Friday, December 4, 2015

Merry Christmas 2015!!

Holiday greetings to our much-loved friends and family!                                                                                                              
As we rapidly approach another holy season of Christmas, we look back on the past year of fond memories with great joy and a bit of sorrow.  Mix them all together and you have the recipe for life – the abundant life in Christ Jesus.  He is our Strength, our Hope, our Redeemer, and our Friend.  What a privilege to celebrate His birth and purpose!  How grateful we are that He is in control of everything!

This year brought several travel opportunities, one of the perks of retirement.  In mid-May Tony and I joined my sister Lisa and brother-in-law Bob on a lovely trip to Greece.  We toured Athens for 2 days, then spent 3 days each on the islands of Mykonos and Santorini.  Athens was spectacular!  From ancient ruins to modern architecture and everything in between, it is a city alive with history, culture, ethnicity, and pride.  We were somewhat concerned that the precarious Greek economy might topple while we were there, but fortunately we had no problems.  After Athens we spent idyllic days on Mykonos, a land of gorgeous scenery, windmills, and crazy-twisty mountain roads, staying at a pretty, gleaming white hotel overlooking endless blue water.  On our last night there, we were having dinner at a lovely outdoor restaurant when we received a call from Erika, telling us that our precious Great Dane/Anatolian Shepherd, Millie, had blown out both her back knees and was in very bad shape.  We knew one of her knees had been bothering her, and we took every precaution before boarding her.  But this was during weeks of endless rain and very slippery conditions.  Apparently when Millie was let out to do her business, she must have slipped, finishing off the already bad knee and tearing the other one as well.  She could not get up at all.  I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that Erika and Josh heroically did everything humanly possible for Millie.  In the end, since it was virtually impossible for us to be home in less than the week we had remaining, and with our vet’s approval, we made the agonizing decision to have Millie put to sleep.  I wanted more than anything to be there with her as she made her journey, but we could not let her suffer even one day more.  When Erika texted a couple of pictures of her, we could see the very real pain on Millie’s face.  We couldn’t allow her to be in pain another whole week until we could get home to her.  Needless to say, there was a cloud over the remainder of the trip, but we really tried to make the most of a difficult time.  Santorini was quite different from Mykonos—more barren and stark.  But we did have some fun excursions, the best being a blissful all-day sailing trip around the Cyclades.  After our 3 days on Santorini, we flew back to Athens for one more day before returning home.  It was a very long, sad flight back to Dallas. L

In July Tony and I rented a van and drove to Jacksonville with Erika, Josh, Leo, and Etta for a week of beach fun and amazing hospitality at Lisa’s and Bob’s, including one of Chef Greg’s memorable meals.  Then in August, Tony and I drove to see my best friend Jan in Hampstead, NC.  It was a very peaceful week of visiting, reminiscing, remembering her husband Bob, and spending time at the beach.

The family is doing great!  The kids are growing and thriving, and their parents are doing a fabulous job balancing and managing homes, school, jobs, sports, church, and activities.  Jenni and Dave will celebrate 13 years of marriage Dec. 28, which is also Zoey’s 9th birthday. Ruby is 6½, Maggie is almost 5, and Sam just turned 3.  Erika and Josh had their 12th anniversary Sept. 13.  Leo is now 7, and Etta will turn 5 in January.  I can hardly believe that Etta and Maggie will start kindergarten next fall.  Tony and I are so blessed to have our kids and grandkids so near us.  We love participating in their lives and holding Zoey, Leo, Ruby, Etta, Maggie, and Sam close to our hearts. Grandparenthood is the BEST!!!  Bonus: the 6 cousins adore each other and enjoy playing together more than anything.

I turned 65 in April, joining Tony in the interesting and mind-boggling world of Medicare.  We’re gradually trying to understand the idiosyncrasies and challenges of government medical care.  Thankfully, we’re both fairly healthy and don’t have to do too much navigating.

During this holy season of Christmas, Tony and I think of you with fondness, love, and prayers.  We wish you good health, safety, prosperity, happiness, and most importantly, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  A gift of love from God the Father, He came to earth from heaven, lived the perfect life we could not, and paid the price for our transgressions.  He is the only way to abundant life with God eternally.  All we have to do is believe this simple concept, ask His forgiveness, and open our hearts to make room for Him.  This is the best and most important decision anyone can make, and it’s so easy.  The best way to face each new day is to have the security of a future in heaven no matter what kind of hurdles life throws at us.  May this be the year each one of you really, truly knows Jesus.

We hope to hear from everyone and we look forward to hearing about your year.  May God bless each of you abundantly.  Joyous Christmas and Happy New Year!                  Love, Mona

Back row:  Dave, Jenni, Erika, Josh // Middle row:  Maggie, Tony + Sam, Mona + Etta // Front row:  Zoey, Ruby, Leo


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Better 2 years late than never!


