05 Nov 15 - Venice, Italy

I think the saying "Keeping the best for last" truly applies here as today we sailed into Venice! This city is in northeastern Italy sited on a group of 118 small islands separated by canals and linked by bridges. It is located in the marshy Venetian Lagoon which stretches along the shoreline, between the mouths of the Po and the Piave Rivers. Venice is renowned for the beauty of its setting, its architecture, and its artwork. The city in its entirety is listed as a World Heritage Site, along with its lagoon.

The name is derived from the ancient Veneti people who inhabited the region by the 10th century BC. The city was historically the capital of the Republic of Venice. Venice has been known as the "La Dominante", "Serenissima", "Queen of the Adriatic", "City of Water", "City of Masks", "City of Bridges", "The Floating City", and "City of Canals".

The Republic of Venice was a major maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and a staging area for the Crusades and the Battle of Lepanto, as well as a very important center of commerce (especially silk, grain, and spice) and art in the 13th century up to the end of the 17th century. This made Venice a wealthy city throughout most of its history. It is also known for its several important artistic movements, especially the Renaissance period. After the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna, the Republic was annexed by the Austrian Empire, until it became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866, following a referendum held as a result of the Third Italian War of Independence. Venice has played an important role in the history of symphonic and operatic music, and it is the birthplace of Antonio Vivaldi. 

By the late 13th century, Venice was the most prosperous city in all of Europe. At the peak of its power and wealth, it had 36,000 sailors operating 3,300 ships, dominating Mediterranean commerce. Venice's leading families vied with each other to build the grandest palaces and support the work of the greatest and most talented artists. The city was governed by the Great Council, which was made up of members of the noble families of Venice. The Great Council appointed all public officials and elected a Senate of 200 to 300 individuals. Since this group was too large for efficient administration, a Council of Ten (also called the Ducal Council or the Signoria), controlled much of the administration of the city. One member of the great council was elected "Doge", or duke, the chief executive, who usually held the title until his death; although several Doges were forced by pressure from their oligarchical peers to resign and retire into monastic seclusion when they were felt to have been discredited by political failure.

The Black Death devastated Venice in 1348 and once again between 1575 and 1577. In three years, the plague killed some 50,000 people. In 1630, the plague killed a third of Venice's 150,000 citizens. Venice began to lose its position as a center of international trade during the later part of the Renaissance as Portugal became Europe's principal intermediary in the trade with the East, striking at the very foundation of Venice's great wealth; while France and Spain fought for hegemony over Italy in the Italian Wars, marginalizing its political influence. However, the Venetian empire was a major exporter of agricultural products and, until the mid-18th century, a significant manufacturing center.

During the 18th century, Venice became perhaps the most elegant and refined city in Europe, greatly influencing art, architecture and literature. But the Republic lost its independence when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Venice on 12 May 1797 during the First Coalition. Napoleon was seen as something of a liberator by the city's Jewish population, although it can be argued they had lived with fewer restrictions in Venice. He removed the gates of the Ghetto and ended the restrictions on when and where Jews could live and travel in the city.

The buildings of Venice are constructed on closely spaced wooden piles. Most of these piles are still intact after centuries of submersion. The foundations rest on plates of Istrian limestone placed on top of the piles, and buildings of brick or stone sit above these footings. The piles penetrate a softer layer of sand and mud until they reach a much harder layer of compressed clay. Submerged by water, in oxygen-poor conditions, wood does not decay as rapidly as on the surface.

The city today is still a marvel of gondolas and glassware shops along the backdrop of magnificent palaces at every turn. We purchased a day pass for the transportation system and we were able to visit St. Mark's Square and the surrounding areas.

We then headed out to Murano to see the glass-blowers. Murano is a series of islands linked by bridges in the Venetian Lagoon in northern Italy. It lies about 0.9 miles north of Venice and measures about 0.9 mi across with a population of just over 5,000. It is famous for its glass making. It was once an independent comune, but is now a frazione of the comune of Venice. 

In 1291, all the glassmakers in Venice were forced to move to Murano due to the risk of fires. In the following century, exports began, and the island became famous, initially for glass beads and mirrors. Aventurine glass was invented on the island, and for a while Murano was the main producer of glass in Europe. The island later became known for chandeliers. Although decline set in during the eighteenth century, glassmaking is still the island's main industry.

Murano's glassmakers were soon numbered among the island’s most prominent citizens. By the fourteenth century, glassmakers were allowed to wear swords, enjoyed immunity from prosecution by the Venetian state and found their daughters married into Venice’s most affluent families. While benefiting from certain statutory privileges, glassmakers were forbidden to leave the Republic. However, many of them took the risks associated with migration and established glass furnaces in surrounding cities and farther afield - sometimes in England and the Netherlands. 

