Mediterranean Cruise Part III – {Nice, Monaco, Florence and Rome}

I’m going to fit in the final three days of our cruise into one post so I can move on and get caught up with current stuff.  It was a complete whirlwind looking back on all the ground we covered.  No wonder we collapsed from exhaustion by the time the vacation was over!

 Day 6: Villefranche, France – Nice, Eze and Monaco

Our tour began in the picturesque port of Villefranche, France.  We had a fantastic French tour guide for the day to take us around the area.

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Deciding to skip Nice due to time constraints, we drove along the stunning Cote d’Azur (azure coast) and up the winding, steep hills to Eze.  Our guide showed us the start of the Alps, which I didn’t realize began in Southern France.  The views of the Mediterranean Sea below we breathtaking and unforgettable.  That’s our cruise ship in the distance below.

 

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On our way, Tyler spotted an ancient Roman ruin which is the Trophy of the Alps.  Built in 6 BC, it was constructed in honor of the emperor Augustus and his victory over the many Alpine tribes.  It was destroyed by Louis XIV in 1705, along with all the other fortresses in the area.

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Eze, France

Eze was first inhabited over 2000 years ago.  We chose to explore a medieval village perched high in the hills 1,400 feet above the blue sea.  The boys loved exploring the narrow, steep cobblestone walkways and peeking in the quaint little stores and art galleries.  We made sure they didn’t stay in them long enough to break anything.  Not necessarily kid friendly inside!  The village was so enchanting, peaceful and beautiful– like stepping into a different time.  Walt Disney was known to spend a lot of time in Eze.

 

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Tyler’s becoming a fan of escargot!

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After climbing many rocky stairs, we saw the ruins of a 12th century castle that met its demise with Louis XIV.

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Monaco

Not far from Eze, we made our way to Monaco, the second smallest country in the world.  It is the most densely populated country, with over 35,000 people in less than .80 square miles of land.  Our guide told us all about its elaborate history from the unusual way the Grimaldi family gained control 700 years ago to the way it has evolved into a mecca of “lifestyles of the rich and famous.”  Monaco has the world’s lowest poverty rate and the highest number of millionaires and billionaires per capita in the world  – which were on full display with every exotic car, yacht and mansion.

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We made it just in the nick of time to see the changing of the guards at the Prince’s Palace.  It was quite small, but fun to see.  Prince Albert II and his wife had just recently announced their pregnancy news, which means Monaco now has an heir.

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We learned of Princess Grace Kelly’s terrible car accident on the hairpin curves of Monaco and saw where she was laid to rest in St. Nicholas’ Cathedral below.

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The entire area is so pristine and lovely, we had fun just wandering around exploring little shops, villas and gorgeous views.

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This whole are is on the Rock of Monaco, which has a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean below.

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Our guide showed us Paul Allen’s mega yacht “Octopus” anchored at sea, which was the world’s biggest when he bought it ten years ago.  A full tank of gas costs nearly $800,000.  A Saudi Prince has him beat with his billion dollar ship at port – with bowling alleys, disco floors, helicopters and other extravagant features.

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The Oceanographic Museum is in a beautiful site on the edge of the water.  If we had more time, we would have gone in to see all the sea life.

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Ready for lunch, our guide took us to a cute little restaurant where the kids got pizza, and the adults got delicious French food.

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It wouldn’t be complete without the daily gelato.  Nutella and Pistachio – yum!

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Monte Carlo is where the world-famous casino, theatre and ballet is, as well as many deluxe hotels and shops.  Very James Bond feeling.  The main source of income for Monaco comes from the casino.  I found it interesting they don’t have income tax, and very low business tax – but they don’t allow their residents inside the gaming hall.

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I was able to peek inside the Hotel Paris and it was about as fancy as it gets.  In the lobby is a bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV, with the horse’s tarnished knee from all the gamblers’ belief that rubbing it will bring good luck at the tables.

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The boys thought it was cool to be driving on a section of the Grand Prix.  We could still see tire marks and bleachers set up from the race just two weeks before.  It’s amazing they transform this little country every year into the most difficult of Formula One Championships.

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Back on the ship, we raced to clean up for dinner and really enjoyed the ice skating show afterwards.  The skaters were so talented, especially performing on a moving vessel, even if there were a few falls!

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Day 7: Pisa and Florence, Italy

We made a strategic decision to leave the little boys on the boat to play in the kids’ club since they were pretty worn out touring the day before, and let’s face it–eight hours of exploring Italian architecture, churches and art isn’t too thrilling at their age.  We had a full schedule and several hours of driving to see everything we wanted to.

