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Emerald Princess, updated every 2 minutes!

Note: The photos in the posts below are mine. Every day when I get back from touring, I'm choosing the best ones to share. Having my laptop on this trip is a wonderful thing!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

All Good Things...

After the last post, I took the water taxi into Venice from the ship and spent almost 7 hours wandering around. What a wonderful afternoon and evening!

It's now midnight, ship time. And I'm back on board.

Sadly, the cruise is just about over. Tomorrow morning, I have to be out of my stateroom by 8am, so I'll have to make this brief. Luckily I packed this afternoon before going into Venice, so I won't be up all night (like usual!).

Glad everyone enjoyed the video! If it didn't take so long to upload over the ship's connection, I'd be tempted to stay up into the night uploading more. But I think it will have to wait until I get home. But I did take more video - in most of the places - and all will be posted within a few days of my return.

So for now, until I'm back stateside...

~~ Ciao ~~

Monday, September 8, 2008

Arriving in Venice

There really is nothing like arriving in Venice by cruise ship. Why? Because of the incredible vantage point you have. Standing on deck of a cruise ship, as you sail into Venice you literally tower over the city and see unbelievable panoramas that you just will not see any other way.

We’ve just arrived in Venice and reached our berth. If anyone happened to be looking at the Web cam on this blog between 6-7am US time this morning (ha!), you would have experienced sailing through the Grand Canal yourselves. But in case you weren't... here are some photos!

The weather is absolutely gorgeous – slightly cooler here (upper 80s instead of mid-90s) and as with all the other ports on this itinerary, blue skies with not a cloud in sight. As we sailed in past the bridges, churches, towers and many water taxis, Princess played Andrea Boccelli over all the loud speakers on deck. It was an incredible experience. This was the second time on this trip that tears came to my eyes. This time, it wasn’t for religious reasons – but instead, due to the overwhelmingly breathtaking beauty of what my eyes and ears were taking in.

It’s about 1:30pm here and we are docked in Venice overnight. I’m waiting a bit for the lines to subside a bit for the water taxis, then I’ll be heading out later this afternoon. As we passed San Marco Square the throngs of tourists were unbelievable. I’m hoping that by going in a little later, some of the crowds will subside. Plus, by going in later I’ll be able to spend some time exploring in the evening and see Venice after dark, as well as during daylight hours.

I’ll post more tonight when I’m back onboard. But I wanted to get a few images up now because they are just so incredible.

And.... I've uploaded a video clip too from the sail into Venice. Enjoy!

More later. Ciao for now!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

To Athens or not to Athens – that is the question….

When my alarm clock went off at 7:45am this morning, the thought of getting up, getting on a tour bus with 40+ people, sitting in Athens morning rush hour traffic for an hour and then walking around the city and climbing up to the Acropolis in 95 degree heat didn’t seemed very appealing. So I turned off the alarm clock and went back to sleep.

Fast forward to 12 noon.

I got up, ordered room service for lunch and got dressed. By this time it was nearly 1:30pm. To Athens or not to Athens, I pondered… then, accepting that I simply could not BE in Athens and not get off the ship, I disembarked, walked about 30 minutes to the closest Metro stop (I remembered where it was from the last time I was here) and took the Metro to the Plaka – a 19th century shopping district at the foot of the Acropolis with winding cobblestone streets and hundreds of shops and cafes. I wandered around the Plaka for a couple of hours window shopping and taking photos of the Acropolis up on the top of the hill – no, I did not climb up there. Been there, done that. Wasn’t going to do it again today in 95 degree heat! Then I made my way back to the Metro and back to Piraeus, the port city where the ship was docked, just in time for sail away at 5:30pm.

Believe it or not, a few hours this afternoon really was enough – for a repeat visit. Of course there is a ton of history to see in this city, and if you are visiting for the first time you will spend long day(s) seeing all there is to see. But not in the summer – if you have any sense (clearly, I don’t)! To say the heat is oppressive would be an understatement. Let’s put it this way, I look like an Italian again – I haven’t been this dark in years! There has been no rain on this trip – in fact, I don’t recall ever even seeing a cloud – just direct blazing sun, all day, everyday.

Before arriving in Venice on Monday, we have another restful day at sea tomorrow. Lots to do on board! I’m looking forward to a culinary demonstration by the chefs and a tour of the galley, the art auction, bingo (yes, BINGO – there’s a $2,200 jackpot game tomorrow!) and the last Formal Night of the cruise. Of course I’ll also work in a nap, staring out at the water as we sail back towards Italy, room service and a dip in the Jacuzzi as well!

Sadly, only a few short days of heaven left…

Friday, September 5, 2008

Another day in Turkey… this one, of Biblical proportions!