This has only taken me 21 months to write.  Hopefully it won’t be another 21 before I finish, add pictures, and post.  You’d think my life was full of terribly important things—surely a retiree has all the time in the world, right?  Well, I do have plenty of time for the important things: grandkids, exercise, grandkids, cooking, grandkids, shopping, grandkids, laundry, grandkids……you get the idea.

(This entry covers 16 days and is very long, so sit back with a cup of coffee and prepare to be transported halfway around the world.  Keep scrolling and reading until you finish the epilogue after Barcelona.)
So, at the end of September 2013 Tony, Lisa, Bob, and I went on an amazing Mediterranean cruise to celebrate our upcoming anniversaries—their 36th and our 40th.  Lisa has been yearning for a trip to the Greek Isles for years, but when we were in the planning stages the Greek economy was pretty unstable, so we decided to wait for a later date.  Still, we wanted to go somewhere beautiful, preferably in Europe, and after much searching and comparing, we decided on a 12-day cruise aboard Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam to Venice, Italy; Dubrovnik, Croatia; Kotor, Montenegro; Corfu, Greece; Naples, Rome, and Livorno, Italy; Monte Carlo, Monaco; Marseille, France; and Barcelona, Spain.  We added 2 days on our own in Venice at the beginning and to Barcelona at the end, extending the trip to 16 days.
Tony and I met Lisa and Bob in Philadelphia so we could all fly over together.  As we grow older, those overnight flights to Europe seem to get tougher and tougher.  It’s hard to sleep sitting nearly straight up in a seat about half the size of our living room recliners.  But we each had our own video screen with many choices of current movies plus several music channels, so our awake time was never boring.  We landed in Venice at 9:20 am, and since we wanted to adjust ourselves to current time, we decided to hit the ground running.  We caught a water taxi and spent a lovely 30 minutes or so skimming the water and taking in the breathtaking views on the way to our hotel.  We found the hotel, were greeted and assisted by the nicest staff (we highly recommend the Best Western Montecarlo -- great location, just a block or so from Piazza de San Marco), and just started walking around to try to stay awake.  We found a pizza place (they are more numerous in Venice than Starbucks are in New York City) and enjoyed a delicious lunch, after which we wandered the tiny streets and overpriced shops.  Soon we all hit the wall and decided to throw caution to the wind, and we headed back to the hotel for showers and an early bedtime.  This turned out to be a good idea.
Flying over snow-capped mountains on the way to Venice
Pretty sights from the water taxi between airport and city
Perfect weather for water taxi travel

When in Venice where there are no cars at all, this is the preferred mode of transportation.

In the morning we had a passable breakfast (great coffee), then we boarded a water taxi to the island of Murano.  We were escorted to a glass-blowing factory where we watched the process for quite a while.  We were then ushered to the showroom of stunning chandeliers, vases, goblets, champagne flutes, and many other lovely, EXPENSIVE, things—very beautiful to look at but far too extravagant for our budget.  Lisa did buy 2 exquisite toasting flutes for the November 2014 wedding of her daughter Erin and fiancé Greg.  We had intended to spend a few hours wandering around the island, but the shop personnel said we had to either return right away on the boat they provided or find our own way back.  Apparently the factory and our hotel had a deal with each other to provide free transportation to lure folks to Murano, but for glass buying purposes only, not for shopping at competitors’ shops.  So we returned to Venice to do some more wandering and shopping, stopping for lunch at an outdoor café right on the Grand Canal in view of the Ponte Rialto.  We spent a couple of hours chilling in our rooms, then we went out for a small, late dinner at a nearby restaurant.  We all shared a plate of exceptional bruschetta and a bottle of wine, then shared 2 plates of totally forgettable ravioli.  Tomorrow we board our ship to begin the cruise!
Stunning hand-blown chandelier at the glass factory in Murano
Our tour guides for the day, Bob and Tony
Bob & Lisa at lunch on the Grand Canal
Our waiter, Brad Garrett (or his twin)
Ponte di Rialto on the Grand Canal
The Grand Canal from atop the Ponte di Rialto
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm does Venice.
Piazza San Marco
Another view of Piazza San Marco
After breakfast this morning we went for a long walk along the seawall and shopped for some souvenirs (including some questionable pasta of certain anatomy parts Lisa bought for her high school friends).  Around noon the hotel called us a water taxi and loaded our luggage for the 20-minute ride through congested canals to open water, then to the cruise ship port.  Check in was quick and easy, and soon we were unpacking in our cabins.  The cabin situation was not exactly a happy one.  We had selected our veranda category cabins when we booked the cruise back in February.  Our travel agent suggested waiting to choose our cabins so we could possibly qualify for an upgrade.  A week before our departure from the States, we received our cabin assignments.  Bob and Lisa had received a cabin 2 upgrades above our booking level, but Tony and I had received only 1 upgrade level, and we were on two different decks.  We had requested cabins close to each other, hoping for adjoining rooms.  Furious, we told our travel agent to fix it so we could be nearer, or at least on the same deck.  We should have left things alone, because apparently Holland America does not like to be given orders.  We ended up with rooms inferior to the originals—still upgraded but not nearly as nice as the original rooms.  Live and learn.  Next time we won’t mess around and will be happy with what we get.  But I doubt we’ll use this travel agent again.  We later found out there were indeed adjoining rooms available, but our agent didn’t fight for us. 
So, after unpacking we strolled the ship, enjoyed a light poolside buffet lunch, selected a wine package for dinner, then went back to the cabin for an hour’s nap before our 8:15 dinner seating.  The food was very good, the wine delicious, and our waiter (“Tiger”) precious.  After coffee we strolled a bit more, then turned in for the night.  Tomorrow we set sail around noon.
LOVED strolling around Venice!
So much lovely ancient architecture
Gondolas parked along the seawall
Lisa, Tony, and Bob killing time until we board the ship
A typical canal shot ("Italian Job", anyone?)
Walking along the seawall
Beautiful flowers everywhere
View from the last water taxi on our way to the ship
And there she is!
Just a tiny little boat (Hi, Lisa!)
After a hearty and delicious breakfast, Tony went for a jog around the running deck, Bob went up to the Crow’s Nest (library) to read, and Lisa and I went to the gym to spend ½ hour on the ellipticals.  Then it was time for the inevitable and much-anticipated (NOT!) muster.  Thankfully, it wasn’t very long or arduous.  Lisa, Bob, and I changed into our bathing suits and went up to the Lido deck to spend some time in the pool and hot tub.  We met some very nice people from Indiana, Michigan, and Canada.  After that we spent some siesta time in our rooms before showering and getting ready for dinner.  (I love days at sea; there’s nothing more relaxing.)  Lisa and Bob came over for drinks, then we were invited to the captain’s champagne reception before dinner.  Dinner (I had Beef Wellington) was amazing, and Tiger brought us huge slabs of cake to celebrate our anniversaries (our 40th in April and Li’s and Bob’s 36th in July).  After dinner we went to our first show in the theater, a fantastic song and dance review of 60s music.
We have been sailing since 1 pm from Venice and should reach Dubrovnik tomorrow around 1 pm.  We’ve had smooth seas and a very comfortable sail so far, and we’re looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
View of Venice from the top deck of the ship as we pull out