Our Italian guide, who had a British accent, whisked us off to Pisa about two hours away.  Along the way, we learned a lot about the area.  Tyler’s inquisitive nature lead to all sorts of questions– which the tour guide eventually found frustrating at times.  He quizzed us on certain things and we felt like very uncultured Americans not always knowing the answers.  Not our favorite guide.  The drive through Tuscany was beautiful though.  Lush vineyards, country farm houses and cute villas tucked in the hills and valleys.  We passed a massive quarry that sparkled with white marble and limestone – the source for many of the famous buildings and statues.  It’s hard to imagine how they transported such heavy, massive amounts of stone in ox carts centuries ago to far away places to build.

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The Piazza dei Miracoli (Plaza of Miracles) has four sacred structures inside its walls.  Most famous is the Leaning Tower which was originally built as a bell tower to attract people to the nearby cathedral.  Built on unstable ground and interrupted by wars, it shifted over time.  Overcompensating for the shift, they added more height and reinforced the ground to make it safe.  They decided to keep its tilt since it is such a popular tourist attraction.

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The Pisa Cathedral, dating back to 1063, was a massive and amazing sight constructed in a Romanesque style with the unique white marble that is only found in this region.

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The Pisa Baptistry, the largest in Italy, was also stunning with white marble, but in Gothic style.  It has a slight lean as well.

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Finally, the Monumental Cemetery was built originally as a church on sacred soil brought in from Golgotha in the 12th century.  Its construction changed to that of cemetery, where a large collection of Roman sarcophagi are contained.

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Florence

Traveling on to Florence, we enjoyed the picturesque landscapes and were brought to the hilltops above Florence to take in the city’s view before heading in to see everything. The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Florence is rich with architecture and art by the most famous artists–Michelangelo, DaVinci, Botticelli, Donatello,Raphael, Titian and many others.   The city center is entirely enclosed in defensive  medieval walls built in the 14th century.

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The famous Ponte Vecchio bridge is the only one in Florence to have survived WWII.  It is lined with little shops, mainly jewelers, that are held up by stilts.

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We saw the famous Fort Belvedere – where the Kardashian/West wedding had taken place a few days prior.

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We were first shown the Basilica of Santa Croce, which is the largest Franciscan church in the world, and also the burial site for Florence’s beloved Michelangelo,  Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini  and others with a memorial for  Dante as well.

 

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I love all the intricate and amazing doors that invite you into these grand structures.

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Our guide pointed out the star of David, which is not normally found on Christian churches–but he explained that people from Florence are Florentinian first and their religion or race second.  They have extreme pride, unity and love for their homeland.

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Florence’s main church is the spectacular Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Duomo.  Beginning in 1296 and spanning over 200 years to complete, it has the largest brick dome in the world and a most intricate, beautiful display of pink, green and white marble.  One of the Renaissance’s greatest achievements, the Duomo dominates Florence’s panoramic view day and especially lit up at night.  It is so massive, I could not fit the entire cathedral in one shot.

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I was actually surprised how simple the interior of the cathedral was considering its ornate exterior.

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Inside the dome are beautiful frescoes of the last judgment.

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Giatti’s Campanille is a very tall bell tower and part of the Duomo complex, matching the unique marble design. At 278 feet high, it provides fantastic views of Florence’s city.

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The boys love petting all the horses in every city.

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At an authentic Italian lunch with no English on the menus, we weren’t sure what we were ordering, but loved every bite!  The bruschetta was delicious as was Tyler’s house special pasta.  We all left happily stuffed.

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Continuing our daily gelato fix, our guide promised to blow our minds with the best gelato in the entire world.  He took us to Grom and he was right – authentic, intensely amazing, and the best I’ve ever tasted!

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Once again, Nathan and Jace had more fun on the boat than touring with us.  They even wanted to stay in the playland longer, but it was time for dinner.  On our way through the main lobby of the ship, Jace ran his hands across the velvet rope next to a classic car on display and “clunk!”  The rope had unhooked and banged the side of the car.  He was so nervous!  I was relieved to see it wasn’t the first dent but he was worried security was going to jump out and bust him!

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We tried to make the most of our last night dining together.  We’ve had the best time every night as a family around this table and with our awesome server!  Many nights we were her only family in the dining room so we got taken care of really well.

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We splurged and got a bunch of lobsters for these seafood lovers.  Boy, can they eat!

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Tyler and Cade made sure to thank her and had fun delivering her tip.

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Saying goodbye to our last sunset at sea was hard.  It’s been an unbelievable week as a family and the time has flown.

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Tyler doesn’t miss a sunset, even if it means rushing out of dinner to see it.

