Here is how to make the most of a one-week Mediterranean cruise and see as much of Europe that one can possibly manage in one week. I planned our cruise to minimize any unpleasant surprises and yet leave room to be spontaneous and adventurous.
This article is not about cruise ships and you do not have to be a fan of cruises as my trip was mostly on land other than the overnight cruising. I felt that at the age of 57, I had delayed Europe long enough and with my busy business schedule, the cruise was the only way to get a snapshot of three countries and six cities in 10 days total, plus two days for flying from and to Canada. My wife does not like cruises, and I was left to travel with Lucas, our seventeen-year-old!
In August 2018, Lucas and I flew to Barcelona, Spain, the embarking port for the Norwegian, Epic cruise ship. It was our very first time on a cruise and our very first time to Europe except for England. I do not recommend August or July for this trip as it is high season for local tourism, and it is too hot to walk the cities (well too hot for me). However, if you have kids in school, then you understand that it must be summer, unless you choose to go without them.
Our ship would mostly cruise at nighttime giving us a full day from 7 am to 6 pm in most cities. That was perfect for me because there is only so much staring at water I can enjoy, and spending time in a tiny casino or eating non-stop are not my kind of pastime. If you are a cruise fan, then Norwegian Epic is great. They have about 10 wonderful restaurants, a superbly well-organized huge buffet with great selection of international food, a nice water park on the upper deck, and even a youth club with games, music, and dance to keep your teens entertained.
Every evening after our long city walk, Lucas and I enjoyed a nice meal after our shower and then watched a show or a musical performance before we hit the sack in our comfortable balcony room. I do not like closed spaces and a balcony room was well worth the small difference in price, even though we did not have much time to be on the balcony. Epic was also completely renovated in 2015, which meant it was clean and up to date on amenities. Always check the year the ship was build or was renovated before committing to a cruise.
Our cruise had stops in these cities:
- Barcelona, Spain – embarking
- visit Gothic centre, La Rambla, La Sagrada Familia church, Park Güell,
- Naples, Italy
- Rented a car and drove to Sorrento (an hour drive)
- Rome, Italy
- Took the train to the city centre and then the city tour-bus to Vatican City, San Angelo Castle, Piazza di Spagna – drove past Colosseum
- Florence and Pisa tower, Italy – walking tour, site seeing
- Cannes and Nice, France – walking tour, site seeing
- Mallorca (Majorca), Spain – took a taxi to Palma Nova beach, swam and chilled
What to pack? We traveled very light with one carryon and a backpack.The backpack was for our extra stuff and NOT for touring the city. I do not recommend walking with a backpack, even less in the summer. Other than the usual travel items, here are some essentials I had to buy.
- Light and cool walking shoes that were comfortable for walking and cool for summer. I bought a pair of nice leather sandals with good support and solid straps for walking. Also packed a pair of dress shoes for evening dinner on the ship and exercise shoes that I never used!
- Summer shirts. I ordered some European collared Linen shirts. They look nice, are cool, and comfortable. www.bensherman.com has a good selection of those if you live in Canada or USA. Pack lots of tees for less formal places.
- A couple of dress pants (linen and or khaki) for the evening restaurant and shows and dress shorts for long walks.
- Beach sandal and swimming trunk for the Beach in Mallorca which I ended up buying in Cannes
- Your credit card, Euro currency, and travel documents of course. Leave them in the safety box in your room and only take what you need for the day.
Barcelona, Spain: We arrived Barcelona three days ahead of schedule to experience one city for more than just a day. We stayed at the Boutique Hotel Violeta (http://violetaboutique.com/home/) in the centre of the city and only three blocks from the Plaza Catalunya. It was the best and most centric location in my opinion. I loved the hotel.
Violeta was a small hotel that reminded me of my apartment in Buenos Aires. The hotel is in a residential apartment building where they had turned two floors into hotel rooms. The Gothic architecture offered us a giant completely renovated room with a very high ceiling. We had two queen size beds in our room, a sitting area and plenty of open space. The reception was extremely helpful with information, and being small, made check-in a breeze.
Violeta Boutique also included a European coffee and pastry breakfast but if you wanted an American breakfast, there was a small cafe next door on the street level and plenty of other options within a three-block radius.
Our three days in Barcelona coincided with the Fiesta de Gracia (thanksgiving!) which was a 20-minute bus ride from Plaza Catalunya. I had bought a 10-ride Metro-Bus pass (Credit card size) from the Metro (subway, underground) station at Catalunya. Fiesta de Gracia was in the Garcia neighborhood where all the streets were colourfully decorated by the residents and live bands played all night on the streets and restaurants had set outdoor patios. The music was free, the food was reasonably priced, and people were jolly. It was my second favourite part of our time in Barcelona and we went there two evenings.
From the airport, we took a bus straight to Plaza Catalunya (Plaça de Catalunya) in 20 minutes and then walked three blocks to our hotel. I had the hotel directions Googled (searched) in advance. I am fluent in Spanish (the Argentine version) so taking public transit was natural for me. Although Barcelona is a destination for international tourism and most people in the industry seem to speak English.
