BVB Travel Does Europe Part 5: Sea Day, Naples/Amalfi, Rome, and London

Hello Again!

When I last wrote, we had just finished up an action packed stretch of port days in Turkey and were preparing for the second sea day of our 10 Day journey. The waters had become just a little rocky, which made for a very interesting (but FUN) White Hot Party as we sailed back east toward Italy.

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BVB Does Europe Pt. 4: A Turkish Experience

Hello everyone and Happy Belated New Year! As you can see, I took an extended hiatus from my reviewing my vacation, but I’m back to complete this journey. I will likely have one or two additional posts after this one to complete the comprehensive review. It’s very hard to believe that almost three months have passed since this incredible trip, and we are already looking forward to our next adventure!

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BVB Does Europe Pt. 3: Sea Day and Greece

I last left you with our weary travelers settling down in our cozy inside cabin, preparing for a relaxing day at sea. That day happened to be Thanksgiving, and we had dinner reservations at Moderno Churrascaria, at the special request of Mr. B.

Sailing Past Stromboli Volcano

Sailing Past Stromboli Volcano

We slept in a bit and I headed up to Deck 12 first, as we were passing through the Strait of Messina and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get a photo of Stromboli Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes on Earth. I got my pictures and sat down for my first breakfast of the cruise. Normally, breakfast is my favorite meal on any cruise ship and I take extra steps to ensure I don’t miss it. In this case, breakfast left me underwhelmed. I decided that I am NOT a fan of powdered scrambled eggs, which is what they had to offer. The bacon had a strange taste to it, and the French toast was cold. I wasn’t all that happy. Throughout the 10 day cruise, I learned that the cheese omelets, croissants, hash browns and sausage links were the right combination for ME. The fruit was also VERY good. Toward the end of the week, the French toast and bacon became noticeably better as well.

After breakfast, we attended the Cruise Critic Meet and Greet in Le Bistro French Restaurant. I had been active on the “Roll Call” for our sailing since we booked the cruise, and over time more and more people began to post on the message board. These Roll Calls are an amazing way to link up with your fellow cruisers before the trip, as well as plan shore excursions and carpool for port transfers. We booked our two shore excursions via the Roll Call, opting not to go with the excursions offered by Norwegian. (BVB Tip: Private tours often cost less, however since they are not sponsored by the cruise line, the line offers no sympathy if you are late returning to the ship. Use TripAdvisor or a Roll Call-type message board to research private tours and excursions). Our Roll Call was VERY well attended with about 50 people, as well as the Cruise Director and other officers on the ship. It was really great to put faces with the names I’d been seeing on my computer for 11 months.

[Side Note Re: Cruise Director, Gary — he was extremely knowledgeable about EVERYTHING, spoke 8 languages, and was VERY nice, but he was a little more serious and pretentious than my past cruise directors on Carnival and Royal Caribbean. No silly dances, no self-deprecating humor…he was more like a game show host if anything. Perhaps he is a better match for the European sailings, I don’t know. He was good at his job, but I felt that he belonged on an upper-tier cruise line (i.e. a Celebrity or Princess ship).]

We returned to our cabin to learn that we had been offered a complimentary upgrade to a Balcony Cabin. WHAT!!? We HAPPILY accepted the upgrade and moved to our new cabin, 10654. I called the hotel director, Denis, to thank him and he invited us to the VIP Cocktail Party that evening, which gave us the opportunity to meet the captain and other senior officers aboard the ship. We were feeling pretty good on Thanksgiving Day.

Finally, Thanksgiving Dinner, Brazilian Style. Moderno Churrascaria is a traditional Brazilian-style steakhouse, that serves all of the meat you can possibly eat for $20 per person. We had everything BUT turkey and had no complaints. The service was a little slower than your typical churrascaria (the gentleman at our neighboring table complained of this, loudly, on more than one occasion), but that didn’t bother me. Moderno is open to the main atrium below, so we were able to listen to the entertainer sing as we dined. Very nice Thanksgiving Day.

