We just got back from a bunch of random places that involved some plane, some train, and some cruise ship. Before getting into each, I have some honorable mentions regarding travel providers:
We flew to Europe and Back on Norwegian Airlines, aboard the “787 Dreamliner Experience”. I can’t speak highly enough of Norwegian. For starters, even with low fares, they allow you to book transatlantic one-way travel with no premium (unlike so many other international carriers). This allowed us to piecemeal together a very flexible trip. The cabin itself lives up to all the hype. The seats are spacious and accommodate long legs nicely, the window technology is awesome (you can see through them without letting light in, keeping cabin light down), it was very quiet inside, and I totally believe them when they say the Fresh Air and Cabin Pressure technologies allow for minimal jet lag and eye, nose, and throat issues. I give Norwegian an A+.
We used booking.com for all our hotel reservations and would give each of them the highest ratings possible. We completely trust the booking.com reviews, the variety is spectacular, prices are typically great, and we like the fact you can book directly (unlike some other travel review sites).
We sailed on the Celebrity Equinox from Venice to Istanbul, which is a sister ship in the same class to the Silhouette, which was the SS Coachella. It remains a spectacular ship and is rated a 93% and 4.5 stars on cruise critic for good reason. We didn’t spend much time on the boat because the cruise was so port-intensive. It was like renting a house at Coachella and using it only to sleep in. You really appreciate it after a long-day of exploring new places. We originally booked the cruise through Celebrity itself, but cancelled and rebooked through Costco who included a second cabin, free premium drinks, and gratuities for the same price. I don’t understand the whole travel agent industry, but Costco really came through strong.
As far as scams and annoyances go, the only thing we encountered were the overly abundant, overly helpful, helpers at Rome Termini. They spoke perfect English and acted like they were customer service agents directing you to where you need to go and then asking for compensation for their efforts. They’d get in front of you and ‘Lead’ you to your train or whatever. There were SO many of them, even on the trains before leaving the station to help you with your luggage and find your seat. When we couldn’t find a safe place for our suitcases, I finally broke down and allowed two of them to show me where our bags would fit above the seats. I gave them a total of 2 and 3 Euros and they wanted more. Needless to say, I kept a very good eye on our bags until the train started moving (and at all times I guess).
To close off Norway, it’s a beautiful country with friendly people, and lots of outdoor activities. We spent four days in a valley carved out by the incredible rushing Otta River. We closed off with Oslo, which was nice, but doesn’t really compete with other larger EU cities. The value of visiting Norway is heading North.
Geirangerfjord (from below the clouds)
One of the days we drove to the source of the Otta river and then down a steep mountain down into this amazing fjord with waterfalls flowing down into it from all directions.
Village at the end of Geirangerfjord
Geirangerfjord (from above the same clouds)
We spent two days in Rome doing all the normal sites, but one of the highlights for our entire family was the Vatican Museum. The day before, our kids bored themselves to death with the Audio tour of the Coliseum and Forum. We heard good things about the kids audio tour of the Vatican, so we decided to give it a try. The kids program was set up like a combination treasure hunt and history lesson. Only our kids know what was coming through their earphones inside the museum, but it was working. They didn’t want to leave. After each piece, they’d turn to us to teach us about it, which sounded much more interesting than the adult version we were listening to.
Also, we made Vatican Museum reservations the prior night at 11PM on their website. 13 hours later, we walked past the enormous line and right into the museum. Hot-tip: the reservation system is awesome!
Steph and I have been to Venice, so we wanted to kick it off with something different by buying a 36 hours vaporetto pass and heading straight to Burano. Very nice and relaxing to get away from the crowds of Venice. We walked around the island over the course of a couple of hours and found ourselves alone on many of the canals surrounded by brightly colored homes.
View of Venice from Giudecca Canal
We left Venice in the midst of an amazing Thunderstorm with 360 degree views of lightning strikes (wish I was sharp enough with the camera to capture some). Regardless, it was a surreal trip down the canal with incredible views; one that won’t be around for much longer as they dredge another entrance into the cruise ship terminal.
Pretty easy to get around via busses and walking. It had a feel much like Tallinn or Riga, but with a warmer, Mediterranean feel.
View of Walled City from Mount Srd
Stairs within Walled City
Corfu and Katakolon
We took a couple days to break up the trip and relax on beaches. In Corfu, we rented a car and “Snorkel-hopped” the island. We decided to skip Olympia and do the same the next day in Katakolon, taking the “tourist-train” to a nearby beach for the day.
Route to Fira
The way back down was a different story. With two cruise ships leaving that evening, the cable-car line was an hour long. We walked down the donkey steps. You are absolutely correct about the treatment of the mules / donkeys. In such a frequented spot, it’s unthinkable that they are still a viable option to get up and down the steps. The walk down was a quite memorable 45 minutes.
When we arrived in Oia, we were the only people in town not in their bathrobes on their terrace. It was beautiful, peaceful, and empty. We found a boutique hotel and sipped coffee poolside for an hour enjoying the view and serenity. We explored Oia the rest of the morning and drove down to the fishing village before heading South to the Black Sand Beach.
Ephesus was the most amazing set of ruins of an ancient city I’ve come across. Just refreshing the history books before we left was enough to get me excited. It did not disappoint. They’ve done a fabulous job restoring the theaters, temples, terrace houses, and streets from thousands of years ago.
The Terrace Houses are a section of the city that has been covered with a shade structure and crisscrossed with a set of tourist friendly platforms with see-through floors. There is so much active restoration, the place was buzzing with archeologists restoring frescos and mosaics, walls, floors, columns, and arches.
View from Memmius Monument throgh Hercules Gate towards Celsus Library & Agora
Library of Celsus
The reconstruction of the 2000 y/o façade makes for an amazing site, as do the walls inside.
Turkish Food Spread (Country Farm House)
For lunch, we stopped at a traditional country farm house about 10 minutes from the ancient city for the best meal of the trip. There were 30+ Turkish and Ottoman dishes with some tasty clay-pot recipes.
It was Ramadan in Istanbul, which added to the already bright color of the city. There were additional markets set up around Sultanahmet, festive lights set up around town, and a buzz of activity once the sun set each evening. The coordinated echoing of the prayers throughout the top of the loudspeakers of each Mosque was surreal.
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet) and Hagia Sophia view from Bosphorus
Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque view from Hotel
Inside Hagia Sophia
At night, thousands showed up to public areas to celebrate the end of fasting with elaborate meals on real dinnerware.
61 covered streets and 3,000 shops
Egyptian Bazaar (Spice Market)
Best combinations of scent imaginable.
Obligatorily Cliché European Vacation Photo