Pretty buildings seen through the haze

The mouth of the Grand Canal

Our stateroom looking out to the balcony

Tony and me at dinner

Lisa and Bob at dinner

60s music review

Lotsa talent on board
Today was not my best day.  I was tired and cranky—jet lag must have finally kicked in.  Lisa and I hit the gym at 7 am.  She got on the elliptical while I did a stretching class, then we both did an abs class.  That about did me in.  After breakfast and a little walk around the deck, we showered and got ready as land started coming into view on the horizon.  We spent some time up in the Crow’s Nest lounge to watch the ship slowly and skillfully maneuver into port under the spectacular Franjo Tudman Bridge.  We had a light lunch, then disembarked around 2 pm for a short bus ride into town.  We strolled around the Old City and water’s edge where we saw several people swimming in the clear, cold water with a very strong current.  It was getting pretty hot so we walked until we found a lovely, tree-filled, shady outdoor café overlooking the bay.  Lisa had a glass of wine, the guys had a local beer, and I enjoyed a Sprite served by a very sweet waitress with a great sense of humor.  The café had Wi-Fi so I was able to check email and Tango text Jenni.  Since she was home and Sam was sleeping, we video chatted few minutes with her, Maggie, and Ruby.  Isn’t technology amazing?
We headed back to the ship and took a little rest before dinner.  After dinner we decided to go to bed early to try to catch up on some much-needed sleep so we could be well rested for Kotor the following day.
Approaching Dubrovnik

Franjo Tudman Bridge

Ancient fortification

Local musician in native costume

Just what one would expect in a Dubrovnik alley--an Irish Pub

Typical centuries-old Croatian structure

Beautiful waterfront in Dubrovnik

No, not Tijuana; Dubrovnik!! 

It's everywhere!

Lisa, Bob, and Tony strolling down (and down and down) a very steep stairway
We were up early—Tony at 6 am to run on deck, and me a bit before 7 to shower and get ready for the day—to the incredible view of stark, majestic mountain cliffs on both sides of the ship as we made our way through the southernmost fjord on earth.  After breakfast we were tendered to the picturesque but tiny city of Kotor.  We wandered through the Old City and came across some Serbian Orthodox churches, St. Nicholas and St Luke.  As we peered into the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, several clergy and altar boys came out from behind the iconostas and began some sort of service.  It was around 10:00 on a Friday morning, and they were gathered around a small, high table full of lettuce.  Maybe they were praying for a bountiful harvest, but I truly haven’t a clue how anything could possibly grow on these rocky mountains that go straight into the sea. 
We continued wandering through narrow streets past cafes and little shops until we reached the waterfront again.  There really wasn’t much to do so we found lovely, shady outdoor café with free Wi-Fi and ordered drinks.  We stayed about an hour and I checked in with the kids via email.  We returned to the ship around 1 pm, put on bathing suits, and went up to sit around the Oceanview pool.  Tony didn’t want to spend any more time in the sun, so he went back to the room while Bob, Lisa, and I stayed several hours as the sun went in and out of the clouds.
At 4 pm the ship’s horn sounded and we were underway, slowly pulling away from Kotor and sailing down the fjord to the Adriatic Sea, a journey that took about an hour and a half.  At 4:30 we went up to the Crow’s Nest lounge for happy hour, then went back to our rooms to rest on the balcony and then get ready for dinner.  Tonight we will sail past Macedonia and Albania to Corfu, Greece.
Lovely, peaceful Montenegro fjord

