Cruising Europe: Six Countries in Twelve Nights

Jul 3rd – All Channels Lead to Venice

06:12 a.m., somewhere between Kyiv and Frankfurt 

Don’t you just love early flights? Especially those that require waking up at 3:30 (not even the break of dawn, mind you), after a sleepless semi-night of getting pestered by possibly the only mosquito in the neighbourhood. Honestly, I waved the proverbial white flag somewhere around 2 a.m. and slid off my blanket, exposing myself to the carnivorous monster: I figured, as soon as it would get its fill of my anaemic blood, it would hide away somewhere, hiccuping and sated. As it turns out, either my blood is too bland for even disease-carrying insects to feast on, or annoying me is much more fun than food (I am inclined towards the latter, given my previous social experiences), I ended up with about a quarter of an hour of sleep and bags under my eyes so deep, I really don’t know why we bothered with suitcases for this trip in the first place.

I managed about an hour on this flight to Frankfurt, the sweet sounds of Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s crooning into my ear from my 120GB iPod Classic (remember those? those were the good ones that didn’t die on you after two hours of usage) lulling me into a semi-dormant state stretched across two joint seats in row 10 (thankfully, mom and I got three for the two of us). I was rudely awoken by the putrid smell of airplane food heating up, and the consequential flutter of plastic wrappers all around me. Honestly, 5 a.m. and people are thinking about food? Well, that’s nothing, I suppose. While mom and I waited for our boarding at the Boryspil business lounge (thank God for priority passes), five very middle aged men, too happy for it to have been four in the morning, trudged in noisily and demanded five whiskies from the surprisingly cheery bartender.

So far, there have been no adventures. I mean, the trip just started and the worst is yet to come – a colon-clenchingly short layover in Frankfurt Airport, the one airport to rule them all, in terms of architectural nightmarishness and overall inefficiency. Thanks to Ukraine still being a third- (fourth-?) world country, we are forced to take the long underground tunnel from gates B to A and go through passport control one time too many. Needless to say, not fun, when one’s layover is only 45 minutes (technically, fifteen, as the boarding is usually announced half an hour prior to take off). I guess the real challenge here as well is getting to Venice with our luggage following dutifully behind, as having it chase us around ports of call for the next 12 days would be… undesirable. 

 

8:27 a.m., Frankfurt airport tarmac 

Well, apparently I look like a hardened criminal. At least, that is the only explanation I can give to the fact that I was stopped at the security control when rushing through my (very short, remember?) layover. The pleasant German security officer considered it necessary to check my camera, of all things, for explosives. Yeah. A random check done randomly at random, when we had five minutes left until boarding and a long underground tunnel to traverse. Needless to say, they failed to discover anything incendiary about my camera (except for maybe my hot photos on the memory card) and let us, the two extremely irritated and tire Ukrainian women, go.

If there is a gateway to hell on this planet, it is Frankfurt airport, complete with the tunnel of doom (with no light at the end), and a multitude of over-relaxed holiday makers and hardcore tourists crowding every single passage. 

Thankfully, the boarding was a little late, so we were perfectly on time to get on our incredibly packed flight to Venice. The one fun thing before takeoff was the cabin attendant’s speech, wherein she twice, first in German, and then in English, assured us that we were very welcome on our flight to Prague. My mom and I exchanged alarmed glances, but the vast majority of the passengers were either so drugged up on sleeping medication, or simply uncaring of where exactly it was they were going on holiday, that the blunder went largely ignored. Several seconds later the cabin attendant retracted her announcement, laughing as she went. I guess I am not the only one who did not get enough sleep today. That’s just my fate for the day — the flight is packed with children of various ages and ethnicities, all of which, however, have one thing in common: noise. Let’s just hope this flight is as brief as it promises to be.

 

6:56 p.m., Celebrity Silhouette Stateroom 7158

A001
Airport boat service gangway

What a day. After arriving at the Marco Polo airport in Venice, we spent some time trying to figure out where the luggage belt is (it was the one most crowded with American tourists), and then had to trudge under searing sunlight to the embarkation point for the Alilaguna water bus, which is apparently the way locals travel, according to online tour guides (NOT). Again, searing sun, long line of American tourists… Notice the pattern there? When the water bus finally arrived, Mom and I engaged our chromosomic Soviet audacity and cut the line (not really, it wasn’t our fault they couldn’t figure out where the queue began and ended). A nice sunglasses-bearing Italian man helped us and our enormous suitcase onto the boat, wherein we spent two hours circling around the entire city of Venice before arriving at the pier. In reality, the port and the Marco Polo Airport are within arm’s reach of each other – we could literally see our ship from the embarkation deck at the airport, however the Alilaguna blue line does not work the way normal human beings would assume it did, and took us on a scenic ride around all of Venice. Not that I’m complaining. To be honest, seeing as we booked a walking tour of Venice with the cruise ship, I was afraid I would not see the actual channels that Venice is so famous for. Well, no fear. I go two hours’ worth. And I enjoyed every second, despite the fact that a very noisy Wisconsin family was sitting behind us and butchering every Italian name of every street, bridge and channel with their horrendous pronunciation. Oh well. We can’t all be polyglots, I suppose. 

A002
Speed checkers in Venice… On the water.

Venice is beautiful. My mom had scared me with horror stories of how smelly it was but I found it nothing other than very pleasant (and very touristic). The abundance of yachts, sailing boats and, of course, gondolas, compliment the backdrop of old ridden-down Italian houses and ancient churches (actually, mosques-turned-churches, in most cases). I loved the raw, authentic taste of it (however touristicized it is at the moment). A003

The embarkation to the ship itself was a bit of a hassle – first we had to get the luggage tags, which was a mess, and then the SeaPass cards (basically, our ID/cashless money for the entire trip), and then go through security… 

But we’re finally here. After a nap and delicious lunch of tuna salad (I’ve been craving tuna for weeks now, even though I hate it, for no particular reason), we are unpacked, showered and suntanned. 

A006
The Celebrity Silhouette

The ship is huge, very luxurious – much more premium than my previous two experiences with Royal Caribbean: they offer small pleasant amenities like toiletries, bathrobes, extra towels, things that are designed to make your vacation a tad more bearable, ha-ha. The amount of made-up teenaged girls in the pool was annoying, of course, however it seems much more international that my previous cruises as well: the American holidaymakers are nicely diluted with Australians, Brits, some very pale and tall Scandinavians and even Central Americans. We even spotted a couple of Russians (they were stealing food from the buffet: two pears and a plateful of lemon slices, don’t ask me why, I don’t know) and decided to dodge the bullet by switching to English in front of them, just in case. A007

The only irritating thing about the ship is the absolutely insane air conditioning everywhere. Honestly, people, if you wanted to go to the Arctic, you should not have booked a cruise around the Mediterranean. A008

Now it’s off to dinner at the Grand Cuvée, I suppose. Overall, wonderful, my dears, quite wonderful. 

 

Jul 4th – Mute Gondoliers and Sewage Systems 

15:21, aboard the Celebrity Silhouette, the sun deck 

I forgot how time-consuming having the vacation of your life is. And also how exhausting it can be. After dinner at the main dining room yesterday, the Grand Cuvée, I was so tired, not having slept for two days, that I knocked back a sleeping pill and descended (more like, spiralled into) the embrace of Morpheus without even bothering to write up the absolutely amazing dining experience we had. Hence, I will try to recollect as much as possible.

You see, dining onboard a cruise ship is part of why people go on cruises in the first place. It is an experience in itself, as it offers a sliver of luxury that most of us are missing in our everyday lives. The main dining room is not your usual all-inclusive fare, complete with standing around in lines with platefuls of bite-sized desserts and fighting over the last set of utensils with your fellow holiday makers. You can get that in the buffet, dubbed the Oceanview Café, if you decide to go for the casual dining option. 

A009
Catch of the day at the Grand Cuvée

The main dining room, however, is designed to make us plebs feel like we are first-class passengers on the Titanic, just a slight bit more fortunate in terms of, you know, survival. Those who have assigned seating get a waiter and assistant waiter for the entire cruise to entertain them with anecdotes and menu choices of the evening. As we booked the Select Dining option, we don’t have a fixed seating arrangement, so our waiters will change throughout the cruise, depending on the table we are assigned. As you are seated, you receive the menu together with a glass of iced water, and a friendly smile courtesy of your attending waiter. They present the choices to you, highlighting the best orders to make for your appetisers, soup or salad, entree and dessert. Free bread service with a selection of butters and hummus, and a casual (but very persistent) offer to order wine (for an extra fee) from the ship’s cellar accompany your meal. 

The food itself is, well, a real dinner, not mac and cheese, as you might imagine. To give you an idea, I will list what I had yesterday (granted, not the full version of the name, as those are impossible to remember): a Thai beef spring roll with rice noodles for the appetiser; an arugula, carrot and sunflower seed salad with white balsamic dressing; an oven-roasted spicy chicken with baked vegetables and rice with black beans; and a chocolate-cherry trifle for dessert. Now, do you see? The emphasis here is, though we herd you like cattle during breakfast and on tours, here we show you that we care. Also, please buy some premium wine.

Needless to say, we were stuffed and tired, so after a swift walk to snag an apple from the Oceanview Café, we slammed face-down into our pillows and kissed reality goodbye.

 

…only to wake up to an automatic message telling us to haul our behinds out of bed and to our first excursion of the trip: the Secret Venice Walking Tour. We got tendered to the pier, accompanied by ten other fellow tourists and the escort Emmanuella, bearing silly little stickers with the number four to place where everyone could see to designate us as earnest tourists. 

A011We arrived at the Venice pier close to the railway station to meet our guide, Frederica, a short brown-haired Italian woman, who looked like Jamie Lee Curtis and spoke very good English. The pier was located next to the most modern bridge in Venice as of today, which caused a lot of controversy at the time of its construction, as it was considered useless, being yet another bridge over the Grand Canal, as well as inconvenient because of the glass it was made of and the inconvenient shape of the steps, designed by Santiago Calatrava. 

The railway service runs over the long bridge connecting the island of Venice to the mainland, where the majority of those working in Venice live, as the cost of living in the city itself is pretty darn steep. Frederica told us that rent averaged at around 1300 Euros per month with the average net salary being 1200, and buying an apartment in one of the houses would set one back about a million, give or take. Needless to say, only the rich can afford the maintenance, as the houses, grounded in silt and built on foundations of limestone imported from Croatia and petrified wood by the first settlers, tend to sink and rot and have all sorts of water-related issues. The city of Venice is constructed on 118 islets, all man-made by the early refugees that came after the fall of the Roman Empire under Barbarian rule. As the houses sink on average 4 centimetres each century, there are metal rods going through most of them to stabilise the walls and essentially keep them from falling apart. A012

Therefore the majority of ‘Venetians,’ most of who work in the tourism business (the only business in this once-great city, which played the role of a stock exchange and one of the biggest ports in the Adriatic), commute to the island with a population of 56 thousand via the railway bridge built over the sea averaging ninety centimetres in depth, where the local fishermen stand belly-deep each morning to collect clams. 

