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Mediterranean holiday — cruise ship know-how and planning visits to European destinations
Jun 10, 2011
If you’ve done the Mediterranean, this may bring back some memories for you. If you haven’t and you’re thinking of heading there, you might find something of interest in the following.
Since we missed Italy and Greece on our youthful European sojourn back in the ’70s, we decided to join a group of friends on a Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona to Venice.
Following the cruise, we knew of two areas of Italy we really wanted to visit.  One was Cinque Terre in the northwest, which is a series of five spectacular, small cliff-side towns that are all connected by a hiking trail.  The other was the Tuscany region in the Chianti and hill country of north-central Italy. The sights and wine of Tuscany have been high on our list of “must-dos” for awhile.
The Cinque Terre is amazing, but the hiking between the five towns is pretty strenuous in places. And when not tiring, the steep, narrow paths along the cliff are downright scary! Fortunately, the magnificent views make the exertion worth it.
There’s lots of climbing in the Tuscany hill towns, too, but, again, the pay-off is incredible vistas, plus all that wonderful wine.
The easy part
Of course, the cruise was great and very relaxing.  There was nothing to think about except what to choose for that next dazzling meal.  The pampering and elegance of a cruise is pretty well established and doesn’t require much more of a sales pitch. On the other hand, 10 ports in 12 days can be pretty intense touring.  But in your planning, you can choose what to see and do ashore, so it’s really up to you.  Personally, we shy away from the high-priced cruise-excursions and are still at the “do-it-yourself” stage.  With diligent planning, you can usually duplicate most tours yourself to have greater control over what you’re seeing and to save a lot of money.  
Still, the “figure-it-out-yourself” excursion logistics can be quite frustrating. Trying to decipher trains, buses and taxis can ruin your day in port and many people prefer to bite the dollar bullet and let someone else take care of the cruise-tour details.
Visiting, even briefly, the beautiful and historic towns and cities along the Spanish, French, Italian, Greek and Croatian Mediterranean is extremely interesting and picturesque: Barcelona, beautiful; Monte Carlo, pristine; Florence, fabulous;  Rome, historic; Nafplion, Katakolon and Corfu, fascinating; Dubrovnik, spectacular; and Venice, intriquing.
It’s not surprising that so many people are signing up for a cruise or trip in this part of the world. It used to be that you could be the first of your friends to visit these areas. Now, when you mention them, they say, “Oh yeah, we did that last year.”
In prepping for any trip, you’ll probably devour many travel books for insights and advice. We liked several, but our favourite was Rick Steves’ Italy. You may have read him before or seen his travel show on TV. His easy-to-read style is wonderful and his down-to-earth advice and tips are invaluable. We even stayed in his favourite room in a very nice mid-priced hotel in Siena. I don't think he mentioned the nearby church bells chiming every half hour, though.
Yet, even with lots of internet and literary “how-to-get-around” help, travelling is at times confusing and tiring.  The  language, money and signs are all different. And the person you ask for help may be pleasant or cranky in a different language.
The train schedules can be puzzling and hard to figure out. And after you buy your ticket, you have to find the right track and the train may switch tracks at the last minute. Before boarding, you have to remember to validate your ticket in the yellow machine.  Then, you may get on the wrong train or wrong coach or the right coach, but the wrong seat, or it may be so crowded that there won’t be a seat for you. 
There may be two or more train-stations at your destination. Will you pick the right one? In fact, in the worst scenario, the train or bus might not even arrive as sudden labour strikes can magically materialize and screw up your day’s plans. Other than that, it’s a piece of cake.
The bus may come on time or not.  When it comes, it may not accept coins.  Maybe they want only tickets.  Where are they sold?  And when you get a ticket, will you remember to validate it in the machine before sitting down? Is there a seat?  Will you know where to get off?
The taxi driver may be great, or a con-man. Most are great, but travellers learn to be careful.   Confirm the fare before he throws your luggage in the trunk. Work through the possible ploy he’s using that he can’t speak English. He probably does and can at least tell you the fare. 
Rome is the taxi driver’s delight. Taxis around downtown are not bad, but in the outskirts, you can’t even say hello to a taxi-driver for less than 30 Euros.
Yes, some of the above happened to us, but you can come up with your own traumas, I’m sure.
Speaking of Euros
We were surprised that Italy and Greece were so expensive. We keep hearing about their economic crises, but apparently we travellers are not allowed to take advantage of that. Pricey places!  
The Euro cost us about $1.45.  We hope you get a better rate when you go.
On the subject of the economic crisis, we had a very brief day-and-night stop-over in Dublin, Ireland, to visit a friend.  We hear that their economy is not doing well either, but apparently we tourists are assigned the job of bailing them out.   
Dublin is a very nice place, but also very pricey.  The countryside is beautiful, and the people are extremely friendly and helpful. 
Take note, however, that the Irish are supposedly speaking the same language we do, but good luck trying to understand anything they say. Although, they probably have just as much trouble with our Canadianisms, eh?
You are not alone
Oh, did I mention the crowds?  I guess I better do that in the interest of full-disclosure. I suppose it was pretty self-absorbed of us to assume that no one else would be visiting Europe while we’re there. 
 We figured that late-April, early-May would be no problemo. There’ll be no one there, as it’s the summer that's so busy. Wrong!  We seemed to catch the Easter spring-breakers and the May Day long weekenders. The Mediterranean shoreline was crowded, very crowded.   The thought of being there in the summer, when it’s really crowded, scares me silly.
Even with all the travel trauma, it’s a wonderful experience. When it’s over, all the frustrations and suitcase dragging will fade away and the whole thing will be forever a joyful memory.
Just don’t suggest hiking to me for awhile.