Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The Big Trip: Santorini

Friday, October 10th, 2014

The third morning we woke up and headed to Zanzibar to have our usual breakfast before preparing for the trip of the day. When we looked outside the window it was still a bit chilly and to our surprise, the tops of the nearby islands were… covered with snow (!?)… The islands were a bit far away so we could not tell 100% sure whether it was snow or some white sand on top of the black mountains, so we had to wait a bit to get closer. After about 20 minutes of cruising we got close enough to be able to distinguish the white stuff on the top: they were villages :)… we were in Santorini!
We had a prepaid trip in Santorini also, which was entitled Trip to Oia Village, but it actually included 3 main stops: some wine tasting in a local winery, a walk in Oia village and some shopping in Thira, the main village. We did not dock in Santorini, because there is no dock that is large enough to accommodate such a big ship. Instead, we used a local tender service, which took us ashore, where our local tour-guide was already waiting for us in our designated bus (we were given numbers again, just like in Katakolon).

Once we were in the bus, we headed off on a winding road taking us to the top of the “Caldera” and our tour-guide already started explaining us about the history of Santorini. After just a short trip, we stopped at the first destination, the winery, where we were greeted by the cheerful staff with three types of wine and some snacks (cheese, baked stuff and olives). Apart from tourism, wine is the main industry of the island, so we had the chance to taste the results of their hard work at this stop (and spend some money on bottled wine, if we wanted to, at the “gift shop” 😉 ). Also, the view from this spot was very exciting, so we could have our first scenic pictures taken so early in the morning (too bad, the sun was not out fully, yet 🙁 ). We have spent about half an hour here and then we were ready to move on to the main destination of the trip: Oia village.

The trip to Oia took about 20-25 minutes during which the tour-guide continued to explain us more and more information about Santorini. Actually this was OK… it was better to get the information while on the bus, instead of cramming around the guide on the narrow streets of Oia. This way, we could first understand what we are going to be visiting and then we were able to just explore the location on our own. The village of Oia lived up to its fame: the houses are really that white and the streets are really that narrow as they are on the posters. The main street is really easy to follow, so it is not too hard to find your way around, but careful, there are some turns which may look in a way from one direction, but are completely unrecognizable when you are coming back. It is a small village, but you may get lost if you are not careful 😉 .

After spending enough time and money in Oia, we were ready to return to our final destination of our trip: the capital of Santorini, Thira. It is also quite the colorless village, but it is significantly larger than Oia. Admiring the great cathedral in the main square was enough of an additional experience for us, so we decided to just follow the path to the cable-cars where we had the option to actually go down using the cable-cars (our tickets were included in the trip), or follow the long pathway down into the port to admire the descent into the crater on foot. Option 2 did not sound too bad at first, but (there is always a but), we had to share our path with the donkeys (an old tradition of Santorini is the usage of donkeys), which was not really something we were happy about. Donkeys seem quite nice animals on picture, but they have a big problem: they smell. And it is not really a problem when you have to deal with only a couple of donkeys, the problem arises, when there are large packs of them… in that case the smell quickly sends a lot of the tourists towards the cable-cars. We were some of these tourists ;).

We got back to the ship a bit ahead of the rest of the crowds, so at last we could have our first lunch at Zanzibar without the additional nerve-wrecking 20 minutes of trying to find a place to sit down. Also we were among the first ones to occupy some of the strategically placed sun-beds and enjoy some sun-bathing in the beautiful crater of this unique island. For that day the animators planned some Greek dances in the pool area so the atmosphere was exceptionally Greek that day 🙂 . We have spent quite a few hours on the sun-deck that day, partially due to the atmosphere and partially due to a family who was late and caused us some delays until we got a hold of them. It was funny to see half of the ship applauding from the top sun-deck when they saw them stepping out of the last tender aboard the ship 😀 .

After leaving Santorini, we packed our stuff and headed back to our cabin to prepare for the “white party” organized for that evening. It was quite the “matching” theme for all the white we have already seen that day ;).

I have uploaded some pictures here.


The Big Trip: Katakolon

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

For people who do not know what the name in the title means (like me 🙂 ) follow this link. Now, the new names like Olympia that pop up from such a site provide a more clear information of what the place holds. Yes, this was the possibility to explore the pathways of the ancient athletes on a huge field on a hot sunny day. Or… to go to a nearby beach and enjoy the waves on a hot sunny day. We went for option B.
Kouruta Beach
Now getting to an actual beach near Katakolon is not easy. We actually had a prepaid “trip” to transfer us to the beach, so we gathered at one of the lounges of the ship to give our tickets and receive some sticky numbers and beach towels in return. After that, we just had to wait until our number was called, meaning we could disembark, get on the coach carrying our number and together with a guide from the ship enjoy the Greek countryside on a short trip to Kouroúta beach.

