Mediterranean Cruise: Italia
Trip of a lifetime! Europe in the offseason! Graduation gift from the grandparents (with an aunt in the mix)! I had no idea what to expect, but I knew it'd be fun and eventful..
The cruise kicked off in Rome...sort of...
My morning kicked off at the crack of dawn. I rose to darkness outside and a sparse SeaTac with people shuffling through security. I slid right over to the United Airlines kiosk and printed my boarding pass while secretly praying they'd have another incident and I'd somehow get upgraded to first class. As I made my way to security, I made quick phone calls with the fam to say I was at the airport and that I'd let them know when I had landed in Europe. My conversation with Aunt Caroline turned into a laundry list of things we had NOT accomplished before the trip, but we'd see each other in a few hours and could complain in person. I zoomed through security thanks to TSA Pre (honestly such a game changer!!) and conversed with Caroline again, seeing that Gina was now added to the equation since she was kind enough to take Caroline to the airport (but let's face it, Gina owed Caroline hahaha). As I walked to my gate, I contemplated the usual, ritualistic pre-flight frosty and fries, succumbed to my irrational superstitious subconscious, and regretted my decision immediately. Wendy's, while better than most fast food out there, is not amazing at 6 am.
Nauseous from eating fries, I washed it down to the best of my ability with the vanilla frosty, then hopped on the plane to Washington D.C. It was an oddly quick five hour flight - maybe due to the fact that I knocked out right as I fastened my seatbelt. Lola (my grandmother) had kindly booked my flight, yet I was nervous about making my connection with an one hour layover. Ready to bolt off the plane and sprint across the terminal, I was pleasantly surprised to find my flight to Rome was the next gate over. As I checked my messages, I learned that Lola and Lolo had not made their connection seeing as they drove to Baltimore, flew to Atlanta, then to JFK, then to Rome, all with hour and a half layovers. Anyway, it worked out; they got rerouted through Paris, and Caroline and I would meet up with them at the cruise terminal.
I awkwardly waited for boarding to start by standing next to a charge station (all the seats were taken) seeing as I had depleted my battery on the previous flight and needed to have something to entertain me for the trip across the Atlantic. The charging station must be the equivalent to the water cooler at corporate offices because everyone was CHATTY. I kept getting asked questions about boarding, my art history bag, and Rome (????). I guess I looked knowledgeable?
I was relieved to get onto the plane and escape the firing squad of strangers' questions. I settled into my window seat and observed the runways of Dulles Airport before answering the inquiries of Pam from Chicago who introduced herself and shook my hand. So much for losing the chatty Cathys. She asked about my travel plans (yep, 10 day cruise with my grandparents and aunt throughout the Mediterranean as a graduation gift) and shared her plan for living one month in Rome. Really really nice lady, but I was just blown away that she shook my hand before leaving the tarmac. I've NEVER had that happen before. And she settled down throughout the flight, but not before asking me to help her with airplane mode on her ipad and giving her honest review of Downton Abbey (it's a no from Pam y'all).
I made myself comfortable for the nine hour flight, mostly reading and watching the Grand Budapest Hotel (thanks Wes!) with food intermissions and a random ice cream dessert - ballsy move United, that's got mess written all over it, but I approve...10/10 from me. At some point I nodded off and eventually rustled awake when the cabin lights came on and Pam loudly questioned "HOW DID YA SLEEP?" as if she was asking the whole cabin. Oh, Pam.
Off the plane, we all were herded through customs like cattle and meandered to baggage claim to find the Princess Cruise rep who sent me to another rep, who sent me to yet another rep. This rep then lead a group of 50 jet-lagged Americans to a shuttle bus which weaved its way through the Italian countryside to the coast for an hour. So much for seeing Rome for a little bit.
I waited for a family member of mine to arrive at the cruise terminal and passed the time finishing one of the books I had brought (thanks Aaron, Penpal was a GREAT book). As I finished the book, I saw Caroline in my peripheral vision, impeccable timing I might add. We munched on the snacks she had brought (yaaaas cacao balls), received our cruise keys where the lady thought we were sisters, and walked into our tiny interior stateroom. To pass the hours before we left port, we scouted the ship and its amenities, before finding Lola and Lolo who had lost their luggage with all of their transfers and reroutes. We struggled to stay awake and kept moving as best as we could. ANYTHING to make it to 8 pm when we'd drift off into sweet slumber. We also grappled with the fact that the ship had no free wifi, and embraced our analog fate with a game of table tennis. After nearly dozing off for the safety demonstrations and dinner, we went to bed immediately to rest up for our first day real day.