A typically Venetian thing is the carnival, and we were surprised to learn (more like, surprised to realise that we never made the connection) that the Italian word carnevale literally means farewell to meat, and the celebration used to mark the last day before Lent when one could eat meat. 

The Venetian masks, another typical association with the city, have little to do with the carnival at all. Frederica told us there are really only two types of authentic Venetian masks: the plague doctor and the so-called Casanova mask. The doctor mask is the one with the long nose, which was used as a means of protection during the Black Plague. The doctor would stuff the long beak with herbs to filter the air, in order to presumably avoid getting sick when visiting their patients. The Casanova mask, however, is nothing fancy, a plain white mask with a small flap over the mouth that would alter one’s voice, allowing them to stay incognito. These were used back in the olden days, when Venice was the Las Vegas of its time, according to Frederica, and people would come here to gamble and sleep around. The mask would be part of their disguise, complete with a three-point hat and a cape. Such get-ups would actually be required for wear in casinos to maintain anonymity. 

A015The gondola, another Venetian icon, is not as simple as it looks either. Constructed to be slightly bigger on the left side, so that the gondolier is able steer without tipping over, there are only a little over four hundred gondolas in the city. To become a gondolier, one has to attend classes for 1,5 years to learn rowing, Italian history, culture and other tourism-related things. The gondolas are all black, due to an old piece of legislation to avoid ‘showing off excessive luxury,’ and are said to be halfway between a cradle and a coffin. Frederica said the average price for a gondola ride is 80 Euros, however with this sum of money the gondoliers are not required to sing and give you the whole romantic entourage. Give them 120 and they might. 

Many Venetian houses feature small wooden structures on their roofs that serve as gardens and patios, called altanas (funny, the Ukrainian for a small sun-house is altanka), which are a status symbol of sorts. The refugees had to bring their soil with them when they moved to the city, but there was not much space for gardens on land, therefore they put them up on their roofs. The altanas were also used by the victims of beauty standards at the time, as they would put horse urine on their hair and sit under the sun, in order to bleach it blonde.

A014The last notable icon of Venice is Marco Polo, the famous traveller. There are numerous streets and squares named after the Million, Polo’s nickname. That came about after his return from his twenty-year-long trip to China, when nobody would believe his stories, and he was said to be telling ‘a million lies.’

A peculiarity of Venice is that, as opposed to other Italian cities, the squares in the city are all called campos, not piazzas, save for one, the main square, Piazza di San Marco. This has to do with the fact that there was not much land to grow crops on, so every backyard would feature a small field, a campo, to grow food. I say backyard, as the front door of the house is considered to be the one facing the waterfront, not the one on land, which would have gardens and, typically, a church. The name of the church now can be easily determined by the name of the campo and vice versa. 

The campos also feature water wells, actually tanks that would fill up with fresh rain water, and helpA013 the locals quench their thirst. They also have small puddle-like holes next to them, for the pets to be able to drink.

Venice is famous as the home of Tiziano, the painter, one of the most exemplary figures in Italian after Michelangelo; though Frederica insisted that Michelangelo was just some bum from the mainland. That’s another thing about Venetians, their local pride. As Italy only became a unified state some 150 years ago, the many kingdoms and lands within it still have their local characteristics, which make them different from what we come to think of as Italy. Venice, for example, has its own local language, which has nothing to do with Italian, so much so that Frederica’s grandmother can barely understand it, let alone speak it. At home, they use Venetian, and Italian is meant to be a connection with the rest of the Italian Republic, to understand and communicate with people from, say, Rome or Lombardy. 

There is one typically Italian thing about Venice, though. Corruption. Frederica told us that the city hall is currently unoccupied, as the mayor and his entire office was recently arrested for monetary schemes that had to do with the construction of a three-dam system for the city, to prevent the regular flooding which had all the locals donning their rubber boots. A016

We finished the tour at a bar, where we got complimentary water and coffee, and while my mom was using the bathroom inside, I noticed a peculiarity that we Europeans share in relation to Americans. We stare. I mean, we don’t think we do, but we tend to linger when looking at people, we observe them more; whereas Americans find it uncomfortable to be looked at for along time for no reason. Speaking of which, one of the American women was talking to a couple from Australia saying how it took her thirty hours to get to the ship. I admire that kind of dedication to travelling. It also kind of makes one appreciate living in Europe from a completely different perspective. 

And now we are back to the ship, having just had a nap and some lunch, and about to have our safety drill before we depart the port. It’s a compulsory safety measure, even though I’m pretty sure I would be able to handle myself in case of a emergency. Hopefully I won’t have to.

 

6:20 p.m., leaving beautiful Venice, still on the Sun Deck

The muster drill was as tedious as I expected it to be, with a simple English corporate video prohibiting you from doing anything goofy during an emergency. Our muster station is inside the ships’s theatre, and it was packed with holiday makers of every sort and nationality. The way back up to the sun deck was a challenge, given the crowd that had just been let out, therefore I braved the stairs instead of taking the sweaty elevator ride.

The sail away was set to inspirational music, ranging from Time To Say Goodbye to some choral soundtrack pieces, all the while accompanied with the ubiquitous stench of hamburgers from the Mast Grill located right above our heads on deck fourteen. 

I ventured to the evening stretching class in the gym, only to find that the only people who’d shown up were three prepubescent Spanish girls, who immediately started making eyes at the blue-eyed instructor. My inner Buddha decided not to test her patience, so I opted for the weights machines before rejoining mom on the sun deck, no longer as sunny, but also no longer as packed, which is always a fantastic thing, as far as I’m concerned. Overall, the cruise is less noisy, given the fact that there are more retired British couples and fewer loud six-year-olds, though they tend to conglomerate around the poolside quite a bit, regardless.    

 

10:21 p.m., stateroom 7158, somewhere halfway across the Adriatic

As usual, dinner was impeccable. Mom and I arrived at the Grand Cuvée at about 8 p.m. and had to wait to be seated just a little, all the while enjoying friendly banter between the Brazilian maitre d’ and a couple of Colombian guests (tonight is the FIFA Championship match between the two). We got a table next to a very nice, comfortably boring British couple who were apparently with us on tour today (though we couldn’t remember them to save our lives). A018Over shrimp cocktail, mustard anchovy salad and baked trout, we enjoyed some wonderful conversation about this and that, as well as the shenanigans of Ioann, our waiter. The trout was actually not on the menu, but it was a personal recommendation of his – and it was spot on.

We decided to get dessert at the Oceanview instead, and came face-to-face with a plethora of cheeses, various cakes and fruit. 

And then we had a cigarette on the upper deck and watched the horizon slide away. Life is good.

 

Jul 5th – Bled-y Beautiful

5:07 p.m., Celebrity Silhouette Sun Deck, port of Koper, Slovenia

Well, I’ll be damned. This was one long yet wonderful day. In many respects. We arrived at the port of Koper in Slovenia, a country I had never even had the foggiest thought of visiting, at about 8 a.m.; and half an hour later, we were traipsing down the gangway on deck two, headed towards passport control (which did not happen, even though the sign cello-taped to the glass asked us to kindly present our potniaki, the Slovenian word for passport). We were to visit the Lake of Bled, together with our guide Jurij and driver Zlatko. As we drove out of the port, I paid extra attention to the signs in Slovenian, as I wanted to gauge how much I was able to understand — and most of the words were intelligible. However, I was floored with Slovenian for office — pisarina

Koper, as Jurij told us, is the capital of Istria region, and the name itself originated from the Latin name, Capris, the Head of Istria. Koper is a large commercial port, and does not offer much in terms of sightseeing, save for a couple of old fortifications, such as the Muda Gate, built in 1516, which used to be part of the old town wall. Koper used to be an island in the Adriatic bay, however it was later connected to the mainland with the help of a bridge. Jurij told us that the legend of the Island of Koper went all the way back to the Greeks — the island was said to be the shield of Athena, which she had dropped during a battle. Oh, those crazy Ancient Greeks. After the Greeks came the Byzantines, who gave Koper the name of Justinopolis

In terms of agriculture, the region specialises in more luxury foodstuffs, as the layman would put it, as the soil is incredibly rich, and the entire country of Slovenia is 70% covered with green forests. However, the recent frozen rain this winter severely damaged about ninety percent of the trees, a catastrophe for the local ecology, according to Jurij. Aside from figs and Golden apples, which get their own festivals in August and September respectively, Istria also features numerous vineyards, home to the Refosco wine, a very dark red beverage, often dubbed ‘black’ by the locals. Another characteristic food of the region has roots in Slovenia’s closeness to Italy — prosciutto. The prosciutto produced in Slovenia is ham, dried out in the northern Bora wind that comes from Siberia all the way down to Central Europe. 

Slovenia is also famous for its caves, apparently featuring the oldest touristic cave in Europe, the Cave of the Fairies, which was already open for visitation in the 17th century. The town of Postojna is also home to the Postumia cave, the longest natural cave in Europe, twenty kilometres long. It is so extensive that a train runs through it for the first half hour of the journey. The train used to be pushed manually, now it has an electrical engine, of course. Recently, the cave hit its record of one million visitors, among which were Sigmund Freud, who, of course, attributed man’s fascination with cave exploration to his obsession with penetration; as well as Jules Verne, said to have drawn inspiration for his Journey to the Centre of the Earth from the cave. 

As we proceeded down the road, I couldn’t help but notice the multitude of caravans and cars with foreign license plates. Slovenia is apparently becoming the next big destination in Central Europe, with Austrians, Germans, Baltic people and Poles coming to visit and see the Julian Alps, named so after Julius Caesar. The highest peak here is the Triglav mountain, or the three-headed mountain, 2864 meters high, and featured on the Slovenian flag. 

Another reason for such an amount of European visitors is the fact that Slovenia spent 1200 years as part of Austria-Hungary, until 1914, when it became part of Yugoslavia governed by the infamous Josip Broz Tito. The independent state of Slovenia emerged in 1991, after the death of the dictator, as is the case with many former Socialist republics. A019

The Lake of Bled took about two hours of driving to get to, but it was worth every minute. Crystal-clear, featuring traditional rowboats designed for twenty people, and an island with a church in the middle. The church contains the traditional Wishing Bell, which one must ring for good luck. The ride to the island was great, despite the fact that some people in our group were simply unable to grasp the concept of balance, and kept threatening to tilt the boat over. We didn’t go inside the church, as there was enough to see around the island without paying the extra six Euros to get in. We went up and down the steep staircase leading to the waterfront and walked all the way around the island. The scenery was just… Words cannot describe the absolute pristine state of natural peace despite the abundance of visitors. Somehow, the lake seemed to have retained its initial allure, having survived years of construction and tourism.A020

We went back to the lake embankment for some free time, and then ascended to the castle standing on one of the cliffs. Not too impressive, compared to many European castles, I must say, however the view stole our hearts yet again. Such landscapes only exist on postcards, period. 

A021The ride back seemed longer, thanks to the fact that we were starving and some people decided it was a good idea to stop on the way, even though Jurij specifically said we wouldn’t. It also started to rain, a characteristic aspect of the local climate, which also happens to have about a hundred days of fog, particularly in Ljubljana, because of its position in the valley.

