The Colosseum needs no introduction. When people talk about Rome and ancient architecture in general, this will immediately come to mind. After all the centuries of wear and tear, it’s still one of the most impressive ruins out there. I wish I had more time to explore inside (*you* try walking from Vatican City to here and back and dealing with the huge lines in a single afternoon!), but I’m so glad I finally got to see it. A larger version is viewable here.
During the cruise, we were scheduled to have dinner at 6 PM every day…just in time for sunset. I made a habit of ordering early, excusing myself from the table, and coming back with sunset photos to show off to my fellow dinner guests. Here’s how the sky looked from Livorno’s harbor on October 21st, 2015. A larger version is viewable here.
Our wakeup call came at 5:30, but I was already awake. Today was the big one. We’d be in Rome this morning. Rome, The Eternal City. Rome, one of the crowning achievements of human ingenuity and creativity. Rome, one of the most important places in the history of Western civilization. After years of reading books and articles, seeing movies and documentaries, I’d finally get to see it with my own eyes.
Yeah, I was excited.
I wasn’t the only one, either. Though we’d planned to get up earlier to beat the morning crowd at the Windjammer, we found that every else had the same idea. Every table on Deck 9 – even the ones outside – was packed. It took a couple of laps around the restaurant before I found a couple of unattended seats. We ended up sharing space with a family from the Philippines. Unlike us, they were taking their time to enjoy their food; this wasn’t their first time to Rome, so they knew what pace to set. After exchanging contact information and business cards, we gathered lunch supplies, packed up, and waited at the designated meeting point for our tour. Our group gradually grew to a few dozen, and we shuffled off the ship within the hour.
As soon as I disembarked, I was struck by how cold it was outside. I’d anticipated the chilly temperatures – I’d gotten used to it after a couple of mornings – but the wind felt like a knife on my cheeks. Our guide’s voice was lost on the breeze, but he kept waving and beckoning us toward the small fleet of buses nearby. A massive sea wall loomed across the road from us, “WELCOME TO CIVITAVECCHIA” painted in letters two stories high. After being assigned our tour number (a little sticker that seemed perpetually on the verge of falling off), we climbed aboard. We were each handed a fold-out map of Rome. I compared it with the my travel guidebook and realized the unfortunate truth: There was too much to see. Even if we stuck to the most famous and touristy areas, there was no way we’d be able to see everything in one day.
The tour guide explained the choices in simple terms: we could either spend the day exploring Rome, or in the lines and crowds of the Vatican. Like a travel-themed Highlander show, there could be only one. We’d be dropped off in front of St. Peter’s Square in the morning, and we’d have until the late afternoon to get back. As the guide went around selling Vatican Museum tickets in advance, Mom and I quietly debated our options. Vatican City is self-explanatory; the sheer amount of history and culture would be mind-boggling. We’d get to see the Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and some of the most famous works of art in the world. But that would also mean being stuck in the seemingly endless horde of tourists for the entire day. If we wandered through Rome, we’d get to see more sites at our own pace. That meant improvising an itinerary in an unfamiliar city and somehow getting back to the meetup point on time. When we asked the guide, he recommended the latter; it was our first time in the city, so we should get as much out of it as possible.
I leaned back and grumbled, but I knew he was right. The Vatican would have to wait. When I asked Mom what she wanted to see, she immediately chose the Colosseum. Which, to be fair, was at the top of my Things To See In Italy list. Of course we’d visit it, just had to find it. How hard could it be?
…It was on the opposite end of the map.
Okay, so obviously we’d be saving that for last. We’d have to start at St. Peter’s, then walk across town to the Colosseum. No problem, I’d done literally three times the amount of city hiking in a day. But that was in San Francisco, on my home turf, and without a time limit. On this trip, both endpoints and hours were established; all that was left was to find a walking route that was not only efficient, but maximized the amount of sites we could visit. After staring at the map for several minutes, I had it all planned. We’d walk from the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo, cross the Tiber via Ponte Umberto, follow the street to Piazza Navona, then turn left and head to the Pantheon, continue on to Trevi Fountain, take a slight detour north to the Spanish Steps, and then head south for the Colosseum. Getting back to the Vatican from there would have to be improvised depending on how much time we had left. It would be a little rushed, but doable.
After getting through the Vatican’s parking garage – a concrete monstrosity apparently capable of handling dozens of tour buses at once – our group trudged out of a tunnel and and stopped right in front of St. Peter’s Square. Like any piece of history, it was so much grander than anything seen in a book or painting. The sheer size amount of open space, the way the rows of columns curved like cupped hands, the gargantuan fountains, the Egyptian obelisk that has lasted since the Roman Empire…This place had seen – and survived – so much. I’m pretty sure I spent that first half hour awestruck, gaping and drooling over every last detail. Mom and I walked around the square and took photos, but we knew we couldn’t stay long. The tour guide wasn’t kidding; the line to get into the Basilica wrapped around the perimeter of St. Peter’s, and the constant influx of visitors made it hard to tell where it ended. Remembering the choice we’d made, we left the Vatican behind.
Our quest for the Colosseum started off relatively smoothly. Castel Sant’Angelo is right next to the Vatican, so finding both it and the bridge was easy. I’d also read and watched Angels and Demons years ago, so I my inner bookworm was geeking out. In retrospect, I wish I’d spent more time there; the museum lines were too long, and the bridge (and its wonderful statues) was too crowded for decent photography. When we crossed Ponte Umberto, I took a few minutes to enjoy the silence and view. The Tiber was almost serene; there were only a few joggers and bicyclists on its banks, and only one tour boat chugging upriver. We waved at the tourists as they passed underneath, then continued to Piazza Navona.