Today, the ship was docked in Kusasasi, Turkey. Kusadasi has become much the seaside resort town for foreign tourists (there are reportedly more than 10,000 English speaking foreigners who own vacation homes/property in Kusadasi). Think “Turkish Riviera,” with houses and apartments built into the mountainside overlooking the sea.

But the real highlight of visiting Kusadasi is walking in the footsteps of the apostles and of the Virgin Mary herself. Just 20-30 minutes outside of Kusadasi lies the ancient city of Ephesus. I’ll never forget when I first visited Ephesus – I didn’t realize what I was about to see, so I was literally blown away when I saw the Roman ruins there. You think the Roman forum is impressive? Pompeii? They have nothing on Ephesus.

This trip, in addition to visiting Ephesus, I ventured up into the Solmissos Mountains to visit a shrine recognized by the Vatican as being the final resting place of the Virgin Mary. When Jesus was crucified, he asked his apostle John to take care of Mary. After the crucifixion, John went to Ephesus. And so it goes that Mary was there with him. Of course nobody can know for sure. There isn’t much to see at the shrine but there was a very serene feeling about the place. I do have to say that while I was somewhat skeptical going in… as I shuffled my way through the shrine along with hundreds of others, I was unexpectedly overcome by a very powerful feeling that actually brought tears to my eyes. And the feeling passed once I stepped back outside. Just saying what happened….

The apostle Paul also spent a great deal of time in Ephesus (i.e. the Book of Ephesians in the Bible) and the theater where he spoke to the Ephesians is still there, very well preserved. Standing there in that place – knowing what occurred there so many centuries ago – is difficult to describe.

In addition to visiting the shrine of the Virgin Mary and the ruins at Ephesus, we also visited the 6th century Basilica build over the tomb of John the Baptist. See what I mean when is say it was a day of sightseeing of Biblical proportions?!

Back in port, of course I did a bit more souvenir shopping in Kusadasi before boarding ship. Kusadasi has the second most famous bazaar in Turkey (outside of Istanbul). Of course after two days of haggling in every store, for every purchase… I welcome actually walking into a store in Athens tomorrow and seeing actually price tags. Haggling – especially with the far better practiced Turks – is exhausting!

And so the Turkish leg of the trip is done. Sailing out of port at sunset was of course, quite beautiful. Now onward to Athens…

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Incredible Istanbul

There’s just so much history in Istanbul, it’s hard not to be swept into the past as you walk the streets. Such a city of contrasts. The traffic rivals that of Manhattan, modern skyscrapers have popped up dotting the skyline and the Grand Bazaar – once inside – feels more like a shopping mall than an exotic market (well, except for the bartering!). But make no mistake – Istanbul is definitely an ancient city.

I choose to do a walking tour of Istanbul that covered all the major sites – the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Hipppodrome, the Underground Cisterns, Topkapi Palace and of course the Grand Bazaar. Needless to say, by the time I got back to the ship, I didn’t have the energy for much more than dinner, a shower and falling into bed!

Turkey has a modern government with a president, prime minister and parliament (the last Sultan was ousted in the early 1920s when the current form of government was instituted). The people here are proud and quite adamant in informing tourists that Turkey does NOT have an Islamic government and that Turkey is secular – where all religions are tolerated and accepted. This tolerance makes Turkey a very interesting place, considering that the countries that border it are Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Despite their secular rule, 94% of the people in Turkey are Muslim and that is quite evident by the fact that in Istanbul alone, there are more than 3,000 mosques. I know this sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. And as you sightsee and shop you are clearly reminded of this fact by the call to prayers that broadcasts loudly over speakers all across the city 5 times each day. What also made this visit unique is that Muslims are currently in the midst of Ramadan (a holy time that is marked by month-long fast during daytime hours, among other things).

Visiting the Sultanahmet Mosque (more commonly known as the Blue Mosque) was just as awe inspiring as the first time I came here (I visited here on my first trip to Turkey back in 2001). It is an active mosque, so during the call to prayers, visitors are not allowed in. But outside of those 5 times each day, visitors are allowed. And they were there in droves from every corner of the world. As I took off my shoes, covered my shoulders and respectfully entered, I heard chatter from those around me in the crowd in more languages than I could count. The massiveness of the mosque is almost hard to take in. As you stare upward at the ornate mosaics, you literally have to remind yourself to look where you’re walking. Thousands of people – all staring upward with their jaws hanging open – can be quite hazardous!

In the Hippodrome there is an Egyptian obelisk that dates back to 1,500 BC! It was brought to Turkey in 390 A.D. by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius.

