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A Trip report-From the Perspective of a European Newbie

This past weekend seemed to be the longest of long weekends thanks to the Pandemic and being isolated from family and friends, and so I decided to write a Trip Report about our first European adventure 6 years ago. For my wife Carla and I, Europe in general had always been a bucket list item, but time/jobs/kids always seemed to get in the way. Now, we’ve now been to Europe 4 times in the past 5 years and our 5th and 6th adventures are/were scheduled for Scotland in June and England in September, both will/would be on-our-own self driving trips. But our first trip was a cruise followed by a 5-night stay in Rome In October 2014. I did do a post a few months ago about why I thought a cruise was the best choice for us at the time https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/general-europe/how-cruising-helped-us, and now I’ll try describing the trip through my eyes as a first time European visitor. *This report will be focusing mainly on our destinations and not on the ship experience.

It was this trip that I discovered Rick Steves. We’d booked the trip in November 2013 and for Christmas, I had gone to the bookstore to get Carla a couple of travel guidebooks. I grabbed a Fodor’s Mediterranean Cruise Guide when I noticed a blue and yellow book about Rome. I almost didn’t buy it because I didn’t really like the book’s yellow and blue cover. Little did I know that the RS Guidebooks would become my ultimate go-to guide for every trip moving forward. That book helped me answer quite a few of my initial fears and concerns of going to a strange place for the first time, such as how to get from point A to point B, tips on how to fit in, and my greatest concern which was language. But the most memorable piece of advice I took from the book for this first trip was how to cross a street in Rome. I smirked to myself when I first read that, but until you’ve been to Rome, you won’t understand the value of the advice to catch the driver’s eye and then start walking. You may wonder if it’s safe that first time you try, but driver will stop…or at least slow down.

One other experience that made me realize that I shouldn’t expect perceived North American ideals when travelling to other places was an email conversation I had with a tour company in Naples. The similar excursion offered by the cruise ship was ridiculously expensive (see more on my Day 9 post), and after some research, I narrowed my decision down to two companies for an excursion that included Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. But one was significantly cheaper than the other. So, I sent a message to find out what was included. The cheaper company messaged back that everything was included and not to worry, and so I started worrying and asked very specific questions about what was included. Finally, I got a message back that said, “Everything is included, unless it’s not.” I went with the other company.

Trip report is continued in the ‘comments’ section;

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Day 1

This was a travel day from Calgary to London to Rome which started the night before with a 10:30pm flight to London and we eventually arrived in Rome at about 8pm. We had extensively researched how to get from the airport to Civitavecchia where the cruise port is. Being our first time in Europe and having no experience with trains we had decided on a private car service, however they all had premium pricing for fares after 7pm so we ended up paying €119-payable in cash to the driver to take the two of us to our Hotel. We used Civitavecchia Cab Service https://www.civitavecchiacabservice.com/. We chose them because they were one of the few that advertised that they had cruise port accessibility and could pick us up right from the ship after our cruise was over. The driver met us at the gate with my name on a board and he was all smiles and friendly-but very limited English. This became my first driving experience in Italy and apparently red lights and stop signs are just a friendly suggestion. But we made it and checked in for the night at Hotel Traghetto http://www.hoteltraghetto.it/en.

Day 2

3am. It’s 6pm at home and I’m wide awake. Once again, Carla is right, this time for suggesting flying in a couple of days early to acclimatize ourselves…
Got a few hours sleep but was up at 7. Hotel came with a free breakfast. We chose this hotel because the shuttle to the cruise port was right across the street. There was nothing fancy about the hotel, but it was clean, and the owner Giuseppe was incredibly friendly and outgoing. Our room was huge and also had a balcony that overlooked a 5-street roundabout that was highly entertaining. My first full day in Italy and I’m already learning how Southern Italian traffic works. At one point I watched traffic in all directions come to a complete standstill while a guy got out of his car and just wandered up and down the street for about a minute talking to people and pointing and gesticulating, and then he finally got back in his car and drove away. The most surprising thing is that this whole time, not one driver honked his horn or yelled at the guy, they just let him have his little fit and then moved on. The Italian way, I guess. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We spent the day just wandering. When I think back there is nothing special about Civitavecchia, but as a first-time visitor to Europe we were in wide eyed wonderment looking at the old buildings. That was entertainment enough.