Orthodox services at the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas

Cathedral of Saint Luke

And inside

Another very old church up on the mountain

Nice outdoor cafe where we had cool drinks and Wifi

View of Kotor as we headed back down the fjord

Precious church on its own private island in the fjord

Another nearby

What a gorgeous ride!
Corfu was simply breathtaking!!!  We left the ship after breakfast and took a cab into the old part of town.  We climbed up to the “New Fortress” and took lots of pictures of the spectacular view.  After a cool drink and a little Wi-Fi time at the fort, we wandered the streets of Kerkira, looking at what Lisa calls “street crap”.  Since there wasn’t a lot to do and it was getting hot, we decided to walk back to the ship (about a mile and a half).  Along the way we found a great outdoor café overlooking the water, so we stopped for a little lunch.  The view was amazing and the café had a tent roof, so it was very pleasant to sit and have a drink (ouzo for Lisa and me, Greek beer for the guys) and a nice Greek salad.  Greek salads in Greece are quite different than in the States.  There is no lettuce at all, just big chunks of tomato, cucumber, green pepper, and purple onion, plus lots of creamy feta and Kalamata olives in a light olive oil and vinegar dressing.  Because we loved this salad so much, I recreated it at home.  Here is my version, which is very close to the original:
1 large cucumber, peeled and cut into chunks
3 medium to large ripe tomatoes, cut into chunks
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin slices
½ large purple onion, sliced thinly
1 jar (about 12 ounces) pitted Kalamata olives, drained
About 8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Italian seasoning (I use Tone’s from Sam’s Club)
Greek seasoning (I use Cavender’s All-Purpose Greek Seasoning)
Combine the first 5 ingredients in a large bowl.  Add olive oil and red wine vinegar (I don’t measure, but I estimate approximately 1/4 to 1/3 cup olive oil and 1 to 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar—you’ll have to experiment to find your best flavor).  Sprinkle generously with Italian and Greek seasonings.  Toss well and chill.  At serving time, sprinkle feta cheese on top of salad.
NOTE:  I have tried to copy from memory the wonderful salads we enjoyed in Greece.  Feel free to experiment to find your own version.
After lunch Lisa and I went to use the W.C., which was a tiny, awful bathroom right off the sidewalk.  The door was very narrow, and I failed to notice the two doors side by side, each having a tiny brass plate of a boy or girl.  Of course I went into the men’s door by mistake, and a man tried to walk in while I was doing my business.  We had a good laugh about it afterward, and from then on I was very careful to check the door symbols before entering.

We strolled back to the ship, enjoying the beautiful scenery along the way.  This short stop in Corfu has whet our appetites for a return trip to Greece someday, probably not too far in the future.  Tomorrrow we’re at sea.

See what I mean? Absolutely breathtaking!!

The old "New Fortress"

The Greek flag against a lovely blue backdrop

Pretty waterfront stroll

"Street crap"

These mountainous islands jutting into the sea are simply spectacular.

View of Kerkira from the fort

A tunnel in the fort

Another view from the fort

Couldn't resist!

We stopped here to use the restroom. Nice, huh?

View from the terrace where we had lunch

And bathers below us

The famous side-by-side WCs (See how easy it was to make the mistake?)

Today we had a leisurely, relaxing day at sea.  Lisa and I went to the gym—she on the elliptical, me in the stretching class, then both of us in the abs class.  After breakfast with the guys, everyone except Tony spent some time on the Lido deck by the aft pool.  Later, we assembled on the bow terrace of our deck 5 (normally closed but opened for this event only) to watch as we made our way through the Strait of Messina between the toe of Italy’s boot and Sicily—only 1.8 miles wide at its narrowest point.  We then had a glass of wine on Lisa’s and Bob’s balcony, then we all showered and got ready for dinner.  Before dinner we hung out for a bit on deck 10 as we passed right by Stromboli, an active island volcano that actually has a small village at its base!  We saw no eruption or lava, but we did see a little puff of smoke coming out of the top.  After dinner we had planned to go to a show, but we were all pretty tired, so we decided to turn in.  We have an early morning tomorrow as we dock in Naples and take our very first excursion to the Isle of Capri.

The glorious deep blue of the Adriatic

The water is not the clear turquoise of the Caribbean; it's a rich navy blue.

Right next to the ship the foamy water is a lighter blue.