Murano’s glassmakers held a monopoly on high-quality glassmaking for centuries, developing or refining many technologies including optically clear glass, enameled glass (smalto), glass with threads of gold (aventurine), multicolored glass (millefiori), milk glass (lattimo), and imitation gemstones made of glass. Today, the artisans of Murano still employ these centuries-old techniques, crafting everything from contemporary art glass and glass jewelry to Murano glass chandeliers and wine stoppers. 

After visiting the glassblowers I made my way back up the Grand Canal towards the ship. This was the last day of my European cruise and although I was tired from two weeks of heavy walking my mind was filled with all the fascinating and iconic places I had visited. Nothing expands your mind like travel, seeing new people, hearing new languages, tasting new food and experiencing life in other cultures. I will look forward to the next one . . . Ciao! 

03 Nov 15 - Athens, Greece

Today we arrived at Piraeus, Greece the main port for Athens.

Athens has been the center of Greek civilization for some 4,000 years. The capital of modern Greece, it’s still dominated by 5th-century-B.C.E. landmarks, including the Acropolis, a hilltop citadel topped with ancient buildings such as the colonnaded Parthenon temple. But it’s also a contemporary city, and it’s not uncommon for the nightlife hubs of Kolonaki, Psiri and Gazi to stay busy until dawn. 

Athens is the historical capital of Europe, with a long history, dating from the first settlement in the Neolithic age. In the 5th Century BC the culmination of Athens’ long, fascinating history, the city’s values and civilization acquired a universal significance. Over the years, a multitude of conquerors occupied Athens, and erected unique, splendid monuments. In 1834, it became the capital of the modern Greek state and in two centuries since it has become an attractive modern metropolis with unrivalled charm. A large part of the town’s historic centre has been converted into a 3-kilometre pedestrian zone (the largest in Europe), leading to the major archaeological sites (“archaeological park”), reconstructing – to a large degree – the ancient landscape.

We then continued our city tour and saw the changing of the guard. We were lucky to be there a few minutes before the start. At 11 am, people gather in Syntagma Square to watch the official changing of the guards, the military unit whose members stand proudly in perfect stillness in front of the Hellenic Parliament. The Evzones is a special unit of the Hellenic Army, also known as Tsoliades, who guard the Monument of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Hellenic Parliament and the Presidential Mansion. Through the historical movement of Greece, the Evzones have become symbols of bravery and courage for the Greek people. The Presidential Guard, as the unit is now called, was constituted in 1868 and has taken many names through centuries (Guard of the Flag, Royal Guard, etc). 

The duties of the soldiers are part of a ceremonial nature. Every soldier guards for about an hour, 3 times in total every 48 hours. Throughout these 60 minutes, they have to stand perfectly still until it is time to switch with another guard. During the changing, they work in pairs so they can perfectly coordinate their moves. The steps that the official ceremony requires at the time of changing are carried out in really slow motion to protect their blood circulation after 60 min of immobility. The soldiers of the Presidential Guard are selected according to their height, excellent physical condition and psychological state as well as character and morality, as they follow a hard training before they become part of this honorary unit. The training lasts for one month and includes exercises to keep the body and mind still. Apart from staying still, the soldiers must also not make any face or eye move and must not show any expression. 

After viewing the changing of the guard we went to the Plaka, my favorite neighborhood in Athens, for lunch. In the shadow of the Acropolis, the Plaka is like a village within the city, an island for those who don't have the time to visit the Greek Islands. The Plaka is the oldest section of Athens. Most of the streets have been closed to automobile traffic. At one time it was the nightclub district, but most of these closed down when the government outlawed amplified music in the neighborhood in the seventies in an effort to get rid of undesirables. The strategy was very successful and it is now an area of restaurants, Jewelry stores tourist shops, and cafes. Though it is quite commercialized it is still a neighborhood and arguably the nicest neighborhood in central Athens. Most of the restaurants are typical tourist places but the quality of food is still good. We stopped in a cute restaurant and I had Moussaka which I love. 

After lunch we wandered around doing some shopping. Most of the shops have pretty much the same stuff for pretty much the same prices but there are some that are more eclectic than others that sell antiques, or actual hand painted icons, wood carvings and paintings which are quite beautiful. We found lots of different types of shops and even the regular tourist shops have amazing postcards that are beautiful enough to frame. There are lots of jewelry stores and some that are artist-owned which have hand-made original pieces and also copies of ancient museum pieces such as Greek coins. 

