Under the Mediterranean Sun
Posted: July 30, 2016 Filed under: Arts, Inspiration, music, Travel | Tags: italy greece travel aegean mediterranean
Dance like nobody’s is watching; love like you’ve never been hurt.
Sing like nobody’s listening; live like it’s heaven on earth. ~ Mark Twain
On July 9, 2016 my wife Barb and I embarked with 11 other travelers on a two week odyssey across Italy and Greece. The trip / cruise was organized by Barb’s friend Bridget to celebrate her husband Don’s 60th birthday in truly grand style with Don’s family (Don’s sister Marianne and her husband Scott) and friends (Ray, Lori, B.J., Gina, Bob, Bonnie, Jeff, Mike and Barb).
This blog post is my attempt to chronicle some of the highlights and provide some context around our amazing trip, not just for us, but for our family and friends, those who followed our activities via Instagram and Facebook and those who may not be on those social networks.
It is not intended to be a complete record of what transpired over the 14 days – the 13 of us agreed early on in our adventure that “what happens on the cruise ship stays on the cruise ship”. So this travel journal, though containing photos of our travel companions / friends, is told from my perspective and, for the most part, captures mainly those activities and events involving Barb and I.
We arrived in Rome from Toronto at around 12 noon. Our gallery / museum tickets were for 5 pm so we had plenty of time to check out our amazing 4 star hotel (Artemide) and have drinks on the rooftop before heading to the Borghese Gallery, or so we thought.
Fittingly, the first adventure of our two week Mediterranean holiday began in the ‘eternal city’ of Rome. Having recently visited Rome with my sister and brother-in-law for 9 days in May of 2015 – there were still a few sights we wanted to cross off our bucket list. One of these attractions is the Borghese Gallery & Museum that houses, among other precious artifacts, the amazing works of renaissance master sculptor/architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Drinks on the roof top (L to R) Barb, Don, B.J., Ray, Lori, Scott, Marianne, Bridget
After drinks we (B.J., Ray, Lori, Barb and I) headed down to the front desk for directions to Borghese Villa/Park, then were on our way. We walked to the park in about 45 minutes or so then asked someone for directions to the Museum & Gallery. Now you would think that residents of Rome, people working in the park and especially the Carabinieri (Rome police) would know exactly where the gallery was located. But never underestimate the power of the locals and the meandering streets and piazzas of Rome to confuse.
Mike, Ray, B.J. and Barb stopping for a photo op on odyssey to the Borghese Gallery.
It was mid-afternoon, an uncomfortable 34 degrees Celsius and we were speed walking with Ray & BJ setting the pace. But after numerous inquiries and walkabouts to find the gallery – we seemed to be going in circles. I was feeling somewhat parched by this time, fell behind the group to buy a couple of bottles of cold water from a park vendor for Barb and I and guzzled one of the bottles in about 60 seconds before catching up to the rest.
Mercifully, after an hour or so of speed walking and a dizzying number of attempts, we finally found our treasure. Though once there we queued up for at least another 30 minutes before actually getting into the gallery with our coupon and acquiring tickets.
The wild goose chase, the midsummer Roman heat wave and gallery wait were worth it! We sauntered through the air-conditioned gallery rooms and were mesmerized by the stunning collection of priceless sculptures and paintings housed in the museum / gallery.
Saint Jerome Writing by Caravaggio
Rape of Prosperina by Bernini
This Caprese salad was a tasty starter to a fabulous dinner at the Ambrosia Restaurant atop the Artemide Hotel.
After a very long exhausting day of travel, walking in the midday heat, gallery viewing, sumptuous dinner and drinks atop hotel Artemide – we eventually made our way to our rooms and collapsed into our cozy beds for the night.
The new day began early with a hearty breakfast at 7 am in preparation for what was for some of us – the most meaningful part of our two week journey, the Scavi tour at the Vatican. The Scavi (excavations) tour is a private guided underground tour to one of the most sacred sites in Christendom, the most likely (99 %) resting place (tomb) of St. Peter, the founder of the Roman Catholic Church. This tour is so exclusive that visitors need to request a reservation a year or so in advance of their trip.