More Sicily

The very tip of Sicily at the Strait of Messina

The Italy side of the Strait

More Sicily (with hang gliders)

A really cool highway along the side of an Italian cliff

The volcano Stromboli

What a wonderful day!!  We started with breakfast, Tony at the Lido deck buffet and me with room service, then we assembled with Bob, Lisa, and several hundred of our closest friends in the showroom to depart on our first trip excursion.  At the Naples marina we met our tour guide, Stefano—a cute, hunky, 30-something who took us to the ferry for the hour-long ride to Capri.  The weather was pretty threatening—dark clouds, light rain, rough sea—but by the time we reached Capri the sky was clearing and the sun was out.  The day wasn’t blistering hot because of the early rain, which was a blessing.  Once on Capri we boarded tiny buses for a drop-to-your-death, winding ride up to Anacapri, the other city on the island about halfway up the mountain.  Everything was so beautiful and charming!  We passed tiny vineyards and lemon groves, some right in people’s yards.  When the bus dropped us off, Stefano gave us a brief history of the island and its cities, then we hiked up to the town square.  Some of us took an amazing chair lift to the summit of the mountain while others stayed below to explore and shop.  The 360-degree view from the top was utterly breathtaking!  After some photos we rode the lift back down and met our group for the walk to lunch, which was at a beautiful hotel overlooking the sea.  We then had a couple of hours to stroll and shop before meeting our group for the funicular ride down to the marina.  The ferry ride back to Naples was much more pleasant than the earlier morning ride.  We said farewell to Stefano and boarded the ship.  The four of us cleaned up a bit and went up to the Crow’s Nest for happy hour and to watch as the ship left port.  Our only regret is that we used our only day in Naples to go to Capri; it would have been nice to have one more day to explore Naples.  After dinner we turned in early to rest up for a big day touring Rome the following morning.

Naples: walking to the ferry to Capri

Cool lighthouse seen from the ferry

View of Naples from the ferry

The Isle of Capri

It didn't seem like a hotbed of crime, but you never know.

They sure want you know you're in Anacapri and NOT Capri!!

One of the prettiest cemeteries I've ever seen

Overlooking the Golfo di Napoli

Looking down from the tippy-top

And this is how we got up there!

Every view from the chair lift was spectacular.

The clouds held the temperature down and made the day very pleasant.

Of course one would find a Lamborghini accessories boutique on a rocky island with very few vehicles! I couldn't even afford key fobs for the sons-in-law, let alone hats or shirts.

Our tour included lunch at an enchanting open-air restaurant in a charming hotel.

View from the restaurant terrace

Looking up from the waterfront on Capri
We arose early—5:30 am!—to eat breakfast and get ready.  At 7:00 we boarded a bus at the port of Civitavecchia with our tour guide, Sabina, for the 1½-hour drive to Rome.  There was a lot of traffic, which is normal, but especially so due to a public transportation strike.  Our driver took us around the ancient locations of historical Rome—the city walls, churches, ruins of the Roman baths and the Forums, crumbling palaces of former emperors.  Then we started our walking tour at the Trevi Fountain.  Lisa and I got small cups of coconut gelato from one of the zillions of wonderful gelato shops in the area, and we thought we had died and gone to heaven, it was so delicious!  Of all the gelato we’ve had in various cities in Europe, this was by far the best.  We then began our walk to the Coliseum, passing the Forums, the “Wedding Cake” building (which includes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of Italy), and the building from which Mussolini gave his speeches.  At the Coliseum we didn’t go inside but we had time for photos of the grand structure, plus the Arch of Constantine, the Arch of Titus, and the Temple of Diana ruins.  We then stopped for a less-than-spectacular lunch in a crowded underground grotto restaurant.  After lunch we again boarded the bus for the drive to Vatican City, where Sabina introduced us to our special Vatican guide, Moses (surprisingly, a German!).  We walked into the museum building and passed through room after room of priceless ancient sculptures, tapestries, and paintings by names which until that point had been only heard or read.  Unbelievable!  We then proceeded to the Sistine Chapel to respectfully gaze in awe at Michelangelo’s ceiling and wall frescoes.  I admit a few tears fell as I looked upon this glorious piece of historical art.  As if that weren’t enough, we moved into Saint Peter’s Basilica, where we saw the inside of the famous dome, the Papal canopy, tombs of past popes, and The Pieta.  It was a breathtaking experience!  We strolled through Saint Peter’s Square on the way to catch the bus for the trip back to the ship.  Once on board we went to happy hour, where Lisa and I discovered a yummy new drink (to us)—the Lemon Drop—then to dinner and back to our cabins for showers and bed.  It was an exhilarating but exhausting day, and we will have another tomorrow.

View of Vatican City from the bus on the way to Rome from Civitavecchia

I'm thinking maybe I need to add another N to my name to make it authentic. Lisa's is okay the way it is.

"Hey, Roman soldier! Where do you think you're going?"

"You talkin' to me?"

Trevi Fountain

Top of Trevi Fountain

The beautiful Wedding Cake building

Don't know what this is but it surely was pretty.

Hail, Caesar!

Excavated ruins of Rome's former greatness

The Coliseum (preservation work going on)

The ancient Romans built to last.

