Sunday, May 24, 2015

Europe's Best (and Worst) Cruise Ports

Essential  information 
When planning  a European cruise most first timers  book several excursions offered by the cruise line to be assured they will see all those wonderful places on the itinerary and not have to  worry about being left behind.
 Regular cruisers often  organize a group with a local guide or  driver and some  prefer to just  walk off the ship and explore independently.
Independent excursions offer advantages but take lots of pre-cruise planning, time, and computer know-how.  The first advantage is  substantial savings: instead of $70-100  for a 4 hour group  excursion, the same sights can be explored for a few euro on your own using  public transport with  a good map and guidebook. Knowing the language of the port helps too. 

sail away  from Istanbul  aboard Azamara Quest 
 The independent travelers leave and return from the excursion when they want,  without rising early nor being herded  in a group trailing behind a guide.

Over the years spent as an enrichment speaker on cruise ships and especially after my  latest-and longest- cruise with a ship full  of Australians  visiting 19 ports in the  Mediterranean, Ionic, Aegean and Adriatic seas, I have noted  improvements, novelties and  discovered many new places. 

 Here is an eyewitness, up to date and  personal view of  Europe’s  best and worst ports for the independent cruiser.    

Istanbul , Turkey–Ships dock right in the heart of the city,  allowing  you to independently walk out of the port area and take advantage of the city’s  excellent  public transport system. You will need Turkish lire coins to utilize the metro  and for  museum entrance fees. Check the Time Out Istanbul magazine for happenings and Eyewitness Guidebook to Istanbul for itineraries. Taxi from airport to cruise dock costs about 25 euro.

see how people live in Piraeus
Piraeus-Athens, Greece –Ships dock at the huge Cruise Terminal in Piraeus where stray dogs wander and the  wi fi connection can often be used by those aboard the ships. Thankfully  the infamous taxi drivers have  now been organized and are no longer aggressive and rude.  Several  hop on/ hop off buses and  a mini train (5 euro)  are parked just outside the terminal. The little train gives a good view of the  city of Piraeus chugging through the residential areas,  the Marina Mikrolimano and back to the cruise terminal.
walking along the seaside of Kushadasi 

Epheseus, the Odeon theatre 
Kushadasi (Epheseus) Turkey-Ships dock  in the center of town making it easy to walk off and explore the lively Bazaar, catch a mini bus to the nearby beaches or share a taxi  (60 euro)  for the short drive to the magnificent  archeological site of Epheseus.  Take a leisurely walk  along the beach front to the new Hilton Double Tree hotel  and visit the new  arts and crafts center built in an historic tannery.
Arts Center at the old Tannery 

Corfu, Greece- The Cruise  Terminal is located a few kilometers from the center of Old Corfu town and taxis  (a fleet of shiny new black Mercedes) now charge a flat rate of 10 euro for the drive in/out of town. From the Esplanade park local  buses  bring to further parts of the island. Catch the  bus to  Mon Repos  or Achilleon palaces for a visit to these  lovely  historic house museums.

Mon Repos villa and park, Corfu, Kanoni 

Kotor, Montenegro –Only smaller ships arrive to this fascinating city at the end of a long fiord and they dock right in the center of the walled medieval city which can be  explored on foot in a morning. There is now a hop on/ hop off bus(full day 20 euro) with an excellent audio presentation that takes visitors along the fiord to the town of Perast and to see Roman mosaics then a walking tour of the town. One of the favorite past times for crew members and others suffering from cabin fever is the hike up  to the Fortress high above the city.
islands  near Perast and Kotor 

Civitavecchia-Even though this is my home port and I live nearby I am ashamed to say that it has become  probably  the worst  port for cruisers who do not have an excursion booked ahead of time with their cruise line or a private driver and/or guide.  If you want the name of a highly recommended local multi-lingual guide, feel free to contact me.  

Civitavecchia,checking out  the market 
Cruise passengers and crew are no longer able to walk out of the port  at Michelangelo’s Fortress and make the 10 minute walk to  catch a train to Rome.  Now a port mobility bus “captures” cruisers  and transports them  to an enclosed  area several kilometers to the  north. Here without any signage or audio instructions, confusion reigns and eventually  cruisers discover they have two choices: either walk the long way back, or take a city bus (.80  euro) through the center of Civitavecchia and then finally, arrive to the railway station. 
How long does it take to arrive to Rome's  Capitoline Museum?

