Saturday, May 30, 2015

Saturday May 30, 2015

Remember how I said that expectations can really screw up your vacation. Well, I've found another way to spoil your vacation -- a bad attitude. Yesterday we visited Messina in Sicely. We did not arrive until after noontime. Consequently, we had the morning to stitch and relax on our veranda. It was very pleasant.

Russell relaxing as we pass some islands near the isle of Stromboli. No, I am not kidding there really is an island called Stromboli -- who knew?

Arriving in Messina

Then, we arrived at our dock in the downtown area and everyone started piling off the ship and I was getting anxious because everyone else was getting off ahead of us while Russell looked at the situation from a totally different perspective -- the "Isn't it great we didn't rush to get off with the rest is of the ship?" attitude. To which I could only reply with a weak smile. Well things deteriorated from there and we ended up having an argument and very nearly never getting off the boat at all.

For some reason this photo just strikes me as very ... Messina? Sicely? Italy? Not sure which but it is very ...

Well, eventually we did get off the boat but I was bound and determined not to have a good time and I am embarrassed to say that I succeeded. Russell, wisely, tried to work around my bad mood but for the most part I would have none of that. To make matters worse although we did have two maps neither one was worth a tinker's dam. So, we had trouble locating the things we were supposed to see and in one instance we struggled to get to a church that we could see but  could not figure out how to get to only to discover once we got there that it was under renovation and closed. Needless to say this did not help my mood and after a few hours in the hot sun (wearing long pants I might add and shoes that were rubbing the back of my heel the wrong way) we returned to the ship where I took a nap and Russell went for a soak and a steam.

Straight(s?) of Messina (looking from Sicely toward mainland Italy)

This darn church was influenced by Moorish design and proved very difficult for us to find!

All of this only goes to show that people who are committed to not having a good time will usually succeed.  Beautiful weather, lovely scenery and interesting culture be damned! Only later did I realize/accept the fact that my bad mood and poor attitude were due to feeling anxious about going it alone (of course still with Russell) but without a tour guide or group. 

Astronomical clock in Messina

Today's visit to Valleta, Malta was a complete turnaround. We had done our homework, left the ship early, knew just where we were going first, had two maps that were useful, were patient with one another and had a most excellent day. It helped of course that Valleta is lovely and the weather was fine. 

Maltese church. Not sure which one. They have 365 of them (supposedly).

Maltese street scene

Harbor at Valleta, Malta

Our ship once again was able to dock very near the downtown area. We took an elevator to the upper town section and spent most of the day walking. We did some shopping, went to a house museum, missed the opening hours of not one but two different churches, had some lunch at an outdoor cafe and to top it all off participated in the Valleta Gay Pride fest. It was a particularly joyful gathering because same sex marriage was just made legal in this predominantly Catholic country. And the sky hasn't fallen yet. Imagine that!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Thursday May 28, 2015

Pompeii -- entrance to the city

Expectations are a funny thing. They can really mess you up. Take for example my visit to Pompeii yesterday. I am sorry to say that I was disappointed with the experience. Partly this was because we had an annoying tour guide who would take fifty words to explain something when five words would have sufficed. I think he fancied himself a poet. Or perhaps he was just an example of the poetic nature of the Italian people. It hardly matters. Cryptic verbosity is not a desirable quality for a tour guide especially one whose English could use some work. His insistence that we "smile" and not "rush" (rushing consisted merely of walking in front of him rather than behind) was also not appreciated.

Good shot Russell!

Speaking of not appreciating, can we talk about the unanticipated twenty-five minute stop at a cameo factory for the "opportunity" to buy "world class" art (at factory-direct prices I might add). It is just this sort of shenanigan that really puts me off organized touring.