Well the day started at 3:30 am when we both awoke...ugh, thanks jet lag. We went back to sleep and got up at 7 am to my alarm going off. "It was rough" is an understatement. We quickly realized time was wasting, then hustled to get ready and up to breakfast at the buffet. The buffet was massive and we circled like hawks to scout out our options before deciding upon eggs, sausage and potatoes (SUPER NUTRITIOUS) and scarfing it down at a nauseating pace. With time ticking, we ran back down to our room and brushed teeth, then down the hallway to grab 50 euros from Lola to break into small change, and down to the cruise theater right at 7:45 am to meet our tour group.
The theater housed everyone who was going on a cruise-lead tour and I spotted no one under the age of 40 except for about five people. It is off season after all. After a pointless tour meeting, we were loaded on to our respective tour buses and shuttled to the ruins of Pompeii.
The ruins were amazing as well as the preserved bodies. We saw everything from gladiator quarters which were basically the same size as our stateroom, the ancient amphitheater with enough seats for every member of the community, bakeries, cobblestone streets, and of course a spa.
We finished up the tour with a scoop of gelato and sped away from Pompeii in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.
The second part of the day consisted of finding wifi and pizza. Two VERY important items. Naples is the origin of modern pizza and it felt sacrilegious to not get any. We strolled into town and grabbed cappuccinos and utilized the cafe wifi. Whoa whoa whoa, two days off the grid and our phones blew up with messages.
After managing the influx of digital communication, we hit the streets trying to find a place to eat pizza. Without a location in mind, we found our way into the residential areas and piazzas which were nice.
We desperately wanted to get out of the touristy area and almost gave up altogether before finding Ristorante da Ettore with its cute patio and bright orange table cloths. As we approached and asked the waiter for a table, he barked something back in Italian and we knew we had found our lunch spot.
Clearly the only non-Italians dining, we struggled to order a margherita pizza and drinks, but managed somehow. BEST. DAMN. PIZZA. EVER. I now have a new standard for pizza. We soaked up the Italian sunshine, munched on the amazing slice, and admired the wood fire oven in the back.
With full bellies, we explored more of town, finding our way over to Castel dell'Ovo and wandering the ancient structure. We attempted to make our way to the other landmark, a #CastleontheHill, but alas it was way too far.
Instead, we made our way back to our initial cafe to poach the wifi from a nearby bench, but stumbled upon Galleria Umberto. The gorgeous shopping center had some dope zodiac mosaics on the ground and Caroline and I found our signs.
En route to the cafe, we made yet another detour to the Gallerie d'Italia because 1. they had a special exhibition featuring Basquiat, Clemente, Haring, Schnabel, and Warhol (like whoa, the greats) 2. Caroline had to use the bathroom (classic) and we were running out of options. Basically we paid five Euros each for her to use the bathroom and be watched like a hawk by one of the guards because we had tried to take a picture when photography was apparently not allowed. It was a cool space and they had great art, but the whole place was way small (only one Basquiat?!). Eh, whatevs. With a little time left, we circled back to the cafe for a last few moments with wifi and even managed to facetime Gina and Mom, then run back to the ship and scurry straight to dinner.
MY ARRIVAL TO THE FATHERLAND! Our cruise took us south to the edge of Sicily. My paternal grandmother was born in Sicily and I was more than ready to see the Sicilian way of life.
Again, we woke up at ungodly hours in the middle of the night. Our early morning was a bit groggy from the lack of sleep, but we made the most of it by walking the streets of Messina before our guided tour. The pastel buildings were interspersed with restaurants spilling out onto sidewalks and sprite palm trees as well as the occasional Fiat. One of my dream cars is legitimately a Fiat. Yes, I know they’re actually horrible cars, but you can’t argue with how cute they are. Plus, think about how easy they’d be to park!