Fun fact: Like most ancient cities, Rome’s layout is pretty unusual. The narrow alleys, twisted, interconnected thoroughfares, and clustered buildings make navigating it a daunting task. Which makes sense, given how it’d be a massive obstacle for invading armies. But for modern visitors, it just required more time with the map. I’d started second-guessing myself when we emerged onto Piazza Navona and a whole new crowd of tourists. They were there for good reason; the fountains and architecture here are among Rome’s finest. The piazza was practically overshadowed by the Sant’Agnese in Agone, but everyone’s attention was focused on the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (AKA the Four Rivers Fountain). Originally designed by Bernini in the 1650s, it featured another obelisk supported by four gigantic statues. They represented the Nile, Danube, Ganges, and Rio de la Plata, the four major rivers in which continents the Vatican had authority. It was meant to represent the power and influence of the church, but I was more impressed by how lively they looked; like all of Bernini’s sculptures, these were incredibly detailed and seemed to capture the human form in motion. Just look at the way Ganges is posing in style, or how Rio de la Plata is stumbling back in fear. You wish you could make something that cool.
On our way to the Pantheon, we wandered past Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, a masterpiece of Roman Baroque architecture. It was relatively deserted, but about half a dozen art or design students were hunched over their sketchbooks, trying to capture the building’s perfect arches and hallways. A couple of alleys later, we reached out next stop. That feeling of awe consumed me again. St. Peter’s Square is incredible, but the origins of the Pantheon predate Christianity itself. Just stop and think about that. It was rebuilt – the timeline is still debatable – but still. This architectural relic, standing tall and proud in the modern world, was already old when Vatican City came to be. As I walked past the front columns and into the building itself, I was struck by its unbelievable scale. The Pantheon is topped by the world’s largest unreinforced dome; I had to nearly bend over backwards to see all of its intricate designs. Even with a wide-angle lens, I’d have to lie down on the floor to even attempt photographing it. The oculus at its center loomed overhead, casting the afternoon sun on the walls like a gigantic spotlight. I tried taking a panorama (never thought I’d do that inside a building), but I could only record about half of it. We spent nearly an hour wandering around the Pantheon, looking at wonderful artwork, and the tombs of King Victor Emmanuel II, Umberto I, and (most famously) Raphael.
I was still reeling from the history overload when we stepped outside for a much-needed break. While it was cold in Rome, we were wearing three layers of clothes each, I was carrying our food, guidebook, and camera, and we hadn’t stopped since we’d left the Vatican. There was an open spot right in front of the Fontana del Pantheon, so we sat down for a few minutes, snacked on our sandwiches, and watched the ebb and flow of people. I wandered around for a bit and took a few more photos of the building, though it was nowhere near as fascinating outside. I also noticed people walking up to a small fountain nearby, refilling their empty water bottles or just getting a palmful of refreshment. I’m normally concerned about germs and contaminated drinking water – I avoid the tap at home whenever feasible – but I remembered the old adage: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I threw caution to the wind, restocked my supply, and silently prayed I wouldn’t get sick.
Next stop: Trevi Fountain. In a city full of fountains, this was supposed to be the grandest of them all. It wasn’t that far away, either; according to the map, it was just a couple of streets away. We quickly set off…
…And immediately got lost.
It was then I realized the problem with our little map: it didn’t present the landmarks just by name, but by small, caricatured drawings of them as well. The little cartoon versions of the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain partially obscured the streets necessary to reach them, and names of those streets weren’t even listed. Also, the drawings were facing in incorrect directions, which made them far less useful as reference points. In retrospect, I was being an idiot; Trevi Fountain was to the slight northeast. All I needed was the position of the sun, and I could’ve figured it out instantly. But when you’re tired, cold, and stuck in a huge crowd, it’s easy to get distracted. We wasted about fifteen minutes walking in a circle before another traveler pointed us in the right direction. Pro-Tip: the alley to Trevi Fountain is to your left when you’re facing the front of the Pantheon, no matter what your cruddy tourist map says. There’s also a “This way to Trevi Fountain” sign to guide the way, which of course we missed on our first run.
Now going the correct way, we took a few minutes to get souvenirs. I added another keychain to my collection, and Mom got on another magnet for her fridge. The shopkeeper was Filipina, which was somehow surprising; she and Mom chatted in Tagalog while I finished shopping. By that point, however, we both needed a restroom. There happened to be a McDonald’s along the way, which proved to be the absolute worst part of the trip. Like any McDonald’s in Europe, the place was overrun with tourists; the line was nearly out the door, and the roar of hungry patrons was deafening. We squeezed through the horde and went upstairs to the restrooms, only to find there were more than a dozen women already lined up against the wall. I got my business done mercifully quickly, but the single-toilet men’s room was horrendously smelly, dirty, and rancid. Seriously, you could smell the filth even behind the door. I was in there for barely a minute, and I felt sick when I left. Come to think of it, I should probably report them to whatever health inspectors Rome has…Anyway, Mom saw how absurdly disgusting the place was and decided to leave.
We kept walking until we came to Trevi Fountain itself. Mom made a beeline for the Melograno restaurant nearby, which was far more sanitary and less crowded than McDonald’s. No bathroom lines, either; she was back in fifteen minutes wish some gelato for the both of us. In the meantime, I pushed through the crowds and attempted to get a look at the fountain. I was disappointed to discover that it had been closed off for restoration; the entire area was surrounded by plastic, transparent barricades. While it was possible to see the fountain, it was drained of its water, and construction crews were hard at work. It ended up reopening just days after our trip ended. No use crying about it now. As I finished my gelato, I looked at my watch and considered our options. If we picked up the pace just a little bit, we’d still have time to see the Spanish Steps.
At that point, however, I hadn’t learned my lesson about using the map’s landmarks as reference points. The Spanish Steps were less than a ten minute walk away; we just had to go north and follow the street. But of course, I had to follow the map. A few minutes later, we’d mistakenly climbed up to the Quirinal Palace. Fun fact: The Spanish Steps were also closed for restoration, but I didn’t know that at the time. Feeling rushed, angry at myself, and utterly tired (hauling all that stuff wasn’t helping), I took a moment to sit down and regain my bearings. The front of the palace doubles as an elevated lookout point; the rooftops of Rome spread out as far I could see, and I could just make out the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. We had only a couple of hours to make it back there. How much more could we possibly see?
Our problems were partially solved when we started climbing back down and came across a Carabinieri. He was incredibly nice and gracious enough to point us in the right direction; I’m sure he’s probably sick of answering tourists’ questions countless times every day, but the effort was very much appreciated. Just a short walk down to the Piazza Venezia, and then past it via the street to the left. It was a simple as it sounded…for the most part. Crossing a street in the heart of Rome, even with the pedestrian signal, felt like the parting of the Red Sea; a narrow path with potential death bearing down on you from all sides.