I saw so much it was almost sensory overload – especially for a history major – lest anyone forget, that is what I am ;-)

I took a break mid-afternoon and had a snack at a cafĂ© at Topkapi Palace overlooking the Bosphorus River. Many don’t realize that the Bosphorus splits Istanbul between two continents, with half of the city in Europe and the other half in Asia Minor. Seriously, when you drive across the river on one of the city’s many bridges, there are actually signs that say “Welcome to Asia” – last time I was here we took a cab across specifically to see the sign – Sthen turned back (typical crazy tourists).

I took nearly 300 photos in Istanbul alone. So choosing the best to share was nearly impossible. But I’ve included a few that I hope will help capture the essence of the city. When I get back, I’ll post full galleries.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Greek Island of Mykonos

I’ve sort of given Mykonos a bum rap over the years. Known internationally for its jet set night life, it isn’t thought of as much more. I was rather disappointed when I found out the only Greek port on this cruise other than Athens was Mykonos. Why not Crete? Why not Rhodes? Why not the breathtaking Santorini? But Mykonos it was.

There was one excursion I considered - taking a boat to the nearby island of Delos. And should I make it back to Mykonos someday, I will do that. Delos is a major Greek archaeological site and mythology has it that Delos is the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. It’s easy enough to get to – no need to buy a cruise shore excursion. There are several ferrys that make the trip over and back throughout the day as Delos is only 2km off the coast of Mykonos.

Today, I actually almost didn’t even go ashore at all. I slept in then got up and had breakfast out on deck. And the beauty of Mykonos – with it’s little white rooftops and windmills set against the deep blue color of the Aegean Sea, convinced my to go ashore. I’m glad I did.

There really isn’t much to do in Mykonos. But that was the beauty of it. For one thing, we didn’t dock – we anchored off shore and had to tender in (for cruise novices that means go ashore on the lifeboats). The water was so beautiful, and there was such a wind blowing that the ride alone from ship to shore convinced me to go. Feeling the mist of the sea and the wind blowing against your face is an amazing feeling.

Once on shore I just wandered around through the maze of cobblestone streets, window shopping and taking photos. I made my way up to the windmills and got an incredible view of the ship out in the water and just took in the scenery.

It was a short port visit. We were only there from 7am until 1pm (and I didn’t go ashore until 10:20am). But it was a really nice way to spend the morning. We’re sailing now – with no land in site – enroute to the highlight of the cruise (at least for me) Istanbul. I’ve been here before – back in 2001 – but that was before I had a digital camera, so I’m so excited to visit again and capture the amazing sights to share. Don’t worry Mom, I’m going with a cruise ship tour – I won’t be wandering the streets of Istanbul alone (though to be honest, I was VERY tempted to do so!).

Lots more to come tomorrow after a long but wonderful day in Turkey!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Restful Day at Sea

Monday, September 1, 2008

Napoli: Home of Pizza, Mount Vesuvius & Vespas

So the verdict for today ended up being wandering the streets of Naples. Honestly, while I’m sure there is some truth to the warnings (i.e. Beware of pickpockets!), it’s never happened to me and still hasn’t after today. Like any city, you just have to be alert. I’ve never had a problem here or anywhere I’ve traveled.

As I wandered around the small streets of Naples, I found a great whole-in-the-wall pizzeria (with no tourists anywhere in sight) and had a piece of authentic Naples pizza. YUM! After that, I walked until I could walk no more! I didn’t really have a plan for the day. Before I headed off the ship, I slept in (for the first time since the cruise started), had breakfast on deck (for the first time since the cruise started) and sat in the sun (for the first time the cruise started). Unlike Caribbean cruises, when you choose to see Europe by ship, it’s a lot of work – so much to see and do, you are literally running from dawn until dusk. (I guess you don't HAVE to do that, but you know me - I want to see and do everything!) Anyhow, by the time I got off the ship it was almost 12:30pm and I was back on board by 5pm. Any longer than that and my feet would have given out and I seriously would have passed out from the heat. I know I keep mentioning that… sorry, but it is just so unbelievably hot. Moral of the story: Do not go to Europe in the Summer! Unless you have a free cruise ;-)

My one goal for the day was to make it to the top of Naples. Naples is built into the side of a mountain and has several funiculars (elevators built into the mountain) that take people to the top. I had no map of the city (don't ask) so I just wandered around until I found the funicular and made my way up. Definitely not for the claustrophobic. Some funiculars I’ve been in places are built on the external side of the mountain so you have a view all the way up (like Santorini, Greece), but the ones in Naples are build ‘inside’ the mountain and go up more than 1,200 ft in a tunnel! After some more wandering around once at the top, I finally found a vantage point to get an amazing view of the Bay of Naples. The last time I did this was the first time I was ever in Naples, which I believe was back in 1997 with Shaun (the ex). I remember when we got to Naples on that trip, all the vespas whizzing by really freaked him out – he,he! He wasn’t really the avid traveler that I was, but he tried to be a good sport about it as I dragged him across Europe. We actually stayed in a hotel up at the top with an even more amazing view. I’ve always remembered that and wanted to come back and see it again. Mission accomplished.