Day 3

Woke up, stood on the balcony and we could see our cruise ship-The Norwegian Epic. 4228 passenger capacity https://www.ncl.com/ca/en/cruise-ship/epic. We had a mid-ship balcony. We’d been on a cruise once before-to Alaska, a family trip chosen by my in-laws for their 50th anniversary. We had booked 2-inside rooms for Carla and I and our two teenaged kids. Never again with an inside room, only balconies for now on and we loved the choice. I know there are some very emotional opinions on cruise ships; especially the large ones, but we loved this ship. Cruising for the sake of cruising has never been our intent; it’s always about the destinations and we quickly fell into a daily routine. We liked to be first off of the ship to explore and then come back just in time for dinner, then watch a show, wander the ship back and forth for a few decks, then sit on our balcony and talk about our day.

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Day 4

First stop, Port of Livorno, destination-Florence. A cruise is only going to give you a 1-day snapshot of a destination and so it was important to go with that attitude that if we liked what we saw, we’d come back on a future trip. What a snapshot, Florence is spectacular. This was the only stop where we paid for the cruise line’s excursion. Very Expensive, $110 each for a bus to Florence. We chose this instead of trying to get to Florence on our own because we found the various cruise guides to be lacking in detail of how to do it on your own. The guides all say get yourself to the train station, but not really any explanations on how to do that; the port is massive, and we were far out in the port beyond walking distance to the port building and even though the guides say there will be a shuttle bus available, we never saw evidence of one. Even now, with the experience of being at that Port, and reading some reviews, I’m still unsure how I’d get from the ship to the port and then to the train station. We didn’t book anything for Florence such as the Uffizi; but being newbies it was enough just to wander. Travel tip, cross the river and wander up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo https://www.visitflorence.com/florence-monuments/piazzale-michelangelo.html for views back into town. Some of the photos I took from there were the highlights of the trip. I got this tip for an RS guidebook. We had downloaded the RS walking tour of Florence and gave it a try, but we got turned around and mixed up of what we were supposed to be looking at and where to go, so we soon gave up. I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of the RS audio guides, I find them a bit dry and, in this case, hard to follow. But in any case, Florence was a success and on the list for at least a 1-night stay in the future.

Day 5

Cannes. In his guidebook, Ricks says of Cannes that you can buy a gelato at one end of town and before you’ve had your last lick you’ve seen everything you need to see. I disagree. Once again, it’s partly because it was our first trip and wandering through the old town kept us in wide eyed wonder. But we also discovered that the stuffy French personality is an undeserved stereotype. A couple of times we must have looked confused or lost (we weren’t) but locals approached us and asked if they could be of help. In the afternoon we took a 10-minute ferry ride to Isle Sainte-Marguerite https://www.avignon-et-provence.com/en/monuments/fort-royal-cannes. This was a big deal to me because I’m a big fan of Alexandre Dumas who among other stories, wrote The Three Musketeers saga, the 3rd adventure being the Man in the Iron Mask. The reputed real Man in the iron Mask was reportedly imprisoned at the fort on the Island and there is a museum which shows the cell; by European standards it’s a pretty nice apartment with ocean views.

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Day 6

Palma, Mallorca, Spain. Palma is a resort town on the island of Mallorca and apparently a popular sunny destination for Europeans. It wasn’t our favourite day, but it was pleasant. We made a habit of eating gelato every day and Mallorca had one of my two favourites-chocolate with chili peppers. My other gelato of note was in Florence-Cinnamon. It’s about a half hour walk from the port to town and I was outraged that the ship wanted $10 for a special shuttle bus, so, we walked and walked…if we ever come back, there is a bicycle rental shop right at the port and next time we figure we’ll do that instead as there is a nice walking/biking promenade all the way into town. It’s a resort Island and if you’re idea of a good time is just to relax, then it’s as good as any, but I don’t like sitting still. It’s a beautiful place, but for us, one visit was enough.

Day 7

Barcelona. One of the arguments against cruising is the limited time you get to see a place and Barcelona is one such place that you need more than 10 hours ashore. But the advice to treat a cruise as a taste of what is there and what you want to spend on a future extended visit was meant for a place like this. The cruise port is huge and too far away from town to walk, but I had read that the port did provide a shuttle bus for €4 to get us to Los Ramblas which is the centre of the tourist area. When I looked out my balcony window there was already a long line, of more than 150 people which I was assumed was for the bus, but when we got outside we discovered it was the taxi line and we walked right onto the shuttle bus about 50 metres away that had no line. Score one for the guidebooks, apparently nobody else had read that.

We had booked a bicycle tour through Fat Tire Tours https://www.fattiretours.com/barcelona/ that just took us on a 4-hour tour of some of Barcelona’s top sites. In my younger days I would spend many weekends mountain biking in the Rockies and so I’m very comfortable on a bike, but Carla was not, especially riding through some of the crowded tourist hotspots, so she didn’t particularly enjoy it. The one thing about Barcelona that really left an impression on me is the bike lanes. They are so well laid out and so when we were riding on the streets outside the tourist zone, we always felt safe.