Once we made it past the piazza, the rest of the walk was breeze. The Colosseum loomed high in the distance, and the road to it was a straight line. Our only obstacles were the thick, impassable throngs of fellow tourists, and our own exhaustion. I was still doing fairly well, but Mom kept falling back repeatedly. When we reached the Roman Forum, I gave her a chance to rest. As we looked over the railing, I took a few photos and gave her a brief history of the location and its importance. I was sorely tempted to go down and explore, but there was precious little time left. By the time we reached the Colosseum, it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to go inside; the lines were huge, and we’d basically have to run through the tour. Instead, we settled for walking around the entire perimeter and peeking in where we could. It wasn’t nearly as much as it could’ve been, but it worked with our time constraints. Mom was happy that she finally got to see something she’d read about as a child, and that’s what really mattered.
As the wonder and awe of the Colosseum faded, reality started sinking in. We were about an hour’s walk away from St. Peter’s. We could totally do it, assuming that we didn’t get lost on the way back. We briefly considered taking the subway, but I don’t think either of us had the energy left to learn another map system. We’d trudged all the way back to Piazza Venezia when I realized that we couldn’t make it back on foot in time. Mom was going far too slow, and I’d lost faith in my navigational skills. After walking and debating for a few more minutes, and we finally settled on a taxi. I collapsed into the front seat, told the driver where to go, and turned on my camera. If I was going to be leaving Rome, I wanted one last, unique memory: I recorded the entire taxi ride from the piazza back to Vatican City. The drive took less than ten minutes, but it felt so much longer.
After paying up and thanking the driver (Keep being chill and awesome, Alessandro!), we were back where we started. Aside from the position of the sun, nothing had really changed; the line to get into the Basilica was still endless. We had 45 minutes left. Not enough time to see a museum, but just enough to do some shopping and find the Vatican’s exclusive post office. Seriously, the Vatican Post Office! It’s hidden behind the pillars to the right, within shouting distance of the Sistine Chapel. I bought a postcard, addressed it to the family back in California, and handed it off to the worker inside. Said worker was a big, burly fellow who was probably making fun of my inability to speak Italian. Anyway, that postcard is currently stuck to my fridge (it arrived two days before I returned home), and I got a Vatican-exclusive euro as part of my change from the transaction. At that point, Mom got tired of me dragging her around to take photos. She left in an exasperated huff without warning, so I spent a few minutes in a near-panic trying to find her in the crowd. She’s a fighter, but she’s not quite as resilient as she used to be. She knew where the meet-up location was; I just hoped no one tried to mug or pickpocket her while I wasn’t around.
She was fine, thankfully. We met up shortly before the designated time, still annoyed with the other. I spent the last few minutes taking photos; it took me several tries, but I managed to get a panorama of St. Peter’s Square from the front. I ducked into the Vatican gift shop and quickly searched for a decent souvenir. I didn’t want to get a cross – I’m not particularly religious – and I didn’t want to bother with overpriced jewelry that I’d never wear. Instead, I opted for something a little bizarre, but a uniquely perfect keepsake: holy water. That’s right, I have a vial of holy water from the Vatican on my shelf now. In terms of unusual travel trinkets I’ve gained over the years, that tops them all. I’m glad I was able to hold onto it; according to our tour guide, the short walk back down to the Vatican parking garage is a haven for pickpocketers. He even had us carry our backpacks in front of us. Aside from a couple of missing group members (who ended up getting back on the ship late), the trip back was uneventful.
When we piled back onto the tour bus, I felt weariness wash over me like a tidal wave. We’d been up before dawn, explored one of the greatest cities on Earth, seen so much art and history…and that was just a taste of Rome. We’d have to go back there someday. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I was woken up by the tour guide explaining the importance of Civitavecchia. Fishermen in ancient times would go to the port at the end of the day to sell their catches, and the tradition is still alive today; dozens of boats were docked nearby, silhouetted against the sunset, crates of fish already being sold. Had we not been on a fully-catered cruise, Mom and I probably would’ve gotten something. Instead, we staggered back onto the ship, traded travel stories at dinner, and called it an early night. After all we’d done, we’d earned a great night’s sleep.
To be continued…
The front desk gave us a wake up call at 8 AM. I’d learned from the mistakes of the previous day. It still involved me stumbling around in the dark to reach the state room’s phone, but at least I had a better sense of time. While Mom got up, I quickly dressed, grabbed my camera, and climbed up to the Windjammer. As the doors automatically whooshed open to let me onto Deck 9, I immediately regretted not bringing a coat. The sun was out, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. I shuddered against the breeze and headed straight for the restaurant. I munched on pineapple chunks and gazed out at our latest port. We’d left France behind in the night, and were now docked in Livorno, Italy. The sleepy little town and sweeping cliffs were replaced with a harbor crowded with cargo boxes, cranes, rusty warehouses, deserted parking lots, and about half a dozen other cruise ships. One was inexplicably painted with Looney Tunes characters; a four-story portrait of Bugs Bunny was the last thing I’d expect to see on this trip.
I squinted past the harbor and tried to get a glimpse of Livorno itself. The terrain was mostly flat, curving upwards into the hills near the horizon. The buildings closest to the water were each only a few stories tall (most likely hotels or apartments), with the occasional church bell tower looming in the background. Maybe it was due to my sleepiness or the morning sun glaring in my eyes, but nothing about this port jumped out at me. Villefranche had been like a mysterious, alluring lover that practically begged me to explore every inch of it. Livorno was drab and impersonal; it was there to do its job, nothing more or less.
And the worst part? I wouldn’t get the chance to be proven wrong. We weren’t going to be spending any time in town. This port gave travelers access to Florence and Pisa, and we’d already scheduled an excursion for the latter. That had been Mom’s choice; while I’d been keen on visiting Florence ever since hearing Hannibal Lecter talk about it in The Silence of the Lambs, she’d been fascinated with the Leaning Tower of Pisa since she was a child. I wasn’t going to deny her a chance to cross off a decades-old bucket list entry. Besides, I was interested as well; the unique combination of history, architecture, art, and physics made it too cool to pass up.