This time all 13 of us headed out on foot together on our pilgrimage towards the Vatican for our 9 am tour. After setting out together and encountering a few delays (toilet break, wrong turns, foot traffic, photo ops etc.) our group took longer than expected to reach our destination. In fact, many of us ended up jogging the last few blocks to the Scavi tour entrance to ensure that we would not lose out on our reservation/tour.
Fortunately, the tour guide was also a few minutes late which allowed us a few moments to collect ourselves, towel off, cool down and pass through security screening. The struggle to make the tour on time was more than worth the effort. Our guide took us to a room that housed a miniature replica (‘trophy’) of St. Peter’s tomb and she gave us an overview of the history of Rome around the time of St. Peter’s martyrdom. We were then guided through a narrow damp underground passageway directly under St. Peter’s basilica where no photos were allowed.
Our Scavi tour guide giving our group an historical overview of ancient Rome.
We eventually made our way through the underground passageways soaking up the rich history surrounding the family tombs and artifacts contained therein. Finally, we were taken to St. Peter’s tomb (trophy) or at least to a large hole in an adjacent ancient wall to gaze upon the ossuary (container) holding the remains of St. Peter, dear friend of Jesus and ‘rock’ upon which the holy Roman Catholic Church was founded.
A miniature replica of the ‘trophy’ St. Peter’s tomb is encased in glass.
Our tour guide briefly commented on the religious and spiritual significance of this most holy site and then led us together in praying the ‘Our Father’. It was a spiritual and deeply satisfying experience, filled with stillness, silence, peace and reverence.
Before exiting the tour we were guided into a small chapel located directly beneath the Bernini canopy and high altar in St. Peter’s basilica. In fact, by looking up we could see part of Bernini’s magnificent sculpted bronze canopy through the holes in the floor grate directly above us.
Upon leaving St. Peter’s Barb and I hooked up with Bob and Gina and headed to the piazza Campo dei Fiori. We stopped off for a couple of photos in front of the charming apartment Barb and I shared with my sister and her husband during our visit in May 2015.
Barb & Bob posing in front of 29 Vicolo Del Palle – home base during our visit in May 2015.
Gina and company trying to cope with the oppressive heat by sipping cold beers . . .
. . . and sampling some of the fruit from the market vendors in the Campo dei Fiori.
That evening, Ray and I posed with our new waiter friends Tomaso and Vittorio after our group of 13 enjoyed an amazing dinner at Cotto Ristorante.
The next morning Barb and I headed to Castle St. Angelo museum near the Vatican, another destination on our bucket list. We spend a couple of hours viewing the many religious, artistic and cultural treasures housed in this former tomb of the Roman emperor Hadrian and papal fortress.
Castle St. Angelo tomb, fortress & museum sits majestically behind us by the Tiber river.
View of St. Peter’s from Castle St. Angelo
This must have been an imposing, intimidating sight for foreign invaders back in the day.
The view of Rome from atop of Castle St. Angelo was well worth the climb.
Following our visit to Castle St. Angelo the plan was to slowly make our way toward Villa Borghese and to stop off at the newly restored Trevi fountain along the way. The hope was to pick up some wine, cheese, fruit and bread to have a leisurely picnic in the famous park. But the extreme 36 degree Celsius heat soon disrupted our best laid plans and had both of us somewhat dehydrated and teetering on heat exhaustion.
Me forcing a smile, though on the verge of nausea and heat exhaustion. Thank God for the beautiful ubiquitous fresh water fountains (nasoni) all around Rome. I doused my head under one near Castle St. Angelo museum to cool down and filled our water bottles with cool aqua for the trek to the Trevi fountain and Villa Borghese.
On our way to the Trevi we ducked into a modest ristorante to use the toilet and what else of course, but order another beer. Unfortunately, a side effect from drinking so much water to keep hydrated and the odd beer – is having to drink more water and visit the WC every half hour or so.
Even though it was lunch time, the brutal heat robbed us of any appetite for food. I know, hard to believe in a city so famous for fresh pizza, pasta and gelato at almost every turn! Don’t feel sorry for us though! We ate enough delicious pizza, pasta and brain-freezing gelato during our May 2015 visit to last a few lifetimes.
Ahhh . . my bride finally got to view the Trevi fountain in all its newly restored magnificence and splendor – sans scaffolding. Apparently the coin she tossed in May 2015 worked!
Oh but the throngs of tourists were plentiful and mighty. We even avoided the pickpockets!
