Let them eat cake

Twice a year a charity organization that I belong to contributes to the Holiday Bazaar at  Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. Members bake cakes, cookies, pies, or muffins and wrap them up in pretty bows that the SRHC auxiliary sells during the Bazaar to raise money for services.  It’s a privilege to contribute to this amazing facility dedicated to making children healthy. Yesterday I baked two cakes with an autumn flavor that I hope will make someone smile, enjoy and buy!  The first, Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting is from King Arthur, one of my favorite resources for ingredients (especially their flours), equipment, and recipes for baking.  I added a pecan garnish on the side of the cake to make it extra enticing.  The second cake is Pumpkin with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting is from Bon Appetit.  To see the Pumpkin Cake recipe today and (my not-so-wonderful) wrapping go to the Recipe Page.  Tomorrow I’ll share the Carrot Cake.  Both cakes are easy and would make a great addition to your Thanksgiving feast.

Day 14 – exploring romantic Venice

We are off the ship first thing in the morning (good-bye Regal Princess, we’ll miss you) and take the ferry to the same pier near Saint Mark’s Square where we arrived yesterday. (Our bags will arrive from the ship this afternoon, which is great because we don’t want to drag four suitcases over the brick and cobblestone streets and bridges.)  It’s a prettier day than yesterday, sunny and warmer, which is perfect for a day exploring Venice on our own.  We head first to our hotel, passing through Saint Mark’s Square through one of corner of the arcade.  We pass by beautiful designer stores on Saint Marzo and, over one bridge, past one church and take a right on Via XXII to Hotel Kette.

Hotel Kette

Hotel Kette

Some friends stayed here in May and highly recommended it.  It’s a small bed and breakfast and its location is perfect. We are taken to our room on the second floor.  It’s very large, has an old world feel and our window overlooks a canal.  Like so many hotels, this one was once a palazzo.  The decor may have a Venetian look, but fortunately the bathroom is completely modern.  Back on the street with our map in hand, we follow directions to Harry’s Bar, one of the iconic places to have a drink in Venice and maybe the world.  It’s right at the entrance to the Grand Canal, just a few minutes from Saint Mark’s Square.  Opened in 1931 by Guiseppe Cipriani and named after a young American, Harry Pickering, the bar is actually very small.  It has seen the likes of Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin, and Orson Welles.   Its most famous drink is the Bellini, made from white peach purée and Prosecco. So that is, of course, what we order.  And it’s delicious, super cold and slightly sweet and fruity.

Harry's Bar

the bartender making a Bellini at Harry’s Bar

Having enjoyed the ambiance of a Venice landmark (not to mention the Bellinis), we head back to the streets.   We wander around, through streets wide enough for one car to pass, although there are no cars, motorcycles, bicycles, just people walking, with beautiful designer shops and down alleyways barely wide enough for one person to walk.  Some passageways are not only narrow, just spaces between buildings, but also low enough that we have to duck a bit (and Sweet Shark and I are not tall people).  You can imagine aristocrats and their courtesans meeting in secret for an illicit kiss in a dark passageway.  The streets are pleasantly crowded as locals and us tourists shop, head to meet friends, or stop at a little wine bar, which we do.  Sweet Shark wants to find another place he read about (see my post on our day in Barcelona on October 4), Trattoria da Fiore (not to be confused with Osteria da Fiore, a large restaurant  whose  crostini, or cichetti, are among the city’s favorite small plates.), a wine bar featuring local Venetian cuisine. We enter a welcoming place near Campo Saint Stefano, find a table near the open windows, and order a glass of Soave Classico from the Veneto, a plate of our waiter’s suggestions.  It’s a delightful meal, not at all a tourist place, for our first taste of Venetian cuisine.