We were completely wiped out from all of our carnivorous activity, so we skipped the evening production show and just hung out around the ship. In fact, we skipped all of the production shows – we just weren’t “feelin” it this cruise.

KATAKOLON/OLYMPIA, GREECE – DAY 3

The next morning we were docked in Katakolon, which provides access to Olympia via cab, bus or train. Katakolon is a tiny fishing village; there appears to be one main street in the town and it’s littered with souvenir shops and places to eat. Our plan was to take the train to Olympia for 3 Euros per person, round-trip, but the cruise director warned us that the train is extremely unreliable. We hadn’t made advance reservations on the Katakolon Express (many of our Cruise Critic companions had; plus the buses have free wi-fi!), so we were going to chance it on the train. We walked past a small travel agency that was advertising round-trip transfers to Olympia for 8 Euro round-trip, and decided that we’d go with that. We’d have about 3 hours at the site which, for us, was more than enough.

In front of the Philippeion in Olympia

In front of the Philippeion in Olympia

The trip to Olympia takes about 45 minutes from Katakolon. As this wasn’t an official tour, there was no guide to share information about Greece, Katakolon or Olympia during our ride. We arrived to Olympia and were given a time to return to the bus. For 9 Euro each we purchased the combo ticket, which granted us access to both the archaeological site at Olympia and the museum. We were excited about being at the location of the first Olympic games but…how can I say this…the ruins are OLD (obviously, lol) and not the best preserved. Mr. B and I had fun with all of the “rocks” we were looking at. A few of the columns are still standing and are in decent shape, as well as the Olympic Stadium. I am again thankful for Rick Steves’s book, because we would’ve been upset if we purchased a guided tour.

We left the archaeological site and headed to the museum, where many of the artifacts extracted from Olympia are kept from the elements. There is SO much in the museum; statues, helmets, weapons, pottery, more statues. This was very impressive. Photography is allowed inside the museum, but your flash must be off and posing in front of the artifacts is strictly prohibited. There are staff members standing around whose sole job responsibility is to chastise silly tourists for posing for pictures in the museum. Seriously.

After our trip back to Katakolon, we grabbed a bite to eat at little snack bar (free wi-fi!), bought some souvenirs and went back to the ship. It was nap time. We had dinner that night in one of the free dining rooms, the Grand Pacific, listened to the Dixieland Band play some New Orleans favorites in the atrium, and hung out at karaoke before going to bed.

PIRAEUS/ATHENS GREECE – DAY 4

Another day in Greece, another DIY day for Mr. and Mrs. B. I had read that the Piraeus Metro station was a short walk from the cruise terminal and would take us directly into Athens. Sounded good to us.

Well…”short” is relative. The walk is about 20 minutes, which felt a LOT longer on the way to the station since we didn’t know where we were going. We stopped at a kiosk on the street to ask if we were headed the right way. The shopkeeper confirmed that we were 1 km from the train station and offered to sell us our Metro tickets right then and there. After confirming that he was actually an authorized ticket vendor, we purchased round-trip metro tickets for 6 Euro each. (Glad we did that; the tickets were 3.75 Euro each way at the actual train station).

After validating our tickets on the machine at the train station, we sat and waited for the train to arrive. We missed one because we were waiting for the “red line” to take us to the Monastiraki stop, not realizing that there is only ONE train line that goes to Piraeus; it’s impossible to get on the wrong train. See, that’s why it doesn’t hurt to ask questions! (I’m saying that to myself, btw).