Pompeii with Vesuvius in background -- before the eruption Vesuvius was three times the size it is now

Eventually we arrived at Pompeii which was predictably crowded. However it is a big place (much bigger than I had imagined) which allowed the crowd to disperse. The ruins were impressive though I could not shake my doubts about how much of what we were seeing was original and how much was restored. Also the amount of frescoes and mosaic work was not as great as I had expected. I had thought that I would really get the feeling of a town that had simply ceased to exist in an instant and for the most part that didn't happen. For me. Russell was impressed and enjoyed the ruins a great deal. He thought it was better than he expected.

Mosaic work, Pompeii 

So you see how expectations can mess you up? I expected a lot and was disappointed. He did not expect much and was pleasantly surprised. Today we visited another archeological site -- Ostia Antica (or Ancient Ostia in English). I don't think either of us had any expectations regarding these less well known ruins which are near the Rome airport. Our guide at the site, once again, left something to be desired but Russell and I were prepared this time. Yesterday evening we had discussed the fact that we needed to anticipate that the guides provided by the ship are not likely to be good and that we needed to accept that fact. 


Ostia is also a very large set of ruins. It is set by the Tiber River and has many lovely pine trees of a variety that look like heads of broccoli on long thin stalks. The birds were chirping and the flowers were blooming and it felt like a "real" place and certainly not like the legendary place that is Pompeii.


Ostia was a working city (with taverns, apartment buildings, business stalls, etc) not like Pompeii which was devoted mostly to pleasure (large baths and numerous brothels). Also Ostia was gradually abandoned or "AH-buhn-duhn-ned" as the tour guide said (it took me awhile to figure out what she meant -- "Oh, a-BAN-dunned").

Ostia -- note Romulus and Remus 

Again I struggled with the question of how much was built by whom and when. I guess I need my Roman ruins to be built by the Romans. I also struggled with my fellow tour participants many of whom were old and had mobility issues. I have to say that I find walking around these archaeological sites difficult with the uneven surfaces, the relentless sun, the distances involved and the need to stay standing for hours at a time. I can scarcely imagine doing these tours twenty five years older and with real physical challenges to boot. I am awfully lucky to be able to see this stuff sooner rather than later.


Having said that let me also say that we made decision to return our tour tickets for the next several days. We've decided we are going to branch out on our own with the encouragement of some Dutch friends who insist that boat tours are for people who lack the proper confidence. Of course they also scoffed at us when we said that you really need to be careful at Ostia with the uneven surfaces and they do smoke so perhaps we ought not to be taking life advice from them!

We are going to give it a try though and of course I will let you know how it goes. Oh, and if you care, the weather today was sunny but cool and yesterday was sunny in the morning with a prolonged downpour in the afternoon (complete with lightning).

All photos taken by Russell. Hasn't he been doing a great job?!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tuesday May 26, 2015

Our ship this morning

Remember what I said yesterday about finally a break in the weather? Well, I take it all back. Today was cool and gray again with on and off light rain. Very unusual weather according to the locals but unfortunately not so unusual for us. I feel bad for the people who are getting off this boat on Thursday as we are supposed to have more cool and cloudy weather (with rain possible) tomorrow in Naples. Russell and I are here for the long haul. We can wait for the weather to improve -- as it surely will -- but the people who are finishing their cruise on Thursday have had a mostly cool and rainy vacation.

Street scene, Palermo, Italy

Enough about the weather. Palermo is, I think, an acquired taste. Many of the buildings are in disrepair and seem as if they are falling apart albeit very, very slowly. Also the city appeared gray and dirty but that might have had something to do with the weather. And the traffic -- oy veh, was it ever bad. Lots and lots of one-person-per-car jam-ups. Our bus spent a good portion of the day sitting in traffic.

The Opera house

Also, the drivers. Yikes! Fearless would be one word to describe them. Reckless  is another. Our bus driver did well to negotiate all the double parked cars as well as the cars parked at odd angles, blocking the street. The tour guide explained the traffic situation by saying that people in Palermo drive with the attitude that they should come first because they are in a hurry. The problem is of course that everyone drives with that attitude! And, of all the days for Russell and I to sit in the front seat of the bus (right behind the driver) this would not have been my pick but sit right behind the driver we did as it was the only place we could get some extra (and very much needed) leg room.

