A Perfect Vacation — Part 2

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Last week we began this article telling how we decided to take a fall vacation in Europe. We felt October offered the best weather in the cities and countries to be visited and many of the tourists would have returned home. This was the case. We departed early October arriving in Rome where we did some sightseeing in this important city for history and culture. Our plan was to also take a three-week cruise on Holland America Lines’ lovely Noordam covering the Greek Islands, Turkey, Croatia as well as several stops in Italy, Sicily, principal Mediterranean ports and Tunis in North Africa.

In the first segment of this article we got as far as Croatia and some of the Greek Islands. Today we will pick up the itinerary at Kusadasi, Turkey.

Kusadasi is one of Turkey’s main holiday resorts and 30 miles away from it is one of the region’s brightest gems, Ephesus, a trading port and religious center. To the south, three other ancient cities: Miletus, Priene and Didyma are equally alluring and showcase life of more than 2,000 years ago.

One of the reasons we chose this cruise was because it included a stop at Kusadasi allowing us to visit the ancient city of Ephesus. We spent half a day wandering about the old streets viewing the ruins that date back to biblical times and before. Some of the ruins have been partially restored. It is quite large and one of the interesting facts is that many of the homes had running hot water, heating and enclosed bathrooms.

The large amphitheatre that sat 25,000 people in its time is being restored. The library is quite restored and demonstrates how advanced the architecture was for the period. Great art was housed here and some can be viewed in a nearby museum along with large statuary and scrolls of the period. The main city was about three quarters of a mile long. A visit here is unforgettable!

That night after dinner the Noordam presented a lavish Las Vegas show, which was enjoyed by all. All the entertainment on the ship was extremely good throughout the three weeks on board.

Early the next morning, our ship docked in Piraeus, Greece, the seaport for Athens, which is seven miles away. Athens is now home to four and a half million inhabitants with traffic to match. Like Rome, Athens is a bustling city of commerce and history dating back 400 years before Christ.

The Acropolis, perched high on a hill above the city is known the world over.

We chose a panoramic tour of the city and area and were able to leave the coach a couple times for various sights. Athens hosted the Olympics again in 2004 and several new structures were constructed for use at these events.

We also walked through some of the old section of the city, which houses many restaurants, taverns and shops and was most interesting. Traffic moves slowly here, but it gives one a chance to really see the city.

Our next port of call was Messina, Sicily, Italy. Sicily claims a population of over six million people. We toured Messina, Taormina and Catania. A tour here revealed many homes and villas tucked into the hills and mountains. You can hardly tell where one city begins and ends. Sicily is mountains. The seacoast is most beautiful, with many small hotels perched on the cliffs overlooking the sea. The most famous mountain here is Mount Etna, a volcano that never sleeps, spewing smoke over the area from its top. We drove up the volcano to where the last lava flow stopped. Interesting to note that many fine homes surround the area.

Sicily is also a vacation spot for Italians and other Europeans because the weather is mild year around.

The Noordam returned to the port of Rome (Civitavecchia) to allow some passengers to disembark and return home and others to begin a new cruise. We were on for two back to back cruises. This day for us was most interesting because we arranged for a car and driver to take us to the countryside for sightseeing and lunch.

We toured an ancient Etruscan burial sight dating back some 3,700 years. Also, we toured two castles, which until this visit I had never heard of, and had lunch near one of them in a small village. The entire day was a total pleasure and no tourists.

Returning to the Noordam, we set sail at 5 p.m. headed for the port of Livorno, which serves the city of Florence. I had visited here many years ago and one forgets exactly how many great art treasures are located in this historic city of over a million people. We toured the entire area and among the sights we saw Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of David. I had forgotten how tall it is — more than 30 feet of marble. There are also two copies located at different sites in the city. Here, there are churches to visit and admire as well as plazas with fountains and interesting shops surrounding. So much art is available here it almost makes your head swim to take it all in within a day.

We also visited a church where both Michelangelo and Galileo are entombed. Marble columns and structures are everywhere. What a world art treasure Florence is. We enjoyed a pizza lunch at a very fine restaurant. It’s better in Italy!

Nearby is the city of Pisa where we visited the famous leaning tower. I didn’t walk up the eight flights of stairs to the top. It remains astounding how it can continue standing with such a pronounced lean.

Back now to our home on Holland America Lines Noordam for another night of fine dining, a good show, sleep and pulling into the port of Monaco, Monte Carlo on the French Riviera the next morning. This was my first visit here and one I had wanted to see for some time now.

It occupies a little less than two square miles of land tucked into the mountains in the background. Located between Italy and France it is truly an international city. It has been a principality for the Grimaldis since 1297. It consists mostly of high-rise office and apartment buildings plus the famous palace and grounds. And let’s not forget the famous casino featured in so many movies. We walked by and saw several well-dressed people enter. No jeans, cowboy boots and hats here, friends. This is class with a capital C.

We did take an afternoon tour here, which drove along the high road headed to France and the city of Nice. We viewed the many fine villas perched on the hillsides overlooking the sea and the several villages located between Monte Carlo and Nice. Norma and I had lunch on the roof of the aquarium, which overlooks the city and sea. The palace of Monaco is next door and was interesting to walk by. This is one of the leading playgrounds of the rich and famous.

Another night’s sail on the Noordam and we reached a city I have wanted to visit for many years, Barcelona, Spain. I had been to Madrid some years ago and many travelers had told me about Barcelona being perhaps the best of Spain.

Our ship was docked here the most of two days, which allowed time to visit not only this spectacular city, but also the countryside. Barcelona is also as sophisticated as Madrid, with wide streets, beautiful trees lining the main avenues, upscale shops, interesting architecture including those of the famed Gaudi. Now I know where the term “gaudy” originated… if it’s overdone, we say it’s gaudy. Well, the architect Gaudi designed the most outrages apartment buildings and a large church in Barcelona. Many people like his designs, but I think they are gaudy! His structures are often photographed by the tourists and enjoyed by many.

The climate in Barcelona is mild year around and it seems clean and well kept. I wouldn’t mind returning here for another longer visit some time.

It is one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean. I understand there are more than 600 cruise ship visits here each year.

One of the major islands belonging to Spain is Palma de Mallorca in the western Mediterranean. It is large and an important vacation spot in the winter for northern Europeans because of its mild climate. I was frankly surprised at how large it is and the large city of Palma, which is on the coast and home to over a million people now.

The countryside here is hilly and mountainous. We toured an area at an elevation above 3,500 feet where we visited a small village and monastery. Nearby is where the composer/pianist Fredrick Chopin visited for three months and composed 19 sonatas.

Returning to the city of Palma, we drove through miles of grape vineyards, olive trees and grazing sheep.

Next, we visited the North African city of Tunis. I will continue this next week describing more ports of call. We’ll visit then.

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