Arch of Titus

Outside Vatican City

Inside Vatican City

Incredible ceiling where photography sans flash was permitted

Take a good look. This is all painted, not sculpted; two dimensions that fooled the eye to appear three-dimensional. Amazing.

One of many sets of exquisitely sculpted bronze doors

The Pieta. There are no words.

The tomb of Pope John Paul II

The inside of the famous St. Peter's Basilica dome

Colorful Vatican guard

The Pope addresses the people from the center balcony

This one, closer view
The Cinque Terre excursion from the port of Livorno was such a massive disappointment that it nearly ruined the rest of the cruise for us.  We had heard wonderful things about the cluster of 5 lovely towns built into the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean, so we opted to go there instead of Pisa and/or Florence.  Big mistake. 

Our day began with the usual breakfast, after which we went to the showroom to wait for our excursion.  (NOTE: The ports of Civitavecchia (Rome) and Livorno (Pisa/Florence/CinqueTerre) in particular were so far from civilization (45 minutes to an hour by bus) that we were forced to either book an excursion or pay for the ship-provided shuttle to town.)  We expected that most people would choose to go to Florence but we were unpleasantly surprised.  The Cinque Terre excursion proved to be very popular, with more than 200 participants from our ship alone.  Because there are always several huge ships docked at each port, there ended up being thousands of tourists taking the same excursion at one time, bursting the tiny villages to more than capacity.

Our tour guide, Lucia, was so inept and out of her element that she singlehandedly ruined the excursion for us.  She was either new to the job or she just wasn’t cut out for the details and organizational skills necessary for herding large groups of people hither and yon.  Due to Lucia’s scatterbrained lack of ability, we ended up visiting only 3 of the 5 pretty villages and spent only a tiny amount of time in each because we spent so much time on awful trains running between them.  We had to cram down our lunch in about 20 minutes because we arrived so late and had to leave much sooner than the 1½ hours we were promised at each town.  We were also promised a boat ride between two of the towns, but because the excursion was overbooked (according to Lucia), there wasn’t enough room for our group.  Lucia made us wait in a horrible, dark, dank, filthy, scary railroad tunnel for a train to the next town.  Several trains rushed past us, stirring up dust and debris and blowing off hats, until ours finally arrived.  We were crammed aboard the sweltering, non-air conditioned train like sardines, standing room only, completely crushed against hot, sweaty bodies.  The stench was unimaginable.  Tony and I were separated such that when it was time to get off, he was unable to move, and I really thought he wouldn’t make it off the train before it left the station.  In a panic I found Lucia, who managed to extract him in time (the only thing she did right all day).  Finally, at the last stop of our tour, Lucia managed to locate a ferry to ride back to the port so we didn't have to ride another train. I'm sure she feared mutiny and possible stoning.

By the time we all returned to the ship, most of us were so frustrated and incensed we went immediately to the concierge desk to fill out complaint forms.  Later, after a few weeks of back-and-forth communication with Holland America, we were finally refunded the entire amount we had paid for the excursion, just under $400 for the two of us.  I felt sorry for Lisa and Bob because they didn’t fill out a complaint form and got nothing back.  I think HA should have refunded everyone’s money out of principle because we were all clearly and justifiably disgruntled over the bad service provided by the contracted excursion company.

Months later, at home, we caught a Rick Steves special on Cinque Terre and were able to enjoy all we missed on the actual excursion.  It could have, and should have, been a phenomenal day.
One of the five pretty towns of Cinque Terre

I wish I could remember which town, but because the excursion was such a disaster it's all a blur.

Pretty stone church, very old

Hard to see, but these are clusters of grapes drying in a doorway.

The next town built into the rocky cliffs

Pretty little cove for swimming

Tony and the rest of us waiting for the train in that horrible tunnel

Out in the light again, along the beautiful sea

One of the many pretty beaches, this one with a big rock cornucopia

Very interesting-looking church.....

.....with a really cool window

Finally on the boat we had been promised

This is how to see Cinque Terre--from the water!

4 weary and disappointed excursioners, happy to be on the ferry and not in that sardine can of a train

Gorgeous pink marble cliff (Just about everywhere you look there is a natural marble formation.)

We were all fascinated by this strange woman with glasses made of tea strainers. I had to be very clandestine because she kept catching me with my camera pointed at her.

The end of a wonderful ferry ride

Passing Pisa on the bus back to the ship (See the Leaning Tower in the middle of that little cluster of taller buildings?)


Monte Carlo totally redeemed the previous port.  It was breathtakingly gorgeous!  Pictures and TV do not do it justice.  We docked right in port and walked a short way to a place where we picked up a Hoho (hop on, hop off) tour bus.  We traveled the entire Gran Prix course, saw the famous casino and the royal palace, and just gazed at the beauty.  Monte Carlo is so lovely—winding roads up and down the hills, spectacular views of the ocean, beautiful architecture, amazing yachts as far as the eye can see.  We walked from the palace atop one high hill to the beautiful Jardins Saint-Martin, past the Musee Oceanographique, down a steep, curvy walkway back to the bay.  We strolled past many huge, luxurious yachts in the harbor.  It truly is a stunningly gorgeous place, and I would love to return here someday.
Even I can't take a bad picture of Monte Carlo.