But anyway, we are back on the ship, awaiting departure for our next port of call, and very much looking forward to a nice, long, relaxing evening.

 

Jul 6th – Russian Occupation

4:55 p.m., Ravenna, Italy, Celebrity Silhouette Sun Deck 

Last night ended predictably at the Grand Cuvée, with a twenty-minute wait for our meals, as it was A023the first formal night of the cruise, also known as an excuse to wear that one fancy dress that’s been hanging in your closet forever. Naturally, everyone wanted to partake in the luxury, so we had to hang around a bit and have a smoke on the upper deck, before coming back down to have dinner. It was fun to watch all the old ladies titter about, clad in their lacy dresses (probably only worn once to a friend’s funeral) and pearls; and awkward teenage boys, who had obviously been forced into their junior prom tuxes.

A024The dinner was the usual taste-fest. I opted for crispy frog legs as a starter, and discovered that they really do taste like chicken. I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference, had I not known what they were thanks to the menu. My watermelon-feta salad was also interesting, I never would have thought that watermelon would taste good with salt. And the rack of lamb with mint sauce for the entree was just… Can taste be described as beautiful

Anyway, today was yet another long day. Even longer than before, considering we had to drag ourselves out of bed and aboard the bus at 6:30 a.m., never mind that in Italy nobody would even consider waking up at this hour of the day. Nevertheless, we had to, as we were going to visit my 25th country, San Marino. Laugh all you want, it is a real country, as far as I’m concerned, even though it’s a landlocked enclave within the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna

Our guide, Cristina, was not particularly enthusiastic about her job, and read most of what she told us from a piece of paper. Thankfully, though, she provided us with little guidebooks, so at least we had a way to learn more about San Marino this way. 

We drove through Emilia-Romagna, one of the northeastern regions of Italy, with its capital based in Bologna, dubbed ‘the wise city’ for the fact that the oldest university in Europe is located here, founded back in 1088. Bologna is also famous for being the burial site of Dante Alighieri, as well as Lord Byron’s home between 1819 and 1821. The region was also visited and loved by the Russian writer Alexandr Blok and German Herman Hesse. Oscar Wilde even dedicated a poem to Ravenna, so it’s a pretty culture-heavy city, I should say. Besides that, the region is home to the famous pasta brand Barilla, as well as Lambrusco wine. 

Other famous cities in the region include Parma and Modena, known for their ham and balsamic vinegar, the latter being so sweet, you can use it as a sauce to eat with strawberries, according to Cristina, anyway. The town of Cesena is well known for being the location of the first public library in Europe, opened in 1445 by the local Lord Domenico Malatesta. 

The drive took about an hour and a half, having been slowed down by the abundance of toll roads and generally porous asphalt. We reached San Marino via a spiralling mountain road, leading all the way to the top of the hill. San Marino is known to be the world’s oldest and smallest republic, only 61 square kilometres in terms of area (although I have no idea how they measured that, given the fact that the entire republic is sprawled all across the hill, making it about as multi-layered as your average wedding cake). It is located 25 kilometres from the sea coast, 700 meters above sea level. San Marino only has 30 thousand inhabitants, with the annual average of tourists counting up to three million. 

According to the guide book, the republic was founded on September 3rd, 301 AD by a Christian stonecutter named Marino from the Croatian island of Rab, who arrived near Rimini to escape persecution by the Roman emperor Diocletian. 

It is interesting that the state retained the original Roman republican government structure, with two Captains Regent holding executive power, elected for a period of six months, who have the right of mutual veto. There’s also a Grand and General Council, formed by sixty members members of the community that are elected every five years by means of popular vote. There is another council, the Council of Twelve, which has criminal, civil and administrative functions, which is elected by the General Council. 

A026The national flag of San Marino is white-and-blue and features the coat of arms, which depicts the the towers located on the hills of San Marino, a crown, olive branches and the word libertas, emphasising the persistent independence of the state for so many years. 

We visited the Saint’s Basilica first, a beautiful church that stands where the first chapel built by Marino used to be. Though I am not a fan of religious constructions, I enjoyed the visit, as the basilica was very full of light and air, so unlike Orthodox Christian churches, that are dark and oppressive in their majority. 

After that we had three hours of free time (which is way too much in such a small country), so Mom and I went to visit one of the three towers, La Rocca, which was used as a prison until the 1970’s. It was a nightmare to get to, as the streets were very steep, and the sun was burning like hellfire, however the view it offered of the Apennines was quite breathtaking. 

We later traipsed down through the cobbled streets, spotting an abundance of arms shops, which was staggering: everything from katana swords to sound grenades, sold everywhere freely. How… peaceful of San-Marinians. 

Another surprising (and unpleasantly so) thing was the number of Russians. Not just tourists, but shopkeepers, café waiters and so forth. The Russian presence was strongly noted by the constant appearance of the word ‘sale’ in Russian in shop windows, and Russian menus in cafés and bars. I made it a point to speak Ukrainian as loudly as possible, especially when the shopkeepers would identify us as Slavic and try to usher us in, using Russian. How about no.A025

On our way back from San Marino we got to talking with a lovely couple from Oregon, Doug and Melanie, who turned out to be the un-average American travellers, as they seemed to be just as irritated as we were at the slowness of pace (the excursion description specifically noted strenuous activity, and half of the guests were so old they could barely hold in their bowel contents), and were very well-travelled and versed in European geography and history. Of course, I got compliments on my English, having had my accent identified as Midwestern. I find it flattering, really. Score for not being the stereotypical Slav unable to string two words together in a foreign language.

After rushing through lunch, mom and I found ourselves back on the sun deck, even though my shoulders do sting a bit, as they turned out to be the only part of my body I’d managed to somehow burn today. We will see about dinner, but mom and I have grandiose plans of going to the evening stretching class at the gym. Hopefully, without any irritating Spanish teenage girls this time.   

 

Jul 7th – Split-in-g Croatia 

4:31 p.m., Celebrity Silhouette Sun Deck, Split, Croatia

The stretching class yesterday was a godsend, and I never even realised before this morning. First of all, there were no annoying teenagers, as I had initially feared, and I even got mom to go with me. The instructor, Ivan from Serbia, was very good at what he did, and I never even felt the twenty five minutes go by. I woke up refreshed and well-rested (as well-rested as I could be given we had to get up at 6:45 a.m. for the day), in terms of muscle relaxation anyway. 

A033 Dinner yesterday, though… Just made me feel bad, in a way. See, I came on this cruise with the express purpose of gaining weight. So technically, letting me loose at a buffet dinner is a somewhat dangerous idea. Especially given that it was Italian night. Mom and I opted for dinner at the Oceanview insteA032ad of the fancy sit-down Grand Cuvée, and damn, did we not miss out. Besides the expected pasta and absolutely mouthwatering mozzarella cheese (actual, real mozzarella which was moist and melted in your mouth), they offered several varieties of pizza (the vegetable one was surprisingly better than the cheese pizza, as it was not my favourite Quattro Formaggi but simply an extra layer of some horrid dairy concoction they prefer to call cheese), as well as sushi and the regular French fries and fish fingers affair. As well as two types of grilled fish (which was so good I considered seconds), chicken breast, vegetables, a Mexican and Indian food station with various fares such as chicken masala and chilli con carne

A031But the real challenge to my self-control, which I failed beautifully, was dessert. Italian-themed desserts, ranging from real tiramisu (like, real real tiramisu), lemon pie, Italian turnovers with cream, to rum babas and a selection of cheeses to go on your crackers. Needless to say, I was lost. I just felt bad for all those who were looking to lose weight on this cruise because they were missing out on all the sumptuous deliciousness.

But anyway, enough with my food obsession. It’s time to tell you about Croatia, which became my 26th country. We arrived in Split very early in the morning, and the disembarkation process was a bit of a nightmare, as instead of docking at the pier, we were to be tendered to the shore in lifeboats. We had to wait an extra half hour as some people were getting on the ship before we were supposed to get out, and Croatian immigration officers didn’t seem to bother too much with coming to do their jobs on time. Plus, over a thousand people from the Silhouette booked excursions today, and the theatre was simply packed with tourists of various ages and nationalities, most of them old and having no idea what they were doing. A034

When we finally reached the shore, we were greeted by Ivana, our guide, who could accompany us to the Krka National Park, the famous Croatian waterfalls. Again, I was skeptical about the whole affair, as some of the people on our tour were so old they could barely get on the bus, let alone walk the winding wooden path across the entire natural reserve. Granted, I was wrong about them… for the most part, anyway. 

The port of Split was very busy with yachts and private boats, and I couldn’t help but notice the Blue Flag waving over the administrative building, establishing it as a port with especially high standards, something I learned last semester on my oceanography trip at university. As we left the port, Ivana gave us some info on the town of Split, saying it was the second largest town in Croatia after the capital city of Zagreb, with 56 thousand square kilometres of area. The largest ethnic minority, Ivana said, are the Serbs, at 6% of the entire population of Croatia, a mostly Roman Catholic country divided into five regions, the largest one being Dalmatia, where Split was located, with about a million inhabitants (about one-fourth of the population of the city of Kyiv, when you think about it). The area was first ruled by an Illyrian tribe of Dalmats, then Greeks, Romans, after a hundred years of war, who were so impressed by the Dalmats’ resilience that they named the region after them. Later came the Slavs, Venetians, Austrians, and the French with Napoleon. Long story short, the country became part of the socialist state of Yugoslavia, gained independence in 1990, and was finally freed in 1995, after the end of the Homeland War with the Yugoslavian militia. 

Though Croatia officially became part of the  European Union last year, their currency is still the Croatian Kuna, 7.5 of which can get you one Euro. 

As for Split, the city grew a lot in times of socialist Yugoslavia, as it became the most important ship building hub in the country, with over five thousand people working at the wharf, while now only 350 remain, mostly engaged in building private vessels. A035

Croatia is a very hilly country, with the average height ranging between 700 and 1000 meters above sea level. The country boasts three main winds, the Bora, which is used for drying ham, just like in Slovenia; the Jugo wind that comes from the south and tends to affect people so much so that in Roman times it was illegal to pass laws and judge people when the wind prevailed, as it affected the rulers’ moods and decisions. The third wind is the Mistral, an afternoon sea breeze that ‘relaxes the mainland.’

Speaking of Mistral, as we went down the road, we noticed a ubiquitous white strip following the road as it went – Ivana explained it was a gas pipeline that was being constructed all over Croatia with the promise of being finished in 2025, coming from Russia.

The Krka National Park was to be found deeper inland, down a very winding mountain road, so narrow that buses had to let each other through as they couldn’t pass together. It was declared a national park in 1985, and boasts 109 square kilometres with 25 being water area. The Krka river is not particularly long, only 72 kilometres, and has seven large waterfalls, the biggest being Skradinski Buk, 40 meters high and 250 to 400 wide, which was beautiful and crowded. We took an 800 meter long wooden path to get to it from the entrance. A036

The park has 860 plant species and subspecies, as well as amphibians, reptiles and A039endemic fish, such as the golden-mouthed trout.  The park also features a small ethnographic museum with 18th century water mills and a ‘natural washing machine,’ which was how the women did the laundry back in the day. The river has special plankton living in it which are able to form natural foam, used as a detergent. Quite inventive of them, I must say.