The other impression it left on me was how huge soccer is around the world. Lionel Messi plays for Barcelona and is (was?) the best player in the world. If you thought your hometown’s athlete was uber famous like Brady in Boston or James in Los Angeles/Cleveland, it’s nothing compared to the popularity of Messi. I’ve never seen anything like it. His name and picture were everywhere, and you couldn’t take 5 steps without seeing someone with a Messi jersey on or a store selling Messi jerseys. We’re sheltered in North American from the global soccer phenomenon and it makes even the NFL small in comparison.

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Day 8

Cruise day. It’s a full day on board as the ship moves from Barcelona to Naples. For us, a ship is just a means of transportation and so we don’t spend too much time worrying about the ship as compared to the destinations but one thing about a large ship like the Epic, it has a lot of entertainment including headliner shows such as Cirque de Soleil, Blue Man Group and Legends in Concert, we also saw a Beatles tribute band playing in one of the bars one evening. As for food and service, we found Norwegian all over the map, I can say the best meal I’ve ever had on a cruise ship was on a an NCL ship, but also the worst meal I ever had was on an NCL ship. Same for service, some people were good, some were so bad I’m surprised they were hired, there didn’t seem to be a standard level of food or service from area to area on the ship. Our typical routine once we were back on board for the evening was to eat early, catch a show at around 7:00, wander from one end of the ship to the other a couple of times and then sit on our balcony and read or talk about our day until about 10:00, then off to bed.

Day 9

Pompeii and Amalfi Coast. This is the day where I can bare my soul about rookie traveler mistakes. We tried to do too much and ended up seeing very little. Pompeii was a bucket list item for me, but Carla didn’t care about it and wanted to see the Amalfi Coast. We compromised and found a tour on Viator that offered both. By the way, the tour we took was almost half of the cost of a similar itinerary the cruise line offered, we paid $115 each and the Cruise tour was $225 each. I don’t think it was a matter of you get what you paid for, it was a matter of the cruise lines gouging and hoping you don’t do your research. We were picked up at the Port of Naples as promised and dropped off on time as promised and we were in a 12-passenger van instead of a 50-passenger tour bus. Because we had too much to see in too little time we only spent 2 hours in Pompeii which in my estimation is about a day and half too little. But from what I saw it was everything I expected including some very well-preserved frescos in a bath house, to worn down cart tracks on the stone streets. Pompeii was a bucket list item after reading “Pompeii” by Richard Harris, the book had brought the place to life for me and so I could see and hear it in my imagination while wandering. By the way, I highly recommend a tour guide or Pompeii may just seem like a pile of rubble to you https://www.pompeionline.net/pompeii/.

Back in the van for a drive along the Amalfi Coast https://www.amalficoast.com/. The scenery was stunning but for both of us the highlight was watching the drivers along the twisty, narrow coast roads. How full-size tour buses make it along that road in the peak tourist season is beyond me. The guides would get out of their buses and walk in front and guide the bus around blind corners; multiple times having to back up and make the curve in a 3 or 4 point turn, meanwhile other traffic in both directions would be at a standstill. It’s chaos, but you ask our guide and driver and they’ll just say it is what it is. We don’t know when yet, but we are seriously considering the RS Sicily tour followed by a week in Sorrento so we can leisurely make our way through Pompeii, Herculaneum and possibly visit one Amalfi village per day.

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Day 10

Back to Rome. The cruise portion of our adventure was done, but now we had 5 days in Rome. Being first time tourists, we made all the typical tourists stops, ate a lot of gelato and did a lot of walking. NCL offers the option of carrying your own luggage off the ship and we took full advantage and were one of the first off. We had booked a car service in advance and went straight to Hotel Trastevere http://www.hoteltrastevere.net/ which is across the river from ancient Rome-about a 20 minute walk to the Colosseum and 20 minutes to the Vatican with considerable restaurant options for the evening.