trattoria-da-fiore

Full after lunch, we walk through more passageways until we find the Rialto Bridge, one of the most famous of the over 400 bridges in Venice.  Spanning the Grand Canal, it’s similiar to the Ponte Vecchi in Florence in that it has stores on both sides of the bridge.  We across over from San Marco island to San Paulo, where on this side are vendors selling trinkets and souvenirs.  I do find a beautiful calendar with hand-drawn fruits and vegetables.  Both sides of the Grand Canal are packed with outdoor cafes full of people watching people and the gondolas and water taxis on the water.  For a first-time visitor like me, it’s pure joy to view Venice as I imaged it would be.  I fell in love with Barcelona and now I’m falling in love with Venice.  The books that I’ve been reading about 18th century Venice (I’ll share in a future post.) have fueled my imagination and I can imagine the city whose buildings look much the same as they did 300 years ago.  We choose one of the cafes and order another glass of Soave while we enjoy the beautiful day and the only place like this in the world.

Rialto Bridge

Rialto Bridge

On our way back to the hotel, we spot a small store with beautiful tapestries in the window, one of the items we were hoping to find here.  We enter and spend thirty minutes selecting and measuring until we chose two tapestries for our two-story entry way at home.  The clerk deftly folds and wraps them and Sweet Shark carries them (the bag is heavy) back to the Hotel Kette.  Along with the Murano glass champagne glasses and Christmas ornament we bought yesterday, our shopping goals are now complete.

For dinner, we take the suggestion of the concierge, who literally walks us around the corner and down the side street, and dine at Antico Martini on the Campiello Della Fenice.  As we enter the restaurant, we can tell that this is special place.  The host leads us to the back of restaurant and out to a covered patio and a table by the iron fencing that overlooks a beautifully lit white building with columns in front.  A few dozen people dressed in evening wear are milling around the courtyard in front of the building.  We ask what the building is.  We feel a little foolish when we learn that it is Teatro La Fenice, the famous opera house of Venice.  It is really a magical setting for dinner, a beautiful evening with the La Fenice just yards away.  The food, almost all seafood, wine, and service are exemplary.  We could not have asked for a more perfect evening in Venice, but it’s not over.

Antico Martini

Antico Martini

Teatro La Fenice

Teatro La Fenice

We stroll back past our hotel to Saint Mark’s Square.  I was anxious to see what it looks like at night.  Fortunately, it’s not crowded and we can enjoy the music coming from several of the outdoor cafes.   Small orchestras – piano, strings, horns – provide live classical music as we stroll the Square while the stars in the clear sky twinkle above us.  (I do say “twinkle, twinkle little star”!) I feel like I’m in a scene of a romantic musical.  I fully expect Julie Andrews to burst out in song from a corner of the Square.  We linger as long as we can, savoring every second of Venice. Tomorrow, very early, a water taxi will pick us up for the ride to the train station.  We have tickets on the TrenItalia fast train to Milan.

Good night beautiful, enchanting, mysterious Venice.  I hope we’ll be back.

 

 

November 2014 cooking classes

It’s time to get excited about new cooking classes for the holiday season, but first I need to relive and share with you some of the great dishes that we experienced on our Mediterranean journey.  Then it’s on to some special dishes using pumpkin – which is not just for pie!  To register, please e-mail me at lacuisinemaison@att.net.

November 2014 La Cuisine Maison Cooking Classes (all classes are at 6:30 p.m.)

Thursday, November 13 Food from the Mediterraneanbomba

Join me as we relive some of the best dishes I had while on our trip from Barcelona to Venice.  These quintessential and delicious selections from each of the countries we visited could be prepared individually with other dishes of your choice or prepared together for spectacular party fare.  We’ll sample the olive oils that I brought back from the Mediterranean. 

  • Barcelona – Patatas Bravas
  • Marseilles – Mussels in Garlic Broth
  • Istanbul – Turkish Eggplant with Tomatoes (Imam Bayildi)
  • Athens – Grilled Halloumi with Tomatoes and Basil-Mint Oil
  • Venice – Polenta Crostini Bites with Caramelized Porcini Mushroom Cicchetti

Wednesday, November 20 Pumpkin Party 

cooking with pumpkinThanksgiving is a couple of weeks away and you may be trying to come up with some festive, holiday ideas beside turkey, dressing, and pecan pie.  Pumpkins are everywhere, but are they in your kitchen?  In this class, I’ll share some creative, delicious recipes using pumpkin as the main ingredient.  From breakfast to appetizer to soup to dessert and cocktails, these dishes will inspire you and impress your company.