A037The walk around the park was great, but there were way too many people to enjoy it thoroughly. By 2:15 we were back in Split, and mom and I decided to take a walk around the old town, dating all the way back to the times of Diocletian, who built his castle here. And it blew us away. The castle walls are fully integrated into the modern town, with pizzerias and bag shops sticking out of 12th century windows. We concluded that they were much better at construction back then, too, as while the rest of the shore was boiling hot, the inside of the old town was kept pleasantly cool, thanks to the white limestone structures and paving. Score for medieval architecture.

We spent the rest of the evening frying on the sun deck – and I mean frying quite literally, as Split was horribly hot and dry, and my shoulders are already feeling the burn.

 

Jul 8th – Love Me Tender 

4:47 p.m., Celebrity Silhouette sun deck, Dubrovnik, Croatia 

Well, Dubrovnik is pretty much one of the most charming places in the universe. One of the contributing factors was that we only needed to wake up at 7:45 a.m., much later than we’ve had to the previous few days. So much later, it seemed, that I was actually starving by the time I cracked my eyes open, despite the fact that I’d pigged out on chocolate pie and peanut butter cookies the previous day.A041

We were greeted with a crowd of old people and our guide, Elvis, whose mother was a fan of the singer and also obviously a very cruel woman, as we got off the ship in the port of Dubrovnik, and proceeded to board a motorboat that would take us to the old town. Elvis turned out to be quite an excellent guide, with very good English and wonderful turns of phrase that kept the audience engaged (even though one of the Brazilian grandpas was sleeping in earnest, his forehead leaned against the tabletop). It soon started to rain, though, so the experience was a bit dampened by that, as well as by the slight roughness the sea took on because of the wind. Nevertheless, the hour-long ride to the Old Town was very pleasant, augmented by Elvis’ crooning on various facts about Croatia and the town of Dubrovnik. A042

Elvis told us the town was rapidly becoming a very popular spot among tourists, with cruise ships coming in almost every day, the record number being eight last year. The Croatian coastline boasts 1260 islands, even though only 60 are actually inhabited. There are 35 hotels in Dubrovnik, despite it being a relatively small town, as it has a very long resort season in comparison to the rest of the coast, about eight months. Though tourism is what makes the region one of the most prosperous in the country, it is also the only industry here, making it problematic to survive the rest of the year. The tourist industry here is so far-reaching that they even rent out old lighthouses located on individual islands years in advance to holiday makers looking for solitude. 

A043Between 1358 and 1808, the Republic of Dubrovnik was an independent state, in 1808 Napoleon took over, as the two armies involved in the war, the French and Russian ones, were both standing at the city gate. Essentially, the citizens had to make a choice whom to let in to protect them from the other army, and they opted for the French, who were a good choice as they never pillaged the town and even built a couple of fortifications to keep it safe.

The town of Dubrovnik boasts a uniquely close location to Montenegro, just 40 minutes by car, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, just a quarter of an hour away. Though this part of Croatia is relatively well-off, Elvis told us it is not an accurate reflection of the rest of the country. Despite being a member of the NATO and the European Union, Croatia has very few investments coming in from abroad, and most people have lifelong loans on their cars and apartments to look forward to. This stems from the natural disposition to own things, not rent them, characteristic of most Slavs, I might say, as Ukrainians and Russians are the same — we do not rent unless we can avoid it. A044

The coastline is all covered in pine trees, which are also a bit of a hassle, as they burn very well, which results in detrimental forest fires. Before, the region had been rich in oak, but then the venetians came and chopped it all down to build their city — in fact, all of old Venice stands on pillars made of Croatian oak. 

The city walls of Dubrovnik, which we stepped through when getting out of the boat at the old harbour, are 2 kilometres long, and have 3 gateways. The harbour also features the first quarantine system to be built for the ships coming in from ‘suspicious areas’, as the law stated that such vessels must spend forty days in isolation before disembarking at the port. The fortifications themselves are very impressive, and very well-preserved, so much so that they are used as a location for the filming of Game of Thrones.

We took a small stroll around the old town, which boasts the oldest pharmacy utensil collection in the world, as well as some beautifully modest baroque buildings, and then separated from the group to walk around on our own for an extra hour that the tour did not provide, sadly. We trudged through the cobbled side-streets of the old town and ascended the steps to the top for a breathtaking view of the harbour itself, before returning down and trying to figure out how to get the shuttle bus to the pier. We did not manage, and it started to rain quite a bit, so we ended up paying ten euros for a quick cab ride, delivering us to the very ship. 

I collapsed for about half an hour, as the rapid weather changes make me all sorts of delirious, and later mom and I went to the Future Cruises sales office to ask about the promotion they were having, which essentially offered extras if we booked our next Celebrity cruise while on board. Long story short, next summer we’re cruising Turkey and the Greek Isles. 

After lunch, we proceeded to the sun deck to soak up some long-awaited UV, and at six we will venture to the stretching class again. Tonight is the fancy formal dress up night, so we will actually bother with going to the Grand Cuvée instead of the usual pig-out fest that is the buffet.  

 

Jul 9th – 25 Historical Switchbacks

4:48 p.m., Celebrity Silhouette hidden alcove on the sun deck, Kotor, Montenegro 

A045Before you ask, yes, the fancy dress-up dinner was simply splendid, if not incredibly long, as first we had to wait to get seated, and then getting our orders took a longer while than expected — the restaurant was ridiculously busy, and it looked like the majority of our fellow cruisers had the same mindset we did, in terms of, I have a dress packed and god damn it, I am going to wear it at least once. We got the same waiter we had last time, Ioann, who was wonderful, a real entertainer, a client-oriented kind of guy, born for customer service, who kept claiming he was the great-grandson of Dracula and kept trying to get me to order the leg of lamb as it had ‘more fat and all the flavour is in the fat’ (insert pointed look here). Mom did go for the leg of lamb in the end, and I opted for something called the chateaubriand, which sounded more like a wine to me than a dish, but turned out to be pork loin with glazed vegetables and potatoes. For appetisers both of us had the Cajun Shrimp, which surprised me, as it was garnished with buckwheat of all things. Mom skipped the salad, and I opted for my new favourite of watermelon and feta. And, of course, we took dessert upstairs. Damn those peanut butter cookies. And cake that reminded me very much of the Prazhskiy cake produced in Ukraine. It was uncannily similar, taste-wise.

Anyway, the late dinner was absolutely fine by us, as we did not have an early rise this morning as we arrived in Kotor, a small port in Montenegro, my 27th country. We were to meet at the Silhouette Theatre at 9:10 a.m., despite the fact that the excursion was to start at 9:45, as we were getting tendered ashore. The tiny port cannot handle more than one ship being docked at the pier at a time, and today there were four big cruise ships, which, according to our guide, were worth more than all of Montenegro together. The tendering procedure was messy as usual, but we were aboard the bus at 9:35 already, and getting acquainted with Vasko, our guide, a very pleasant and young guy who made our day fly by, and Mladen, meaning ‘young’ in Montenegrin, our driver, who took us on, pardon, one hell of a ride.A046

The state of Crna Gora, or Montenegro, has less than ten percent of flat land, which makes driving quite a challenge. Montenegro has no highways, only so-called main roads, and we were to drive one of such roads on our scenic tour from Kotor to the village of Njeguši up in the mountains. The ride was quite… how should I put this? gripping, for sure, as it went up, up, up, and had 25 switchbacks, all of which were numbered to make the experience that much more adventure-like. The village lies 900 meters above sea level, and the winding road just makes one appreciate good driving that much more. I have no idea how Mladen managed to negotiate some of those turns, as sometimes Vasko’s seat would literally be hanging over the abyss. Some of the people on the bus grew hysterical by the time we reached the top, particularly the annoying woman sitting behind me who seemed to be the epitome of the definition of an American tourist in Europe, complete with narrow imperialistic outlooks and stupid questions that made me snort more than is acceptable in civilised company. 

A047Vasko tried to distract us from the frightening ride by providing background info on Montenegro to keep us occupied. On the way we saw some very shabby-looking shacks he explained to be homes of the gypsy refugees from Kosovo, which seem to be a big problem, as they only make a living one way: by collecting scrap metal and reselling it. 

Vasko told us about the fact that Montenegro had two airports, one of which we saw on the way, the other one being in Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro. The country only has 650 thousand inhabitants, two-thirds of which live around and in the capital, and 14 thousand square kilometres of area, stretching 190 kilometres from one end to the other, which would take 5 minutes to fly over on a private jet.. Before 2002, Montenegrins used the dinar as their currency, and then switched to the euro without joining the European Union, as the recession devalued the dinar to practically nothing. Montenegro gained official independence in 2006, after a referendum was held and voted in favour of separating from Serbia. Montenegrin is very close to the languages of the former socialist federative republic of Yugoslavia, as those are 95% similar to each other. They only switched to using the Latin writing instead of the Cyrillic two years ago, so a lot of the signs were still written in Cyrillic alphabet. 

As the road took us away from Boka Kotorska bay, we encountered an unpleasant surprised around the 18th switchback — a traffic jam consisting of several buses caused by a car crash on the narrow winding road. Some taxi driver overestimated himself clearly, and was the reason that about half a dozen buses were held up for about an hour on the road without a way around. Luckily for us, we arrived about ten minutes before the road was cleared, so we did not have to wait as long as some of the other poor tourists. 

A049
Nieguši pršut and cheese

A048Njeguši welcomed us with relatively colder temperatures, and a small outdoor market which sold goods handcrafted from sheep wool, and I became the lucky owner of a woollen coat, very warm and nice to touch. The village also offered us refreshments and local cheese and prosciutto, which, apparently, are the best in the region. The cheese is made from three types of milk, cow, sheep and goat, using a special technology; and the pršut takes ages to make thanks to the three stages it needs for production: salting, wherein rock salt is pushed into the meat by hand for 25 minutes; pressing, which takes about 50-60 piece of pršut under a press of wooden blocks and stones to squeeze out the blood and moisture for three weeks; and finally, the process of smoking and drying, which uses smoke produced by burning beach trees exclusively and takes from six months and up to complete, with 12 hour-cycles of smoking and drying in the wind. 