The hotel is very basic at a very good price and has rooms in 2 buildings; the main building that the lobby was in and a second building next door that has some main floor rooms. I had read some reviews on Trip Advisor complaining about this, but we ended up being in the annex and it was no big deal. We’d walk out of our room, out the main door, take 5 steps and enter the main building. If there is one thing I would do over it is to select a more expensive room. I chose the cheapest room I could find, and while it was clean with a good bed, there was a shelf above the top of the bed that was at my head level when I was sitting on the bed, so I couldn’t sit straight up if I wanted to read. I left a review on Trip Advisor saying positive things about the hotel in general but advised not to take this room. If I remember the room number, I’ll update this post. Overall, though, the hotel was fine with an incredibly friendly host and a free breakfast. As this being our first trip, we had no idea that ice machines weren’t a common thing in European hotels. Carla always likes a glass of ice water with her and when she asked for ice cubes, the host was very concerned that she had injured herself and needed ice for an ankle or a knee. When Carla explained what the ice was for, the host had a big smile on his face and came back with a glass with 4 ice cubes. Without being asked, he had 4 ice cubes ready for Carla every evening.

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Day 11

We had an early group tour booked through Through Eternity Tours for the Colosseum and Forum https://www.througheternity.com/. I’ve mentioned Through Eternity many times on this forum and it made me a big believer in guided tours. Our guide had a Masters Degree in Archeology and had written her paper on Roman sewer systems and she was able to bring that knowledge to our tour and brought the Forum to life for us in a way that I never would have got on my own. When we were planning this tour I hadn’t considered a guided tour, but as I got more confused about how to pre-order tickets for the Forum and Colosseum I started to look at tours instead so it would all be taken care of. Best decision I made for this trip, the tour was outstanding and now I’m a big believer in guided tours wherever we go. For us, with a tour we get so much more out of a location than we would on our own. One particular thing that I still talk about is the many layers of buildings you can see from the Forum. At top is a current government building and then below-you’d see another building from the Renaissance era, then built below that was another building from ancient Rome. Just like layers of sediment.

Personally, I enjoyed the Forum more than the Colosseum. I thought there was more to see and more stories to tell about daily life in ancient Rome, our guide brought the place to life with tales of how people would line up outside a government building waiting for services (think DMV) and how they’d play dice games as they waited. As a sports fan, the most memorable thing about the colosseum for me was how modern stadiums are still built with the same design to get people in and out of the building. Score another for the tour guide, I would never have noticed if she hadn’t pointed it out, but above every entrance, there are Roman Numerals showing what gate number that entrance is-just like modern stadiums. http://www.tribunesandtriumphs.org/colosseum/tickets-to-the-colosseum.htm

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Day 12

Another tour with Through Eternity, this time to the Vatican. I don’t have much appreciation for art, but this is one of my most memorable days in Europe, ever. Carla wasn’t as big a fan because of the crowds, she’s only 5’ tall and had a difficult time seeing anything. It’s because of this experience that we’ve changed our strategy and plan to see things early or late in order to avoid crowds that obstruct her from enjoying a site.

Our guide had a degree in Art History and while she was born and raised in Rome, she spoke English with an Irish accent as she learned English while going to school in Dublin. She was also outstanding and brought the art to life in a way that I never expected as she concentrated on stories behind the art and the corruption of the church and how it led to the reformation. There was one room we were in; I can’t recall the name, but our guide told us it used to be the room that DaVinci would have his lunch in while working on the Sistine Chapel and the Pope used to join him for lunch in that room on occasion. Very cool info that I wouldn’t have got on my own. The Sistine Chapel didn’t really thrill me, it will go down as one of those places that you go see because that’s what you go see when in Rome. I suspect because the guide couldn’t speak to us while we were in the chapel and so we were left on our own just to look at the art. This is where I discovered I appreciate the stories behind the art, and not the art itself. We ended the tour at St Peter’s Basilica. Wow, the opulence. After all I’d learned on the tour about the corruption of the church it actually made me a bit angry about how much must have been spent on building the church.

In hindsight, if we could have a do-over we would have done the Vatican tour first and the Colosseum/Forum 2nd because of the last thing our guide told us; she said to take a look at all the marble in the Basilica and you could imagine what ancient Rome looked like because all the marble was pilfered by the Vatican from the Forum and Colosseum.

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Days 13-14

The final two days were spent just wandering, seeing some of the must-see sites and eating Gelato and soaking in the atmosphere.
One nugget I pulled out of the RS Rome guidebook was St Clement Basilica. The current church was built in the 12th century and was built over another church built in the 4th century which was built over a Pagan temple. The ‘modern’ church is pretty but nothing special, but you can go two levels below street level to see the original Pagan building. Being new to Europe and still fascinated on how old everything is, this was very fun to see.

