Europe with Stephen

Agent Name: Stephen
Date: November 2010
Trip Location: Black Sea & Dalmatia Cruise – Onboard MSC Cruises “Opera”, Also Florence, Venice and Paris

MSC Opera

The MSC Opera is a beautiful, well appointed and maintained ship. The service was superb – both attentive and friendly. The cleanliness of the ship was amazing. The decks shone and all the brass and mirrors were always gleaming too. The Opera has so many mirrors – it’s off putting until you are oriented with the ship.

All the ports-of-call were most interesting, but the time in port was usually too short and so tours tended to feel rushed. Shore excursions were over-priced, but the ones we did take were OK. English-speaking people were the minority on board, and so some tours were conducted in more than one language. For the most part, we went under our own steam, grabbed a local map and explored on foot.

Our cabin was of a reasonable size with a functional bathroom, and plenty of storage space. Linens, towels etc were of high quality too.

The food on board was an enormous disappointment. Overall, the food was bland and portions miniscule. The quality of the food at the breakfast and lunch buffets was of a like kind. Water, tea and coffee were totally unavailable with dinner. If you wanted water, you had to buy it by the bottle. Likewise for coffee and tea, they were not offered and you had to go to one of the lounges to buy either.

Internet was extremely expensive and very slow. We ran out of time on a few occasions while waiting for e-mails to send, even though we had bought an hour at a time. Towards the end of the cruise we resorted to using internet cafes on shore which were either free or very low cost, but they were very fast and we got to enjoy the local cuisine and drinks at the same time.

The evening entertainment was top notch Las Vegas style variety shows in the main theatre and smaller musical combos in the other lounges. They were all of a very high caliber.

The shops on board were also very expensive and held daily sales, but we did not see many people buying anything. The same held true for their duty-free liquor and tobacco shop. Prices were the same or lower on shore. You also could not buy alcohol and take it to your cabin. It was held until the last evening and then delivered to your room.

The passenger mix was mainly German, French, Italian & Spanish with a minority mix of English speaking Canadians, Americans, British, Australian and New Zealanders. All announcements were made in five languages. Many of the crew spoke at least three languages and the cruise director at the evening shows spoke all five fluently and changed from one to another seamlessly without skipping a beat. It was very impressive.

We did have a good time – plus points: great itinerary at a good price, a spotlessly clean ship, good staff, prompt and efficient service. Minus points: very expensive on board, mediocre food service, some rude people (pushing in getting in and out of elevators, barging through doors etc.). Given the right price and the right itinerary I would recommend MSC Cruises.

Ports-of-call:

Kotor, Montenegro
Located along one of Montenegro’s most beautiful bays, Kotor is a city of traders and famous sailors. The Old city of Kotor is a well preserved city typical of the Middle Ages, built between the 12th and 14th centuries. Medieval architecture and numerous monuments of cultural heritage have made Kotor a UNESCO listed “World Natural History and Historical Heritage Site”. Throughout the entire city the buildings are criss-crossed with narrow streets and squares. One of these squares contains the Cathedral of Sveti Tripun, a monument of Roman culture and one of the most recognizable symbols of the city. The Church of Sveti Luka (13th.century), Church Sveta Ana (12th century), Church Sveta Marija (13th century), Church Gospe od Zdravlja (15th century), the Prince’s Palace (17th century) and the Napoleon’s Theatre (19th century) are all treasures that are part of the rich heritage of Kotor.

Piraeus/Athens
This was my first time in Athens and I was anticipating a much more sophisticated city than the one I found. It was dirty, dense, hot, smoggy and not particularly inviting. We climbed up to The Acropolis, but, as there were four other large cruise ships in port besides ourselves, the line-ups were so long that we had no chance, in our limited time, to get close to the monuments. Besides, they were swathed in mesh-covered scaffolding as on-going restorations are constantly being made.

The Cruise Ship Terminal in Piraeus was a work in progress, or I should say work suspended. The second floor and the roof have been abandoned and the beams are oozing rust stains down the unfinished walls. Not a pretty sight.

Yalta, Ukraine
Situated in Crimea, southern Ukraine, on the north coast of the Black Sea, Yalta is situated on the site of an ancient Greek colony, said to have been founded by Greek sailors who were looking for a safe haven. The Armenian Church is the most beautiful building in the city. The church was built in 1909 as a copy of the St. Rispime Church built in 618AD in Echmiadzin, the residence for the head of of the Armenian Orthodox Church. Naberezhnaya Lenina is the main street in Yalta. Only the name keeps the loyalty to the communist past. The palm trees, sea breezes, cafes, bars, and attractions create the unique bourgeois atmosphere of this street. The mix of architectural styles, the recent renovation using red granite and grey rocks, creates a rich feeling of success.