I bought a SIM card for my phone (which was unlocked in advance) at the airport for €30 from Vodafone (https://www.vodafone.com/) that gave me 10 Gig of mobile data covering most of Europe for up to a month. It did not include coverage on the cruise ship.
La Rambla and the old Gothic city in Barcelona were 10 to 15-minute walk from our hotel or Plaza Catalunya. You want to spend half a day walking this area, watching the beautiful shops, the narrow streets of Gothic centre and try a street café or restaurant.
La Sagrada Familia is a must see for its architecture alone. We took a bus there, but you must purchase tickets in advance if you plan to go inside on a specific day and skip the long lineup. This is another half-day venture unless you want to tour the outside which is fascinating enough. I found it amazing to see how much craft and detail was offered to decorate the exterior of the building. It is no wonder that the new extension brings a modern and plain contrast that just does not quite match the elegance and masterful craftsmanship of the old.
Park Guell is another 20-minute bus ride to the higher altitudes of Barcelona. It is a beautiful park with some very interesting structures left behind. It was a good half-day break from the city to relax and enjoy the nature. You can also see the entire city from the top.
Restaurant can be pricey in the touristy Plaça de Catalunya area. I managed to venture a couple of blocks off the main streets and find some local small restaurants. We had a great satisfying meal at a fantastic price and mingled with the residents. I even found a little Italian owned pizza place! Of course, we also tried the more refined tapas restaurants. After all, we were tourists.
Naples, Italy: The longest leg of our cruise was from Barcelona to Naples which took a full day at sea. That was perfect because it provided us the opportunity to navigate the ship and the amenities, learn the evening programs, browse the list of restaurants, and to start our reservations. I did not think that Naples had enough to interest me for the whole day and I hungered to see the Amalfi coast. Amalfi coast was too far for a day trip, so I decided that Sorrento and maybe Positano would be close enough. I rented a car from Hertz in advance which was a five-minute walk from the port. The car cost me about $150 Canadian, tax included! Luckily, I still remembered how to drive standard transmission (stick-shift).
We made it to Sorrento on the scenic highway with no problem. Traffic did slow at some points giving the driver (me) an opportunity to enjoy the scenery. About 10 minutes before arriving, atop the hills on the narrow road that took us to Sorrento, I found a little space to park the car and breath-in the fresh view of Sorrento waterfront. We could see the sail boats floating on the Mediterranean blue water, and the colourful little houses built on the slope of the hill from the top all the way to the sea. The buildings were in so many colours as if the quaint Sorrento were architected by Michelangelo to be lived by DaVinci’s Mona Lisa.
Sorrento was so beautiful that we spent the entire day there. We parked the car in an underground parking across to Gran Hotel Europa Palace (www.europapalace.com) on the hilltop.
We must have spend about 45 minutes roaming the exterior of the hotel, admiring the architecture and the impressive iron gate, and then spending time on the back patio taking a closer look at the colourful buildings on the hill rolling down to the water. There were stone walking paths from the houses to the water where a giant deck with seats and shades turned the sea into a giant public pool.
The ladies in reception were extremely helpful offering us information and allowing me to charge my mobile since I had forgotten my charger! According to one of them, the German war maps were still on the lobby walks behind the giant paintings at this fortress (now hotel). I wanted to go down to the waterfront for lunch. So, the nice lady called her friend, the owner of a restaurant on the waterfront, and they sent us a car at no charge and after lunch they drove us back. The ride to the water was through narrow winding streets of Sorrento. After lunch we took a walk along the harbour and watched the sail boats rock on calm waters. I would like to spend a week or more in Southern Italy some day.
I forgot to mention that my cousin lives in Naples working on his PhD. He was our translator for the day. This was our first encounter in forty years (that is a sad tale that should not ruin this travel story). On the way back, we sat in a very nice café in Naples and had an amazing coffee and pastry before heading back to our ship. Italian pastry is the best, with my apology to mom and all the Persians.
Rome, Italy: The port for Rome is in Civitavecchia, an hour drive from Rome. A tour purchased from the cruise would have been around $300 CDN per person. I like to think that I am adventurous and enjoy experimenting the local ways as much as I can. However, I understand that you may think that I am just cheap. I am fine with that. My son (Lucas) and I took a five-minute bus ride to the train station and paid €10 each to take the fast train to Rome. I love trains a lot more than buses.
We could have ventured Rome with local transit; however, our time was limited and we could not afford any time asking for directions. If I recall accurately, the daily hop-on-hop-off city tour was about €20 per person. To visit Rome and only spend one day should be a crime but a snapshot to calm my itching curiosity was the deal I had taken. I would say that Rome and Vatican City would require at least a week. There are many ancient Basilicas other than St. Peter’s each offering a unique history and that alone is well worth a week for me.
The bus passed by the Colosseum, check mark. We were heading to the Vatican City knowing well that we may not make it inside. After all, Vatical city is a day by itself. The bus dropped us a few blocks away in front of San Angelo Castle also known as Mausoleum of Hadrian https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castel_Sant%27Angelo. The castle was a tall cylinder-like giant stone building walled all around like a fortress. I thought we would take a quick tour of the place at €15 (it was free for minors “Lucas”). We ended up spending over two hours admiring the decorated walls and ceilings with painting that were full of stories, and the museum items there were placed in its numerous rooms. We climbed many rocky stairs all the way to the top of this tallest structure in Rome, ventured the narrow hallways and took some pictures on the roof.