For those who planned on seeing Rome in a day,  an hour of precious time has been wasted. Alternatives are to stay in Civitavecchia and check out the market, explore the old center,  go to one of the nearby beaches or catch the local COTRAL bus to Tarquinia to see the UNESCO  Etruscan sites (30 minutes) and then take a taxi back.  For other articles about the many  interesting sites in  the Civitavecchia area, browse the archives and use the SEARCH box  at the top of this page.  
In another article "Exploring around Civitavecchia" you can see what arrival in the port was like in 2011. Now it seems that the Port Authority is sending away arriving cruisers instead of helping them! 
acqueduct on the way to Tarquinia
 To order books about this area visit  my award-winning website  

Ashdod, Jerusalem- Most cruisers opt for a 10 hour excursion to Jerusalem, but if you are not up to that you can stay in Ashdod.

 The Terminal is  set amidst a  gigantic industrial port and a  bus shuttle takes cruisers out and to the center of a  barren, modern and not very pleasant city that counts  the shopping mall and bus depot as  its  main attractions. An ultra modern arts and theatre complex with Louvre-style glass pyramid  beckons but the only part open to the public during the day is  a small museum with an entrance fee of  15 euro- but they accept only local currency. After 2 hours wandering under an oppressive sun most cruisers take the bus back to the port, check out the Duty free and then go aboard. 

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Scary Statues and Mysterious Figures

pathway from Vitorchiano

Tuscia (or Etruria) located one hour north of Rome and a half hour from Civitavecchia port makes a perfect escape from the  tourist crowds. We residents enjoy a laid back lifestyle, excellent food and wine as well as peace, calm and the many off beat places such as the well known Sacro Bosco or Monster Park of Bomarzo.

Nearby are several other sites with strange stone sculptures, fountains and  the remains of elegant gardens-often hidden away in the underbrush or valleys. 

Photos by F. Micheletti 

stone heads Vitorchiano 

rock hewn cave in the Vitorchiano valley
Just beneath the town of Vitorchiano a steep trail zig-zags down into a verdant valley.

Trekking with CAI excursion to see the sculptures near Vitorchiano                 Thanks to F. Micheletti for photos 

 Here trekkers literally trip over the  mysterious monumental sculptures created in 1990 by a team of stone carvers who were invited to Vitorchiano from Easter Island, far away in the Pacific Ocean. 
Easter Island  head in Vitorchiano

Other weird and wonderful stone figures date back to the Renaissance and 16th century and were created by native sculptors (or captive Turkish ones??)  to awe visitors of local nobility, such as these in a wild setting just outside the town of Viterbo. 
moss covered fountain with   human heads spouts 

female figure, near Viterbo

Papacqua fountain figure, Soriano

In plain sight in the town of Soriano nel Cimino is the Papacqua fountain next to Palazzo Chigi-Albani and its many intriguing  stone figures which art critics have been trying to interpret for centuries.
Papacqua fountain in Soriano nel Cimino 

These scary statues are just a few of the many fascinating, little known aspects of the Tuscia area  that await visitors, especially  artists, anthropologists and those who enjoy the unusual. 

For more about these and other  mysterious sites of central Italy, between Tuscany and Umbria, check out my website, use the search bar of the blog and read my latest two books on the area.

Don't forget to share with your friends using the Twitter and Facebook icons here below.  Have you visited any of these sites ? Do you know of others in central Italy ? 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Sensual, sensorial Bologna

A quick visit to Bologna, even on  a rainy weekday, is a chance to enjoy this  compact university city with its  miles of covered sidewalk porticoes  that give shelter from stormy weather. 
Bologna is a 3 hour train ride from home base 

 An umbrella is needed only when crossing intersections and the wide expanse of Piazza Maggiore where  San Petronio Basilica  and Sala Borsa act as  bookends.

Sala Borsa 
Duomo of San Petronio, Bologna 

 For the past  10 months many central streets have been blocked to traffic for a major  renovation paid for by  European Union money. 