Didn't think we were going to make it

Nice parking job

In the front seat

In the morning we visited Monreale. This 12th century(!) church is a showplace for virtuosic(is this a word?) mosaic work. The place is simply stunning with tons of illustrations of Bible stories and scenes from the life of Jesus. It goes without saying that it was crowded but perhaps less so than it might otherwise had been if the weather had been more favorable.


After Monreale we stopped and bought some postcards and also the postage to mail them to the States. It was only later back on the boat that I discovered the stamps we had bought were emblazoned with the words "Only valid for Friendpost network". Now I am no postman but I can tell you that I have never seen those words printed on a legitimate stamp. When we were leaving the store the guy did say something in Italian to us about the box outside the store but since it was raining and we had limited time I was not about to write and address the cards then and there. Even if I had, I am quite sure the "Friendpost network" would never have gotten the postcards to where I wanted them to go. In other words, we got scammed. Very clever. I'll be sure to check the postage stamps before I buy them again.

Bogus stamps

Second stop was downtown. Rain was picking up in intensity at this point. After two failed attempts to purchase lunch (don't ask) we decided to get a snack of French fries and sauce in a paper cone or, as we were kindly informed by someone from our ship who was walking by, "a heart attack on a plate". I did not bother to correct him (there was no plate involved whatsoever).

More traffic

Third stop was the beach?! Yes, we stopped at the beach despite the weather. It might have been a nice spot but as it was still raining we decided to spend the bulk of our "free" time at this place that "serves the best pizza" according to our tour guide. Only problem being that when we went to order the pizza we were informed that the pizza oven had been shut down already for the day (or at least I am pretty sure that's what our tattooed, swarthy, curly haired, designer-jean-wearing waiter said). We ended up having fried calamari that could have bounced its way to Delaware given that it was so rubbery.

Some natural vegetation on beach (supposedly its presence is a good sign for the health of the water and it cannot be legally removed)

Back at the boat I needlepointed and exercised. Dinner was an enjoyable affair as we were joined tonight as we have been on two previous evenings by new friends Tim and Jennifer from Colorado Springs. We've really enjoyed our dinners with them even though their presence at our table has nearly doubled the length of time it takes us to eat dinner and they've  turned us into the last table to leave the dining room. I hardly recognize myself for all their bad influence!

Towel monkey in our room this evening

Monday, May 25, 2015

Monday May 25, 2010

En route to Palermo this evening. Had a nice relaxing day at sea. Weather seems to have broken as today was sunny (but still coolish -- upper sixties, low seventies). Very comfortable. I spent some time this afternoon outside on our verandah needlepointing.

The streets of Olbia. Do not be fooled by this picture. I bumped up the light level so that you could see more. It was actually a much grayer day than this

Yesterday we were in Olbia, Sardinia. This was a replacement stop for Tunis which was canceled after the terrorist attack. Fortunately, no terrorists in Sardinia! It was just a quiet Sunday and the weather was, once again, cool and cloudy with on and off light rain. 

New shoes

We did not schedule a tour for Sardinia and because of the weather I didn't think it would be wise to do too much touring as nothing would likely appear at its best. Consequently we just strolled the streets of Olbia. Russell surprised me by buying me another summer scarf. I am sensing a theme here. It's absolutely gorgeous. I got some shoes too and a hat also. It was a good day to be me!

New hat and scarf

You will see from the few photos that I took, Olbia isn't much and to my surprise I didn't take any photographs today -- surely the first time that has happened on this trip. 

Waiting for Indonesian staff show to begin

I probably should have taken photos at the Indonesian lunch that was held today for all the people on this boat who are continuing on after Rome (others will be getting off and getting on this Thursday). The scrumptious Indonesian lunch was preceded last night by a variety show put on by some of the Indonesian staff members on board. There are a lot of Indonesians who work for Holland America. The company has, I believe, two training facilities, one in Indonesia and one in the Phillipines. Consequently nearly all the staff on board are from one country or the other. 