We eventually headed back to the ship for another evening of gourmet dining, a great show and an early night to bed after a full day.

02 Nov15 - Kusadasi, Turkey

Although Istanbul was cancelled on our cruise we still got to visit Kuşadası. This is a beach resort town on Turkey’s western Aegean coast. A jumping-off point for visiting the classical ruins at nearby Ephesus, it’s a major cruise ship stop. Its seafront promenade, marina and harbor are lined with hotels and restaurants. Just offshore on Pigeon Island is a walled Byzantine castle that once guarded the town, connected to the mainland via causeway. The area has been a centre of art and culture since some of the earliest recorded history, and has been settled by many civilizations since being founded by the Leleges people in 3000 BC. Later settlers include the Aeolians in the 11th century BC and Ionians in the 9th. Originally, seamen and traders built a number of settlements along the coastline, including Neopolis.

Our main focus today was to see the ruins at Ephesus. Once, the trade centre of the ancient world, a religious centre of the early Christianity, today Ephesus is an important tourism centre in Turkey. This ancient city is located in Selcuk, a small town 30km away from Kusadasi.

The site of a succession of great ancient civilizations, Ephesus, on the south-west coast of modern Turkey, embodied a peculiarly fertile synthesis of architecture and culture. In 356BC the Greeks built the Artemesium (a colossal Ionic temple dedicated to Artemis the fertility goddess) which was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. During the 2nd century BC, Ephesus was the fourth largest city in the eastern Roman Empire, famous for its Artemesium, the Library of Celsus and its medical school.

Ephesus was a centre of travel and commerce with one of the greatest seaports in the ancient world. The great port created a big city with over 250,000 inhabitants in Ephesus during the Roman time.  Important items of trade around the Mediterranean were olive oil, animals, glass, stone such as marble, tiles etc, wine, grain, pottery vessels, metals such as iron, copper, lead, gold, tin etc and slaves.

The port of Ephesus has silted up over the years and Ephesus is now about 6 miles inland from the coast. The area around Ephesus and harbor turned into a swamp. Mosquitoes increased more and more. A series of malaria epidemics decimated the population and the Ephesians abandoned the city in about one hundred years. 

Earthquakes destroyed some parts but the unhealthful conditions actually preserved the structures since nobody even wanted to come in and haul off the stones to build other cities. Instead of settling in Ephesus again, they found a new port city for themselves and they called it “scala nuova” which means new port.

Life is still going on in Scala Nuova and it is one of the most popular Mediterranean ports in modern day and it is now called Kusadasi. Every day in summer cruise ships dock to Kusadasi port and many cruise guests love to visit the old port city of Ephesus and it's ruins.

Once we spent time visiting Ephesus we headed to home of the Virgin Mary. The resolutions of the council of 431 held that the Virgin Mary came to Ephesus. According to them, she came here together with Saint John, four to six years after the death of Christ. After the proclamation of Pope Paul VI in 1967, Pope John Paul II came to Ephesus and declared the House of Mary to be a place of pilgrimage for Christians. The house was discovered in the 19th century by following the descriptions in the reported visions of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774–1824), a Roman Catholic nun and visionary, which were published as a book by Clemens Brentano after her death. The Catholic Church has never pronounced in favour or against the authenticity of the house, but nevertheless maintains a steady flow of pilgrimage since its discovery. Anne Catherine Emmerich was Beatified by Pope John Paul II on October 3, 2004.

Catholic pilgrims visit the house based on the belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was taken to this stone house by Saint John and lived there until her Assumption, according to Catholic doctrine. The shrine has merited several papal Apostolic Blessings and several papal visits, the most recent in 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI. Pope John XXIII declared it a pilgrimage site in 1961. 

Our final stop was to the small hilltop town of Sirince. This pretty old Orthodox village, 12 km away from Ephesus and 30 km from Kusadasi, was once Cirkince ("ugly"). Indeed its habitants gave this name on purpose as they did not want to be bothered by foreigners nor to share the beauty of their village.

Still after years, visitors understood that the village was not ugly at all and called it Sirince ("pretty"). As the village is located on the top of a mountain, anyone will enjoy the impressive wine yards' and peach trees' views on his way.

Today the village is a perfect synthesis of Turk-Greek culture as of the 1920's: after the Independence War, people exchange between Greek and Turks has occurred and all those typical Greek houses, though they kept their original outside characteristics, have received the local layout inside. The most beautiful specimens are open to visitors. And even in the courtyard of one of them, one will discover a nicely restored Orthodox church.