  • Pumpkin Pancakes
  • Pumpkin Risotto Bites
  • Spicy Pumpkin Ginger Soup
  • Pumpkin Whoopie Pies with Cream Cheese Filling
  • Pumpkin Martini

Days 12 and 13 – Venice, “the fairy city of the heart”*

After a fabulous day in Athens, we are ready for our last day at sea.  We spend it playing bingo (twice!), but unfortunately, don’t win any money, but have fun anyway. After a Zumba class on the outdoor sport court, I meet Sweet Shark for lunch and an afternoon out by the pool reading and watching Mamma Mia! on the big screen. The weather is beautiful and the sea calm.  We’re sailing through some of the Greek isles and around Greece, then heading north through the Adriatic Sea toward Venice, arriving about noon tomorrow. Tonight is the last formal night and and the traditional Baked Alaskan Processional.  Always a cool and delicious treat from the ship’s waiters, servers, and kitchen staff.

Awaking up on our last day at sea, I head up to the sport court for one last Zumba class.  It’s an amazing feeling to be dancing to the music and seeing the water go by with an open sky above you.  The captain comes on the speakers to tell all the passengers about the amazing views sailing into the Venetian waters.  We will be sailing up the Canale della Guidecca with the island of Guidecca on our port side and Venice on our starboard side.  Supposedly, this will never happen again, as in 2015, cruise ships will not be allowed to enter the Venetian port through this path.  We have a quick lunch by the pool and with most of the other 3500 passengers we jockey for a spot on the rails as our entrance to Venice begins.

 

sailing into Venice

sailing into Venice with a view of the Doge’s Palace and the Campanile

After first passing low buildings which definitely have an old world feeling and some green spaces, we get close to San Mark’s Square; we can see the Dome of Saint Mark’s Basicilia and the Campanile, the bell tower.  As we get closer, the opening to Saint Mark’s Square comes into view, with its two columns which were placed there as the official entrance to Venice.  We can also see the crowds milling around the piers where the water taxis and ferries transport passengers (mostly tourists) around the islands of Venice.  Palazzos, which were once the homes of Venice’s wealthy ruling families and are now luxury hotels, line the main walkway.  We pass the entrance to the Grand Canal.  It’s really a magical moment, and if it’s your first time coming to Venice, like it is mine, I can’t think of a better way to view Venice for the first time.

the six sesteries of Venice

map of Venice

 

You can tell by the map that Venice is shaped like a fish, which is appropriate, given its reliance and history with the water.  And, as we discover, its cuisine, too.

After we dock at the pier, we board a small ferry boat to San Marco, the main island.  We retrace our ride into Venice and get a closer look at the buildings along the water’s edge.  It really looks like they are sitting right on the water’s surface.  There are no skyscrapers, no cars; except for the sound of the ferry’s engine, it feels like time stopped three hundred years ago.  Our ferry pulls into a slot on pier and we follow our guide as we walk on the “street” over a couple of bridges, passing hotels that were once palazzos, and into St. Mark’s Square, passing the two columns that stand as the entrance to Venice, and, where we learn, prisoners were displayed for humiliation, and sometimes death.  We walk by the Campanile, 325-foot the bell tower, built over a thousand years ago, which collapsed in 1902 without warning.  The current bell tower is a replica that opened in 1912.

the Campanile

the Campanile

Once again, the crowds are huge, and we’re glad that we opted for this tour at the last minute.  St. Mark’s Square is very large, more a rectangle than a square, surround on three sides by three story stately arcades and one side by St. Mark’s Basilica. We learn that it often floods at high tide.  Above the entrance, we can see the replicas of the four bronze horses; the originals were the spoils of war taken in victory from Constantinople after the 4th crusade. We meet our guide for the afternoon, Susan, who is actually from England; she came here to study art history when she was in university, fell in love with Venice and never left.  We enter the basilica, stepping over a large step there to keep out the waters that rise at high tide and are immediately struck by the beauty and serenity of the church.  Mosaics – 43,000 square feet – are everywhere on the floors and walls to the ceilings.