Odessa, Ukraine
Odessa is also situated on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. Worth a visit are the Potemkin Stairs, name after the rebellious battleship Potyomkin, a formal entrance into the city from the cruise ship terminal. The stairs leading from Prymorsky Boulevard down to the sea were constructed from 1837 through 1841. This imposing momument nymbers 192 stairs. Magnificent Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre once echoed with concerts conducted by Tchaikovsky and ballets featuring Anna Pavlova. The interior of this impressive structure, which ranks in grandeur with Milan’s La Scala and Moscow’s Bolshoi, is richly decorated in Louis XVI style.

Istanbul, Turkey
Our second visit in as many years, please see my fam report on Turkey for my overall impression of the city. The ever busy, overcrowded city never loses its excitement. Time being of the essence, we took a taxi from the ship to the Grand Bazaar for a mere €10.00 and received a guided tour by the driver who delighted in practicing his English before alighting at the same gate that we entered the bazaar the last time. This time we had a map and game plan. With over 3000 merchants it is easy to lose your way. The Bazaar bustles from the time it opens until the last shopper has gone home. We were not pressured by the merchants at all and left with exactly what we had gone there for. Leaving the Bazaar we headed down the bustling hillside of the old city towards the water. The streets were full of shops as was the bazaar. We lunched at the famous Hamdi Restaurant, known for its exquisite flavourful Turkish cuisine, overlooking The Golden Horn. Past the colourful vendors selling fresh fish sandwiches from their floating cafes, we strolled across the Galata Bridge towards the cruise ship terminal – no taxis this time, Hundreds of fishermen and women had their reels over both sides of the bridge casting for what appeared to be very small pickings. It was mid afternoon, doesn’t anyone work? Simply put, it was a wonderful day in Istanbul, a fascinating city. We were very disturbed and shocked to hear that the next day an Islamic suicide bomber killed a number of innocent people in Taksim Square, a gathering place for locals and tourists alike.

Katakolon, Greece
Katakolon is a seaside village in western Illia. The town overlooks the Gulf of the Ionian Sea and is where the ancient Greeks used to flock every four years for more than a thousand years to celebrate the sacred games dedicated to Zeus, now known as the Olympic Games. Famous are the ruins of the Sanctuary, with its athletic stadiums, temples and treasuries, and nowadays the modern Archaeological Museum, a treasure house of Ancient, Classical and Roman sculptures, including the famous statue of Nike, the Winged Victory.

We enjoyed a donkey cart ride along the deserted beach and had a wonderful lunch including local chilled white wine at a table painted Grecian blue compete with a checkered tablecloth at the edge of the water serenaded by a couple singing accompanied by a bouzuki. What more could anyone want? They also had free Wi-Fi!

Dubrovnik, Croatia
This amazing medieval city of Croatia has long been a very tourist tradition. It is the pearl of the southern Dalmatia and part of UNESCO patrimony. A city of museums, festival, plus a vast number of restaurants and taverns with a mild Mediterranean climate and magnificent scenic views, confirms the opinion of the famous Irish writer

George Bernard Shaw “those who look for a paradise or want the Garden of Eden on Earth must come to Dubrovnik”. La Plaka is the beautiful pedestrian street of Dubrovnik that begins near the gate known as Pile and goes up to the clock tower. Immediately, when you enter the Pile Gate you can admire the Franciscan Monastery that hold a pharmacy dating back to 1391, Proceeding onwards you will reach San Biagio’s church, patron of the city, an enchanting building in Italian Baroque style and also the gothic Palazzo del Rettore built in 1441. But to savour the everyday feeling of Dubrovnik, climb up the side streets from La Plaka to where the side streets abound with smaller shops and small cafes and restaurants.

Even after being devastated by Serb shells in the 1991-92 siege, today’s Dubrovnik is remarkably whole and flawless. In fact, a shade of red is one of the few telltale reminders of those violent days. New terra-cotta roof tiles on buildings blasted in the war are a little brighter and

a little more orange than older roof tiles that escaped Serb mortars. Hard as they tried, the city fathers were unable to find enough tiles to match the old tiles when doing repairs after the Serb attacks, and they had to settle for the new ones.