Monastiraki is about 5 stops from Pireaus; once we got off of the train, we were in the middle of a busy square with souvenir shops and restaurants all around. The flea market was in the immediate vicinity. All we were concerned with was the Acropolis, which which we could see in the distance. (It looked SO FAR AWAY!). We started walking in the general direction of the Acropolis, taking a shortcut through the Roman Forum, since there was no one there collecting tickets. At the other end of the Forum, we finally saw the ticket booth. We purchased the Acropolis Combo Ticket for 12 Euro each, which granted us admission to all of the ancient sites in Athens (Acropolis, Ancient Agora, Archaeological Museum of Kerameikos, Kerameikos, Museum of the Ancient Agora, North slope of Acropolis, Olympieio, Roman Agora of Athens, South Slope of Acropolis). There was no way we were going to see all of that in the few hours we had – we went straight to the Acropolis. We didn’t know exactly where we were going, we just headed UP, since the Acropolis loomed above us. All of the streets sloped upward and/or had built-in staircases. Our legs were still dead sore from our adventure in Rome, but we managed. We passed the back entrance of the Ancient Agora with plans to return later.

Atop the Areopagus/Mars Hil

Atop the Areopagus/Mars Hill

We arrived to the Acropolis site and decided to check out Mars Hill (or Areopagus Hill) first. No ticket is required for this. You have to ascend to the top of Mars Hill, either using the “natural” staircase carved into the rock, or the metal one off to the left. Mr. B was making me look bad by tackling the natural staircase with no fear, so I decided to follow him. But, I had fear. And the stairs are SLIPPERY, so make sure you have the right shoes on, preferably with some tread. Once we got to the top, we marveled at the amazing view of Athens and the Acropolis, but I was also busy trying not to fall…there is no kind of guard rail or anything up there. Great place to take some pictures though.

From there, we entered the Acropolis and took a million pictures. It was surreal to be there, seeing the Parthenon in person. It’s truly an amazing site that has been very well preserved. The signs there aren’t very helpful, as they address the restoration project more than the historical significance of each component of the Acropolis. Either have a guide book present or go on a guided tour. (BVB Info: speaking of tours, there are independent tour guides hanging out around the entrance of the Acropolis, offering private tours to travelers. Once the guide told us 25 Euro per person, we stopped listening).

Happy to be at the Parthenon!

Happy to be at the Parthenon!

We left the Acropolis and went back down to the Ancient Agora. We toured the site, opting to skip the museum in interest of food. Once we exited the site, we were standing on a narrow street that was lined with open-air restaurants and coffee shops.They all had staff out front, trying to solicit business.  We chose the one with the nicest one, Dia Tauta, and ordered a sampler that had more food than we ever could’ve imagined. It was delicious AND they had free wi-fi!!

YUM!

YUM!

After a little more shopping, we decided we were tired and began our journey back to the ship. We had to dodge shady street vendors who were trying to sell perfume and iPhones outside of the cruise port. Little did we know, this would be child’s play compared to the vendors in Istanbul….

BVB Tip 1: As you can see, Olympia and Athens are very easy to do without a shore excursion or tour guide. If you enjoy exploring on your own, this would be my suggestion for you. However, if you need more structure to your day, want to know the historical significance of the sites without consulting a book, or are a little “directionally challenged”  I recommend purchasing a ship excursion or a private tour. You’ll get more value to your day, especially if you’re prone to getting lost!!!

BVB Tip 2: You may have noticed by now that I keep mentioning the free wi-fi. Seriously, this will be your best friend while traveling outside of the USA. I purchased 150 MB of international data from AT&T for my iPhone, but I could’ve relied on the free wi-fi hot spots in port and purchased a wi-fi package aboard the ship to save money. Many of the restaurants and coffee shops on shore will let you use their hotspot with a purchase. Plus, I quickly learned that having data access on my cell phone does not stop incoming text messages and voice mails, which I expect to be billed for when I see my next cell phone bill. Well played, AT&T.

Next Up: Turkey!!

BVB Does Europe Part 2: Rome Day 2 and NCL Jade

Rome: Day 2 and Cruise Embarkation Day

We woke up early on Day 2, as we had 9:30 tickets to tour the Vatican Museum. Although November is the low season in Rome, we wanted to ensure that we wouldn’t need to wait in line once we got to Vatican City. (BVB Tip: I HIGHLY recommended pre-purchasing Vatican Tickets here, especially if you plan to visit during the high season – June to August. From what I’ve been told, the line can wrap around the block if you don’t have tickets in hand). Our hotel offered a free breakfast, which was prerequisite when I was looking for a place to stay.