the front of St. Mark's Basilica

the front of St. Mark’s Basilica, a combination of Byzantine, Roman, and Venetian craftsmanship

mosaic

Mosaic in St. Mark’s

Susan leads us out of the Basilica and around the side toward the water and into the Doge’s Palace, the home of Venice’s ruler and the seat of government for centuries until the Venetian Republic ceased to exist in 1779 when Napoleon dominated northern Italy.  Elected for life by a series of councils controlled by the ruling families of Venice, the Doge was sometimes a very powerful positions and sometimes a puppet in the hands of those who elected him.  The palace of Venetian and Gothic construction is built of white limestone and pink marble, giving it an illusion of lightness favored by classic Venetian design.  Huge reception rooms, rooms for council meetings, private quarters, and courtrooms are all decorated with large paintings of past doges and religious and political scenes.  We then head into the underground prison where those convicted of treason, heresy, or other trumped up charges were held.  The famous Casanova once a prisoner, but he escaped and fled to continue his romantic escapades.  The stone walls of the prison are thick, the metal bars on windows thick, the heavy wooden doors thick, and little light comes into the cells that might house a dozen men.  Not a pleasant place to be.   We walk through the enclosed Bridge of Sighs, connecting the prison to the inquisition rooms, named by the sighs of condemned prisoners.  Today, it refers to the sighs exclaimed by lovers promised eternal love if they kiss under the bridge in a gondola at sunset.

Painting in the Doge's Palace

Painting in the Doge’s Palace

from inside the Bridge of Sighs

from inside the Bridge of Sighs

Susan leads us over more bridges, which all have many steps to rise above the canals below, through some narrow streets, until we arrive at a showroom and store for Murano glass.  We watch as a glass blower demonstrates how the famous glass of Venice has been made since 1291.  The actual factory is on Murano Island, moved there to protect the city’s wood buildings from potential fire.  We shop and buy and beautiful Christmas ornament – a lovely blue and white ball – and two champagne glasses.

Murano Glass demonstration

Murano Glass demonstration

Our tour is over for the day and we walk back to the pier, board the ferry back the ship for our last night aboard Regal Princess.  Dinner and packing is on the agenda.  It’s been an amazing cruise.  We can’t say enough about the service, the food, the accommodations, and, of course, the itinerary.  Tomorrow we disembark and will spend the day and evening in Venice all on our own.  It will be sad to leave the ship (many people are staying aboard for the trip west in the Mediterranean and then on to Ft. Lauderdale), but we can’t wait to explore Venice.  Lord Byron said that Venice is “a fairy city of the heart”;  I believe him.

Day 11 – Athens and the Acropolis

We are here in Athens, city of Athena, birthplace of democracy, and home to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  After arriving in the port city of Piraeus in the morning, we travel by bus (always a bus!) through modern Athens to the Acropolis, one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world.  It’s a beautiful day which we need for the walking and climbing up 80 steps to the top of the Acropolis (meaning high city) to see the Parthenon.  It’s not an easy climb; sometimes we use marble steps and sometimes it’s gravel.  The climb is made a little hazardous by the huge number of tourists, the most we’ve seen since Rome.

climbing to the Acropolis
climbing to the Acropolis

But we prevail, finally reaching the Propylaea, the monumental marble gateway to the incredible ruins.

scaffolding on the gate to Parthenon

the Propylaea, the gateway to the Acropolis

The marble from which all the structures were built came from a mountain twelve miles away, which we can see in the distance.  How the ancient Greeks quarried and hauled the huge pieces of marble twelve miles and then up the steep hill to the Acropolis boggles the mind and is an engineering marvel.  Today, marble used to restore the Parthenon is laser-cut to fit perfectly where missing pieces have not been recovered.  The  almost three-thousand-year-old marble is a pale, dusty yellow, but the new marble is pristine white, allowing you to imagine what the Parthenon might have looked like in the blazing sunlight.