FlorenceVenice & Florence, Italy
Venice has a new “People Mover”, an overhead light rail system connecting the Piazzale Roma, the bus and taxi terminal, with the cruise ship terminal and Venice’s largest public parking garage. It is fast and inexpensive, €1.00 each way and takes about 3 minutes. However, the cruise ship terminal area is under construction and the rail station is a very long walk around construction barriers to the terminals. There is no shuttle from the station. Both Florence and Venice are walking cities. Florence’s main area around the cathedral and Uffizi Gallery down to the river is pedestrian-only (except for emergency vehicles) and Venice, well Venice is Venice. No roads so no cars. Once you are away from The Grand Canal it is very peaceful wandering the back streets. There are the occasional gondolas and water taxis, but most canals are very quiet, especially at night. Also in Venice, the best way to get around, other than on foot, is by water bus or Vaporetto. There a many lines and it is best to get a 12 hour travel card for €16.00 otherwise you will be paying a whopping €6.50 per one-way trip. You can hop on and off the boats on the Grand Canal or take a ride out to the glass-making island of Murano or the lace-making island of Burano. It makes for a very pleasant day. We purchased Eurail Passes for our inter-city rail journeys within Italy and France. As there are hourly trains between most points, we did not make any advance seat bookings before we left Canada thinking that it was off-season, there were many trains and we could just hop on the next one. We were mistaken. On the day we were to go from Florence to Venice, we went to the station only to find an extremely long queue at the ticket office. We could not get on the train we expected and had to wait three hours for the next one. It was not a problem as we did not have to be in Venice by a certain time, so we trundled our suitcases back down the street until we found a delightful outdoor cafe in a tree lined square where we had lunch and spent time people watching over a glass of wine – or two in the sunshine. So a word to the wise, book your train seats in advance. In Florence we stayed at The Hotel Cerretani Firenze, formerly of the Sofitel chain, this five star hotel is a mere two minutes walk from the cathedral, Uffizi Gallery and on the edge of the pedestrianized city centre. In a former palace, this modernized hotel was a quiet respite from the every day clamour of the city. Our room was very comfortable. Queen bed with a sitting area and one of the largest bathrooms we have every experienced. The lobby and bar were very traditional and inviting. For those on a budget, or for those wanting to eat with the locals, I can recommend the following restaurants. “Fiaschetteria Nuvoli”, a wine bar with a restaurant in the basement near the cathedral. Tables are long with bench seats, so you share the table with others. The menu changes daily with whatever the chef purchases at the market that morning. It fills up fast, so get there early before noon. Evenings are a little quieter, but the same menu is served. We had dinner for five with a huge bottle of Chianti for €70.00. Across the River Arno on the left bank, is a small pizzaria named “Gustapizza”. It owned and run by three brothers. The menu is limited to about six types of pizza, but their flavour is magnificent. At lunchtime, the small restaurant fills up fast and you have to share tables – a good way to meet the locals or tourists. In Venice, we stayed at the Papadopoli Hotel Venezia in the quiet suburb of Santa Croce. It is also a former Sofitel hotel, and is on the Tolentini Canal and adjacent to one of Venice’s few gardens, The Papadopoli Gardens. It has a truly enviable position, close to the Grand Canal and the new Constitution Bridge that connects the hotel with Piazzale Roma and the Santa Lucia railway station.

On the other side of the canal from the hotel, there is the tiniest of wine bars. The area in front of the bar could not hold more than four or five people at a time. The wine was all local and brought in daily in bottles only marked with one letter to differentiate the vintages. Two chalk boards declared the day’s offerings of white or red. The amazing thing is that it was only €0.60 per glass. Couple that with a mini sandwich prepared fresh by Papa at the back of the bar, and you had an incredible meal for € 1.10 per person. Having no room in the bar, everyone stood and ate outside using two barrels as tables or sat on the low stone wall edging the canal. As tourists we were a minority in this delightful local neighbourhood.

Paris

Paris
For the third time in last twelve months we stayed at Marriott’s Village d’Ile de France in Bailly-Romainvilliers just outside Paris. The complex is designed to resemble a French village

and is built around a golf course. This time my daughter and her friend were with us and to have a two-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse was a blessing. We all had enough space to spread out. Evening meals were an event every day. On the way home we would shop for the food, experimenting with new things all the while. The wild boar and the rabbit pates were incredible, and the selection of wines was so vast and inexpensive. I have no qualms about recommending the Marriott to anyone. It is not in Paris, but a mere 30 minutes away by the inter-urban RER train. The units are all two bedroom townhouse on two floors with full kitchen, washer and dryer dining room, living room, one bedroom with a king bed with ensuite bathroom, the other bedroom with twin beds, full guest bathroom and a powder room downstairs. What else could you ask for? The staff was as gracious and helpful as ever.