Saturday, November 30, 2013

Monte Carlo...the Town the Grimaldi Family Built and Grace Kelly Made Famous

Sailing from Livorno, Italy, our ship arrived in Monte Carlo the next day in stunningly warm and summer-like weather on the last day of October.  As we approached the French Riviera, the tiny Principality of Monaco with 32,000 citizens was packed into 473 acres (7/10 of a mile) of mostly high rise apartments climbing up from the sea.  This is the smallest nation in the world and has been ruled by the Grimaldi Family since the 13th century.  It became a famous place when the adored American actress, Grace Kelly, wed Prince Ranier of Monaco in 1956.  After their story book wedding, Prince Ranier was responsible for restoring the glamor and attraction of the lack-luster gambling haven when he abolished all taxes creating a premier tax haven for the world's wealthiest citizens.

Approaching Monaco on October 31, 2013 

The Casino of Monte Carlo as viewed from the sea
Bob, me, and Sharon
We were docked by 6:45AM and would have 10 hours to explore the area.  Ron and I, along with our friends, Sharon and Bob, decided to purchase a ticket on the Hop On Hop Off Tourist Bus for a cost of 18 euro each.  We sat up on the open upper deck and took in the sites of this luxurous little town.

A lot of expensive yachts were in the harbor
Prince's Palace
We got off at the Prince's Palace at old Monaco Ville or Le Rocher.  Sharon walked down to the Cathedral while Ron, Bob and I enjoyed the beautiful view from a cafe high above the sea and the Port of Fontvielle.  Monaco built this port and neighborhood of Fontvielle by reclaiming land from the sea.


Beautiful MonacoVille houses and streets

The Cathedral of St. Nicholas where Princess Grace is buried

We watched the pagentry of the Changing of the Guards at the Prince's Palace

These guards are all very tall, at least 6'6" each, I think

The Palace they are guarding

Gardens above Fontvielle

Beautiful location above the sea

...and Ron waiting for our Hop On Bus to continue our tour

This is the view of the newer city of Monte Carlo from Le Rocher

There is our ship among all the yachts
The Oceanographic Museum of Monaco


...are everywhere

Outdoor Market

Cars are small in Europe
 We next got off at the old Monte Carlo Casino.  We had lunch at the Cafe Paris where Ron enjoyed fresh oysters on the half shell and I had French onion soup, then we all did a bit of gambling.  Ron beat the House at the Casino of Mone Carlo playing Black Jack, taking home 50 euro!

The famous Cafe de Paris

The famous Hotel de Paris where rooms start at 540 euro per night

The Casino at Monte Carlo

We headed back to our ship, ready to set sail at 6PM for our next port of call: Marseille, France
Our ship, the MS Ryndam, docked at the harbor of Monte Carlo
That evening, to celebrate Halloween, a lot of the crew were dressed up in costume.  It was "Fomal Night" for dining and the dining stewards greeted you with their hillbilly and vampire teeth.  Our favorite piano bar performer, Jamm the Piano Man, was barely dressed in a bedsheet for a toga.

Jamsheed Master
Jamm is a truly talented pianist, composer and singer who plays over 3000 songs by ear.  We spent many a night on board listening to his wonderful repertoire.

Here he is playing New York, New York on a previous Holland America cruise:

Ron and I very much enjoyed our evening in the Piano Bar listening to all the wonderful music.

Jamm the Piano Man

Next stop: Marseille, France.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

My Visit to the City of Florence (Firenze)

We had been at sea for 12 days when, on October 30th, our ship arrived in our tenth port, Livorno, Italy.  From Livorno, passengers could explore the famed Tuscany region with beautiful historical cities like Pisa or Florence.  We would be in port for 12 hours, from 7AM until 7PM.  It would be a long day and one that required an early start.

Shortly after 5AM, I peeked out of our stateroom window and could see dramatic lightning over the sea.  I dressed and went to the deck in anticipation of our arrival.  I saw the lighthouse and lights of Livorno.  It seemed we were part of a procession of cruise ships docking that morning.