a view of the new and old marble

a view of the new and old marble

the side of the Parthenon

the front of the Parthenon with the scaffolding visible

We can see the Ancient Agora, which means “a place of gathering” – the center of Athenian life and the center of ancient Greek democracy; it once served as a marketplace, civic center, and seat of justice.

looking at the Agora

a view of the Agora from the Acropolis

We can see below a massive rock where Peter preached.  Our guide (again, so good) explains how the Parthenon was built and describes the 40-foot gold statue of Athena that once stood inside the Parthenon.  In the early 1460′s the Parthenon became a mosque.  He tells about the explosion of stored Ottoman gunpowder that was detonated by the Venetian bombardment in 1687, destroying many of the columns and statues.  Inside the Parthenon today is a corrugated building housing restoration equipment and cranes used to reconstruct the massive columns.  Like Pompeii and Ephesus, we are amazed by the construction of temples, columns, streets and houses of the ancient world.  Hopefully, in ten years, the Parthenon will look as it did in ancient Athens. The views of Athens and the surrounding area are spectacular.

view of the Apitheater

view of the Amphitheater

Leaving (by walking back down the 80 steps) the Acropolis,we travel through Athens, passing other buildings of note.  The most interesting is the Old Olympic Stadium, built on the foundation of a 4th century arena.  It was here that the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896 and was one of the sites used in the 2004 Olympics.

Olympia Stadium

Olympic Stadium

We reach the Plaka, the oldest shopping district with cobblestone lanes at the foot of the Acropolis; today it is home to wonderful boutiques, cafes and local tavernas.  We find a welcoming spot at Hermion, a cafe with an outdoor vine-covered courtyard, a cool (as in weather) place for lunch.  We have Halloumi, a Greek cheese we’ve had before.  It’s a wonderful cheese to grill.  It’s served on tomato slices with some pesto; it’s delicious.  We order meatballs with tomato sauce and rice.  The size of mini-meatloaf, they are so flavorful and a bit spicy.  A glass of local white wine completes our wonderful lunch.

grilled Halumi with tomatoes and pesto

grilled Halloumi with tomatoes and pesto

meatballs with rice and tomato sauce

meatballs with rice and tomato sauce

We’ve had a wonderful day in Athens, seen one of the wonders of the ancient world and had a delightful lunch, all while enjoying a beautiful day. Another place to hopefully return to one day. Tomorrow, after our last day at sea, we arrive in Venice, one of the most romantic, intriguing cities in the world.   By the way, if you can’t get to Athens to see the Acropolis, you can travel to Nashville, Tennessee.  A full-scale replica of the Parthenon was erected there in 1897 for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition.

replica of Parthenon

replica of Parthenon in Nashville

Day 10 – Evocative Ephesus with pictures

“You return from a trip, but not from a true journey.” ~ Regal Princess

If you’ve read the New Testament, you’re familiar with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, one of the most quoted chapters.  We are here today to see another historical wonder of the ancient world. Again, we have an excellent guide, Hadim, who shares with us some interesting facts; for instance, Turkey shares a border with more countries than any other country in the world: Bulgaria and Greece on the European side and Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria on the Asian side. It is also bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on the south, the Aegean Sea on the west, the Marmarra Sea on the northwest and the Black Sea on the north. With some ruins uncovered as far back as 5000 B.C., Ephesus is in southern Turkey, about a 35 minute drive from the port city of Kusadasi, which, for most of its existence, was a sleepy little fishing village.  Today, because of the tourism coming to see Ephesus via cruise ships, it’s a large, thriving city.  At one time, Ephesus, after it was first a Greek city and then the Roman provincial capital, was a significant sea port and trading center.  The sea receded several miles, taking away its importance as a bustling metropolis, reducing its population from 300,000 in the 2nd century to a ghost town.