All the narrow streets of the village belong to the women, selling handcrafts of all kinds, and olive oil products. Another attraction of Sirince is its wine which is made from their own local fruit trees.

Though Sirince Village is developing its tourism very quickly, it has been able to preserve its authenticity and the meaning of its name.

01 Nov 15 - Santorini, Greece

We were scheduled to visit Istanbul but a few days prior, due to some security concerns from the Turkish election, the schedule was changed and we docked instead in Santorini, Greece.

Undoubtedly the most extraordinary island in the Aegean, crescent-shaped Santorini remains a mandatory stop on the Cycladic tourist route, even if you must enjoy the sensational sunsets from Ia, the fascinating excavations, and the dazzling white towns with a million other travelers. Called Kállisti (the "Loveliest") as long ago as ancient times, the island has now reverted officially to its subsequent name of Thira, after the 9th-century-BC Dorian colonizer Thiras. The place is better known these days, however, as Santorini, a name derived from its patroness, St. Irene of Thessaloniki, the Byzantine empress who restored icons to Orthodoxy and died in 802.

After the boat sails between Sikinos and Ios, your deck-side perch approaches two close islands with a passage between them. The bigger one on the left is Santorini, and the smaller on the right is Thirassia. Passing between them, you see the village of Ia adorning Santorini's northernmost cliff like a white geometric beehive. You are in the caldera (volcanic crater), one of the world's truly breathtaking sights: a crescent of cliffs rising 1,100 feet, with the white clusters of the towns of Fira and Ia perched along the top. The bay, once the high center of the island, is 1,300 feet in some places, so deep that when boats dock in Santorini's shabby little port of Athinios, they do not drop anchor (as if placed there to emphasize the depths, a sunken ocean liner lies eerily submerged beneath the surface). The encircling cliffs are the ancient rim of a still-active volcano, and you are sailing east across its flooded caldera. On your right are the Burnt isles, the White isle, and other volcanic remnants, all lined up as if some outsize display in a geology museum. Hephaestus's subterranean fires smolder still—the volcano erupted in 198 BC, about 735, and there was an earthquake in 1956.

Indeed, Santorini and its four neighboring islets are the fragmentary remains of a larger landmass that exploded about 1600 BC: the volcano's core blew sky high, and the sea rushed into the abyss to create the great bay, which measures 6 miles by 4½ miles and is 1,292 feet deep. The other pieces of the rim, which broke off in later eruptions, are Thirassia, where a few hundred people live, and deserted little Aspronissi ("White isle"). In the center of the bay, black and uninhabited, two cones, the Burnt Isles of Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni, appeared between 1573 and 1925.

There has been too much speculation about the identification of Santorini with the mythical Atlantis, mentioned in Egyptian papyri and by Plato (who says it's in the Atlantic), but myths are hard to pin down. Since antiquity, Santorini has depended on rain collected in cisterns for drinking and irrigating, the well water is often brackish and the serious shortage is alleviated by the importation of water. Nevertheless, the volcanic soil also yields riches: small, intense tomatoes with tough skins used for tomato paste (good restaurants here serve them); the famous Santorini fava beans, which have a light, fresh taste; barley; wheat; and white-skin eggplants.

These days, unrestrained tourism has taken a heavy toll on Santorini. Fira, and now Ia, could almost be described as "a street with 40 jewelry shops"; many of the natives are completely burned out by the end of the peak season (the best times to come here are shoulder periods); and, increasingly, business and the loud ringing of cash registers have disrupted the normal flow of Greek life here. For example, if a cruise ship comes in during afternoon siesta, all shops immediately open. Still and all, if you look beneath the layers of gimcrack tourism, you'll find Greek splendor. 

There are two ways to get to the town when approaching by water, you either take the steep cable-car or you ride up the mountain on the back of a donkey...I opted for the cable car, lol.

Once I reached the top and left the cablecar I wanted to make my way to Oia. Most of the pictures in guide books and calendars of Greece feature images from Oia. Oia reached the peak of prosperity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its economic prosperity was based on its merchant fleet, which plied trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially from Alexandria to Russia. The two-story captains' houses built on the highest part of the village are a reminder of the village's former affluence. Part of the town was destroyed by the 1956 earthquake. It extends for almost 1.2 miles along the northern edge of the caldera that forms the island of Santorini, at a height of between 230 and 330 ft above sea level. 