The country’s relief, dubbed by Bernard Shaw to be “a sea of stone,” does not offer many opportunities for the economy. In terms of agriculture, the barren land of cruel limestone does not allow for much growth, and the only animals that are able to survive on the local plants are goats. The country used to be pretty industrial in times of Yugoslavia, so much so that in 1982 they had a 0% unemployment rate on one day. Later Serbia annexed Montenegro, and sanctions were imposed, and that, together with the fall of Yugoslavia, caused the local currency to plummet — Vasko told us that at one point bills for 500 billion dinars were printed, and equivalent of 3 German marks, and his mother’s monthly salary as a kindergarten teacher. Overall, Vasko seemed to be quite nostalgic about Yugoslavia, talking about how most of the social commodities back then were free, and how much industry was on the rise in the country during the times of Broz Tito. It was true that seeing the old abandoned factories, such as the once-successful appliance factory with 5 thousand employees, Obod, in the town of Cetinje, was quite depressing, and I could see why the people would want to return to the state of relative prosperity. A050

In Cetinje, the old royal capital of the country, we saw the former royal palace belonging to  King Nikola and his family, which held a nice collection of weapons and decorations, a well as a collection of portraits of Nikola’s contemporaries, the rulers of other European countries, such as tsar Nikolai II of Russia. 

As we descended the slightly less terrifying road to the resort of Budva, Vasko talked to us about more peculiarities of Yugoslavia — namely, the cars they used. The most popular, locally-produced car was Yugo, which was so bad in terms of quality, Vasko’s father had 15 within a span of two decades. The second most popular was the Russian Lada, which was “like driving a tank,” according to Vasko (more like a coffin, according to me), but which consumed so much gasoline it was unable to drive for thirty kilometres without a full refill. The third, predictably, was the Czechoslovakian Škoda

A051Budva turned out to be quite different from the rest of the coast — a quite prosperous-looking seaside resort with so much construction, you basically hit the building next door when trying to open the window. The town has 95 hotels, and was named to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world in 1934. 

A little bit off the coast is the island of Sveti Stefan, which was made into an exclusive resort back in 1973 by Broz Tito himself, and which had been neglected since then before being bought by Aman Resorts. It now offers rooms for three thousand euros a night. 

A052Besides the numerous hotels, there are many rooms for rent on the coast, and a lot of advertisement for such services in Russian. Vasko seemed quite annoyed by the amount of Russians and Serbs coming in to buy real estate, the former because of the amount of money they had, and the latter because of the bitter history the two countries shared. According to his side of the story, at least, the Serbs practically annexed Montenegro without a second thought, and even took over their orthodox temples, claiming them as part of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Montenegro, in fact, has an ongoing court case in Hague to return these churches and monasteries. The more Vasko talked about Montenegro’s fight for independence and audacity of the occupants, the more I itched to introduce myself as Ukrainian and say how little people learned from history. Russia is doing practically the same thing now, some couple of decades later, and the sad state of the Montenegrin economy looked to be the chagrin future of the once-autonomous republic of Crimea.

A053We finished our tour where we started, in Kotor, with a brief walk around the old town, within the city walls. The main attraction here is the old Roman cathedral, dating back to 809, Diocletian’s times, an iconic site featured on almost every postcard of Kotor. Mom and I found our way to the port through the winding narrow streets and were soon on the tender back to the Silhouette, which was good, as the weather suddenly took a turn for the miserable and the sun disappeared, offering very unpleasant wind in its stead. We dropped off my new coat in the stateroom and went to lunch, and I’m currently bundled up in a bunch of towels trying to keep warm, and mom is dozing next to me, waiting for the evening stretching class, which we have definitely taken to. 

 

Jul 10th – Trulli, An Experience  

4:48 p.m. Celebrity Silhouette Sun Deck, Bari, Italy 

I am ready to admit I have an unhealthy addiction to the desserts at the buffet. I had three helpings of truffle cake and peanut butter cookies last night. And I wanted more, sadly my stomach was unable to accommodate it all, plus the three slices of vegetable pizza, a huge grilled chicken breast, and various garnishes including spinach, eggplant and rice I had earlier. Needless to say, by the time I got to bed, I was slightly delirious and barely able to stay on my feet.

A054Which was good, as we had the opportunity to wake up slightly later this morning upon arrival in the port of Bari, Italy. We are done with the Adriatic circuit of our cruise, so to speak, and were inching closer to the Mediterranean, our first stop being the town of Bari, located in the region of Apulia, the heel of he proverbial boot of Italy. We were welcomed to Bari by our guide Laura and driver Michele at 9:30 a.m., as well as slightly gloomy weather accompanied with a bit of light rain. We left the old town of Bari Vecchia, home to the Basilica of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of the city, whose remains are housed inside, having been stolen by Italian seafarers from the Turkish town of Mira way back when. Laura told us some interesting things about the saint, said to be the protector of children and unmarried women. He was the original Santa Claus, although he wore red and yellow instead of red and white, which he’d been forced to don back in the 1930’s thanks to Coca-Cola’s extensive advertising campaign. As to the unmarried women, girls from Bari gather inside the basilica on December 6th every year, the anniversary of Saint Nicholas’ death, and walk around the pillars surrounding his remains at 5 a.m., which is said to bring about matrimony the following year. It might be that or he fact that the boys would gather outside the basilica at the same time, but the ceremony is said to be a success. 

Bari is the most significant town in the region, as it has over five hundred inhabitants and is an important commercial port, only 200 kilometres from the border with Albania. Apulia is an agricultural region, for the most part, and boasts over 60 million olive trees. The trees are fascinating themselves as they are technically immortal, and even if one part of the trunk dies, the other goes on living, which is why these trunks tend to look bent and twisted. The olive harvest season is between October and December, and according to Laura, the difference between the virgin olive oil and the extra virgin olive oil is in the acidity — the latter is less acidic, with a maximum of 0,7% to be considered extra virgin. Such acidity is achieved by constant pressing of the olives, which have to be supplied to the presses constantly — extra virgin olive oil cannot wait longer than 24 hours. 

Apulia also has quite a lot of vineyards, covered and uncovered ones, the covered ones used to make food grapes, particularly the two famous white grape types that grow here, the uva regina and uva Italia. The uncovered grapes are used to make wines, of which there are 52 in the region, the most famous being the Primitivo — early — wine, so named because of its early harvest. 

Apulia’s name comes from the Latin language — apluvia, meaning no rain, as the region only has seven rivers. It is not completely dry, though, because of the extensive underground water network coming down from the Gargano mountain, at the foot of which the second-biggest plain in Italy after Padano is located, producing tomatoes for home-made sauces. 

We drove through the town of Turi, famous for its cherry orchards, so famous, in fact, that their cherries go into Ferrero chocolates. We passed the town to Putignano (pronounced Putin-yanno), known for its long carnival season between St. Steven’s Day (December 26th) and Mardi Gras, as well as handmade wedding dresses and cheeses, such as mozzarella, stracciatella and burrataA055

We finally approached our destination, Alberobello, about an hour and a half later. Alberobello is special because it is home to 1500 trulli houses, a special kind of stone structure with a cone roof made out of limestone with no mortar. This earned Alberobello UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1996. The trulli houses were built back in the day by the citizens of an illegal village, and due to their conical structure and the fact that they used no sticking material, they could be easily destroyed when the king’s knights came to check the area. The name trulli comes from Greek, tolos, meaning dome. 

LA057ater, the trulli would also appear around the country side, to be used as fortified farmhouses, living spaces in private villages, as shelter and storage facilities for agricultural implements. These are made differently, however, as they do use mortar to keep them together. One can also get a trullo builder to construct a house like this for them, also using mortar at this point, as the spaces between the stones are the favourite hiding spots for rats and vipers. They can be used as summer houses, as well. The trulli in Alberobello cannot be destroyed, and new ones cannot be built there, due to the rules of UNESCO, which is what makes the town special. Few people live in the trulli remaining there, but many families still keep them as mementos and sites for shops and cafés. We even got to visit a trullo-shaped church built in the early twentieth century, as the locals wanted to give their unique house design to god, according to Laura. 

The town is very touristic by itself, so much more so today, as it was market day and the streets were full of junk sellers and open-air pizzerias. However, it was incredibly charming, the A056whitewashed walls of the trulli making a nice contrast to the iron-rich red soil of Apulia. We had some free time after the church visit, so mom and I went to have a cappuccino in one of the local cafés, and then walked around the streets a little more, taking in the atmosphere of the place.

We went back to Bari through the sea frontal road built by Mussolini in the late twenties, and saw the town of Monopoli, the first Greek town to be established on the coast of Apulia. 

The weather took a sudden turn for the worse, so mom and I collapsed into bed for half an hour when we got to the ship, and I am currently freezing underneath an extra beach towel on the sun deck. There is no hint of sun to be seen. And that’s depressing.  

 

Jul 11th – Yogis and Yummies

7:28 p.m., Stateroom Number 7158, Day at Sea

A059We ended up going to the show aboard the ship last night, our first, even though we have been cruising for a week now, and I was very impressed by Nick Page, a performer from London’s West End who even played the part of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables at one point, who sang a wonderful selection of songs (really, dude’s like my playlist), including Save the Last Dance, Bring Him Home, Nessun Dorma and Time to Say Goodbye. He looked very average, with absolutely ridiculous sparkly shoes, however his voice was… well, it just made me go, what are you doing entertaining a bunch of old women on a cruise ship? Go back to West End!

Today was our first (and only, thankfully) day at sea. We are cruising between Bari and Valetta, our next destination, which takes about 440 nautical miles to get to, therefore we have to spend one day stuck in the middle of the Mediterranean in order to reach Malta on time. Needless to say, today was filled with doing absolutely nothing, even though mom and I were slightly more active than the rest of the guests, and even attended a yoga class at 8 a.m. My first yoga class, and I enjoyed it immensely, as it was led by one of our stretching trainers, Sophie, who is incredibly sweet and very comprehensive. I found that I rather like yoga, even though I was kind of weary at first because I am quite the skeptic regarding the whole ‘energy flow’ thing and chakras and what not. But from the purely physical point of view, it is a great workout, a wonderful stretch, and a fantastic way to start the day. The hour just flew by, and lo and behold it was time to have breakfast and go fry out in the sun. Which we did, so much so, that my buttocks are so burnt it is kind of uncomfortable to sit. A060

The ship crew did make more of an effort to keep us entertained today, as having two thousand odd bored holiday makers crammed aboard one ship for an entire day is kind of taxing. So they held various sales (for ridiculous prices of course), competitions, such as the poolside olympics, and a selection other shenanigans. And, of course, the people engaged in stuffing their faces constantly, as food is offered literally 24/7. We exercised self-control, however, and just spent the day sunbathing (or sunburning, in our case) and even went to the evening stretching class with Sophie again, which seemed to be more popular than usual, probably thanks to the monumental boredom of the passengers. We even had two guys today, which were particularly funny to watch, as most of the movements do have a bit of a feminine feel to them, I suppose because most of the attendees are usually women. So watching them to the child’s pose and cat stretch with their backs arched on all fours was a bit of a giggle. It was also funny to watch the resigned holidaymakers tiptoe onto the scale standing in the corner of the gym, and see their shoulders sag slightly when they saw the unforgiving numbers flash. Never mind that the scale uses kilos, and most of these guys only have a vague idea of kilo-to-pound conversion. As far as I’m concerned, nobody’s waistlines are getting out of this experience unscathed. 