From the Trevi we continued our pilgrimage to Villa Borghese in search of some respite (natural shade) from the crushing heat.
It was at least 10 degrees cooler beneath the magnificent green canopy in Villa Borghese.
One of many scenic vistas of Rome from Borghese Villa.
After 3 eventful days exploring Rome it was time to say arrivederci and continue on our journey to Athens.
The 4 star Artemide Hotel in Rome was vastly unlike any place I stayed during my ‘student-budget driven’ 1982 visit to Italy.
This stunning view of the Acropolis is what greeted us as we arrived for lunch atop the 5 star Royal Olympic Hotel in Athens.
The most delicious Greek salad I have ever eaten. The huge feta wedge, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and capers were fresh and flavorful beyond belief. Oh ya, the Fix dark beer was nice too!
Oppressive, blistering heat as in Rome – even at 4 pm in the afternoon. But I would not have missed the walk to the iconic Parthenon with my beloved for all the marble in Greece.
Panoramic view of Athens from the Acropolis
After descending from the Acropolis our tour guide took us to the ancient agora & stoa (pictured here), where Greeks have socialized and discussed politics for thousands of years.
Panathenaic Stadium in Athens – site of the 1st Olympiad of the modern era in 1896. Capacity in 1896 – 80,000 – The only stadium in the world built entirely of marble.
While everyone else went out for dinner after a long eventful day, Barb and I headed back to the Royal Olympic Hotel rooftop for a cold beer and spring rolls, while squeezing in one last magnificent view of the Acropolis at night. #romantic
After one full and memorable day and night in Athens – we were soon on our way to one of the ‘top 100 places to visit before you die’ – the legendary Greek island of Santorini.
Upon opening the door of our hotel room in Santorini – we were greeted with this breathtaking view from our patio. #volcanoviewhotel
Not ones to rest on our laurels and knowing we only had 2 and 1/2 days in Santorini – we rented a car with Bob & Gina and headed to ancient Thira along with Bonnie, Jeff, Ray, Lori and B.J.
Gina was our awesome driver as she deftly navigated us up the long winding road with steep drop offs and hairpin turns. This drive was profanity-free. Well done Gina!
We then left the rentals behind and hiked quite a distance to the top. There was a wonderful cool ocean breeze that made the climb pleasurable. It was such a welcome relief from the stifling heat we experienced in Rome and Athens.
My bride celebrating and revelling in the stark beauty of the sweeping vista below.
Leaning tower of namaste!
Hear, see, speak no evil (Jeff, Ray, Mike)
This is as close as we got to the Red Beach of Santorini. The volume of tourists from the cruise ships, traffic and lack of parking convinced us to turn around.
We then toured Akrotiri – a fascinating Minoan Bronze Age settlement that was destroyed in the Theran eruption about 1627 BC and buried in volcanic ash, which preserved the remains of fine Frescoes and many objects and artworks.
On day 2 we woke up to this heavenly view, feeling as though we were living with the Greek gods on Mount Olympus. That’s right, that’s a cruise ship poking out of the mist. In a few hours the brilliant morning sun slowly burned the mist off the deep blue Aegean sea.
One of the highlights of the entire trip was the Greek dinner and dance night at the Volcano View Hotel. The incredibly delicious Greek food buffet and live dinner music and Greek dancers set the stage for a magical atmosphere and an unforgettable evening of carefree dancing.
We were all invited to the floor to dance to ‘Zorba’ and given 2 plates to smash. What a blast!
At one point during the plate smashing my good friend Ray asked me to imagine how truly wonderful and peaceful the world would be if everyone (all cultures) got along with one another as wonderfully as the participants in a Greek dance. I couldn’t agree more. OPA!
The brilliant orange sun slowly set on Santorini, casting a warm glow across the velvet sky, capping off a perfect evening of food, fun and fellowship.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”
The full moon and God’s infinite grace shone upon us on a most beautiful night.
Our lovely Canadian born Greek pool bartender Katerina plants a kiss on the cheek of B.J.
Our final evening in Santorini was topped off with a magnificent sunset dinner cruise.
The view of our hotel from our boat.
During our Santorini boat cruise we anchored near a live volcano where some of the group hiked up to the top. We then moved on to another island and stopped off by a sulphur spring where we jumped in for a swim beside the live volcano. Our swim in the warm sulphur-filled water was followed up by a sumptuous Greek dinner buffet on the boat.