As we enter the city, you can sense what a major city it must have been.  It’s an archaeological wonder, with marble streets and once-glorious structures.  The Celsius Library housed thousands of manuscripts.  The Roman Imperial Temple of Hadrian is a testament to the Romans’ love of all things large and impressive. The Great Theater seated over 25,000; this is the site where in the 1st century Paul preached to the Ephesians to relinquish their pagan gods and accept Christ.  Ephesus attracted tourists even then and selling small images of the goddess Artemis was a thriving business; the merchants wanted nothing to do with the new religion that would affect their pocketbooks.  Because it was an open city where all religions co-existed, Paul came to Ephesus and, in spite of commercial opposition, made many converts before he was forced to flee.  Ephesus is also important as the place where the Apostle John brought Mary, the mother of Jesus. Although we didn’t have time, you can visit her house, a short distance away, where she lived out her life.  The Basilica of St. John and John’s alleged grave is here too.  Hadim makes a point of telling us that Muslims in Turkey do not adhere to any radical practices in other Muslims countries.  He also wants us to know that Turkish Muslims consider Jesus a prophet and appeal to Mary for healthy children.

Ephesus, in spite of all the tourists, is a serene and quiet place.  Surrounded by hills and pine trees, it was a progressive and educated city, with public toilets, fountains, and  the colossal Celsius library. It is always undergoing excavations to unearth more hidden treasures of an ancient time.

Our bus takes us back to Kusadasi, where we wander through the local bazaar.  I find a Pandora store and buy a charm for my bracelet; it’s an “evil eye” believed to bring good luck.  Along with Pompeii, Ephesus opens our modern eyes to ancient civilizations and makes us wonder about life 2,000 years ago.  Definitely worth the trip half way around the world.

Tomorrow we arrive in Athens, the third of our ancient world stops.

Fortunately, I’m now able to share some of the hundreds of photos I’ve taken of our travels.  Here are a few from Ephesus.

city view - Copy

some of the ruins at Ephesus

mosiac floor uncovered - Copy

uncovered mosaic floor in house

Temple of Hadrian

Temple of Hadrian

Nike relief

Nike relief

a house in Ephesus

the ruins of a house in Ephesus

The Great Theater where Paul preached

The Great Theater where Paul preached

public toilets with running water

public toilets with running water

marble street

marble city street

Day 9 -Intriguing Istanbul

I’d imagined Istanbul as exotic with men in long flowing robes and dancing girls in brightly colored costumes. Didn’t see any of that, but we did see the Blue Mosque (a 17th-century mosque renown for its 20,000 blue tiles), the Hagia Sofia (the first mosque in Istanbul, which was originally built by Constantine in 325 A. D., as St.  Sonia, the church of Holy Wisdom), and the Topkapi Palace (built on the ruins of Constantine’s Imperial Palace, but later the home of the sultans in the Ottoman Empire for 400 years). All are beautiful and impressive.  The famous Grand Bazaar was closed on Sunday but that was O. K. First, Istanbul is huge – about 14 million; the smaller, but more modern and developed side is the European side. The much larger part is in Asia. Formerly Constantanople, this city has been ruled by Byzantines, Romans, Greeks, and Turks. It has been the religious center of Christian and Muslim rulers. Being in our first Muslim country is a bit disconcerting; we see women in various stages of burkas, from just a head scarf to only eyes showing. Our guide assures us that those are not Turkish women but ones visiting from more conservative Muslim countries. Our guide is also outspoken about the fact that some factions in the country are pushing for more strict rules for women and that most Turkish people want to remain secular.  We women are required to put scarves provided on our heads to enter the Blue Mosque. Everyone had to remove their shoes.

The city is divided by the Bosphorus Strait, which connects the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea, and has been an important waterway for centuries. We take a boat ride on the Bosphorus and enjoy an traditional Turkish lunch on board – sounds very touristy, but the meal is very good. We are able to see government buildings, churches, palaces, and minarets from the boat, which shows the differences between the European and Asian sides.

We then are taken to a carpet showroom for a demonstration on Turkish rug-making. It’s really inserting to see a woman sitting on a low stool double knotting each piece of silk or wool for a rug. Work can only be done in twenty minutes intervals because of the intensity of the labor.  An 8 X 10 foot rug can take up to two years. That’s why Turkish rugs are so expensive.