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Day 8: Rome, Italy

Coming full circle, we ended our cruise back in Rome.  Our guide whisked us off for our final day of sight-seeing with a full day planned.  We were all pretty tapped out at this point, but mustered up the energy to tour around one of the world’s most interesting cities.

The Coliseum was our first stop.  It’s unbelievable to view ancient structures from the 1st Century, though it is just a shell of what it once was, having been damaged by earthquakes and robbed of its white marble exterior to build new structures nearby.  The brutality of what occurred within its walls to cheering spectators is hard to comprehend.  Still the largest amphitheatre in the world, seating up to 80,000 people, it was used in Roman times for gladiator contests and all sorts of public events.

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This is the entrance for the gladiators to make their grand entry.

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Cade was so excited to find a cool souvenir.  Hope he can make it through security to take home!

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The Altare della Patria, or “Wedding Cake” as the locals call it, is one of the more recent monuments in Rome.

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The oldest, most complete structure in Rome is the Pantheon. Once an ancient Pagan temple dedicated to all the Gods, dating back to the 1st Century, it was later given to the Pope in the 7th Century and transformed into a Christian church.  Now dedicated to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs, it has been in use ever since.  It’s really remarkable to witness a 2000 year old structure such as this! Michelangelo studied its dome before working on St. Peter’s dome.

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The only source of light comes through the opening of the dome, which miraculously does not allow water in when it rains.  (Photo courtesy of The Telegraph)

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Inside, the walls were lined with marble and there were many memorials for well-known Italians, including the tomb for Raphael.

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An ancient Egyptian obelisk and fountain sits outside the Pantheon, a symbol of triumph over Paganism and power of the Empire.

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The Trevi Fountain, or Fountain of Love, was wonderful to see, but was surrounded by a large gate so it made getting a good picture impossible.  Neptune, the greek God, Tritons and shells depict the “Kingdom of Oceans” as a gift for the Pope in the mid 1700s.  Throwing a coin in the fountain means you’ll return to Rome one day.

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Thanks to the web, I found a full picture which still doesn’t capture its magnificence. (Credit: Planetware)

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Time for lunch!  We never tire of Italian food and found a cute little recommended place that had delicious bruschetta and pizza for the kids.

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The boys had to greet a few more horses along the way.

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We spent some time walking the quaint streets of Rome and shopping for souvenirs.  I couldn’t resist buying a new leather purse and the boys had fun with birds on their heads.

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Taking a little rest with Pinocchio.

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We finished up our day at the smallest nation in the world–the Vatican.

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Only 100 acres in size, the Vatican is home to about 600 citizens–all clergy, cardinals, security,and of course the Pope at its head.  I was surprised to learn they print their own euros, stamps, license plates, passports and have their own national anthem and flag.

We got tickets inside the Pope’s Palace and walked through the long, ornate hallways, amazed by all the art from floor to ceiling.   I don’t think there was a blank spot to be seen, it was incredible!  Especially the ceiling.

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I wish we would have had more time to spend in the museum because it was massive and had the most interesting artifacts.

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Tapestries lined the walls depicting different scenes from the bible.

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Winding through the vast halls, we finally made our way to the Sistine Chapel.  I didn’t attempt to sneak a forbidden photo, but added one from the web.  It’s hard to visually take in everything, Michelangelo’s masterpiece of the Last Judgment was superb.   I wish we could have stayed longer to decipher and appreciate it more.

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St. Peter’s Basilica was probably my favorite part of our tour.  Considered the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture, it still remains one of the largest churches in the world.  Much of the white marble used here was taken from previous famous buildings, such as the Coliseum.

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According to Catholic tradition, the church was erected on the burial site of the Apostle Peter.

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Incredible artistic pieces of  sculpture and art are displayed here, as well as three of Italy’s most renowned masterpieces: Michelangelo’s Pietà , his fascinating dome (the tallest in the world), and Bernini’s baldachin (canopy) over the papal altar.

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There were so many phenomenal sculptures.  This is St. Andrew.

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St, Peter’s Square is the large open area crowds gather to hear the Pope.  It was designed for the largest amount of people to hear the Pope’s blessing.

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The Swiss Guard protecting the Pope.

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At this point we were completely wiped out!  What a day, what a week!

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If you want the largest gelatos in Europe, go directly across the Vatican’s exit.  This is the regular size!  Jace got through only the top scoop before we had to toss the melting treat to his dismay.  I can officially say we have reached our limit of gelato for a very long time!

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Roberto, our guide, drove us up in the hills to catch a glimpse of the city’s landscape, pointing out all the landmarks we had seen throughout the day.  We covered a lot of ground in just several hours.

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We barely scratched the surface of this historically rich and beautiful land.  This week has been an absolutely incredible experience for our family that we will treasure forever.

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