The excursion buses were already lined up to take passengers to their destinations
I went to the Lido Restaurant to get breakfast and found it packed with hundreds of passengers fighting through the breakfast and coffee lines to get an early start.  Several impatient people were rude and grouchy.  Ron, who had been to Florence before, decided to stay on board the ship. I met our friends, Bob and Sharon, at 7:30AM at the excursion meeting area to catch the transfer to Florence (a 1.5 hours bus ride to Florence each way).  After boarding our bus, we basically went our own way for the day. I read E.M Forester's Room with a View earlier this year, and was excited to see the city that was the subject of that wonderful novel.  I had my Fodor's European Ports of Call guidebook and was plotting out my day. We had an excellent on-board guide who gave us a wonderful overview of what we might see when we got to Florence, where to get the best exchange rate, how to avoid the long queue for the most popular sites, where to buy the best leather, jewelry, etc.  He handed out maps of Florence and pointed out where the various attractions were and how far they were from each other.

I decided I must see Uffizi Gallery, one of the world's foremost art collections, so I carefully listened to his directions on getting into the right line for an appointment tour.  I would try to see the Galleria dell'Accademia to see Michaelangelo's David and his other masterworks, but it was across the city, so I'd have to play it by ear.  In reality, I only got to the area marked by the blue marker below in the time I had.

A map of Florence or Firenze. I walked in the area within the blue lines
There was a copy of David nearby the Uffizi in the Piazza della Signoria where the original David was first placed in 1504 in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.

A reproduction of Michaelangelo's David outside the Palazzo Vecchio
Arriving in Florence amid light traffic, our guide announced we would have six and a half hours to spend on our own before returning to the bus.  Unloading by the Arno River at 9:45AM, we walked as a group to Piazza Santa Croce. Here, we were told, was to be our reunion place at 4:45PM.

Piazza Santa Croce and the Basilica of Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan church in the world
I walked to the Ufizzi and was able to get an appointment for entrance at 11:15AM.  Having more than an hour to wait I walked around and enjoyed the statues and shops in the Piazza della'Signoria.

The Palazzo Vecchio
I had a cappuccino and a delicious chocolate filled cannolo at a outdoor cafe while I waited.  I started my tour at 11:15AM and walked up the stairs to the 2nd floor where Roman and Greek sculpture, Renaissance  paintings, sculpture and tapestries adorned room after room.  I especially enjoyed the work of Donnatello and Botticelli.  Stopping by the window overlooking the Arno River, I took a picture of the Ponte Vecchio, the only Roman-built bridge crossing the Arno that was not bombed by the Germans in WWII.

Ponte Vecchio
 I couldn't take pictures of the artwork, but you can see what I saw here.  After 2 hours of this endless art museum, I was exhausted.  I wish I had planned my visit before I came.  Here is a website to plan a visit by room/period/artist in case you go there.  I was disappointed that Titian's Venus of Orbino was closed off in a locked room that required a special tour.

I walked up to see the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or il Duomo di Firenze, but it was under construction and I could not find an entrance.  I took pictures of it from the outside.

I wandered the narrow winding streets back toward the Piazza della'Signoria and entered a couple of leather shops.  I bought a nice leather belt for Ron and a leather wallet for a friend.  I found three beautiful leather purses and another wallet in another shop.  These will make nice gifts.

A gift for a friend

A gift for my sister

A gift for my daughter

A gift for me
A gift for my other daughter
I walked by a restaurant that advertised a Special Lunch of appetizer, salad, lasagna, and wine for 12 euro that enticed me to rest and get some nutrition.  It was nearly time to get back to Sante Croce to reunite with my group.  But first I purchased a bottle of Tuscany red wine for our stateroom and T-shirts for gifts.  Florence was truly a beautiful city that needed at least a week to truly appreciate.  Like Rome, there was too little time, but at least I got to spend time walking the wonderful streets for several hours.

I walked back down the narrow Via del Neri toward the Piazza Santa Croce
Meeting up with Sharon and Bob in the Plaza by 4:15PM, I shared a glass of wine with Sharon at the outdoor cafe  while we waited for our tour guide.  She and Bob had crossed the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio and visited the Palace Gardens.  When all were assembled, we marched back to our bus by the Arno River.

We drove through a neighborhood above the city with scenic views as we said goodbye to Firenze.
We got back to the ship about 6:15PM, in time to depart by 7PM for our next Port of Call: Monte Carlo, Monaco.