A bus ride through Istanbul emphasizes the immense size of this remote, but important city in world history. It’s been a long day of eye-opening sights.

Tomorrow is Ephesus in southern Turkey, a destination I’m really looking forward to.

Day 7 and 8 – Relaxing at sea

After four straight days of excursions, bus rides and a lot of walking (6 days if we count our two days in Barcelona) and exploring, we’re ready for a relaxing day at sea. The weather is absolutely perfect: sunny and  warm, not hot, with a slight breeze.  This is cruising at its best: time to take advantage of all or none of the activities. There is something for everyone, from reading in the library or on deck, bingo – a major attraction that we love – working out in the fantastic fitness center, having a treatment in one of the most beautiful spas I’ve ever seen, playing in the casino, going to a seminar on art or learning how to play chess. There is always life music in the piazza.  I go to a Zumba class on Deck 18 in the sport court; what an experience dancing while cruising around the tip of Italy. Sweet Shark works out in the fitness center. After a quick shower, we meet for breakfast and then the first round of bingo for the day. Bummer, no winners.  We head up to the Lido Deck (16) and find lounge chairs and set up for a relaxing afternoon. I go into the Horizon Court, the restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There is enough food in here to feed an army: salads, sandwiches, meats, vegetables, breads, potatoes, Asian dishes, and, of course, dozens of desserts.  It’s all included, which is where you can get in trouble. People do tend to pile on the food. (The fitness director told us that the average guest gains 1- 2 pounds a day.)  I get a salad and head outside to meet Sweet Shark by the pool. He’s opted for a slice of pizza. We spend the day reading, listening to the music, and then watch the movie on the huge screen (Hitch with Will Smith). Tonight is formal night. Sweet Shark wears his tux and we have a great time before dinner watching everyone dancing and getting their pictures taken while the band plays in the piazza.  After dinner, we go to one of the dance venues and enjoy the music.  Tomorrow is the island of Mykonos.

When we wake this morning, we are supposed to be docked in Mykonos, island of white buildings and blue roofs. We’re still sailing. The captain comes on the PA system to tell us that the winds and high seas around the island prevented us from going there, so we have another day at sea. A bit of a disappointment, but we were only going to be there half a day. So what do we do? The same thing we did yesterday: bingo twice, Zumba, catch up on e-mail, and writing here.

Major note:  I realized that I accidentally wrote “St. Mark’s” instead of “St. Peter’s” about Rome. Sorry for the confusion.

Tomorrow is Istanbul and hopefully we will have good weather. That’s a place not to be missed. Istanbul is the only city in the world that strides two continents. Although Muslim, it’s a member of the EU and NATO, and the most forward and secular country in the Middle East.  How exotic!

Day 6 – Preserved Pompeii

We awake to view Naples, one of the major ports of southern Italy, and the home of pizza margarita. Our journey today takes us down the coast to Pompeii, one of the most famous places on earth where no one has lived for two thousand years. First, we travel by boat along the beautiful Amalfi coast. It’s a tranquil, beautiful ride from which we can view villages with homes, churches, and other white stuccoed buildings built into the sides of the hills. It’s really a beautiful coast and the quaintness adds to the allure. We arrive in the village of Amalfi, once a town of 60,000, but today of just 6,000. It’s a lovely place with shops and restaurants climbing up a main street. Outside one church with a hundred steps to the entrance a panoramic view of the village and the sea takes our breath away.

We take the same sea cruise back to our starting point and then head by bus to Pompeii. Before we enter the UNESCO World Heritage Site, we stop for lunch and shop at a local shop for Limoncello, which is made here from the zest of some of the biggest lemons we’ve ever seen.

