Uniworld Cruise to Spain & Italy with Stephen

river countessIt had been many years since we had been in Rome. Then the traffic was chaotic, the city was dirty and the Roman attitude towards visitors left much to be desired. On this visit things could not have been more different. We constantly saw cleaning crews on the streets day and night and graffiti being removed almost as soon as it appeared. To limit car traffic in the historical centre of Rome a Limited Traffic Zone has been introduced, where access is not allowed to unauthorized cars and only holders of a special permit can drive.

If you hire a car and wish to drive to your hotel in this area, in order to avoid a fine, contact the hotel management who will fax your number plate to the authorities. Bikes, scooters and motorbikes have unrestricted access.

Admittedly, we went in summer when we knew there would be hoards of tourists – and there were, but with a little planning you can avoid the long entrance lines to tourist sights by buying your tickets in advance on-line. This means that you can bypass the ticket purchase lines and in many cases get a discounted rate too.

We found that staff in restaurants and shops extremely helpful and friendly towards visitors, and English is now widely spoken. Prices of meals and drinks are on a par with Canada.

We opted to stay in an elegant boutique hotel right in the heart of one of the busiest tourist areas. The Inn at The Spanish Steps belongs to The Small Boutique Hotels of the World and offers an elegant oasis away from the hustle and bustle. Set in a former 17th century home on Via dei Condotti, a street with many luxury shops such as Bulgarvi, Gucci, Armani and Prada. you enter the hotel through a very unassuming doorway, down a white marbled hallway to a small reception area where we were warmly greeted. During our stay I cannot praise all the friendly staff enough for the care and attention they provide to their guests, Everyone was so accommodating and nothing was too much trouble.

Our room overlooked the courtyard and was very quiet. The furnishings were quite sumptuous in regal shades of green, the parquet flooring squeaked with old world charm and even the high ceiling had frescoed cherubims overlooking the bed. The air conditioning was also most welcome when we returned from our daily adventures.

There is a very small elevator that only goes to the third floor and then you have to walk up the narrow marble stairs to the roof top terrace.

We particularly enjoyed the roof top terrace with its bright red umbrellas for breakfast and for the complimentary hors d’oeuvres in the evening or for just relaxing whenever we felt like it. Nestled among the huge terracotta pots containg colourful flowers, tropical palms, orange and olive trees, you would not know that you were in the heart of such a large city.

pompeii

The hotel location is perfect for shopping and dining, and within easy walking distance of Rome’s many splendid sights. It is listed as a national monument and part of the building was once home to Hans Christian Anderson. I would highly recommend this hotel to anyone wanting a small, intimate property.

We went to Pompeii with Dark Rome Tours. It’s a very long day but we absolutely loved it. The guides were excellent and entertaining. Pompeii was fascinating as was the climb up Mt.Vesuvius. Unfortunately due to the heat and high humidity we could not see the Bay of Naples for the haze.

We flew with Easyjet from Rome to Venice. They are a budget airline, but we found them to be well organized and the ground and flight crews were very pleasant. Legroom was quite tight though.

In Venice we joined Uniworld Boutique River Cruises on board “The River Countess” to sail the Venetian Lagoon and The River Po. However, we soon found out that we would not be sailing on the Po as the water levels were too low and would be sailing the Venetian Lagoon only.

This meant that we would be moored on the southwest edge of the lagoon at Chioggia on the mainland where ground transportation would be able to park. It took about a half an hour longer to reach our daily tour spots but it was certainly no inconvenience.

This was our sixth river cruise – our fourth with Uniworld and it did not disappoint us. From the moment we boarded until the time we disembarked, the staff on board The River Countess were unfailingly polite and friendly. Nothing was too much trouble for them and they appeared to have been empowered to handle anything without having to refer to a superior,

Our cabin was small but adequate and most comfortable. Egyptian cotton bed linens with European duvets and cashmere blankets, L’Occitane en Provence bathroom amenities, marble tiled shower.

The food had all the flair, elegance and flavour you would expect of Italian cuisine. Beer and wine were complimentary with lunch and dinner.

Free Wi-Fi was available in the Main and Patio lounges, but was often slow and spotty,

but this seems to be a constant problem whether it be on a river or sea cruise.

vatican

On our second night after dinner, a fleet of water taxis arrived to take us on a sundown cruise along the Grand Canal. We disembarked at St Mark’s Square and walked across the square to a side door of St .Mark’s Basilica. This evening we were granted a special private opening of St. Mark’s Basilica exclusively for Uniworld passengers. We were treated to a scene that most will never see. Normally, during the day, the Basilica is very dark due to very few windows and the lighting is kept to a minimum to preserve the artifacts. This evening, following a music recital, lights were slowly lit to reveal the magnificent golden domes sheathed in mosaics. Underfoot was an intricate pattern of marble and mosaic tile that is seldom seen. Ahead of us was the famous alterpiece made by the 10th century Byzantine artisans who gilded it and decorated it with precious gems – some of which were subsequently stolen by Napoleon. It was an evening that we will never forget.