The bus ride to Pisa was uneventful. 40 minutes on the highway, with the occasional view of open fields and small towns. The tour guide had given each of us a small map that displayed the general layout of the area. It wasn’t necessary, though; we were just going to visit the Piazza dei Miracoli, not explore the city proper. Getting that far, however, required a little more effort. As soon as we got off the bus, we were bombarded with offers for knockoff designer bags, watches, and sunglasses. I immediately flashed back to our trip to Morocco, in which vendors stalked Mom for hours because she showed off her jewelry and heels and tried haggling with everyone. I inwardly cringed and waited for an inevitable repeat.
However, she seemed to have learned from the experience. She’d dressed plainly, stashed her money in a lanyard hidden under her arm and coat, and didn’t spare even a glance at the vendors. She and everyone else in the group crowded around the tour guide and fixated the numbered placard held above his head. We obediently followed him out of the parking lot, across a few streets, past some train tracks, and through a residential neighborhood. Most tourists have this romanticized view of Pisa (and Tuscany by extension), but it has the same aspects common to any busy area: noisy traffic, litter, graffiti, worn buildings, restaurants, children, beggars, pickpockets, crowded souvenir markets, etc. The chaos was kind of refreshing in a way; this wasn’t just some fancy, polished tourist trap. People lived here. Can you imagine owning a house next to one of the most famous landmarks on Earth?
Yeah, it wouldn’t be pleasant.
After leaving the meeting point – a local restaurant advertising pizza and gelato – we made the short walk through the souvenir market and through an old archway. The bustling, tourist-choked shops gave way to Piazza dei Miracoli’s massive expanse of grass and architecture. Whenever I see these ancient places, I’m always struck with the sense of scale upon which they’re designed. I’d been to bigger churches (the Seville Cathedral comes to mind), but this seemed different because the landmark was in an open field instead of a city. This place housed only three main buildings – the tower, cathedral, and baptistery – but they completely dominated the landscape. The tower is only about 60 meters high (and yes, it visibly leans), but the people milling around its sunken base looked like insects. And man, were there a lot of people. Thousands of travelers, mostly armed with DSLRs or selfie sticks, gaped at the architectural masterpiece/disaster and spent several minutes trying to shoot the perfect angle. This usually involved someone pretending to hold the tower up in an epic feat of strength, poking it with a finger, or holding up an object to manipulate perspective and size comparison. Is it tacky? Yes. Did I do my own version? Yes. I have no idea if I’ll ever see this place again, so I can afford to indulge in a little shamelessness.
Getting inside was another story. See, our excursion was to the Piazza dei Miracoli, but not within the Leaning Tower itself. That was a whole separate thing, which necessitated finding the tourism office, buying tickets, standing in line behind hundreds of people, and waiting for the guards posted at the entrance to let us pass. That’s a lot to take on normally, but our severe time limit made it impossible. I’m the kind of traveler who loves climbing and exploring far-flung areas, so the inability to get inside was incredibly annoying. Instead, we spent the hour wandering around the field and checking out the architecture. When I tried going into the cathedral, I was turned away by the authorities. Turns out our visit coincided with an incredibly high-profile funeral service. I don’t know who died, but I glimpsed a few dozen mourners exiting the building later on.
I headed back to the base of the tower – snapping a few photos of the horse-drawn carriages along the way – and headed to the cafe area nearby. After a few seconds of trying to navigate the crowds, I remembered that I’d brought lunch with me. I turned around and nearly collided with a man dressed as a Subway mascot. Unlike many places in Italy, this blend of ancient and modern did not go well together. Feeling defeated, I spent the rest of the time walking around the perimeter of the field. While everyone was clamoring for photos in the distance, the Camposanto Monumentale was particularly quiet and peaceful. It’s amazing how long those walls have stood. How many people walked there? How many died there? How many more centuries would it last? I was torn out my reverie when I passed a flustered young woman. She was looking wildly in every direction, on the verge of sheer panic. Turns out my paranoia was justified; she’d been pickpocketed within seconds of putting her bag down to take a photo. Not just her wallet or her passport, but her entire bag. She wasn’t going to get any of it back. As I watched her being escorted away to the authorities, I shoved my hands into my pockets and made sure Mom still had all of her stuff.
It was at that moment that we decided to go back. There were only about ten minutes left until the group had to meet up again, the cathedral was still closed, and there wasn’t anything else left to explore. Seeing that poor woman had killed what interest I had in staying. The feeling of dissatisfaction finally overtook me as we left the field and saw a McDonalds overflowing with tourists. Historical places normally fascinate me, but by then I felt tired and dejected. We made it back to the meeting point with time to spare, so I drifted back to a souvenir stand and picked out a key chain for myself, and a stylish Pisa-themed bag for one of my relatives. Of course, I was immediately swarmed by other vendors. Most took the hint right away, but one fellow was particularly desperate. When I refused his regular goods, he took a small elephant statue out of his pocket and tried to sell it to me for a euro. It took about a minute of one-sided haggling before he finally gave up. I quickly shoved my trinkets into my backpack, lest I get blindsided on the walk back to the bus.
During that walk, I made sure to take a few shots of the urban areas outside of the field. A glimpse of an abandoned, dilapidated house. Train tracks slightly overgrown with weeds. Old walls with cracks wide enough to expose the bricks underneath. I wanted to show others that there was more to Pisa than just the tower and the field. I wanted proof that life in Europe isn’t always as glamorous as we think it is. I spent the ride back to Livorno staring numbly out the window. The countryside was gorgeous; if I had more time, I’d have liked to hike it. But not on this trip. Mom later asked me to rank all of the places we’d seen from best to worst. Needless to say, Pisa was dead last. I’m immensely grateful to have been there, of course – it’s famous for good reason – but the entire experience felt rushed, and incomplete. On the bright side, the next day would prove to be far, far more epic.