The entrance to Vatican City was a ten-minute walk. Before crossing the bridge over Tiber (Tevere) we sat on the patio of a river-side food booth to have a snack. We walked to Vatican City and spent an hour in St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro) observing the architecture, the elegantly attired Guards, the crowd lining up and the shops that lure the tourist.
Total cost of our Rome venture including transportation, admissions, and food (for two) was €150. Lunch was the biggest expense.
Florence and Pisa, Italy: Another restaurant and show evening aboard the Norwegian Epic, and we arrived in Florence (port of Livorno) early morning. Getting to Florence by public transit was too complicated. A car ride from port of Livorno to Florence was about 90 minutes and to Pisa around 30 minutes. I was lucky to find a private mini-van taxi (a brand new eight-seater Mercedes) that needed two more passengers to get going. At €50 per person to take us to Florence and then Pisa and back, it was a great deal. This deal could have been booked online in advance for €40. A lesson learned here. The other people sharing our ride were a family of four from Montreal, and a mother-son pair from Los Angles.
Everyone was very reserved and quiet. Lucas and I sat in the front with the driver and I spend the entire trip learning from our friendly driver. Florence is beautiful and quaint. However, I thought I had enough architecture in Rome and did not feel like lining up for an hour to see another church. We took a walking tour of Florence and had a meal at small sandwich joint run by two very funny and entertaining ladies. They offered a great selection of artisanal sandwiches, but almost two years later now, I cannot remember what I ate.
Pisa was another little town walled all around. I can imagine the great length the leaders had to go to protect people from attacks and we so often take our freedom for granted. Of course, we must protect ourselves from partisan politics and corporate lawyers, but that is easily manageable. At this point of the trip, I had enough sight seeing. I would have been good with a video of Pisa on YouTube. Here is a picture of the magnificent but defected marble structure. Florence & Pisa pictures:
Canes and Nice, France:
Canes, France was physically the most beautiful city on this trip, in my opinion. It was manicured clean and peaceful. Canes did not have a port for the cruise ships, hence we had to anchor in the sea and take the emergency boats to the shore. The emergency boats were giant, and each held about 200 people. We had a short time here and we were tired. I should have taken a tour bus, but my sense of adventure (or cheapness) had us walking up the steep and narrow winding street and then back down to the city centre for a bite.
I found a small sandwich shop to share a ham and cheese baguette and a couple of drinks with Lucas. In my broken French, I asked the young lady behind the counter if she could cut the baguette in half for us and she gave me a stern “Non”. I am not certain whether that was a lack of courtesy or I had crossed some religious or cultural boundaries. It was simple enough to split the baguette with me hand. We should have continued our tour of the city and stayed in Canes as I had advised our friends from Quebec. However, a sudden urge came over me to take the train to Nice. We did, and Nice’s downtown and beach area were beautiful to walk; however, the injustice I did to my own principals of travelling is unforgivable. The whole day was just too rushed and consuming.
Canes, city market
Mallorca (Majorca) Spain:
The trip from Canes to Mallorca was the second longest leg of the cruise. We arrived Mallorca around 1 pm giving us roughly five hours on the Island. After seven days of walking the cities in the heat of August, even the young Lucas was exhausted. The port in Mallorca was not walking distance to any interesting place and Lucas wished to spend the day at a beach. Great idea, I thought.
I Googled the most scenic beaches nearby and Palma Nova was the second choice but the only feasible option due to our limited time. We had a brief line up for a taxi right at the port. There was a family of five from Peru from our cruise in front of us in the lineup and they could not all fit into one taxi. I invited the grandpa of the family to come with us since they were heading to the same beach. Grandpa was a good companion and an opportunity for me to learn about Peru. We agreed on a time for going back together and then split to our ventures.
Palma Nova was perfect to spend a day. The beach had the right amount of crowd and was decorated by some rocky hills on one side for us to take a walk in between swims. The water was perfectly tempered, calm, and clear blue. There were no high rises nor big tourist hotels on this beach and plenty of restaurants and shops. For lunch we crossed the street on the beach to a patio and I shared a nice pizza and drinks for €12. We paid €15 for the bamboo umbrella and two chairs to have our spot on the beach and about €35 total for the taxi ride back and forth. That brings our total to €62 for a beautiful relaxing day in Majorca.
I would like to spend a week in Mallorca. There are many scenic quaint towns and beautiful beaches to enjoy. If you are interested to know more, you can search for Palma, Sóller, Valldemossa, and Pollença. All these are on the west side of the island and within an hour drive from Palma. I would stay in Palma and make day trips to each of these towns. If you are a tennis fan, then you will probably add Rafael Nadal’s academy (https://www.rafanadalacademy.com/en) to the list, which is about an hour drive east of Palma.
Barcelona Cruise Port