After downing our pastries and coffee, we checked out of the hotel and walked the 10 short minutes to Termini Train Station. Instead of lugging our bags to the Vatican, which would’ve been a BAD BAD BAD idea, or leaving them at the hotel (which was FREE, but we were concerned about time), we took them down to “Deposito de Bagagli” at Termini…a/k/a Bag Hold. For 5 Euros per bag, you can “check” your baggage in for up to 5 hours in a semi-secured area. This is a great option if you have a few free hours in Rome or whatnot. We checked three of our bags and made our way to the Metro Station to catch the Red Line to Vatican City.

Once arriving to the Metro, we used the row of automated machines to purchase a 1 day Metro Card for 6 Euros each. Although we didn’t have time to ride trains all day, this saved the hassle of buying another Metro token for our return trip, and pretty much cost the same. These machines take either cash (in Euros) or a credit card. We took the Metro to the Ottaviano stop (you can also use the following stop, Cipro,  for Vatican Musuem, which is a shorter walk but will involve some stair-climbing).

Up, up, up to the Vatican

Up, up, up to the Vatican

There wasn’t much of a line at the Vatican, so we really would’ve been okay purchasing tickets on-site (better safe than sorry, though). We located the line for individual ticket holders, as we weren’t part of a guided tour, had our online voucher scanned, and made our way upstairs to the main museum. (BVB Tip: if you like the idea of a tour but not a tour GUIDE, there are audio guide kits you can rent for 7 Euros each. We didn’t do this, as I had a guidebook. Keep in mind, if you rent the audio guide, you won’t be able to sneak out of the Sistine Chapel’s shortcut to St. Peter’s like we did. More on this later).

The Vatican. What can you say? There is SO much to see, SO much history…but everyone is there for the Sistine Chapel. And for this reason, you have to navigate the entire labyrinth of museum to get TO the Sistine Chapel. (I told Mr. B that it reminded me of an IKEA, then shamed myself for comparing the Vatican to IKEA). About midway through the museum, you’ll see an option to take a shortcut to the Sistine Chapel. If you do this, you’ll miss the frescos of Raphael which are VERY impressive. I only recommend taking THIS shortcut if you’re pressed for time.

Official Photo from the Vatican Museum..I followed the rules!

Official Photo from the Vatican Museum..I followed the rules!

Once you get to the Sistine Chapel, there are no photos or video allowed. I had a moment of rebellion and decided that I was going to take pictures anyway, but the reason for the rule was respectable; it’s considered a holy site. Okay then. No pictures. Some people in there did not get the memo and took photos anyway, and were immediately chastised by one of the many guards stationed inside the chapel. There are benches lined along the walls of the chapel, where you can sit and gaze at the various frescos that Michelangelo spent four years creating. Standing in there is one of the most surreal moments of my life.

After awhile, our necks began to hurt from the craning and we decided to leave. In my research, I had learned about the secret side door marked “Groups Only” that will allow you to skip the remainder of the Vatican tour (you’ll mainly miss the Pinacoteca). As I said before, this option is not available to you if you have rented an audio guide, as you need to turn in the headset at the official museum exit. Anyway. Mr. B and I sat on a bench next to the secret side door for about 10 minutes, waiting for a group to exit so we could blend in. There were no groups leaving; everyone was still staring at the ceiling! I got tired of waiting, so I stood up and walked through the door like a BOSS. And no one said a WORD. Maybe it was just a good day; maybe the guards were more concerned about the people taking photos – I don’t know. But we did it!