It's one of the most picturesque cities I've ever seen, running neck-and-neck with Zermatt and St. Moritz, Switzerland.

The famous Grand Casino dominates the escarpment as seen from the bay below.

The park with its steep, winding stairs leading from the Jardins Saint-Martin down to the bay. Yes, we walked each and every step--down, not up!

Just one of the many pretty structures (probably a hotel or apartment building) in the city.

Another one

This was for my son-in-law Josh.

Looking down from The Prince's Palace, home of Prince Albert II (head of this constitutional monarchy). 

Monte Carlo ("Mount Charles") is part of the Maritime Alps along the French Riviera.

The Prince's Palace, longtime home of the Grimaldi royal family

Saint Paul's Church

Outside the Musee Oceanographique

Gotta be my all-time favorite sculpture.

There is evidence of her everywhere. She was very much loved by the Monegasques.
Front of the Grand Casino

Another pretty view of the bay with our ship in the background

Jardins Saint-Martin

These and others like them were everywhere. Lotsa $$$ in Monaco.

Tony and me all cleaned up for dinner and a show back on the ship.

These young men were absolutely amazing--beautiful voices, very versatile (cute, too).  One of them was from Dallas!  We got to visit a bit after the show.


Today Tony and Bob decided to stay aboard ship, so Lisa and I went into Marseille to see the sights and do some shopping.  When we arrived from the ship, we needed to use the bathroom but had no idea where to find one.  Near a building we found a very nice gentleman, an outdoor maintenance worker, who directed us to a pretty park with a very unique and pleasant outhouse.  It was very large, at least four times the size of a normal American port-a-potty, made of a gorgeous polished teak.  Inside was a long teak bench with a large hole (hope this isn’t too graphic), and a big tub of wood shavings with a scoop.  After doing our business, we scooped a bunch of shavings and sprinkled them on top.  There was absolutely no odor except a nice woodsy smell, and it was by far the nicest port-o-potty we’ve ever seen. 

Outside the potty was a fantastic park where a sculpture exhibit was happening.  Men, women, and children were constructing really cool structures from sturdy cardboard.  We watched and took pictures for a while, fascinated.  Then we bought tickets for a tour train and went for a long ride around the pretty port town.  From our vantage point aboard the train we had a great view of Chateau d’If in the bay, of “The Count of Monte Cristo” fame, and Notre-Dame de la Garde overlooking the city.  Afterward, we did a little shopping, then went back to the ship.  Marseille was not our favorite stop; it didn’t offer a lot to do or see, but we did have a nice, low-key day.
Notre-Dame de la Garde overlooking Marseille

Church of Saint Ferréol les Augustins

The cool park with the interactive cardboard building projects

The structures were really quite phenomenal.

School classes and "kids" of all ages participated to erect these amazing buildings.

The Marseille entry wouldn't be complete without graphic pictures of the famous outdoor potty.

Wood shavings and scoop for your olfactory pleasure

The exterior of these nice potties (ours was the one on the left--very spacious)

One final incredible cardboard box high-rise with Lisa taking iPad photos 

Of course.

Chateau d'If (the real thing!)

Notre-Dame de la Garde up close and personal

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame

No explanation; it was just there.

"Should I or shouldn't I?"

One on every corner, just like New York City

Our waiter, Tiger, taking Bob's dinner order

The night's entertainment: a Dancing with the Stars competition featuring the ship's professional entertainers and some very brave passengers


We absolutely loved Barcelona!!  We arrived in port and enjoyed 3 wonderful days in this magnificent city.  The first night was spent on board, and we stayed the other two nights at the Hotel Avenida Palace, which was a short walk from the main drag, La Rambla.  There we bought a 2-day Hoho (hop on, hop off) tour bus pass.  We spent several hours both days exploring Barcelona’s amazing architecture, each building more gorgeous than the last—including, of course, Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Park Guell, and Casa Battlo.  I couldn’t stop taking pictures.  We enjoyed many moments of hilarity when we discovered our hotel was right next door to the Obama Gastropub, complete with a life-size statue of Obama casually seated at a table in front.  As sickening as it was to pass by frequently, we did take a few photos posing with the statue.  It was like passing by a car accident; it was hideous but just impossible to ignore.

There was a really good restaurant we enjoyed on La Rambla called La Poma.  One of the times we ate there, we met a cute American honeymooning couple at the next table, Anna and Matt, who were from GRAPEVINE, TEXAS (just a few miles from us)!!!  How crazy is that??!!  We had some nice conversations before going our separate ways.

One of the things we really wanted to do but weren't able to was to take the tram up to the crest of Tibidabo Mountain to tour the beautiful church. Lisa was especially disappointed that it didn't work out because she remembered an episode of "Friends" in which the mountain played a key role. Because of the time of year, tram hours were greatly reduced and we just missed our window of opportunity.