Gina and Barb converse near the captain’s wheel.
Gina, Bob and Barb
Our dinner boat cruise and final evening on the island wouldn’t be complete without a classic Santorini sunset.
We bid farewell to Santorini enroute to catch an early morning flight to Athens to meet up with our cruise ship, the Celebrity Equinox.
So blessed to have made our cruise ship from the port in Athens after the flight cancellations due to high winds in Santorini. Soooooo fortunate not to have flown to Istanbul and landed smack into the middle of the chaos of an attempted military coup.
So thankful for Bridget who was all over it and who connected with our Celebrity rep in Santorini who then arranged tickets for all 13 of us for a hi-speed ferry trip from Santorini to Athens. Thankful for Barb and Bonnie who stood in line for hours (stepping around dozens of people sleeping on the floor – whose flights were cancelled much earlier than ours.) to ensure we could have access to all our travel options and get written confirmation of the flight cancellation for insurance purposes.
So many other travelers were not as fortunate. 300 or so Cruise guests from Istanbul scrambled until the wee hours of the morning to get to Athens in time for departure to Mykonos. Because of the political turmoil there – some likely didn’t make it.
Celebrity’s decision to change our original cruise departure port from Istanbul to Athens – following the bombing at the Istanbul airport a couple of weeks earlier – in hindsight – now looks brilliant!
These lovely treats greeted us as we entered our stateroom on the cruise ship.
The Celebrity Equinox is a massive ship. Onboard amenities include a large theater called Equinox Theater, multiple restaurant dining options, the Patio on the Lawn where you can relax and have a picnic or play croquet; numerous bars and clubs; the Solstice Deck, the top deck of the ship; a youth facility called the Fun Factory; and iLounge, which is the Internet cafe. For a complete overview check out the Ship Tour video. I love the onboard library!
View from our stateroom to our balcony – linked to the balconies of our fellow travelers.
One of favorite onboard excursions was the tour of the kitchen facilities. The onboard bakery and environmental recycling / food waste incineration programs were especially cool!
Now that’s a wine tower! About 3 times the size of the Wildcraft Restaurant wine tower.
Our first port of call – Mykonos.
Mykonos, is one of the most popular and glamorous Greek isles, known for its nonstop party atmosphere.
A dazzling Mykonos sunset with our cruise ship in silhouette.
The Vioma Organic farm & vineyard ‘Yummy Pedals Tour’ was one of my favorite excursions!
Love this guy, just chillin in the shade.
Our Yummy Pedals guide Dimitra outfitted all 13 of us with a bicycle and helmet in preparation for our cycling tour.
We stopped a few times on route to the ocean. This was a quaint small Christian church/chapel were the locals offer prayers.
Another spectacular day of nothing but sun and blue sky.
13 Canadian tourists cycling Mykonos
Wow! We made it!
Had a refreshing swim to cool down and a yummy homemade muffin snack and fresh homemade lemonade for the ride back.
Back at the farm and I offered prayers to Dionysus, Greek god of wine and all things alcohol.
Heavenly spread of delicious fresh Greek food ‘Mykonos Garden’ & wine tasting after 2 hours of biking & swimming in the Aegean Sea. Apparently the prayers worked!
Delicious red dessert wine to cap off a lovely meal.
Back on the cruise ship, the cruise activities director roped me “hey Canada, come join us” into some poolside competition.
All dolled up for dinner. Must be casual chic night.
Our next port of call was Valletta, Malta, a fortified city and home to the Order of Malta.
Grandmaster palace of Malta, home of the Order of St. John.
Valletta contains buildings from the 16th century onwards, built during the rule of the Order of St. John also known as Knights Hospitaller.
St John’s Co-Cathedral is a gem of Baroque art and architecture. It was built as the conventual church for the Knights of St John. The Grand Masters and several knights donated gifts of high artistic value and made enormous contributions to enrich it with only the best works of art. This church is till this very day an important shrine and a sacred place of worship. It is also a venue for cultural events. Source: stjohncoocatheral.com
This was just one of 9 side chapels containing priceless ornate marble statues and paintings dedicated to the Grand Masters of the Knights of St. John.