Once back on board, we set sail right around sunset and it was spectacular. As we sailed past Mount Vesuvius (think Pompeii), looking back at Naples and seeing the sun set behind it was just breathtaking. Sunsets are one of the very best things about cruises – there’s nothing like being on deck, feeling the sea breeze, watching the tug and pilot boats help navigate the cruise ship out of port and watching a brilliant sunset.

Tomorrow is a day at sea – which my feet are so thankful for! And I have a massage appointment at the spa of course ;-) The next leg of the cruise is the Eastern Med – Greece & Turkey. Can’t wait!


Sunday, August 31, 2008

Tuscania & Olive Oil

Today we are docked at Civitavechia (the port of Rome, about 90 km from the city). Given the 90 degree heat, it being the height of summer tourist season AND it being a Sunday (think Vatican City), the thought of going into Rome wasn’t very appealing. So since I was just in Rome with Jessica in June, I decided to skip it this time around, and instead spend the day out in the countryside.

Heading North from Civitavechia as you drive towards Tuscany, you are technically not 'in' Tuscany, but a very similar region that borders it. The town I visited today was called Tuscania. Another medieval town with unbelievably scenic views. Sadly, since it was Sunday morning, most of the shops were closed. So the morning was spent just wandering through the cobblestone streets taking photos. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday! As we were driving down the country roads, the bus pulled up behind a team of Italian cyclists - thought it was a cool shot!

After visiting Tuscania, we made a stop at a local agritourist farmhouse for lunch. Similar to yesterday, there was pasta, cheese, prochiutto, sun dried tomatoes and more. So good! And we got to walk in the olive groves a bit and hear an explanation of how they harvest them and what constitutes a fine extra virgin olive oil. Of course they were selling their olive oil, but I didn’t buy any. Because… I still have a lot left in the giant tin I ordered from another agritourist farmhouse (that I like better) in this region from last year! (p.s. Those aren't sheep in that photo, it's a herd of WHITE cows roaming the countryside! Has anyone ever heard of white cows? Not me!)

Back on the ship this afternoon, I have it almost to myself. Most everyone went into Rome today and won’t be back on board until around 6pm this evening. Kind of nice – it's quiet and there aren't any lines for anything!

Tomorrow is Naples. I have no plan yet for what to see or do. There are a lot of choices – Capri, Pompeii, Sorrento, Positano, the Amalfi coast and the city of Naples itself. I’ve been to them all so I couldn’t decide what to revisit. Whatever I end up doing, I won’t be joining a shore excursion, so it will most certainly end up being a bit of an adventure... Hydrafoil to Capri? Train to Sorrento? Dodging vespas and eating pizza in the streets of Naples? So many choices, so little time…

Ciao for now!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Under the Tuscan Sun

Seriously hot. But other than that, fantastico! So today was spent exploring two small towns – Volterra and San Gimignano. And taking in the beautiful Tuscan countryside along the way. Both of these towns are in the general vicinity of Sienna – or central Tuscany. And they are exactly what you think of when you imagine Tuscany (…or see it in the movies, like in the namesake of this post – Under the Tuscan Sun).

Volterra is probably my favorite medieval Tuscan city. Mainly because it isn’t as frequented by tourists as much as San Gimignano (or Florence for that matter). As soon as I got off the bus I took off my ‘sticker’ (i.e. Hi, I’m a tourist badge) and ditched the guided tour. I’ve been to Volterra before and didn’t need the tour – plus, rather than listen to a tour guide go on-and-on in very difficult to understand broken English about obscure historical facts (and that's coming from a History major!), I prefer to wander the small cobblestone streets and ‘experience’ the town on my own.

While taking photos of some ancient ruins of a Roman Theater dating back to the 1st century BC, I stumbled across a local flea market. I saw no other tourists there, which made it really interesting. I walked from stall to stall, mingling with the local people who actually live in Volterra. I picked up a really nice sweater and a sleep shirt – in my opinion, much better momentos from my visit than some cheesy souvenir. The sleep shirt says something in Italian that I need to look up a translation for – hopefully, it doesn’t say anything embarrassing!