Places visited:

Padua

Historic Medieval Padua abounds with great squares, churches and palaces, but Padua’s most celebrated destination is Scrovegni Chapel. . The chapel itself is a simple brick structure, perhaps designed by Giotto himself for the express purpose of setting off his groundbreaking fresco cycle of scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus, which he painted around 1305. Full of color and emotion, these paintings prefigure the Renaissance by a century and remain vivid, beautiful, and moving.

Padua is a cheerful, busy and full of life city, in which students, pilgrims, academics and tourists rub shoulders at market stalls and pavement café tables.

Ravenna

Ravenna is a treasure chest of art, history and culture, a city with ancient origins and a glorious past. The basilicas and baptisteries of the city preserve the richest heritage of mosaics in the world. Galla Placidia, widow of the emperor Constantius III commissioned a modest brick chapel, This chapel, completely unadorned on the outside, contains spectacular mosaics: the vaulted ceilings of the oratory are sheathed in mosaic stars and representations of saints and the Good Shepherd.

Bologna

Like any other city in Northern Italy, Bologna has its fair share of lovely, historic buildings. Among them are the huge 14th-century basilica (only the bottom half of it is sheathed in marble; apparently its builders ran into budget problems, and the Bolognese felt no need to cover up the red bricks with anything fancier); the two leaning towers that loom above Piazza di Porta Ravegnana; Santo Stefano, a complex of churches and monasteries—the oldest dates to the fifth century—and the handsome arcaded structures that housed Europe’s first university and its students.

Even in Italy, a country that takes food very seriously, Bologna stands out. Its chamber of commerce preserves old recipes, and the city’s nickmane , La Grassa, means the Fat One. Such specialities as mortadella, tortellini and, of course, Bolognese sauce all originated here.

Verona

Shakespeare endowed Verona with fame through the ages when he wrote of two star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, but Verona has been an important city in Northern Italy’s affairs for 2,000 years. Rising beautifully above the Adige River, its mellow stone palaces and churches speak to the city’s wealth, both historically and in the present day.

A little but lovely city, Verona will charm you for its elegance and its warmth, between ancient and modern elements, Simply walking through the center you will discover museums, monuments, churches, gardens, bars, taverns and historical shops.

Verona’s best-known landmark is the pink marble-sheathed Roman arena. Not all of the structure is open to the public— and not all of it survived a 12th-century earthquake—but what remains is vast and remarkably well preserved. In fact, only the Colosseum in Rome is larger. Verona’s citizens reclaimed it as a theatrical venue in the 18th century; a world-famous opera festival takes place here every summer— the festival celebrates its 100th year of existence with this season’s productions, which will include Aida, the first opera staged in the arena.

venice

Via Mazzini is Verona’s golden mile of shopping as it takes you between Piazza Bra and Piazza del Erbe. Most of the major Italian labels are represented here.

Venice

Venice is a walking city. 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.

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 €18.00 otherwise you will be paying a whopping €7.00 per one-way trip and that ticket is only good for one hour. 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.

Murano

In 1291, all the glassmakers in Venice were forced to move to Murano due to the risk of fires. In the following century, exports began, and the island became famous, initially for glass beads and mirrors. Aventurine glass was invented on the island, and for a while Murano was the main producer of glass in Europe. The island later became known for chandeliers. Although dcline set in during the eighteenth century, glassmaking is still the island’s main industry.

burano

Burano

The island of Burano is known for its colourful houses and as ancient legend narrates, fishermen painted their houses to see them from a long distance when they were far away for fishing. The elderly ladies would spend the days embroidering, creating beautiful lace works which are famous for this island.

Barcelona

Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is a Mediterranean and cosmopolitan city with Roman remains, medieval quarters and the most beautiful examples of 20th century Modernism and avant-garde. It is no surprise that emblematic constructions by the Catalan architects Antoni Gaudí and Lluís Doménech i Montaner have been declared World Heritage sites by the UNESCO. Tradition and modernity can also be seen in its innovative and imaginative gastronomy, based on fresh garden produce, fresh fish, a wide variety of sausages and olive oil. Traditional handmade cakes and pastries and sparkling wines are some of the other highlights of Barcelona’s gastronomic culture.

Strolling around the streets of Barcelona will bring surprises at every turn. Pedestrian streets in the old quarter, green spaces, and a splendid seafront with a range of modern facilities are a reflection of its multi-faceted character. Barcelona has cleverly succeeded

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in embracing its past without forgetting its commitment to the future.

That being said, Barcelona has its problems. Graffiti is everywhere, streets are dirty , drugs are peddled openly, and pick-pocketing and muggings are commonplace. So much so that the police do not have the manpower to deal with it. So a word of caution, do not carry any more cash than you would need for a day out, keep credit cards in a safe pocket and leave all valuables in the hotel safe , do not put your bag down for even a second and be very aware of your surroundings.

In both Rome and Madrid we used the Hop-on Hop-off buses, which gave an excellent overview of the cities allowing you to spend time at places that really piqued your interest. Especially in Barcelona where everything is so spread out. In fact, to cover them all they have three long routes which take about two hours each to complete . Stops are easy to find and buses run every 15 to 20 minutes.