This exit was ideal, honestly. As soon as we got outside, we saw the short line for the cupola climb at St. Peter’s Basilica. This was not on my agenda, as it was Wednesday and I was under the belief that St. Peter’s would be closed for a papal mass. Sometimes it’s great to be wrong! Anyway, we decided to go for the climb. They charge 5 Euros to do the climb by foot (551 stairs) and 7 Euros to take the elevator up and then climb 320 stairs. Either way it goes, you’ll be climbing. And it’s not easy. I was completely dead by the time we reached the top, and that was after taking multiple breaks for oxygen. In spite of this, however, I feel that the climb was 100% worth it. The views of Rome are breathtaking from the cupola, and that’s after walking through the interior of the dome, where you can take photos of the church below. I have no idea how high up we were…we were just high.  The climb down is nowhere near as bad. 🙂

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We finished up in Vatican City around 1200 and, after stopping for gelato, headed back to the Metro station. We didn’t feel that we had time for lunch and decided to eat once we arrived to the ship. Upon our arrival back to Termini, we collected our bags and purchased tickets for the 1:20 Civitivecchia train. There are automated machines that Trenitalia uses to sell tickets, but they do not accept cash. And if you use a CC, you have to know the card’s pin number. Good thing we had our ATM cards as well; those worked just fine. There are also ticket booths where you can purchase tickets in person, but we honestly couldn’t find them. The train ticket to Civitivecchia was 5 Euros per person. You need to validate the ticket in the yellow machines before you board….which we didn’t do. I’m very glad they weren’t checking tickets that day, or we would’ve been a lot poorer. The train left from platform 25, which was WAY in the back of Termini. Prepare to walk a bit.

Heading to the Ship…

The train ride took about 1 hr and 30 minutes. We were antsy about arriving to the train THIS late (ship left at 5, we arrived to Civitivecchia around 3), so instead of walking to port as we previously planned, we hopped in a cab with another couple. The cab ride was 5 Euros per person…the port is literally 1 mile from the train station.

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Cabin 9659

The good thing about arriving to the ship so late was that there was NO line. After handing our bag to the porter, going through the metal detectors, and filling out the mandatory health survey, we walked directly to the counter and checked in. Within 10 minutes of arriving to the port, we were on the ship and headed to our inside aft cabin: 9659. We put out things down, surveyed the cabin, collected our invite to the Latitudes Cocktail Party (we are both past guests) and headed off to eat. I was a little taken aback that our cabin steward didn’t leave a Freestyle Daily in our cabin — we had no idea what was going on aboard the ship, which restaurants were open, etc. (BVB Info: If you’ve never cruised before, you’ll need to understand that the daily itinerary – called Freestyle Daily on NCL – will become your lifeline. It gives you a list of all of the daily activities, dining hours, sales, etc).

After finding a snack, we returned to our cabin to find our luggage waiting for us outside of the room. We unpacked and called to change our dinner reservation at Cagney’s Steakhouse from 7:30 to 5:30 – we were hungry!!! Our dinner included a free bottle of wine, which was awful generous of Norwegian. 🙂

A quick note about NCL: they are different from other cruise lines in that they abide by a “freestyle” philosophy. You see this primarily in their dining options. Instead of being assigned a dinner time and table as most other cruise lines, you have the option of eating wherever you want, whenever you want. Free dining options include 2 main dining rooms, the buffet and Blue Lagoon (24 hour snack bar). For a cover charge, you also have the option of having steak, French, Italian, sushi, hibachi, or Brazilian. Reservations are recommended and can be made onboard, but you can also show up to the restaurant and request to be seated. There are helpful screens throughout the ship that list all of the restaurants and their respective wait times.

After dinner (I had filet mignon and lobster tail, which was decent), we officially crashed. Slept through all of the evening activities, awaking at 11:3o to pop our head into the disco and finally tour the ship. All in all, an exhausting day but once of my favorite of the vacation!

BVB Tip: If I had to do it all over again, we would’ve arrived to the Vatican earlier (8:30) to avoid the anxiety we experienced aboard the train to Civitivecchia. Norwegian gave us no grief about arrived at 3 pm, but had our train been delayed or if the transit workers had been on strike, we would’ve been in trouble. Otherwise, everything went perfectly! Definitely consider purchasing Vatican tickets in advance and give yourself enough time to enjoy Vatican City!

Next up: Thanksgiving at sea and Greece!