Then it was back to the tourist hot zones for the rest of this day and next. The Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain. All interesting, and must-sees for first time visitors and I’m glad we saw them, but not sure if I’d need to see again. The crowds were the frustrating part for Carla again; especially the Spanish Steps…you couldn’t see them because there were so many people. Besides the big two-the Vatican and Forum/Colosseum my best memories of Rome will be wandering the piazzas after dark and just taking in the atmosphere. It was during this time, and with a newfound confidence for travelling out of our comfort zone that I realized that while I still enjoy cruising, and will do it again (yes I’m writing this during the pandemic), being able to see a location after dark is something special that I can’t get on a ship. One of the most amusing memories I have was one of these evenings; a conversation with a guy sitting beside us at an outdoor restaurant in Trastevere. He grew up in Poland, currently lived in Hong Kong, travels the world on business and said the best Chinese Food he’s ever had was in Chicago. I have no idea now how we got to a conversation about that, but it’s always stuck in my mind.

In any event, no regrets about a cruise. Since that first trip we’ve stayed in Venice for 5 days and then took another cruise, visited London on our own and then rented a car for a 1 week tour of Bath and the Cotswolds and then last year we did our first RS tour-Loire to the South of France. No regrets from any of the travel styles and hopefully they’ll be more of each.

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Allan, what a great idea! I'm now wondering if I can cull enough from the notes of our first RS tour: Best of Florence, 2009, to make a report.

I love the description of how you and Carla spent your evenings; one of the things Stan and I learned on our first tour was that the nicest part of the day was the evening - we would take a long, slow walk, he would probably get a gelato, then we'd head back to our room to share some wine, relax, and talk about the events of the day.

Maybe we can make this a "thing;" a retrospective report of our first (or some early) trip abroad.

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Thanks for your report Allan. I have only been to Europe 5 times, so I still consider myself a newbie!

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Maybe we can make this a "thing" a retrospective report of our first
(or some early) trip abroad.

Jane, I hope so, anything to move some of the focus from what we can't do right now.

Tammy, our last trip was our 4th and our first on an RS tour, we definitely still felt like newbies among the majority of that group.

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Allan, I thoroughly enjoyed your Trip Report. You included the "do's" AND the "don't's", making it so much more real for me.
We were supposed to leave for Italy [Lake Como, Venice, Sorrento] today, so I'm a little bit sad, and a great deal lucky that everyone I know is healthy, [and we did receive refunds for almost everything.] We are fortunate to have travelled internationally several times in the past 9 years [since I retired,] but I still feel a little pang for this cancelled adventure.
Here's hoping we all have several more years to explore new horizons.

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Thanks for the report. I had thought of doing one of our trip to Cartagena, Colombia. It isn't Europe but it was a fabulous place. I really enjoyed reading your past trip and hope that your next ones in the Summer happen.

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Thank you for posting! It's been so sad to not have any trip reports lately. Sounds like a wonderful trip!

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Thank you for this, Allan. We're NCL fans but we prefer the (relatively) smaller ships. And of course a cruise is no way to "see" Europe, but can be a good way to sample some destinations for possible future visits. And also a fun combination with a longer stay like yours in Rome. Even though I'm a foot taller than Carla, I can identify with her frustration at the crowding in the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. But you saw and did a lot in a limited time in Rome, and obviously picked good guides. Thanks for sharing your "newbie" experience. Maybe you'll want to share some of the later trips too (if you haven't already). Now that we're all holed up for the duration, and not even contemplating a cruise for a long time to come, it's fun to read about experiences like yours. Thanks also for the links to hotels, guides, etc. for possible future planning. Stay healthy and safe.

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Thanks for sharing your "newbie" experience. Maybe you'll want to
share some of the later trips too (if you haven't already).

Dick, here's a link to a Trip Report I put together over Christmas. I had to laugh at my opening sentence because it's similar to my current TR; I did it because I was bored. Apparently I have a theme of when I do my Trip Reports. I also did one from my RS Loire to the South of France tour, but it is in 5 parts. In hindsight, I should have strung it together into one. I'll post a link later on if anyone shows interest. If I remain bored I'll start working on the only trip I haven't done yet which was my trip to Venice and then a cruise. I was a bit concerned about posting a Trip Report about a cruise because of some of the venomous attitudes toward cruising on this Forum.

https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/trip-reports/trip-report-london-to-bath-to-the-cotswolds

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Allan, thank you so much for sharing your trip experiences with us. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all about them. You made your different travel experiences come to life for me and like you, " I appreciate the stories behind the art, and not the art itself." I still don't understand why "Mona Lisa" gets a room all to herself!

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I still don't understand why "Mona Lisa" gets a room all to herself!

Andi, you'd better be careful what you say. This is a post from a couple of months ago when I asked a couple of honest questions about the Statue of David. I wasn't criticizing it, just asking and trying to learn more. Very few answered my actual questions, many were snarky and one even thought my High School teachers had let me down.

https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/italy/david-why-see-it