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HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR PORTS OF CALL & EXCURSIONS
Our cruise began in the architecturally stunning Catalan city of Barcelona. We boarded the ship in the mid-afternoon, toured the ship – wow! … but more in an upcoming article – unpacked, and gave into our jet lag. The next day we went on an included bus & walking tour entitled Panoramic Barcelona to revisit a city we knew we loved. Fabulous history and architecture from our guide, superb photo ops, and a walk through the Medieval part of town known as the Gothic Quarter.
When we arrived near the Picasso Museu , the walking tour was winding down and so we continued on our own to visit the museum which emphasized the rhythm, color and movement of Picasso’s work as well as the critical influences that shaped his various periods. Then we passed several glorious hours at 7 Portes, a landmark restaurant since 1836 featuring traditional food & wine where we enjoyed the people-watching as much as the divine food & wine … Sra. Carmen’s cod with aioli mousseline was spectacular. The Catalans are a friendly people, and the charming couple sitting at the table next to ours struck up a conversation with us. Memorable!
Toulon was our second stop. While we’ve vacationed quite a bit on France’s fabulous Cote d’Azur (aka, French Riviera), we had never spent much time in St. Tropez. So after we docked, we disembarked and walked to the local Hertz dealer in Toulon where a rental car was waiting for us. We drove leisurely along the coast from village to village, enjoying the rustic beauty of this countryside, and finally arrived in St. Tropez where we had a reservation for lunch at the one & only Senequier … where the beautiful people drink, eat and people-watch along the town’s shorefront made famous by Brigitte Bardot. Speaking of “people-watching”! It’s almost a national sport in France.
Well Brigitte is long gone, but the restaurant had spilled out onto the wide pavement in front and we had a glorious table in the warm sunshine with a juicy view. Sorry, too early in the season — no bikinis. But the young lady and her mother at the neighboring table had 2 little high-pitched and bejeweled dachshunds with them who were seated at the table with them, and in fact we were surrounded by a most colorful cast of characters. As for our lunch … I enjoyed a delicious Violet de Provence Artichoke salad with generous slices of parmigiano reggiano cheese followed by a Tarte Tropezienne Senequier. Yummy.
Day 3 we docked at spectacular Monaco where we enjoyed the included tour which took us on a magnificent walking visit of the historic part of the city. Along with the history of this playground for tourists and tax haven for the ultra-wealthy, our tour guide gave us an in-depth talk on the history of the Monegasque monarchy, entertaining us with stories of the royal family and taking us by points of interest, such as the magnificent home of Princess Caroline.
When we parted from the tour, we went for a royal chocolate fix at La Chocolaterie de Monaco and loved it! We next took a ride around Monaco to enjoy the breathtaking views of this tiny but magnificent country, both downward towards the azure Mediterranean and upward towards the stunning Alpes Maritimes. We landed at our favorite restaurant for a late lunch, the Café de Paris just next to the Casino and enjoyed a superb lunch of roasted stuffed saddle of rabbit and a seasonal tarte aux framboises … très français et très très bon! We finished our afternoon with an exclusive private tour of the Yacht Club de Monaco, one of the world’s most exclusive members-only clubs founded by Prince Rainer in 1953. Aaah, the views of Monaco from the Club were stunning!
Tip: I also highly recommend touring the Palais Princier de Monaco and La Collection de Voitures Anciennes (Monaco Private Collection of Antique Cars) … and don’t forget the famed and exquisite Casino de Monte-Carlo !
At the Eternal City we opted for the Rome on Your Own excursion for a convenient and enjoyable ride to and from the heart of Rome to do some independent exploration of a city we had visited many times. Our tour guide provided us with a charming lecture on the history of Rome on the way to our drop-off point, the Vatican, and then again entertained us on the return. Our plans were to focus on the work of my favorite sculptor, Gianlorenzo Bernini of the Baroque era, and to try out a new restaurant. So in the quest of Bernini, we hopped a taxi to the Villa Borghese. Also well known for its magnificent gardens, the Villa houses an impressive collection of Bernini’s work, including the David, Apollo and Daphne, and the Rape of Persephone. So tactile and lifelike, these splendid sculptures compel the viewer to walk around them as they are meant to be enjoyed and admired from all angles.
After a sufficient period of admiring and enjoying Bernini’s genius, we taxied over to Roscioli for a late lunch. Food and wine have been the Roscioli passion since 1824, and the younger generation is no exception. The family business includes a restaurant, delicatessen, old-fashioned bakery, pastry cafe, and wine club. When I think of devotion to food in Italy, Rome is not the first city that comes to mind. Yet the experience we had at Roscioli — from the local red wine platter of salumi (“cured meats”) to the burrata and the special pasta dishes of Rome, La Matriciana and La Carbonara, to the Tiramisu — was simply superb and leaves me salivating to think of it again.
Replenished and reflecting upon the winning combination of top quality local purveyors and owners with a passion for perfectionism, we headed out to the Piazza Navona. If the Villa Borghese was the main course of Bernini, his Fountain of the Four Rivers at the Piazza Navona was the dessert. We gazed upon this glorious work of Bernini’s, enjoyed the people watching, and headed on foot to the Vatican to reunite with our guide for the return trip to Civitavecchia were our ship was docked.
Tip: Best to order your Villa Borghese tickets in advance online.
After we docked late morning, we took another Viking included tour — A Panoramic Tour of Naples. We enjoy visiting this lively city … such a different vibe than the great Italian cities further north. Our guide was as lively as the city, and we appreciated her tour and enthusiastic explanation of the history and great sights of Napoli. But our hearts were in our plans for pizza-tasting. Were we inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray Love? Indeed! But we knew about the origins of “pizza” long before the book or the movie came out. We had done our homework. We knew where Napoli’s best pizzerias were, and like two hot-headed Italians, we argued over which to visit first and why. Finally, logic prevailed. Brandi is the home of the infamous Pizza Margherita, and Brandi was closing for lunch at 3:30. The others were open all day.
Fabulous decision. If you want authenticity with a charming quiet place to converse and savor a good local wine with your delicious pizza, most definitely go to Pizzeria Brandi. Not only is the pizza superb, but so is the service and the ambiance. Plus, the restaurant serves a full menu, so you have the option of a full balanced meal, if you so like. But once we finished our pizzas — and we devoured every last bite — neither one of us wanted more than perhaps a gelato. However, keeping in mind our initial objective of finding the best pizza in Napoli or least doing some taste-testing, we soldiered onto Da Michele — yes, the pizzeria made famous by “the book & movie”. Honestly, I have no idea why Gilbert had a love affair with that pizza in that place. While our pizzas were huge and at least 30% less expensive than the ones at Brandi, we figured we got what we paid for at Da Michele — soggy crust, runny cheese, lots & lots of students, loud & noisy and almost impossible to relax, no wine. Nothing but 2 types of pizza on the menu and a couple of sodas plus water. We took a few bites of our pizza, paid our bill, and patted ourselves on our backs for starting at Brandi.
Tip: Make sure to order your pizza margharita at Pizzeria Brandi with the “buffalo mozzarella”.