Realizing what a mistake it was to not have many euros on hand, we wandered around in search for a bank or ATM to withdraw some cash. I’ve read that some parts of Sicily are a little seedy, plus getting money from an ATM just puts a target on your back in general, so we scratched the ATM and withdrew from inside a bank. Okay, task sort of complete, the machine only spit out a 50 Euro note, which was what we wanted, but Caroline and I couldn’t figure out the doors to get to the bank tellers to break the bill, so we walked away and laughed at how dismal our attempt at opening the door was.
Lucky for us, we noticed that there was a currency exchange a few blocks down and we tried to go there, and ended up not being able to use that door either. Apparently we just don’t jive with doors in Messina. Mortified by how incompetent we were, we circled back to the cruise terminal and waited for everyone to join us. Once our group was complete, we made our way over to Annunziata dei Catalani Church, a church with Arab, Byzantine, and Roman influences.
Our walking tour guide weaved from street to street, popping over to a local olive oil purveyor and past a protest happening in front of the Municipo.
From there, we trekked up the one hill in all of Messina *eyeroll* to reach one of the two churches located at the top. The Sacrario di Cristo Re courtyard provided sweeping views of the Strait of Messina and mainland of Italy. With a view like this, how can you not love the Mediterranean? The inside of the church was gorgeous as well, and probably the 7th church we had been in on the trip thus far. But I mean, what’s Europe without rad churches?
On our way down, we spotted the largest swordfish I’ve ever seen in my life and caught the noon showing of the Bell Tower at the Cathedral and the Piazza del Duomo where a golden lion, rooster and man emerge in a fantastically quirky display showing off Messina opulence and tackiness. I have never seen so many cameras, iPhones, and iPads (oy) fixated on one single thing. Everyone in that square was filming the spectacle. From there, we observed the astronomical features of the clock tower and made our way into the adjoining church where we crashed a funeral in progress. No idea why the tour guide had the audacity to proceed with this facet of the tour, but Caroline and I remarked how we felt intrusive and uncomfortable being there. More travel stories I guess!
Our tour ended with cannola which we devoured. We split off from Zenric (my grandparents' names smushed together haha) for the afternoon, and strolled around looking for a coffee shop.
We settled upon the cute Comparello with an adorable light blue interior and mustache theme. I think the waiters were confused by the fact we were ordering cappuccinos at 2 pm aka tourist alert. It was a swanky little spot which allowed us to regroup and look up some more sites to hit.
One of those items was the Fontana di Netunno overlooking the sea. Heading in that general direction, Caroline and I walked along the waterfront sidewalk talking in the gorgeous Mediterranean afternoon. That perfection quickly faded due to the direct sunlight and we were dying from the heat. Can’t complain about the sun though, while I was here, it was nasty in Seattle.
The remedy for sweltering heat is to go shopping! Well, sort of…for some reason, we were having trouble finding the distinct shopping area, but this allowed us to explore the yellow blocks of residences and stores. Along the way, we stumbled upon more churches (shocker) and piazzas while marveling at how much we had walked.
With our time winding down, I was on the search for a good scoop of gelato because ITALY. How can you be in Italy and not get gelato everyday? That’s an absolute travesty. I got my gelato, pistachio to be specific, and attempted to get my iconic gelato picture and failed miserably. Devastating. Although, it tasted delicious. AND I also learned that pistachios are a huge commodity of Sicily, so it was like the most Sicilian gelato I could of gotten.
Because I was in Sicily, I also HAD to get some granita. Granita is like a shaved ice dessert drink sort of thing originating from Sicily. I opted for some lemon granita which was quite refreshing. Satisfied that I had eaten the holy trinity of Italian desserts (cannola, gelato, and granita), we made our way back to the boat and ended our day.
At dinner, Caroline and I looked at our stats and realized we had averaged eleven miles each day! As we compared our mileage, Caroline laughed at the fact the wait staff had changed their outfits for the evening as an homage to the two Italian cities we had visited. Why was she laughing? Well because they were wearing a striped shirt and ascot and so was I…
For the rest of the trip, we were secretly hoping I’d match them again, but it never happened. Easily one of the highlights from the trip!
Italia was amazing - as always! It was awesome to explore different cities than the ones I had previously been to. As the cruised continued on, we were eager to make our way to the Eastern side of Europe.