We also viewed Caravaggio’s only signed painting of the beheading of John the Baptist – though were not allowed to take any photos – so I included a Google image instead.
The famous Pinto’s Clock tower has four dials. The middle one shows the hour and the others show the lunar phase, month and day in Italian.
One of a number of creative door knockers in Valletta – known as il-habbata in Maltese. The knockers largely feature maritime motifs such as dolphins, sea horses and fish.
We also took a boat ride to the blue grotto in Malta.
The extraordinary blues in the grottos come to life in the brilliant sunshine.
A rugged, natural window on the world.
Had a huge lunch and did some shopping in this quaint fishing village of Marsaxlokk, Malta.
Like olive and lemon trees, the prickly pear cactus can be found everywhere throughout the Mediterranean region.
Our next port of call was Catania, Sicily. While approaching Sicily I noticed that this Italian naval frigate was also sailing into port. At first I thought that it was accompanying us into port – what with all the recent attacks on tourists, terrorism etc., but upon closer inspection realized it was out rounding up refugees trying to get to Sicily.
Our tour guide in Sicily informed us that hundreds of refugees (most from Libya and the Balkans) are picked up daily from sea by Italian ships and transported into ports across Sicily. They then have health and identity checks, are fed and temporarily housed, then distributed around Italy. Most of the refugees are young men looking for work.
So here we were, living large like kings and queens on the luxurious Celebrity Equinox cruise ship and these refugees had just risked their lives in dilapidated overcrowded rubber dinghies on open seas, for a chance at a better life in a foreign country, if they make it!
The stark irony, the Italian frigate ride was their ‘dream cruise’! They had just won the lottery! Despite, for the most part, having nothing but the clothes on their backs, they were ecstatic at another opportunity at a better life.
Our next day trip was to Taormina, Sicily, where the views are spectacular.
Taormina is a hilltop town on the east coast of Sicily. It sits near Mount Etna, an active volcano with trails leading to the summit. The town is known for the Teatro Antico di Taormina, an ancient Greco-Roman theater still used today.
The Ancient theatre of Taormina is an ancient Greek theatre built in the third century BC.
Panorama from the ancient theatre
Photo op time during a brief bus stop.
We headed to a beach near Taormina for the afternoon.
Barb and I enjoyed a refreshing swim, margherita pizza and Peroni beer #lavitadolce
Final port of call – Salerno, Italy
The final excursion of our holiday was to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.
Sorrento is a charming coastal town in southwestern Italy, facing the Bay of Naples. It’s perched atop cliffs and is known for sweeping views and Piazza Tasso, a cafe-lined square.
Lemon groves and trees dominate the landscape throughout the Mediterranean.
Giant lemons for sale in one of the markets in Sorrento.
Bob, Gina, Barb and I enjoyed a wonderful lunch along with the people from our tour bus in this lush, colorful ristorante in Sorrento.
Bob and Barb cool their heels in this shady ristorante oasis from the midday heat.
Spectacular clifftop views, cliff-side villas and inviting beaches dominate the breathtaking landscape along Amalfi Coast.
The seaside town of Amalfi is bursting with stunning natural beauty and a rich history. Between the 9th and 11th centuries Amalfi was the seat of a powerful maritime republic. Today it is the playground of the rich and famous.
St. Andrew Cathedral has been remodeled several times, adding Romanesque, Byzantine, Gothic, and Baroque elements. The cathedral includes the adjoining 9th-century Basilica of the Crucifix. Leading from the basilica are steps into the Crypt of St. Andrew.
St. Andrew’s is a 9th-century Roman Catholic cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo. It is dedicated to the Apostle Saint Andrew whose relics are kept here.
A beautiful wooden 13th century Crucifix hangs in the liturgical area.
The next stop was the port of Fiumicino for our transfer to the airport for our flight home.
As if on cue, a glorious sunset graced the horizon as we cruised toward Fiumicino.
We hope you enjoyed riding along with us! We certainly enjoyed the trip of a lifetime!
Things crossed of our bucket list:
First Cruise (Celebrity Equinox)
St. Peter’s tomb (Scavi Tour)
Castle St. Angelo
Borghese Gallery / Villa
Santorini (Greek Night & Sunset boat/dinner cruise)
Amalfi Coast (Sorrentto, Amalfi)
Malta (Valletta, Mdina, Marsaxlokk)