We had some really good Sangria while in Barcelona.  The little outdoor cafes that lined La Rambla and many other nearby streets were so nice for sitting and resting, having a cool beverage, and people watching.  We walked a lot and shopped the stalls on La Rambla.  We ate tapas at little tapas bars.  We thoroughly enjoyed wonderful Barcelona and would love to return someday.  It’s truly the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.  Please forgive the quantity of pictures.  It was so hard to choose, and in my defense, this is 3 days' worth in one batch.
One of the major hubs in Barcelona: the Placa de Catalunya, where everything happens

El Corte Ingles, the major department store

Our Barcelona hotel, the Hotel Avenida Palace (very nice)

Lobby of the hotel where we had good Wifi access

Another shot of the hotel lobby

And another

Yet another

Last one--ceiling above the staircases

Can you believe this? In a city as huge and bustling as Barcelona, we ended up at a hotel next door to this!

At first we thought it might have another meaning.

I mean, lots of foreign words have unexpected meanings.

But, no. It was just as we dreaded. You can just imagine the nightmare.

Less offensive and terrifying were these freakishly enormous legs protruding from a building.

La Rambla

Only in Barcelona can one find Smurf gelato.....

......and Marilyn greeting the public.

Cool living sculpture (well, partially alive)

Another living sculpture, possibly Chris Columbus

And of course, that iconic Spanish cowboy--Juan Wayne

La Pedrera, one of Antoni Gaudi's famous residential buildings

Just a pretty building, probably apartments

A lovely old church in Barcelona whose name I haven't been able to find

Another cool building

And another

Our favorite eatery, La Poma (The Apple)

View from our hotel room of the gorgeous church at the peak of Tibidabo Mountain in the heart of Barcelona

We passed by a small cafe dominated by this stunning chandelier, and I had to pop in for a picture.

Spanish matroshkas???

Another pretty building--we were amazed at all the stone and iron work on these structures.

We did NOT eat here.

This fountain near our hotel changed colors continually. So pretty!

Take a picture, then take a shower. Do you see him trying to steal my wallet right out of my purse? Figures.

"Gimme a smooch, Barack."

Gaudi's Casa Battlo

Another shot of Casa Battlo (When you see pictures of Barcelona, this is one of the iconic Gaudi buildings regularly shown.)

Yet another shot of La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mila

And another gorgeous residential building

This looks like it could be Gaudi or a Gaudi wannabe.


This is not--I repeat, not--Barcelona's version of Medieval Times.

I thought this might be a church or monastery, but I can't find any information on it.

Very cool sculpture near the port where we docked

The iconic Barcelona landmark--statue of Christopher Columbus looking to the New World

Go west, young man, on Queen Isabella's dime.

Crazy rocket-shaped Torre Agbar (Agbar Tower--aren't you glad I cleared that up?)

Seems like every major city in the world has one of these arches.

I have no recollection of what this building is but I had a good shot from the bus and it was pretty, so here ya go.

I'm only posting 2 pictures of La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, because there are myriad other pictures of its many facets that are much better than mine.  Please do Google it and scroll through the images.
Begun in 1882 and scheduled for completion in 2026, the cathedral will seat 13,000!!  I (and I daresay most people) cannot fathom the vision Gaudi had of this incredible structure.  He worked on it until his death in 1926. 

Gaudi wasn't only a serious designer. His animated and slightly comical home and other structures in his residence at Park Guell show his whimsical side.

Building in Park Guell.

The entrance to Park Guell

Inside Park Guell

Incredible inlaid stonework created this arched walkway.

View of Barcelona from Park Guell

The huge outdoor terrace affords a spectacular view overlooking the city.  The wavy edge consists of wildly colorful mosaics, offering visitors an unbroken stream of built-in seating.

Ornate cross high over the city

A last view of the church atop Tibidabo Mountain from the Hoho bus

As is probably obvious, our favorite stops on this cruise were Corfu, Capri, Monte Carlo, and Barcelona.  The other ports were okay, but nothing we’d be interested in visiting again—although I would love to show Tony the beauty and wonders of Florence, so I would consider another cruise stop at Livorno.  I was there with some friends in 1971, and to this day it remains my favorite major city in Italy.  Corfu definitely prompted us to explore the possibility of another trip to Greece in the near future, so we’ll be looking at itineraries and tours in the coming months to see if there’s one we’d like to take.  And I think we’ve all four agreed that unless there is a very compelling reason to do so, we won’t be cruising with Holland America ever again.  The public relations/concierge staff was cold, stiff, unfriendly, and not very helpful at all.  Cruises are pretty costly, and this time I don’t think we got our money’s worth.  We would all like to try a sailing cruise to the Caribbean sometime, with a small boat, a basic crew (captain, cook), and a “go where the wind blows us” itinerary, but the big floating cities of the cruise lines don’t seem to be our cup of tea.  Stay tuned for future developments!
Arrivederci, Roma!