 

Jul 12th – Cross My Heart

4:35 p.m., Celebrity Silhouette Sun Deck, Valetta, Malta

Greetings from one of the biggest natural harbours in the world, a country just 25 by 15 meters, where people drive on the wrong side of the street, have old red London telephone booths, colonial houses built from limestone, luxury yachts and two official languages which are completely unrelated to each other. 

A062Malta is a wealth of experiences. We set off on our Three Cities Tour and Harbour Cruise at 9:30 in the morning, 15 minutes late because many people were eager to see the island country, and the theatre, where the excursions usually assemble each morning, was a loud, multicultural mess. However, the experience was soon remedied when we met our guide, Daz, and our driver, Mario, who managed to navigate the narrow limestone streets of this undeniably unique place. 

Malta greeted us with windy yet sunny weather, as they normally have 300 sunny days a year, making it a good spot for solar panel businesses, I suppose. They only get 500 millimetres of rainfall, and thanks to the location halfway between Sicily and North Africa, Malta is a wonderful strategic spot, which has been taken advantage of for centuries. The Maltese language is Semitic, and has its root in ancient Phoenician, however it uses the Latin alphabet for writing, making it quite unique. They also have English as the second official language, and speak with a very peculiar accent somewhere halfway between posh English with rolling r’s and Caribbean grammar-negligent English. 

The country boasts 365 churches, which is a bit staggering, as you drive through the countryside and see majestic cathedrals squeezed between the fishermen’s two-story houses and small warehouses. Malta’s social life revolves around the church, according to our guide. Malta is also a welfare state, meaning that education and healthcare are free for the most part, which is good for the population of over 400 thousand, making Malta one of the most densely-populated countries in the world. Despite the big number of people, the voting turnout sometimes surpasses ninety percent, and the sole university offers 100 euro grants for students. 

Malta’s only natural reserve is limestone, which is used to build more of the houses, all of which have flat roofs to collect rainwater. The people grow their own vegetables and fruit, particularly the prickly pair, as well as grapes in private vineyards, however they can only cover one-fourth of their needs. The main industry here is tourism, of course, as well as some construction, finance and banking services and some manufacturing. 

We first visited Marsaxlock (pronounced Marsashlock), meaning harbour in the southeast, a small fishing village, which was lined with lights and festoons in preparation for the celebration of the patron saint’s day, the festaA063

The country gives an impression of one big resort hotel, with all of the buildings being almost uniform in their shape and colour. Though prices are on the rise, the minimum wage on the island is about 8 thousand euro per year, with the average being 15 thousand. A three-bedroom sea view apartment would set one back approximately 350 thousand. Nevertheless, the Maltese are not used to living in too spartan conditions, and overall own 300 thousand cars, which translates to about 2.5 cars per family. 

The fortifications all around the harbour were built by the knights of St. John, whose crest is visible virtually everywhere around the island. Malta was used as a hospital base for a long time in the 16-18th century, as the knights had had a lot of contact with the Jewish surge experts in Palestine, making it very progressive in terms of medicine. 

A064The harbour is also very convenient thanks to its deep anchorage capabilities, as well as it’s geographical position. Malta was the centrepiece of operation Husky in 1943, when the allied powers, led by Eisenhower, attacked Sicily. That year, there were almost 200 thousand allied troops in Malta, making it the largest sea invasion ever. 

Since then, Malta has become neutral, and even made the military vessels coming in unload their gunpowder before docking. 

After the small boat tour around the harbour, mom and I took the elevator, which cost one euro, to A065the city centre of Valetta, the capital city of Malta. It is a surprisingly pleasant town, with lots of shopping and historical sites of local significance, as well as charming side streets and coffee shops. We spent about two hours in Valetta, mostly taking advantage of the fast wi-fi connection in one of the cafeterias, and then strolled back to the ship. Sitting on the top deck here, I can say that the backdrop of military limestone fortifications does not clash at all with the numerous ridiculously expensive yachts lining the harbour. If anything, it gives a bit of a rustic feel to the luxury of the vessels. Speaking of which, the Silhouette is registered in Valetta as well, and she looks magnificent in her home city, a mammoth of steel and glass contrasting with the iron and stone of the ancient town. 

Malta is my 28th country, and I like the number 28 very much for no particular reason. Just like I like Malta.  

 

Jul 13th – Craters and Handbags

4:45 p.m., Celebrity Silhouette Sun Deck, Catania, Sicily 

This morning was hectic, to say the least, as mom and I decided to make a last-minute change to our excursions tomorrow, in Naples. First we opted for a ten-hour long tour of the Amalfi coast and Pompeii, however after a nice, long night of sleep, which tends to bring about intelligent thoughts, we decided that we had overestimated our abilities and changed it to a Pompeii visit only. Naturally, we had to do it first thing, so as not to miss the deadline, and had to run down to the Shore Excursions desk downstairs before heading to the Oceanview. At breakfast we sat next to a nice Canadian couple whose grandparents came from Crimea in the 1920’s and who were keen to converse about Ukraine’s ‘tough times.’ I bit my tongue, as I really wanted to applaud their grandparents for making the escape early.

A069The walk to the bus from the disembarkation line was long and hot because of the unforgiving Sicilian sun, and the bus itself was packed. I sometimes thank God for my small frame and the fact that I was raised sneaking through in the Kyiv metro, so I know my way around, you know, bodies, to get to the best seats available. Our tour guide, Romano, was too busy lounging inside the bus, hiding from the sun, and did not bother indicating that his bus was, in fact, our bus. The driver, Pippo, short for Giuseppe, seemed slightly nicer, but as the day went by, his hand gestures during conversation became more enthusiastic, and his hold on the wheel slackened. 

Catania seems like a miserable town at first, a dirty and unkempt industrial mess with 400 thousand inhabitants reliving the former glory of the days of the sulphur mining industry’s domination on the island. The factories by the shoreline have long since been converted into art museums and open spaces, standing next to a concrete statue of the Rape of Persephone by Hades, made back when the material was innovative. 

Sicily is home to mount Etna, the highest active volcano on Europe. The worst eruption happened back in 1669, when the lava entered the Catania harbour at the foot of the volcano for a kilometre. However, the locals see the volcano as more of an upside than a disadvantage. Firstly, because of the water it provides, thanks to the snow caps in winter; secondly, the fertile soil due to the minerals produced by the volcano; and thirdly, the climate. Because Etna is an isolated mountain in the middle of the sea, it offers a unique blend of Mediterranean and alpine weathers. Etna is also on UNESCO’s list of natural monuments, contributing to Italy’s holding first place in regard to the number of UNESCO world heritage sites. Out of the fifty monuments on Italy’s list, Sicily, in fact, has the most, despite its small area. Another interesting peculiarity of Sicily is the fact that it has a birch colony on the northern side, something only found in colder climates of Scandinavia and Siberia. Presumably, this is thanks to the glaciers that used to cover the side of the mountain way back when. 

A bathroom on Mount Etna...
A bathroom on Mount Etna…

Sicily is also known as the home of the mafia, a residual form of a primitive culture, according to Romano, as it holds high regard for blood ties and no attachment to civil society, being completely nepotistic. As such, the only reason Sicily has this reputation is thanks to the movie, The Godfather. 

As we ascended further up to take a look at some of Etna’s two hundred craters, we stopped at a small cafeteria to admire the view, which also offered a typical Sicilian pastry called the cannoli, which is filled with ricotta cheese. I was a bit nauseated after the journey, so I decided to skip the treat and just admired the view. I also went to the souvenir shop to get a pen, as mine ran out right before, and paid 2.5 euros for perhaps the most expensive pen I’ve ever had the chance to buy. But at least it has ETNA written on it, I suppose. I also got a bracelet made out of lava stone, a very peculiar substance that looks like black soil from a distance and charcoal up close, but which does not stain like the two and feels porous to the touch. 

A071We finally went up to see the Crateri Silvestri, and got blown away — quite literally, as it was terribly windy on the edge of the crater, so mom and I went inside instead to see the extinct crater up close. It was quite an experience, particularly thanks to the fact that the lava stone kept getting into my sandals and the wind was cold and strong, causing us to stagger around like a couple of balloons. The market sellers on top the crater were not bothered by the wind at all, and continued selling their pistachios and honey to freezing travellers.A072

Romano actually told us we were lucky with the weather, as the volcano tends to create unstable conditions, and even it being mid-July, the difference in temperature between the shore and the mountain was at least ten degrees. And we didn’t even go all the way up, having stayed at a modest two thousand meters. 

On our way to our next stop, we were forced to take an alternative route, as Romano put it, as part of the road was closed off for some biking competition. Alternative doesn’t even begin to cover it, I felt right back at home in Ukraine with the lovely bumps and badly-patched holes that littered the entire course of our 1.5-hour journey. So much for European roads. 

A074We finally crossed from the province of Catania to Messina, another one of the nine provinces Sicily is divided into. The village of Taormina we were headed for lies at a height of 2,5 kilometres and is home to a Greek theatre established some three hundred years before Christ, as well as an ancient Main Street dating back to the 2-3rd centuries AD. We left the bus down at the parking lot and took a seven-story elevator up to the village, which did not look centuries old at all, housing many cafeterias and shops, as well as charming artisanal torrone and cannoli makers. Though the old cathedral was lovely, and the Greek theatre seemed intriguing, my mom and I left the village with a new bag and a pair of shoes. Philistines, the two of us. A076

And now it’s back aboard the Silhouette, awaiting our promised early departure at 5 p.m., as well as a Pilates class with Ivan, our Serbian stretching coach, who is very good at what he does and who is incredibly charming despite the fact that he has a bunch of inflexible cows to work with.  

 

Later that day…

A079Pilates with Ivan turned out to be Pilates with Sophie, who was very nice and patient with us too, however that did nothing to remedy the fact that we went for the class without actually knowing what Pilates was. If you don’t know what it is either, the brief explanation is torture. It is forty minutes of never-ending abs exercises which kill you. We barely managed to crawl out of the class, as our stomachs were hurting from… well, everything. 

 

Jul 14th — Pomp in Pompeii

4:41 p.m., Celebrity Silhouette Sun Deck, Naples, Italy 

A bittersweet welcome from our final port of call before disembarkation in Rome was marked by overcast weather and the promise of a windy, miserable day. Suddenly, though, the weather decided to bit us farewell in a more benevolent way and while we were on the way to Pompeii with our guide Bruno and driver Luigi, it took a turn for the sunny. Bruno, who narrated our thirty-minute drive to the ancient town of Pompeii, was a lot like his mother town, Naples. With a half-lost feeling of previous grandeur, he was a well-dressed yet somehow crinkled and crumpled sort of man, who immediately birthed the desire to wash him thoroughly and cut his hair. 

Bruno spoke fondly of Naples, however, and the depressing landscape with barren warehouses and old apartment blocks boasting toothless window shutters suddenly seemed less morose with the fantasy of the five royal palaces and seven castles that Bruno assured us Naples had to offer. The city’s historical past seems less sordid than its post-industrial present. Founded back in the seven hundreds before Christ, Naples was rumoured to be the place where Ulysses found his challenge in the form of the sirens. So much so, that the city long held the name of the siren who committed suicide, Partenope. 

