feel of the bleachers in a baseball stadium. There was a large free-standing scaffolding on the floor of the orchestra section with nothing anywhere to explain what was being done. Some electric lines were visible and it is possible that the theater is still used for concerts; the scaffold could have held speakers or even projection screens. At the top was what appeared to be a booth for controlling electronics during a performance.

Above and behind the projection booth and the last rows of seats were unexplained caves carved out of the solid rock. Whether these were once used for latrines or food preparation or even living space may be known but, again, was not indicated by any signage. The “cave” in the very center had a spring which provided water for some purpose but is now just an esthetic curiosity. It did have a sign – no words but pictograms -- which meant “Do Not Drink.”

We walked down the hill and took photos over the side of the hill at what appeared to be an excavation of some kind. It had had a sign pointing down to it, and more of those broad wooden stairs, but we did not know what it was when we ascended. We could hear yelling and shouting, though, and it sounded like an amusement park. On the way out, D asked the ticket taker what was down the stairs and was told it was the cave of Dionysus. Neither Denise nor D was sorry to have missed the extra steps.

We trudged to the top of the hill to see the small Roman amphitheater. It was in surprisingly good condition but was overgrown by grass, bushes and weeds. Seating was still intact and it was easy to see the areas where both gladiators and wild beasts stayed before their fights to the death. The Romans were a bloody people.

Hoping to catch the circulator back to the island, we walked to the spot where we had descended more than an hour earlier. The one bus which came by did not even slow down when we flagged it, so we started walking. And walk we did. Somehow we made it back to the ship without seeing another bus or a taxi, and after walking the 2 miles in the Mediterranean sun, we were beat.

We ate lunch by the Lido pool where there was a nice breeze and moderate temperatures. Trivia followed at 3:30 and is best forgotten. We didn’t even keep the score sheet that we use to post questions in the blog. [Note Pool Boy – We don’t remember the questions, but ‘lemon’ doesn’t sound like any answer we remember.] Because so many people were still ashore, we allowed two codgers to join our team for the day. If they added anything, it was negative energy.

Tonight’s big event was the renewal of wedding vows by Bob and Kay, cruise friends from 2009. They asked us to be their witnesses [no labor required] and we felt honored. These are two of the nicest people we have ever met; they are always smiling, obviously still crazy about each other after 50 years and do not have a negative bone in their bodies. The renewal ceremony was held in the captain’s quarters. We all assembled at 7:00, but the captain was late because we had left port late and he was still driving the ship.

Another couple also renewed their vows at the same time, so there were about 20 people in attendance plus the captain, Mrs. Captain, Thom and Tina, the social hostess and the ship’s photographer. The photographer did what she was supposed to do, blind everyone at least once. She also took lots of posed shots of the two couples and also the cake which we all shared when the talking was done. While we waited for the ‘show’ to start, we were offered champagne and hors d’oeuvres but could have anything we wanted from the bar. One woman had lemoncello and several had soft drinks. We toasted the guests of honor before diving into the cake which served as our appetizer for dinner. Unlike so many HAL pastries, this one was good. The renewal package is not free but does include the food, the cake and a photo album. It was well worth the money and time to Bob and Kay. We all had a good time.

The reception led to dinner which led to e-mail. D went to the casino determined to lose $50 but broke even before returning to the cabin where MA was reading. And so to bed.

Tomorrow – a day at sea

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