Before heading to San Gimignano, we stopped for lunch at a Tuscan farmhouse. The grounds were beautiful and the food – pasta, salami, prochiutto, olive oil, goat cheese, fresh bread – was scrumptious. My mission when I got to San Gimignano was to find the spices I bought here a few years ago (for dipping bread in with olive oil). And I found them! I had kept the wrapper all this time and brought it with me, and by the 4th or 5th store, I hit the jackpot!

There are a lot of tourists in San Gimignano, but it is still an amazing medieval town to explore that is know for it’s many towers (as well as being home to what is supposedly the ‘world’s best’ gelato store – since I don’t like Ice Cream, I couldn’t verify this fact, but given the countless number of people walking around eating the stuff, it seems like an accurate assessment!).

After 9.5 hours in 90 degree heat and sun, it was a long day. But a small price to pay for an amazing day spent in the Tuscan countryside.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A year (um, I mean a day) in Provence

Wow – global warming is clearly evident in Europe. It was as hot here today as it is in Florida! And all the ports after this are even further south (i.e hotter)!

Despite nearly having a heat stroke... the day out in the country visiting Aix-en-Provence and Lourmarin today was quite relaxing. I have to say though, Lourmarin – in my opinion – is definitely not the ‘the most beautiful village’ in France. Don’t get me wrong, it was very quaint and I’m glad I saw it. But by far, the little town of Eze on the French Riviera is much more beautiul (check out photos of Eze from my last trip). I didn’t get to see Marseille, so I’ll have to save that for another trip.

Tomorrow will be a day spent in Tuscany. First up is the village of San Gimignano – then lunch at Tuscan farmhouse (olive oil, cheese, homemade bread, salami – YUM!) - then a visit to the small town of Volterra. I’ve taken this shore excursion before so I know it’s great. I can’t wait to spend another day out in the Tuscan countryside.

So I’m out by the pool blogging via wi-fi from my laptop as I eat a hamburger and watch “What Happens In Vegas” up on the giant jumbotron-sized movie screen under the stars. Ah, there’s nothing like cruising...

There's a great line in this movie (believe it or not). It goes... "I’d rather do nothing and be happy than do something that I don’t love."

Au Revoir for now!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hello from Barcelona!

While standing in line in Atlanta waiting to board my flight to Rome, I heard someone say "Gina Wilcox, please come to the desk". Imagine my joy when a very nice Delta lady who had noticed I was traveling alone, decided to be my Fairy 'Travel' Godmother and bump me up to Elite Business class! I knew at that moment the trip was off to a good start… I cannot begin to explain the difference it makes when you're on a 9.5 hour transatlantic flight to be able to fully stretch out, have a down pillow and duvet and noise-muffling headphones - just to name a few of the amenities. Not worth the thousands of dollars a business class ticket would cost you to buy, but when you get it handed to you for free, it’s certainly enough to make you feel like you've won the lottery!

After a 3-hour layover in Rome and a 90 minute connecting flight, I landed in Barcelona. The first order of business once I landed in Spain was finding a payphone (thank God they still have those in Europe) and calling my nieces, who turned 12 today. Don't even get me started about Verizon… Luckily my cell phone deficiency didn’t prevent me from accomplishing my mission and 'crazy Aunt Gina' was able to catch the girls right before they left for school this morning and wish them a Happy Birthday from Spain.

Happy Birthday Stasia & Brianna!!!!

So I've been onboard about 5 hours so far. And haven't unpacked yet. But I do have my priorities in check – I've been to the Spa to confirm my massages for the Sea Days, been to the buffet (for research purposes of course), bought my unlimited soda package (which has already paid for itself for the day) and attended the dreaded life boat drill (i.e. I mustered).

The ship sets sail in a few hours and tomorrow we’ll be in France, docked in Marseille. This is the one port on this cruise itinerary that I have NOT been too yet! While I will spend a little time there, I plan on spending most of the day out in Provence split equally between Aix-en-Provence and Lourmarin. If you watch Samantha Brown on the Travel Channel, she did a segment on Aix-en-Provence once (check your TiVo – you might have it) – it looks really cool. But I'm most excited about Lourmarin – a small town that sits at the foot of the Luberon Mountains and is often referred to as being 'the most beautiful village' in France! I'll let you know tomorrow if it lives up to its reputation. Adios!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

4 Days Until Sail Away

Be sure and check this page regularly between Thursday 8/28 and Wednesday, 9/10. I'll be posting daily while onboard the Emerald Princess as I make my way through Italy, Greece & Turkey. The ship has a live Web cam so you can actually see where I'm at each day. Don't forget, I'll be 6 hours ahead of US time while in Europe.