Indonesian dancer

Indonesian singer

I have to say that I have been very impressed by the staff on board this ship. They are very friendly and upbeat. They do an excellent job and they seem happy to do it. It's hard work though and talk about long hours! I wouldn't be able to do it, that's for sure -- especially the upbeat and happy part. No way. I would be exhausted and with me that's no prescription for a positive mood -- Russell can attest to that!

Finale -- what can I say? I told you I didn't take many pictures today or yesterday. I've got to show you all something and this was the best of the remaining images!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saturday May 23, 2015

Corsica, France yesterday. Lucca, Italy today. From "s'il vous plait" to "preggo" in 24 hours. Unfortunately only the weather remained constant -- cool, mostly overcast and occasionally wet.

Yes that's snow on top of that mountain in Corsica!

Corsica is a rugged, mountainous and picturesque island. We took a bus tour to a hill town and then visited another town on the water. The hill town was difficult to access and mostly empty of people (except other tourists) but the view was expansive.

At the second village they were having a farmer's market and R and I picked up some charcuterie and a local two-milk cheese. I did overhear the vendor from whom we had just bought some honey say something to another customer about "les Americains" to which I replied "Je vous ecoute" ("I hear you"). I don't think he was being mean but still it wasn't appropriate especially after we had just bought something from him.

Farmer's market, Ile-Rouse, Corsica

We've encountered a fair bit of hostility/disdain during our trip so far -- from Spaniards, Frenchmen and now Italians. I get it. Really I do. It's fun to look down on people. Especially Americans. Give them a dose of their own medicine. Plus, you have all these camera-toting ignoramuses blocking the sidewalk and speaking to you in English (as if that is the language that is supposed to be spoken here) and traveling in packs and wearing badges and it's all very distasteful. 

Stickered, wired for sound and looking the part in Lucca

Of course there is another side to that picture. One that's fairly easy to see -- these people (tourists) are like fish out of water and they've traveled far and spent a lot of money/time to see my country, my home town and isn't that terrific? What they need is a welcome and a "hello" and a little understanding. That's all. It's a good lesson to learn no matter who you are or where you live -- that it's all in the perspective and that whenever you see a foreigner/tourist in your neck of the woods make it a point to say "hello" and "welcome" because one day that tourist could be you.

Corsican villages

I only bring this issue up because at times our tour guide today seemed disgusted with the group and I was feeling particularly intimidated by the sales clerks at the stores today in Lucca. 

Lucca was Puccini's birth place

I would have loved to go into some of the clothing stores but in most of the stores here no one bothers to say "Hello" or offers to help. In fact, it's usually quite the opposite -- they flee when you come in or suddenly become quite busy doing something else. Mostly, you are just ignored. Sometimes it's worse.

Tintoretto's Last Supper

There are other challenges when it comes to buying clothes over here. One being that the sizes are all different -- shoes, shirts, jackets, pants -- it's all different (I say that like the sizes shouldn't be different). And then of course there is the issue of our size. We are big guys. Most of these stores here are not going to have our size. So why bother going in? It's all kind of distressing for someone who likes to shop as much as myself. But remember what I said a few entries ago about stretching myself, going out of my comfort zone? Well I definitely am doing that.

Taking a break after our tour of Lucca

Lucca is a medium-sized walled town in Tuscany. Based on my experience today, I would say that it specializes in churches. Lots of churches. And our guide spoke in a monotone voice with short ... bursts ... of English ... plus ... he wanted ... to tell us ... everything ... about everything.  I like to fancy myself a good tour participant (on time, listening, following directions, etc.) but even I was searching for the "mute" button on my headset.

Church number three? Or was it four?

Later we had lunch in a local farmhouse-type restaurant and that was followed by a tour of a villa. See photos below.

Villa in Tuscany we visited after lunch

"Back yard" of villa