I was woken up by a voice blaring over the ship’s intercom. For a brief moment, I thought there was some kind of an emergency. Why else would they making announcements? Then I heard the words, “We will arrive in Villefranche within the hour.” I sat up with a jolt and fumbled for my phone. Man, I really must’ve had some serious jetlag; I’d slept from about 9 PM – something unheard of for a night owl like me – all the way to almost 10 in the morning. As the announcement continued, I awkwardly stood up and nearly stumbled over my duffel bag. In my stupor last night, I’d overlooked an obvious consequence of having an interior state room: there were no windows, which meant no light. Aside from the tiny dot glowing from the eye hole on the door, we were in complete darkness. And with no clock aside from our phones or turning on the TV, our sense of time was effectively shot.
Also, my phone was displaying the wrong time. It was set to change automatically, but it always reverted to Greenwich Mean Time whenever I was in the room. I didn’t want to connect to the ship’s network – the roaming and data usage costs would’ve been horrendous – which meant my phone couldn’t be used in the room for accurate timekeeping, let alone messaging or Internet access. My old iPod Touch became an unexpectedly useful replacement; I couldn’t get online (which is a blessing in disguise), but I could change the time manually without having to worry about network issues. Besides, that little music player did everything I needed; I can estimate time based on the position of the sun, but taking a cruise requires much more precision. After a few days of excursions and scheduled dinners, and everything else, you will learn effective time management.
I shook off my grogginess and got dressed. No time left to shower. Not now, so close to our first stop already. We still had to get tickets for the tenders, the smaller boats that would transfer us from the ship to the shore. While Mom was still getting ready, I quickly went up a couple of decks and found the ticket counter. We hadn’t scheduled any excursions, which meant getting to town after most of the other passengers had left. We’d be on Tender #8. Another hour’s wait, but was fine. More time to get prepped and eat. After meeting with Mom, we headed to the Windjammer buffet for breakfast. Getting their required a little effort: Taking the stairs from Deck 3 to 9, then walking around the open-air swimming pool. It seemed like a tall order at first – most passengers simply took the elevators, which was slower, crowded, but far less physically demanding – but it eventually became my daily warm-up routine. It paid off, too. I’m already in decent shape thanks to all the hiking I do throughout San Francisco, but I spent almost every waking moment of this trip either climbing stairs, walking, or simply being on my feet. I actually lost a belt notch.
It definitely wasn’t for lack of food, either; the Windjammer was equipped with nearly everything you could want for breakfast. Cereals, fruits, vegetables, bread, bacon and other meat, sandwiches, little cakes, all kinds of juices, teas, and coffee…Yeah, I ate like a king. The buffet also served as our daily supermarket; we didn’t want to spend too much money on food while at port, so we simply brought an insulated bag with us each morning and stocked up. I think I had a turkey breast and Swiss cheese sandwich every lunch until we got back to Barcelona. After watching me practically inhale a couple of bread rolls and several watermelon and pineapple slices, and downing three glasses of apple juice (I was going to be walking all day, after all), Mom told me that we still had time to kill, and that I needed to slow down. She was right, too. Getting such a rough wake up call had left me feeling rushed and stressed, which is no way to start a vacation. I took a deep breath and sat back, finally taking a moment to enjoy the scenery.
I’d seen photos of the French Riviera before. I knew what to expect; the brightly-colored buildings clustered atop sparkling water and rocky outcroppings, with hills looming in the background. But like any great place, seeing it in person was a completely different experience. What struck me most about Villefranche-sur-Mer wasn’t its beautiful architecture, or even its surprisingly quiet waters. I was much more interested in how the land itself was formed; everything seemed to stem from only a couple of lush hills, creating mini-ridges that spread off in every direction. Steep cliff faces loomed down the coast to the right, dwarfing the buildings lining the waterfront. To the left, the hotels, houses, and roads twisted and stretched further inland, tempting people to come upslope and explore. Citadelle Saint-Elme stood nearby, keeping watch over a city that no longer needed its protection. How much history had happened in just this harbor? How many ships had sailed here? How many people wandered up those hills and into France? No idea. I grabbed my camera and spent the rest of the waiting time on Deck 10, taking photos and ignoring the morning chill. When I finally boarded Tender #8, I made sure to get one of the drop seats next to the open-air doorway. Taking good photos from a moving boat is pretty difficult; I have reasonably steady hands, but a lot of my shots didn’t turn out well. After a few failed attempts, I decided to just sit back and enjoy the ride with my own eyes. Villefranche was someplace new, and I didn’t want to miss it.
The trip to the dock took only a few minutes. As we navigated around a rocky outcropping and a couple of sailboats, I was surprised by how quiet and relaxed the place seemed. Unlike most of the ports I’ve visited – especially the United States – everything looked clean and fresh. The waterfront was decorated with a row of gorgeous, multicolored hotels and cafes. No litter, no dull roar of the tourist crowd. Just quiet, paved streets winding up the hill, the occasional moped parked in the shade of a tree, the faint clatter of a kitchen prepping for lunch, and a few pedestrians. The kind of sleepy little place you’d visit on a visit on a Sunday morning for a leisurely walk, or maybe to enjoy breakfast while watching the ships go by…In retrospect, maybe it was better that we left later than the rest. We disembarked and headed to the tourist information center nearby. We didn’t have an scheduled excursion, which meant we’d have to figure out how to get around ourselves. Also, that night would be the cruise’s first formal night; since our dinner was at 6 PM, we’d have to be back on the boat by 5 in order to wash up and prep. That meant catching a tender by 4:45. After getting a map and consulting a very patient attendant, we narrowed our options to two:
1) Climb up the hill and take the local bus to Nice, or
2) Take the bus or train to Monaco.
Mom’s been obsessed with the latter for years, and I’ve seen enough James Bond movies to recognize the location of the Monte Carlo. However, Mom pointed out that we could use timeshare in Monaco at a later date (and could explore more of the coast with less of a time limit), while Nice was a complete unknown. So, we followed the winding street up the hill, past Passage St. Elme – which has an absolutely gorgeous view of the harbor and clock tower – and deeper into town. The French have a bad rap when it comes to Americans (or maybe it’s the other way around), but the few locals we met along the way were kind enough to provide directions and a smile, even if we didn’t speak the language. I focused on studying Italian for this trip, so I was immensely grateful for the help.