The weather was not as hot as the day before in Bari, but slowly it got warmer and warmer and soon after arriving to the nice and sandy beach of Kouroúta, the weather got ideal. On the beach we had a reserved location, with sun loungers and parasolars available free of charge for anyone ordering food or drink (we also had a dedicated waiter for our group). There was not much to see this day, but it was an excellent way of relaxing (we needed it 🙂 ) and to get ourselves filled up with sand 😛 .

Well, this was our first day in Greece (in our life) and that was already an experience on its own. The rest was not too exciting, but hey, the following days were much more promising in being full of things to see 😉 …


The Big Trip: Bari

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

After leaving Venice with the cruise ship, we cruised through the night towards the south at full speed (we could always check the map and local info on the TV in our cabin). By the next day, after we had breakfast, the ship already reached the main port of Bari, where we took a “powerslide” 😛 and docked with the front facing out of the port.

We were unsure if we really needed to book any excursion provided by the cruise while we were in Bari, since we were so close to the city center. We did not know exactly which way it was, but we knew we were close 🙂 . Anyway, we were informed, that there were buses standing in line to take anyone to and back from the city center at any time while we were docked in Bari for the humble amount of €8.50 (payable of course with our magic MSC Card). We decided to hop onto one of these buses and visit the city on our own.
The bus ride itself took about 5-6 minutes and it left us right at the city center. From there we just had to try and figure out where to go. There were some tourist panels with a map, they just forgot the “You are here” sign from it… (well, we were in southern Italy, so that should not have come as a surprise 😛 ). After some careful examination of the streets around us and on the map, we were able to pinpoint our location and find our first destination: Via Venezia, a very nice pathway around the old city center with a picturesque view of the blue sea surrounding Bari. We followed the path for a while and then turned into the narrow, busy Italian streets to check out how the old city looks like.

We basically admired the main cathedral, Basilica di San Nicola which offered us a bonus: a wedding ceremony was taking place just when we visited, so we could also have a look at how things like this are done in Bari 🙂 . After this we took a few wrong turns among the white houses until we managed to find our way out of the maze, just in front of Castello Normanno-Svevo, an imposing Norman castle built in the 12th century and acting as a nice tourist attraction today. We walked around it, took a few photos and decided we should grab something at the local “gelatteria”-s.

We sat down just across the entrance of the castle to a cosy restaurant, where we were served by a kind old man (probably the owner of the family-shop) with some of the most delicious gelato I ate in Italy. It was really refreshing, especially because according to the street thermometers there were around 40 °C in the sun. After cooling down, we slowly strolled back to the bus stop and went back to the ship.

Every evening on the ship, we had a recommended dress-code after 6 PM. It was not mandatory to wear the indicated clothing, but you could take part. This evening, it was “Italian night”, so we had to wear something red, something white and something green. Well, I wore blue 😛 . Anyway, the atmosphere that evening was very… well, Italian 😀 . The evening show at the theater was all about Italian music, everyone was loud and cheerful and dinner was also all about Italian food, plus some special spices added to it:

This night we even checked out the disco (Liquid Disco on deck 16), where the music was again all Italian. After some partying we were ready to retreat to our cabin, because the next day, another destination awaited us…

I have uploaded some photos here.


The Big Trip: D-Day

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Having settled our expenses in the hotel in Maribor, we were off to Venice, the departure port or our cruise, in no time. It took us a little more than 3 and a half hours to get there, following the lovely Slovenian highways and then the busy Italian ones. One thing to note about the Italian highways, is that these are toll-roads: there is no need to pay a general vignette, but you’ll have to get a ticket when entering them and pay when you get off. For us the toll-machine showed the price of €10.80 when getting off near Venice, so I think it is not as cheap as any of the other Highways.

Upon arriving to the pre-booked parking (P5) at Marco Polo Airport, the barrier automatically opened up as it recognized the license plates (it would have opened up anyway because there were enough free spaces 😛 ) and a ticket was issued. We parked the car at a convenient place, memorized the location (:) ) and headed off with our luggage towards the arrivals terminal, where we could hop on to the ATVO bus bound to Piazzale Roma in Venice. From there we took the People Mover and we got under the MSC flags at the port in no time (some details about how to get there are in my previous post). From there, checking in to the MSC Fantasia was not a quick process. Even though the company does everything to speed things up, the sheer number of passengers (~4000) takes time to get processed, so it is done in steps.
Step 1 – show your boarding pass and drop off your suit-cases: You have to stand at the end of one of the long-long queues and patiently wait until you get up front to show the ticket, get a bunch of welcome papers, and directions about where to leave your luggage and where to continue to proceed with checking in.
Step 2 – MSC Cards: Take the usual (as I was later informed) “on-boarding picture” and carry on to receive your MSC Card, get our ID-picture taken so that they do not loose you anymore ( 😛 ) and get a bunch of more papers about your cruise. After this you also get a bonus walk-through of all the discounts you can get if you buy one of the drinks packages you actually don’t need… no thanks 🙂 .
Step 3 – security: Almost as checking in to an airplane, you have to walk through a metal detector (somewhat lighter version) and then you may proceed to the ship.