The taxi drivers and  shop owners  are furious and tourism in general is  suffering yet a plethora of  tours and cooking classes are offered at the Tourism Office which is making the most of the Expo 2015’s  dedication to Italian food.
shopping with friends 

There are plenty of areas of the city that are not touched by the renovations but do  keep this  in mind before booking a hotel  in the affected areas. We chose  the Porta San Mamolo hotel in a quiet cul de sac and enjoyed  the silence  and restaurants of  this non-touristy  area  a short walk from  Piazza Maggiore.

garden well at Porta San Mamolo hotel 

 Window shopping  and wandering are a joy in Bologna. The window displays  of luxury boutiques  compete with those of the food shops and market stalls. This people-friendly town has  welcoming  public spaces such as Sala Borsa, for wi-fi and a drink as well as cozy bars and  restaurants for a meal or an  aperitivo.
tris di pasta 

Bologna “la Grassa” is rightly known for its high quality food shops bursting  with  excellent produce. A walk through one of the central markets or  one of the norcinerie  is a sensorial delight for whiffs of cured meats, cheeses and tartufo fill the air.
a feast for the eyes, as well as the stomach 
fresh fish, even late in the evening

Other sensorial delights for the eyes are the courtyards and colors of  Bologna’s palazzi  in the core of the old city. 
Wrought iron gates, marble columns, fountains  and  palatial courtyards exist next to  quirky  statues and  graffiti.   
lion doorknocker 

Dopey  window 

graffitto honoring Bolognese singer Lucio Dalla 
If  the wind and rain become  too strong, make  a beeline for the stately rooms  of the Civic Museum on the upper floors of  Palazzo Accorsio-Bologna’s City Hall- for another sensorial experience and refuge from the weather.

Sala Urbana with frescoed coat-of-arms
one of the many galleries  
With  21 rooms full of art works, antique furniture,  a newly restored  heraldic hall  and kind volunteer guides, Palazzo Accorsio is only one of the city’s many excellent museums and exhibition spaces. 
main staircase, Palazzo Accorsio 

red room, Palazzo Accorsio

Sala di Ercole, next to the Farnese chapel,Palazzo Accorsio

looking down on the central courtyard and well 

Palazzo Accorsio courtyard 

entrance to Archiginnasio 

For  more on visiting Bologna …see my article on  Italian notebook .

Learn what Bologna was like in the 1700s 

"Travels to Tuscany and Northern Lazio" only  30 copies remain of this book published in 2004 . 
 Click  on the link to my website and read reviews.
You can  order one of the few remaining copies directly from the author. 

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Antiques Show in Viterbo's Papal Palace

outside the Papal Palace 
The  most  historic  part of Viterbo  will be a  lively place  for the next  10 days thanks to the revived antiques show  being held inside the halls of the 12th century Papal Palace, where  in 1271 the first conclave (cum clave, with the keys) forced the  cardinals gathered  there to elect a new pope after having stalled for 18 months.

I have been reporting on the Viterbo Antiques Fair  since its inception  35 years ago, so yesterday’s inauguration  was  very much a déjà vu experience . 
article from 1981

reporting on Viterbo show, 1983

an elegant table 

Giulio Curti (BIC Lazio) and wife, Felice Orlandini (Polizia di Stato) & Fulvio
When I covered the first Viterbo Antiques show in 1980, we waited on the steps while dealers  finished  setting up their stands and the red carpet was being unrolled. 
last minute preparations
There was some scurrying also yesterday  before the Mayor  arrived  to cut the  ribbon.
 Mayor Michelini cuts the ribbon,with Giorgia  of Archeoares 

The number of exhibitors (43) is about the same as the first editions of the fair and there has been a generational change with many new  names and younger faces.  
Keeping up with modern times the organizers served finger food and drinks and local reporters  concentrated  on snapping pictures of  politicians, the bishop and local VIPs rather than the works of art.

Villa San Michele organized the drinks reception
The show fills three levels of the Papal Palace and is open to the public on weekday afternoons (from 3 p.m.) and all day on Friday, Saturday and Sundays. 

Thus dealers from out of town (the majority) have a chance to  enjoy the local amenities which include  hot thermal pools, Etruscan sites, Renaissance palaces and gardens.

The entrance ticket is also valid for  the Museo Civico  of Viterbo where you can see  masterpieces by Sebastiano del Piombo  and an exhibit on the  Knights Templars.  
1920s-30s ceramics of Raffaello Pernici
Special half-price  tickets (5 instead of 10 euro) are available to my readers  on Friday morning, March  27th  at 11 am. 
Meeting place, Papal Palace, Viterbo.

portrait of a 17th century violinist of Cremona

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Art Dèco  clock 
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