Time stopped for Pompeii on an afternoon in August of 79 A. D.  Mt. Vesuvius blew its top and spewed ash and gases upon the city. Pompeii had been a very large, progressive, thriving Roman city. It was ahead of its time in terms of running water, public baths, and government. You can walk all over the site, which has been undergoing restoration since the late 1800′s. The city was laid out on a grid, which makes getting around fairly easy, except that you are walking on cobblestones and gravel. When we see the plaster casts of real people, especially a little boy, we are reminded that these were real people whose lives were snuffed out in minutes by the gasses and about 20 feet of ash. We walk into the homes of wealthy people as evidenced by the beautiful mosaics unearthed on the floors, gardens, and frescos on the walls. You can see stores, small homes, and fountains (one still with running water). The tracks left by horses and carriages are the basis of our railroads today.

i have to say that there is an awe about the place and a bit of sadness. Can you imagine your city wiped out but still preserved for future generations to view?  As excavations continue, we will learn more about Roman life before Christ and in the early first century.  I encourage you to come to Pompeii. It’s a one of a kind place.

Tomorrow is a day at sea and we’re ready for a relaxing day. Next stop is the Greek isle of Mykonos.

Day 5 – the Eternal City

Arriving in Civitavecchia, the port city for Rome brings back memories of our first trip here nine years ago.  After a ninety minute drive we reach Rome and are dropped right in St. Peter’s Square. We have already been alerted that Pope Francis, or Papa Francis, as our guide says is having an audience in St. Peter’s Square. The front of the Cathedral has a canopy set up for the pope and hundreds of people are seated and thousands more are standing to hear what is called “an audience”. Two jumbo screens broadcast the pope’s message and we see and hear him on it. Although we’re not Catholic, we are still thrilled by the opportunity to hear such a humble and beloved man. Of course, he is speaking in Italian and so we can’t understand him, but that’s O. K.  Unfortunately for us tourists, it means the city is packed today. On our visit here nine years ago, we saw all the highlights except two:  the coliseum, which was closed for renovations, and the Sistene Chapel, which we  just didn’t have time for. Our goal today is to visit those. Our guide has bought us tickets so we don’t have to stand in line for the Sistene Chapel, which is a good thing because the line stretches for blocks. The Sistene Chapel is actually part of the Vatican Museum and we walk through many rooms of paintings, statues, and tapestries. The art painted on the walls and ceilings is magnificent and a bit overwhelming, as you constantly have to look up. The crowds make for slow going, but eventually we enter the Chapel. If you’ve been here, you know that the sheer size and magnitude of it is incredible.  Michelangelo’ s Creation on the ceiling is surrounded by other frescos. You want to lay down on the floor to look up, but can’t. The fact that he climbed scaffolding many stories high and laid on his back to paint this depiction of God and Adam Is incredible. The colors are still so vivid. On one entire wall is the Last  Judgment which is three or four stories tall. The perspective and proportion Is a testament to the artist’s genius.  This is the room where the cardinals meet in conclave to elect a new pope. It really doesn’t look anything like it does in movies. We finally make our way through more rooms of  church relics and antiquities to out to St. Mark’s Square. The Pope has finished his audience, but the crowds are still in the thousands. We walk for a few blocks until we find a taxi and head over to the Coliseum.  We arrive in front of the Forum and, hey, there’s no line.  We buy our tickets to the Coliseum and walk along the Forum, which is below street level.  Once the center of Roman life, the Forum housed the Senate and government offices.  As we approach the Coliseum, it looks so much more impressive without all the scaffolding than it did nine years ago. A short wait in line and we’re inside.

Below us is the exposed area where animals and gladiators waited to fight for their lives. We climb to the second level for a view that is staggering in its vastness.  Thousands could watch the spectacle below. After circling around once and touching the ancient stones, we head out and down the street to a cafe. We enjoy a pizza with crispy crust, tomatoes and mushrooms with a glass of wine outside under a lovely canopy of vines.  Catching a taxi, we head back to the Vatican, where the Pope has finished his audience and we’re now able to get a better view of St. Peter’s Square. It is so huge and there is still a long line to get into the church. Thank goodness we did that on our last trip.

Tomorrow it’s on to Naples and Pompeii.

Arrivederci Roma!