Settled at the foot of mount Vesuvius, once two thousand, and now only 1277 meters high, the city of Naples used to be the capital of southern Italy, and the biggest city in terms of population. After the unification of 1861, Italian emigration from the region increased due to civil war, and now the city holds third place. Naples bases its economy on agriculture, fishing, and tourism. The latter depends a lot on mount Vesuvius, as it attracts almost one million tourists a year, vying to visit the buried towns of Herculaneum (the only one actually buried under lava, the other two suffered from ash and stone), Pompeii and Scabia. The volcano is a bit of a double-edged sword, however, as it is still active and quite dangerous, as testified by the recent eruption of 1944 which erased the town of San Sebastiano. Despite that, people continue to visit the volcano, taking a coach up to mark one-thousand, and then hiking the rest of the way. A lot of people, about seven hundred thousand, live in the so-called red zone, which only offers two roads for escaping a potential eruption. Apparently the citizens are so attached to their lands, that the town of Torre del Greco, for example, has been destroyed and rebuilt five times. A081

We arrived in Pompeii and were immediately whisked off into a tourist trap — the cameo and coral factory. They did a brief demonstration on how cameos are etched out of seashells, and then proceeded to push us to buy their goods. Fortunately, we only had about five minutes there. Unfortunately, my mother is a big fan of cameos. We escaped relatively unscathed, sixty euros poorer and with a new pair of cameo earrings. Some in our group, I noted, were not as lucky, judging from the triumph on the women’s faces and the look of sorrow on the faces of their husbands. 

Alter that little detour, we proceeded to the town of Pompeii itself, and I have to say I was predisposed to not liking it, as many people have told me it was boring. Erm, excuse me, were you dropped on your heads as children? Pompeii might be one of the most fascinating cites on the face of he earth today. The eruption on August 24-27th, 79 AD caused the entire town to be buried underneath a rain of ash and stone, suffocating the entire population. It was discovered in the sixteenth century by Dominico Fontana, the architect behind the royal palace in Naples. The excavations began in 1748 and are still going on until today, as only three-fourths of the site have been unearthed. 

A080We walked down the ancient streets, decorated with white marble to presumably provide nighttime illumination by reflecting moonlight off the pavement. The big street at the beginning of the tour that stretches between the port and the forum, the main square, has peculiar stepping stones right in the middle, which were a necessity at the time, as all the, shall we say, byproducts of life were thrown into the streets in Ancient Rome, which would make the streets incredibly dirty and smelly. 

We took a look at the temple of Apollo, where a copy of his bust is settled between marble pillars, all the while Bruno kept inciting our imaginations with tales of how the eruptions must have happened. The people of Pompeii had no idea what was happening, as the previous eruption happened eight centuries before, so when the sky went pitch-black with ash and stones were spat out from the crater on a distance of up to thirty kilometres, the poor Pompeiians were confused and scared and, consequentially, dead. Poor Pompeiians, really, just seventeen years before, in 62 AD, they suffered a major earthquake which destroyed a lot of the city, later to be rebuilt by Romans using bricks, a new technique at the time. A082

The city is quite unique, as the arena of Pompeii, where the gladiator battles were held, is considered to be the oldest stone arena in the Roman world, even 160 years older than the Colosseum. The famous gladiator Spartacus of Capua had his headquarters at the foot of mount Vesuvius. 

The suffering the people suffered during the eruption is evidenced by the plaster casts that have been made by directly pouring liquid plaster over the bones of the victims, forever frozen in their contorted anguished poses, trying to flee, cover their mouths, save themselves from the unknown. Two thousands bodies have been found in Pompeii, some citizens, some slaves with belts on stating their owners’ name. 

The Pompeiians had had quite a good life. There were seven spas or public baths in the town, divided into men’s and women’s sections, some even having private areas for the rich. The price of admission into a public bath was equivalent to that of a loaf of bread. The baths had several rooms, the antechamber, where they divested themselves of clothing and waited to get in, the tepidarium, where they acclimatised to the temperature of the baths, the calidarium, a steam room with double floors and walls which had steam pumped in between from giant ovens, and the frigidarium, the cold room into which only men were allowed entry. The calidarium also held a huge alabaster tub with the names of rich citizens and the amount of money they spent on the baths.

A083Next we saw the termopolium, something akin to the ancient McDonald’s, of which 89 were found in Pompeii, a fast-food place for the lazy Romans who loved to eat nevertheless. They served various foods there, including the ancient version of pizza with no tomatoes, but garlic, olive oil and anchovies, as well as beer, wine, and even served as gaming rooms for dice and cards enthusiasts. 

Not far from it was the House of the Faun, 2700 square meters big, the most spacious house in Pompeii. The front door has have, or welcome written underneath, and the home boasts a statue of Faunus, the god of the forest, in the living room. The house is exemplary of how wealthy Roman citizens lived the thirty-to-forty years of their lifespan, indulging in god worship, parties, and a lot of food — so much so that they had special rooms where they would vomit up everything they ate to make room for more. Ancient Romans, the original bulimics. Despite this slightly gross and anti-sanitary peculiarity, the Romans were more or less versed in hygiene, as they had running water that used actual pipes. However, they kind of screwed up there too, as the pipes were made of lead. Guess that explains the short lifespan. 

The house also feature a small shrine to the ancestors. Bruno explained that the dead were very important in roman culture, so much so that they would wear plaster masks of the deceased during the funeral procession. The Romans had both cremation and burial, however all the cemeteries were placed beyond city walls. 

Next we saw a Roman bakery, complete with grindstones that were used to make flour using slave labor or donkeys, which would pull the grindstones around. The donkeys were discovered in Herculaneum, in fact, as a skeleton of the donkey still tied to the grinder was found among the remains of an ancient bakery. 

But man cannot survive on bread alone, apparently, and next we proceeded to visit the lupanarium, the ancient equivalent of a brothel. Pompeii was quite rich in fleshly pleasures, it would seem, as twenty-five such places have been discovered, clearly legal and tax paying businesses. The tax was the cost of one performance, and the girls had to share their income with the owner, and were only allowed to keep about twenty percent of their price. The lupanarium featured pictures on the walls of various interesting things one could ask for in the lupanarium, as some prostitutes spoke no Latin, so they used this kind of menu to point out exactly what they wanted to avoid confusion. The lupanarium we visited also provided accommodation, and the guests of the hotel were given preference when ordering at the lupanarium — they could avoid the queue. A084

We continued on to more cultured pleasures, as we saw the bigger one of the two theatres in Pompeii, which was able to seat five thousand on its marble terraces under canopies operated by pulley mechanisms. The smaller one, the Odeon, only housed a thousand, but had great acoustics for public speakers and poets to take advantage of. The theatres had three orders of seats, the best ones being the front row next to the stage, which were given to the wealthy. See, the wealthy and the politicians in Ancient Rome were not the shameless stealing snakes we are used to in our day and age, they actually used their own money to stage performances for the citizens. Even though it was before elections, and was a kind of propaganda, they were still much better than what we have now. If not for the Middle Ages, I feel like we could have benefited a lot from how things worked in Rome. 

A085We ended the tour soon after, and returned to Naples to get off the bus, bid Bruno farewell, and set off for a small stroll along the main square, had an espresso at a local cafeteria, staffed by a constantly smoking cashier, and even tried to go shopping before failing miserably and returning back to the ship. However, we soon remedied the no-shopping thing by purchasing the cruise ship cook book filled with the delicious recipes we’ve tried during our trip. Ah… I just hope I’m not too lazy to actually try them out. 

   

Jul 16th – Roman Holiday

2:57, Hotel Contillia, Rome, Italy

Well, as you can see we are back to on-land accommodations. As sad as it is, our cruise is over, but that doesn’t mean that the holiday has to be. After docking at our final port, Civitavecchia, in Lazzio, mom and I decided to spend two more days in the capital. 

The disembarkation process was a bit of a mess – and an early mess it was, as we had to wake up at 6 a.m. in order to have breakfast before our final Shore Excursion with the consecutive drop-off at the Ostiense train station in Rome. Mom was raring to see the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel, and since Civitavecchia is too far from Rome to take a cab anyway, we decided to book a final tour with Celebrity. The morning was hectic, as the breakfast room was bustling with activity – all the guests were politely asked to leave their cabins by 8 a.m., so that they could ready the ship for the next cruise. All of our luggage was already taken ashore – they had us put our bags with tags on outside the staterooms by 11 p.m. the previous night. 

We waited to be called out at the Celebrity Central, the smaller theatre space the ship has to offer (which we never visited during the entire time of the cruise), and then the Shore Excursion girls led us outside to get our luggage from a giant tent they set up right outside the gangway. It turned out that all of our tour got luggage tags numbered 15 and 16, but for some reason we got sent number 18 instead, so we had to look for our suitcases in a totally different part of the tent. Nevertheless, we finally got to the bus, where the incredibly (disgustingly) sweet Massimo was waiting for us to get us to Rome and, eventually, the Vatican. I have to say here and now that I am definitely not a fan of the Vatican as an institution – I consider it too detached from the actual mission of the Church, faith and guidance to the people. What scandalises me even more is the fact that one has to pay to get into St. Peter’s Basilica and other places – shouldn’t all of that be shared with the laymen? But anyway, it is what it is, and my mother wanted to see it, so who was I to contradict? The Vatican Museums promised to be interesting, the biggest museums in the world, with thirty thousand visitors every day. St. Peter’s Basilica, which I’ve already been in twice in my life, is the biggest church in the world, able to accommodate (well, cramp together) 67 thousand people. To compare, Massimo told us the population of the town of Civitavecchia is 65 thousand. 

Which is why he emphasised time and time again how important it was that we all stuck together. He gave us little cards with phone numbers we could call in case we got lost, followed with the words: “If you get lost, call the numbers. I don’t want you to start praying. That is not practical.” I was slowly falling in deep, deep sympathy with the guy – with his sweet disposition, incredibly effeminate gestures and impeccable (like all Italian men) fashion sense, as well as typical Italian-accented English with all the flamboyant inflections the language has to offer, he was a dream come true. On the way he provided us with the customary food of the region talk, telling us that the wine of Lazzio was Est, est, est, a white sparkling wine; and that for food in Rome, we should do as Romans do, meaning not give into the “great temptation” to have a ten-Euro cup of coffee in Piazza Navona and instead head for the side streets for high quality and affordable prices. Mom and I asked him about shopping, and he told us that “there are two kinds of shopping in Rome: regular shopping and crazy shopping.” He followed the words with an exaggerated appalled glare to emphasise how seriously crazy the prices were around Via Corso. 

We crawled into Rome at a snail’s pace, as it was Tuesday morning, rush hour, and most of the people were headed for work. Massimo said there is a huge problem with public transport in Rome, as they are unable to build a decent metro system, as the entire city is littered with 2800-year-old excavations. As he put it, “every time we make a little hole in the ground, we find a temple.” He told us to thinks of Rome as “a huge lasagna” – the original city of one million inhabitants is actually buried 12 metres underground. We took the Aurelian road into the city, a road built 2400 years ago, over two thousand kilometres long. It was also one of the widest roads built, as the narrow side-streets of contemporary Rome were constructed over ancient ones, which were exactly big enough to fit two chariots. 