When first encountering the MSC Fantasia in it’s full size, I had to stop: It was HUGE… I took a moment to take a video to try and capture this feeling for the future. No more words here, just watch:

After waking up from the initial shock of encountering the ship, the next challenge is to find your room. Everything is well labeled, but still it is a labyrinth. We had a windowless, interior room, on the 12th floor, because we figured we would not stay too much in the cabin during the day (and boy we were right… ). The initial encounter was not bad: everything was well prepared (apart from the Russian (!) language welcome paper, which was cordially switched after we notified it) and very tastefully decorated. Entering the room was possible with our MSC Cards (which we later found that had even more powers 😀 ).

Our luggage did not arrive to our room, yet, so we went to the reception and here… I had to take another video:

There was one more important thing to do at the reception: giving our MSC Cards some more power. This was achievable by going to the reception and ask the man at the desk to fill it up with the amount we payed by cash (minimum of €250 ). After this was done, we had all the power to freely move around and access (almost) all facilities of the ship.

Next stop, was the Zanzibar bar on the 14th floor, where we could take a plate and just fill it up with any kind of food. The selection was huge. And because we were hungry, the pile on the plates got huge, too. It was a nice first meal 😉 . This was the first time we had to use one of our MSC Cards for payment, too: every type of food is free at the buffet, but you have to pay for the beverages (apart from water and the liquid called coffee coming from the machine). The price for a coke (0.33l) was €2.5 plus 15% service charge.

After our delightful lunch, we were ready to take part in the compulsory safety training, so we had to go to our meeting point (indicated by our cards) together with our life-vests (from our room) and listen to the instructions. This was necessary to be done by all guests and we could not leave before this training was done. Once this finished, we were ready to go up to the sun-deck (15th floor) and take part on the departure ceremony. This meant basically a reasonable fight to get to a good position at the side of the ship, wave around (“smile and wave” 😀 ) to the people in Venice and listen to the music selection compiled specifically to this occasion:

By the time the houses of Venice got small enough to be boring, we went back to our cabin, and to our delight, we have found our suitcases already delivered there. This was wonderful news: we could at last get a shower and prepare for the evening show at the theater. We were 2nd seating diners, this meant that the show for us started at 19:45. It was OK, I was not that hungry, yet, anyway… The first show was very interesting: full of acrobatic moves, singing and dancing. It was a lovely 45 minutes, where we first encountered the animator team of the ship also.

The next big event of the day, was the dinner (from 21:00). Dinner on the ship for us meant gourmet-style dining, complete with white dress waiters and words you cannot even pronounce from your menu. All the food was included in the ticket price, so we just had to choose what to eat and eat it. Again, drinking was not free of charge even in the restaurant (which was called “Il Cerchio d’Oro”). Again, we had to use our MSC Cards for water and wine that we wanted to consume during our dinner. The prices were OK: a quite tasty glass of wine was for instance €5.50, plus 15% service charge.

After a tasteful dinner, we were ready to go to bed: it was a long day, with a lot of new things and we already had to be ready for the first destination of the cruise the next day…


The Big Trip: Getting there

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

On a Saturday morning we woke up (quite early) and headed off to the first “checkpoint” of our long trip. Our route took us through Hungary and into Slovenia.

Both countries require vignette‘s to be purchased in order to use their highways, so we had to buy one both for Hungary (~11.00€) and for Slovenia (15.00€). The one in Hungary was valid for 10 days (so basically we could use it on the return trip) but the one in Slovenia only for 7 days (one-way only 🙁 ). You can easily see the difference between the actual value of the two vignette’s… I must add, however, that the number of photos/videos taken on the Slovenian highways was much higher than the ones on the Hungarian highways (Hungary has quite boring highways… efficient, but boring…). Here is a short sample of the highways in Slovenia (these were made on the return trip, but it looks the same the other way around also 😛 ):

After arriving to Maribor, we checked in our hotel and went out to explore a bit this little town. I must admit it did not change much since I last visited: the streets were still very nice, very clean and this time the weather was better 🙂 . Given the better weather, we discovered that apart from the center, there is much life also in the river banks. There are nice pathways to just stroll around, have some fresh air and admire the swans. If you fancy you can also get into the many local bars and restaurants lined up there. An interesting POI that I just learned about is the house of the oldest grapevine in the world (over 440 years old):
Maribor vine
After enough walking around on the river banks, we decided to grab something to eat. We sat down at the most populated restaurant (Grill Ranca) which served local dishes and tried to figure out the what the names of the dishes meant. Luckily the waitress spoke a little English and with her help we found out, that most of the dishes contain minced meat (it was basically the same grilled, minced meat served in different ways). Anyway, I think the food is OK, even for such a limited variety. It basically resembles a well made burger (without the buns) and if you like burgers, then this is worth a try.

After somewhat filling our bellies, we had a nice walk back to the hotel and prepared for the next day, which was the most promising of all: the first contact with the cruise-ship.