After a couple of switchbacks and a street narrow enough to be an alley, we finally came upon the Octroi bus stop and waited for the #100. That route is popular for a reason; its final stop is the Nice marina, which makes it easy for tourists to find. It also runs frequently and only costs 1.50 Euros, which is still cheaper than most of the buses here in the Bay Area. The fact that I didn’t need exact change instantly made it better for me than MUNI. After finding a seat, I studied the route map. Nice, Villefranche, Beaulieu, Eze, Cap D’Ail, Monaco, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, and Menton. All of these beautiful, luxurious places synonymous with the French Riviera…listed as mere bus stops. Perspective is funny like that.
After reaching the end of the line, Mom and I found an unattended café table and spread the map out. We settled on exploring the Old Town area; lots of historical landmarks, restaurants, and shops crammed into tiny alleys. Aside from the hordes of fellow tourists, what’s not to love? Getting that far required a little educated guesswork, though. Our map used a simple grid layout, which didn’t help once we reached Place Massena, with its massive expanse of chessboard-patterned pavement, Fontaine du Soleil, and crossroads in seemingly every direction. We’d walked past most of the Old Town’s border before we realized where we were. We dove headlong into the surge of visitors, edging our way through shady corridors and souvenir shops. I picked up a keychain – the first of many mementos on this trip – crossed a square, and came across a wall finely etched with a list of World War I casualties. Looking back, those memorials were everywhere; they were in remembrance of people who helped shape our present, yet they were overlooked by so many a century later.
Irony tastes bitter.
I took a step back and realized the list was part of the front wall of the Nice Cathedral, one of the most famous landmarks in the city. We didn’t go in, though; it was closed for the lunch hour, and we weren’t exactly dressed for the occasion. Instead, we found an empty table in front of the church and took a moment to rest, eat some food, and plan our next move. That brief respite ended when a polite-but-firm waitress came over and informed us that we’d taken one of the cafe’s tables, and that we’d have to leave if we weren’t going to buy anything. We sheepishly packed up and ate the rest of our sandwiches as we walked out of Old Town. We didn’t have a particular destination in mind; we’d have to turn back for the ship in a couple of hours, so we needed to keep things simple. We found the waterfront and walked on it for as long as we could, passing by a park, carousel, McDonald’s (Seriously, who goes to France to eat fast food?!), Hard Rock Café, the Centennial Monument, the closed Massena Museum, and the Hotel Negresco. We also snuck into another hotel to use its lobby bathrooms, but the attendants either didn’t notice or care.
When it came time to turn back, Mom suddenly realized she had no idea where we were or how to get back the way we came. I pointed out that the bus stop was at the marina; all we had to do was follow the coastline, and we’d get back to the starting point eventually. Besides, why go back the same way, when we could see more of the city by taking a different route? Mom reluctantly followed my lead (she tends to panic whenever she thinks she’s lost and conveniently forgets that I’ve been a reliable navigator on, you know, every trip we’ve taken together), and spent next half hour trying to find a shortcut back through Old Town.
Eventually, we hit a curve in the road: a small but steep hill jutting out from the rows of buildings, hiding the rest of Nice behind the bend. I looked closer and noticed the stairway heading up from street level. I immediately decided to climb, time limit and Mom’s protests notwithstanding. The sign at the bottom said it was only 90 meters, which is adorable compared to some of San Francisco’s hills. I went up quickly, not knowing what to expect. And man, did it pay off; Castle Hill is topped with a designated lookout point that displays Nice’s coastline, curving far into the horizon. I stood there, gaping and taking photos, while an old man with an accordion played for tourists’ pocket change. Mom made it up a few minutes later, and was astounded at the sight. In our random wandering, we’d stumbled across the best view in the city!
Time was running short, however. We descended Castle Hill and walked around it (and the Monument Aux Morts built into the other side), finally coming back to the marina. With almost perfect timing, too; we had to jog a little bit to meet the bus as it pulled up. There weren’t as many seats this time – we were far from the only tourists going back to the ship – and I ended up standing for the ride back. I also gave directions to quite a few fellow cruise-goers; they were confused about which stop they needed to use to get back, and were surprised to find out I wasn’t French. Hooray for blending in! After getting off at Octroi, Mom and I retraced our steps back to the waterfront. We didn’t go straight for the tender, though; as we walked passed the entrance to Citadelle Saint-Elme, we realized that we still had just under an hour left to kill. We decided to take a chance and made a detour into the monument. Much like the area it overlooked, the citadel was surprisingly quiet and empty. The interior buildings had several works of art on display, mostly medieval paintings and miniature figurines, as well a large collection of sculptures. Centuries-old cannons lay rusting in the ramparts, providing a nice view of Villefranche’s bay. Eventually, we finally ran out of time. The 4:45 tender was a double-decker, so I took the opportunity to climb upstairs and ride back on one of the open-air chairs. A few tourists still lingering in a nearby café watched us depart and waved. I waved back, wondering if I’d ever get to see this place again.
After getting back to our stateroom, I wearily shrugged off my backpack and sat down on the end of the bed. I closed my eyes and waited for my turn in the shower. It doesn’t matter how in shape you are; walking all day in the sun while lugging around a pack with a DSLR, travel guidebook, lunches. and water for two people is enough to make anyone tired. After getting washed up, it was already time for the formal dinner. I normally pack light when I travel, so bringing a suit was something new for me. Dressing up for the cruise wasn’t mandatory – I could’ve just gone to the Windjammer – but I didn’t want to miss such a unique experience. I wasn’t the only one, either; when we went upstairs an hour later, the halls were bustling with guests decked out in their finest. Mom and I waited in line to have our portraits taken, then headed for Aquarius. The dinner itself was uneventful, though eating ice cream in a suit proved a little tricky.
With the meal out of the way, the cruise scheduled a couple hours’ worth of live music and acrobatic stunts in the ship’s central hub. Huge crowds and I do not get along, so I grabbed my camera and decided to explore the ship while everyone was distracted. I wandered up and down each deck and took photos, from the empty movie theater and casino on Deck 5, to the neon-illuminated pool and the rock wall on Deck 9, to the quiet lounge and lonely dance floor on Deck 6, to the dead-end exterior stairs that led to the top of the ship on Deck 11, and back down again.