Of the souvenirs, Massimo warned us that we were not to buy from street vendors – not only is it illegal to sell counterfeit goods, it is also illegal to buy them, and one can land a fine of 350 Euros. 

By then, we were approaching the Vatican, the smallest city-state in the world whose official language is, believe it or not, Latin. There, we got our charming headsets to listen to the local guide, yet another Massimo, who was much less flamboyant but just as sweet, and wowed me with how interested and engaged he was with his job. Dude felt what he was doing. He truly believed he was making a difference in the world by providing information to half-interested American tourists. 

A089We thankfully had a reservation as a group and skipped the absolutely insane round-the-block line to get inside the Vatican Museums. They are staggering in their size, full of antique statues and paintings, various tapestries and God only knows what else. There is a separate hall dedicated solely to maps of Italy which are updated every time a new city is built. I loved the art and the architecture, but couldn’t help but wonder how much more was kept secret in the Vatican Archives, just what other masterpieces are forever hidden from view.

From the museum, we took a “VIP entrance” to the Sistine Chapel, wherein it is technically prohibited to speak, however most of the tourists were disregarding the rule completely, making the guards hush them via microphone. It was incredibly crowded, suffocating and dark; and I was sad to discover that it was impossible to see Michelangelo’s greatest masterpiece painted ceiling when squished between a hoard of Russian families and Chinese teenagers. Thankfully, Massimo II showed us a reproduction beforehand, and explained all the essentials with a laser pointer in hand, as guides get reported for talking inside the Chapel. A090

The Sistine Chapel is so called because it was commissioned by Pope Sisto, back in 1476. Before Michelangelo had a hand in the decoration of the temple, the ceiling was actually painted to look like a deep blue sky with golden stars. The side panels showed scenes from the Old and New Testament – the lives of Moses and Jesus. The real kicker is that Michelangelo was first and foremost a sculptor, and hated painting. In fact, the only reason why he did it in the first place is because he was asked to do it by Pope Julius II, and back then you couldn’t exactly say no to the Pope (you probably still can’t). It took his four years, a crick in the neck due to having to stand on a scaffolding and look up all the time, and led him to become near-blind because the pigments kept falling into his eyes. Massimo II said he was a big fan of Michelangelo, but warned us that from a purely human perspective, the sculptor-turned-painter was not a very nice person: he was rumoured not to have washed himself very often, or changed his socks, and was incredibly stingy with money. He was also quite ugly, as he had been punched in the nose as a kid, so his face was disfigured. I felt really bad for the guy at that point – imagine doing something you absolutely loathe for four years just because someone said you have to. 

He started painting the ceiling from the flood scene, and it took him 29 days to finish that segment. However, after three sections, he realised he made a huge mistake putting a lot of people into one frame, making them too little to see from below. He changed his style, and thereafter perhaps his most famous painting, Genesis, was born, depicting God touching life into Adam’s finger. Some scientists now argue that the shape of God’s cloak looks like half of a human brain, which could be true, as Michelangelo also had a hobby of dissecting condemned criminals. 

Some years later, Michelangelo would also paint one of the walls of the Chapel with The Last Judgement, which was quite different from the ceiling if only because it was made in a single section, and also because the artist used lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, a very expensive pigment, for the only reason that the Pope paid for the paint this time, whereas Michelangelo had to buy his own for the ceiling. Stingy. Another peculiarity of the painting is that it shows the first ever selfie – St. Bartholomew in the picture is actually Michelangelo’s self-portrait. It is also interesting because it shows angels without their wings for the first time in history. 

A092After the Sistine Chapel, we went to see St. Peter’s Basilica (yet again), and saw the customary Pieta (which is beautiful, don’t get me wrong), the alabaster window with the peace dove, the great altar and all the other riches the Basilica has to offer. Once again, I was quite queasy when looking at all the gold and the embellishments. I just thought how one could sell it all off piece by piece and feed the hungry for years. 

We went to St. Peter’s Square, where thousands of believers gather for important events, visited the customary Mosaic Studio of the Vatican and gift shop, and then we were well on our way to Ostiense train station to get dropped off and picked up by a taxi cab. Despite the fact that the taxi company was busy because public transportation workers were apparently on strike, Massimo I managed to get us some vans (for those with particularly huge families and accordingly huge amounts of luggage), and a couple of regular taxis (for smart travellers with just one bursting suitcase like my mother and I). The driver behind the wheel of a very shabby cab that smelled like sweat and tobacco had a very vague idea of where Hotel Contillia was, nevertheless he managed to figure out the way, having given us the scenic tour of the Colosseum and Forum meanwhile. A093

I honestly thought it may not have been such a bad thing had we gotten lost on the way to the hotel. Mother and I are very location-driven travellers, and would be willing to sacrifice some comfort for a good location and price. Hotel Contillia is one of the many two-window hotels scattered around the Roman Termini train station. At first, it didn’t seem too bad, if only because it was too hot outside to think otherwise. The lady at the reception, however, seemed adamant on offering us the venerated Italian service – or rather, lack thereof, by being as inhospitable as she could have been. She threw the Wi-Fi ticket at us, nodded towards the elevator, and left us to take it to the fifth floor (Italian fifth, so regular sixth) by ourselves without so much as a smile. Value for money, I kept reminding myself. 

The room was not so bad, quite a letdown after the pristine stateroom aboard the Celebrity Silhouette, of course, but bearable. Value for money. There were no blankets, only a sheet. Value for money. The mattress was more suitable for a coffin than a bed with its hardness and palpable springs. Value for money. I drew the final line when I came into the cramped bathroom which, for some bizarre reason, had both a toilet and a bide (which would seemed architecturally impossible given the fact that it was about one square meter in total), and nearly fainted due to the pungent smell of Roman sewage, presumably dating back to the times when they used to throw their excrements out into the streets. 

Nevertheless, we were so exhausted after the action-packed morning, that we collapsed onto the Spartan bed; mom dozed off immediately while I struggled with the local Wi-Fi, which was about as fast as Dial-Up back in the day. 

After a brief repose, mom and I had lunch at a nearby restaurant called Aquila Nera, where the waiters were efficient but completely unbothered in terms of etiquette and table-side manner. However, my Insalata Mista was good enough, the bread was predictably white and bland, and we were ready to face the rest of the day. 

A094We staggered under the absolutely sweltering Italian sun down Via Nazionale and followed the map (after a few blunders) to the Trevi Fountain, which Massimo I told us earlier was undergoing restoration. This resulted in it having been almost completely dismantled, and a makeshift glass bridge was set up over it so the tourists could enjoy the stripped-down version of the famous landmark. Disappointed, we continued strolling up Via Corso and glanced into a couple of shops, which were not as high-end as Massimo I made them out to be – I even got a top at Miss Sixty for half price. Later we ended up in Piazza di Spagna, and took a look at the Spanish residence and the Spanish Steps, later taking Via Sistina down back to the hotel. It was time for dinner at that point, so we walked into a nearby place called Il Secchio and ordered a Caprese for me as an appetiser and a Quattro Formaggi pizza to share for the main course. Due to the vast amount of people and the overall laid-back attitude of the waiters, the meal took two hours and a bottle of white house wine. Plus we had A095to ask for the check three times. However, the portion size (one huge round ball of mozzarella with one huge tomato, as well as a sizeable pizza with yummy gorgonzola in the middle) rectified everything, and we enjoyed the evening immensely. Later we walked down to the gelatteria right across from our hotel, and I got a huge five-Euro chocolate gelatto, which was, for the lack of a better word, divine. Ah, good evening. 

 

July 17th – Fly Me to Ukraine 

6:20 p.m., up in the air between Vienna and Kyiv

A098As you have probably guessed, we are well on our way back to reality. The previous day was spent looking at things we haven’t seen – for example, the absolutely beautiful Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (in my opinion, much more beautiful than St. Peter’s and free for entry, as well as open to the public for prayer and confession with no previous reservations and other shenanigans), Piazza Navona, which was a pretty white square with numerous expensive cafés, the Foro Traiano and other wonderful, purely Roman places. It seemed every time we rounded a corner we would see some archaeological monument or other, and I greatly enjoyed our morning walk, despite the absolutely exhausting heat. We met with my mom’s former university-mate, who is now the Ukrainian ambassador in Italy, and enjoyed a coffee and good conversation about the problems of Ukrainians in the country and back home. A100

Later in the evening we went back to have salads at Aquila Nera, and then decided on some last-minute shopping in Corso and Piazza di Spagna. However, we did it in reverse, and stopped in some placed in Nazionale and Sistina first, and then went down Corso back to the hotel. The result? New skirt, dress, leather jacket, umbrella for me; new pants and a bag for mom. 

In the end we had pizza and Caprese at the same place, Il Secchio, and this time it was a little faster, though the pizza seemed a little on the raw side – the cheese wasn’t fully melted, however it was still incredibly delicious; that did not stop me from having a mint-and-chocolate gelatto on the way to the hotel. 

A101The next morning we had some (vile) breakfast with (burnt) coffee at the hotel, packed our things and ran to the Basilica to get a present for my mom’s Catholic friend back home, as well as a nearby bag store to buy the most expensive backpack I will ever own – we had been considering it since we first saw it two days before in Piazza di Spagna. Gorgeous and tax free. 

We then trotted down to Termini with all the intentions of getting the Leonardo Express to Fiumicino Airport, however we were lucky to discover a bus that departed from the station that cost only four Euros each (as opposed to fourteen the train would have set us back), and took an hour to get to the airport. We had ample time, so we enjoyed the ride through the city, and bade farewell to the landmarks of Rome. 

The airport was a complete mess, as the check-in line was long, our suitcase was (predictably) overweight, and we had to show all the stuff we bought at customs to get the VAT refund stamp. Mom saved us a spot in the line before we checked in, however when we came with the boarding pass and luggage tag, the burly Italian man at the counter flat-out refused to allow us to ‘skip the line.’ You do not mess with two angry Ukrainian women with lots of shopping. So we ended up ahead of the huge queue, and were soon on our merry way to security. The line there was about as long as Rapunzel’s hair, and it was very inefficiently run, ridding us of another half-hour of free time. The line to the ladies’ room after that seemed like a breeze, then came the line for coffee, then the line for the gate to get onto the bus. Lines were becoming a pattern, which thankfully ceased when we arrived in Vienna Airport; however, it was replaced with a lot of running, as we had twenty minutes before boarding, and, of course, we landed at the opposite side of the terminal, and had to actually exit it and re-enter again for transfer. Nevertheless, we even managed to get our VAT refund one minute before boarding time, and now we are quite comfortable, albeit shaky, and flying over Slovakia to Boryspil airport. 

Thus ends my European cruise adventure, I suppose. With 1708 nautical miles travelled, six countries, and eleven ports of call, it was an experience of a lifetime. Maybe even two lifetimes.

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