And yes, I did it all in a suit.
I didn’t feel like changing so quickly, and I liked the attention I was getting from the onlookers. It’s amazing how much leeway and manners people give when you look like a million bucks and act like you’re supposed to be there. Forget going to Monaco to get a taste of James Bond; this was one of the few moments where I could order a “vodka martini, shaken, not stirred” and gotten away with it! I did my share of people-watching, too; while everyone else was craning their necks upward to see the acrobats, I was peering down at the show from the railing next to the Deck 11 elevators. I also came across a lovely young woman who looked like what can only be described as a princess. Elegant, covered with jewelry, and a huge, white ball gown that trailed out for a few feet behind her. There were whispers from the onlookers, that she must be a newlywed or royalty; she certainly seemed beautiful and lively enough to draw everyone’s focus. I later found out that she was celebrating her quinceañera with her family, and immediately felt like a creepy old man. Ugh. What a way to end the night.
Thus began the most dreaded part of any lengthy trip: Disembarking, standing in line at customs, claiming luggage, and finding ground transportation. For a better part of an hour, people of all ages, genders, sexes, faiths, and countries share the same weariness. It’d be heartwarming, if it weren’t so tedious. You don’t need to share a language to communicate mutual discomfort; everyone is waiting for the person ahead of them to just move already and get off the plane. Aside from the occasional mishap with an overhead bin, physical violence is almost non-existent; people are too tired to do anything beyond clutching their carry-ons and shuffling stiffly into the airport and customs line.
The real problem, however, was with the luggage. We know the pain of misplaced bags all too well; the last time we left Spain, the airline lost Mom’s luggage – including that Moroccan rug – and it took them at least a couple of days to get it delivered. Same thing happened when we came back from Hawaii’s Big Island last December. This time, I approached the luggage carousel with apprehension; if our luggage didn’t show up here, we wouldn’t be able to take them on the cruise. They’d have to be flown, floated, or whatever else it took to catch up with the ship, and we’d be left without clothes or supplies. Yeah, that would be bad. I scanned the conveyor belt several times, but to no avail. As the minutes and bags passed by, my desperation became almost palpable. The crowd was thinning out. Did someone take our stuff off the carousel and leave it off to the side? Or worse yet, did someone steal them?
After a few more tense moments, I finally spotted Mom’s gargantuan red roller. My rolling duffel bag was right behind it. After hauling them off the carousel and rearranging our carry-ons, we trudged wearily outside. Thankfully, the transportation to the ship we’d arranged beforehand was easy to find. After waiting for a few more travelers to arrive, we piled into a van and set off for Barcelona. Mom and I had the last stop – we were the only ones going to the ship – so our ride to the docks felt more like an impromptu city tour. I wasn’t sitting by a window, so the impressions I got were fleeting: overcast skies, narrow streets crowded with cars and motorcycles, tiny alleys, worn pavement, and bustling roundabouts. It wasn’t until we drove past the Columbus Monument that I had a sense of our position.
It took about an hour for us to reach the Vision of the Seas. We hauled our luggage out of the van and headed for the registration building. Since this was my first cruise, I was surprised by how we had to leave our luggage behind with the staff outside before we could register. I’ve been robbed while on vacation before (Summer of 1999 at a certain Puerto Vallarta resort will live forever in infamy) so I’ve become quite leery of letting my possessions out of sight. But apparently, I didn’t have a choice this time; the staff quickly checked our paperwork, tagged our luggage, and promised everything would be delivered by 8 PM. As I went through another security scanner and stood in line for the umpteenth time, I took a moment to breathe. We’d traveled nearly halfway across the world for almost 36 hours, but now we were only two of thousands of people boarding the the cruise. Not just Americans, either; there were at least half a dozen languages being spoken within earshot. In front of me, a young woman wearing a hijab was poring over the latest edition of Rick Steve’s Mediterranean Cruise Ports, the very same travel guide I brought for the trip. Seeing her made me smile. No matter what differences people think they have, curiosity and fascination transcend them.
Registration was surprisingly quick and easy. Royal Caribbean assigns each passenger a special ID card that also functions as a room key and on-board credit card. The cruise operates like a cashless economy; everything from souvenirs and excursions to special food and beverage orders gets charged to the card, and then tallied up on the final statement. It’s pretty nice and efficient, so long as you don’t lose your card. I practically became surgically attached to mine as the days went by. While there was a currency exchange service on the ship, it was to ensure people had enough spending money while on land. Before all that, we had to climb up the ramp, go through another security check point, get our picture taken by the cruise’s photography staff (much more on that later), and find our room. When we originally signed up, we opted for the basic interior stateroom; though we wouldn’t have a balcony, it looked nice and decently furnished on the website. The actual stateroom, however, was…underwhelming. A small bed and couch, vanity, flat screen TV, closet, and a bathroom with a toilet, sink, and shower. That’s it. Just enough walking space and privacy for two people with some patience and creativity. I’ve spent most of my vacations in timeshares, so I was taken aback by the lack of a functioning kitchen, table, and other amenities. Mom wasn’t thrilled with the cramped space, either. Needless to say, we’d be spending as little time in the stateroom as possible.
We didn’t have time to rest, though. After the hearing the ship depart Barcelona, the mandatory lifeboat drill, and getting our luggage back, it was already time for dinner. We were assigned Table 24 in The Aquarius dining room at 6 PM sharp. The staff greeted us at the entrance to the restaurant and gave us a palmful of antibacterial gel. I’m notorious at home for being a neat freak (Hey, you try working with money in a bank vault for 12 years. You’d hate germs, too.), so I was grateful to see the cruise’s disease prevention efforts. Stepping into the The Aquarius was like watching the first half of Titanic; a seemingly endless array of tables adorned with fresh cloth and silverware, wine glasses being filled, dozens of impeccably-dressed waiters, and the noise of hundreds of conversations, and the faint sounds of a live piano. We were the last to arrive at our table; our dinner mates for the cruise were a retired couple from New Jersey, newlyweds from Maine, and two sisters from Australia. While it was kind of awkward at first – I’m shy in social situations – seeing the same people every night was a great way to build friendships and share travel experiences. I can’t remember exactly what I had that first night, but I know it involved a chicken salad, some steak, and a chocolate mousse that looked like a miniature work of modern art.
After dinner, we were too tired to do any more. We’d been on the move since before dawn the previous day; this was finally our chance to relax. We took turns enjoying a well-deserved shower, and then called it a night. I usually stay up late (and sometimes early), but I fell asleep minutes after my head hit the pillow. After all the stress, connections, and thousands of miles, we’d finally made it…and things were just getting started.
What would become the greatest trip of my life started as a complete coincidence. It was early in 2015, and I’d already thought my travel plans were set for the year; I’d have a week in Mexico, and that would be it. However, my mother called me unexpectedly one afternoon, saying that she’d come across a flyer for the Royal Caribbean cruise line. She’d been considering Greece – this was long before the refugee crisis became headlines here in the States – but decided on something far grander: a two week trip with stops in Spain, France, Italy, and Montenegro. We’d been to this part of Europe before (years before I owned a digital camera, sadly!), but never to Barcelona or Nice. I’ve always been a huge history and art geek, so I was immediately hooked on the prospect of seeing Rome and Venice. Mom had actually been trying for almost a decade to get a trip booked for Rome via her timeshare, but couldn’t get anything in the city itself. This cruise seemed like a feasible way for her to tackle her bucket list, and we wanted to travel together while she was still capable of doing so. So, we made arrangements and marked our calendars.
Skip forward about 6 months (the Mexico trip in June is a story for another time), to the morning of October 18th. I’d slept at Mom’s place overnight – amazing how the living room sofa felt better than my old bed – because we had to leave the house before dawn. Instead of driving to SFO, we stuck with what’s become our go-to option: taking BART train line all the way to the airport. It’s easy to navigate, cheaper than a shuttle, and you don’t have to worry about parking. Assuming there are no malfunctions, protests, or police activity (which all happened coming back from Hawaii last December), it’s a smooth, straightforward trip. It’s just a long ride from our starting point, almost from one end of the line to the other. It feels even longer when you’re still half asleep, shivering in the cold, and hauling 50 lbs of your mom’s luggage onto the platform. We took the first SFO-bound train of the day, and were surprised to find at least two dozen other travelers along for the ride. Any Bay Area commuter knows that getting a seat on BART during the busy hours is like a competitive sport; it’s all about positioning yourself in the crowd and seizing opportunities – and vacant chairs – with keen observation and timing. I usually stand during my daily commutes, but going to the airport is different. We tried getting the coveted senior priority seats (there’s more open space for our bags), but ended up sitting across the aisle from each other.
After about an hour of struggling to stay awake while keeping the bags standing and out of people’s way, we finally made it to the airport. Finding the terminal was easy, but the actual ticket counter was something else. We thought our flight was with United Airlines; it said so in nice, big letters on our printout. However, we failed to read the fine print: the plane belonged to United, but the flight itself was being operated by Air Canada. Cue us wasting about half an hour wandering through the terminal and getting incorrect directions from every information desk. Finally getting our luggage checked was a huge relief, both physically and mentally. Getting through security was surprisingly easy this time, too; I’m one of those unfortunate folks who seem to be a magnet for the TSA. It’s probably the suspiciously long, beautiful hair. Aside from her purse, Mom was toting a large bag full of food and her medications. She was diagnosed with diabetes last year – she carries around the doctor’s note to prove it to the authorities – but it always strikes me funny how she’s able to get several meals’ worth of snacks, cereal, and veggies past security. The most I bring are a couple packages of crackers and two refillable water bottles. With the hardest part out of the way, we had a little less than two hours to kick back and wait.
We weren’t flying straight to Spain, though. We had to fly to Montreal, then make a connection. It’s pretty standard fare…except that there was only 30 minutes between flights. When I wasn’t distracted by the movies (I got to watch Jurassic World, Inside Out, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Reviews coming soon!), I pondered over the logistics of our layover. 30 minutes to disembark the plane, get through customs/security, and find a gate in an airport that I’d never seen before. Yeah, it was going to be messy. Air Canada was well aware of our problem; when we landed in Montreal, they announced that the people with close connecting flights – less than a dozen of us in total – were allowed to disembark first. They were even good enough to find out what gate we needed. Mom and I bolted and got through security quickly – they have a small booth off to the side just for connections – and rushed to the next gate.
…But there was no plane.
I checked my watch. No, we had at least another 15 minutes. There’s no way it could’ve left. I went to the flight listing display and searched for ours. Lo and behold, it was still at the airport, but at a different gate, in the opposite direction that we’d come. The Air Canada crew had outdated information. Because it couldn’t be that easy, right? Mom and I nearly sprinted to the correct gate, only to find that they’d been delayed and had just started boarding. We scrambled into the line and got on without any problems. As I sank wearily into my seat and buckled up, I closed my eyes and tried to rub my headache away. We’d been traveling for over 12 hours straight across multiple time zones, and we’d made a connection that, in normal circumstances, should’ve been nearly impossible. Once dinner and drinks had been served – apple juice is my beverage of choice when flying – I tried settling back and sleeping. Time passes strangely on overnight flights; with the windows shuttered and lighting inconsistent, it’s impossible to tell what time it is without looking at a phone or watch. And when you’ve been on your feet for so long, your energy and circadian rhythm are all out of sorts. I think I slept, but I’ve blacked out on flights before. I was more worried about Mom; her endurance isn’t as strong as it used to be. She spent most of the flight trying to find a good sleeping position – often using my shoulder as a pillow – but with little results.
Eventually, someone pulled up a shutter, revealing that the sun was already out. I’d lost track of the night at some point, but that didn’t matter. The captain announced that we were within an hour of Barcelona, the port where we’d board the cruise. I rubbed my eyes and shared some bread with Mom. At this point, we’d been traveling for over 24 hours straight. My head was pounding, but I had to focus on what was coming next. Disembarking. Finding our luggage. Hopefully none of it got lost in transit like the last time we were in Spain. Finding the airport-to-ship shuttle service we’d reserved in advance. We were almost an hour late, hopefully they were still waiting for us. Boarding the ship. What did that entail? So many questions, so little time.