It is built on the steep slope of the caldera and the houses and restaurants are built into niches carved into the caldebra on the seaward side. There are narrow passageways and a central square. The sun light hours in this village are much longer than in the Fira town. Its paths are very narrow and hence gets congested during the tourist season. The idyllic surroundings of the town have a complex of white washed blue domed churches and charming, traditional Cycladic houses and cave houses that are carved into the rock face on top of the cliff. It is set in a location which provides excellent views of the sunset over the caldera.

Once I spent some time in Oia I returned to the cable-car for my descent to get back to the ship. This was a beautiful day on a fairytale island.

31 Oct 15 - Mykonos, Greece

From backpackers to the super-rich, from day-trippers to yachties, from regular people to celebrities (who head here by helicopter), Mykonos has become one of the most popular of the Aegean islands. Today's scene is a weird but attractive cocktail of tradition, beauty, and glitz, but travelers from all over the world have long been drawn to this dry, rugged island, at 10 miles by 7 miles, one of the smaller Cyclades, thanks to its many stretches of sandy beach, its thatched windmills, and its picturesque port town. 

One thing is certain: Mykonos knows how to maintain its attractiveness, how to develop it, and how to sell it. Complain as you will that it is touristy, noisy, and overdeveloped; you'll be back. In the 1950s a few tourists began trickling into Mykonos on their way to see the ancient marvels on the nearby islet of Delos, the sacred isle. For almost 1,000 years Delos was the religious and political center of the Aegean and host every four years to the Delian games, the region's greatest festival. The population of Delos actually reached 20,000 at the peak of its commercial period, and throughout antiquity Mykonos, eclipsed by its holy neighbor, depended on this proximity for income (it has been memorably described as Delos's "bordello"), as it partly does today. 

Today, the natives of Mykonos have happily fit cosmopolitan New Yorkers, Londoners, and Athenians gracefully into their way of life. You may see, for example, an old island woman leading a donkey laden with vegetables through the town's narrow streets, greeting the suntanned vacationers walking by. The truth is, Mykonians regard a good tourist season the way a fisherman inspects a calm morning's catch; for many, the money earned in July and August will support them for the rest of the year. Not long ago Mykonians had to rely on what they could scratch out of the island's arid land for sustenance, and some remember suffering from starvation under Axis occupation during World War II. How things have changed.

We wandered around the island for several hours and did some shopping. Late in the afternoon we returned to the ship.

30 Oct 15 - At Sea on Island Princess

Today I have to admit that after many days of walking for 10 hours a day, I was glad to have a full day at sea and not to go anywhere. I slept in , had a late breakfast and took it easy today. I spent some time taking pictures of the ship.

29 Oct 15 - Pompeii & Sorrento

Today was a busy day since we were arriving in Naples, Italy and we had a lot of ground to cover. Our first stop was Pompeii so we took an early morning train to get there. The city of Pompeii was an ancient Roman town-city near modern Naples in the Italian region of Campania, in the territory of the comune of Pompei. Pompeii, along with Herculaneum and many villas in the surrounding area, was mostly destroyed and buried under 13 to 20 ft of ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Researchers believe that the town was founded in the seventh or sixth century BC by the Osci or Oscans. It came under the domination of Rome in the 4th century BC, and was conquered and became a Roman colony in 80 BC after it joined an unsuccessful rebellion against the Roman Republic. By the time of its destruction, 160 years later, its population was estimated at 11,000 people, and the city had a complex water system, an amphitheatre, gymnasium, and a port.

The eruption destroyed the city, killing its inhabitants and burying it under tons of ash. Evidence for the destruction originally came from a surviving letter by Pliny the Younger, who saw the eruption from a distance and described the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder, an admiral of the Roman fleet, who tried to rescue citizens. The site was lost for about 1,500 years until its initial rediscovery in 1599 and broader rediscovery almost 150 years later by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in 1748. The objects that lay beneath the city have been preserved for centuries because of the lack of air and moisture. These artifacts provide an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city during the Pax Romana. During the excavation, plaster was used to fill in the voids in the ash layers that once held human bodies. This allowed one to see the exact position the person was in when he or she died.

Pompeii has been a tourist destination for over 250 years. Today it has UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, with approximately 2.5 million visitors every year.

After a few hours visiting Pompeii we took the train to Sorrento. Sorrento may have become a jumping-off point for visitors to Pompeii, Capri, and Amalfi, but you can find countless reasons to love it for itself. The Sorrentine people are fair-minded and hardworking, bubbling with life and warmth. The tuff cliff on which the town rests is like a great golden pedestal spread over the bay, absorbing the sunlight in deepening shades through the mild days, and orange and lemon trees waft a luscious perfume in spring.

In the evening, people fill cafés to nibble, sip, and talk nonstop; then, arms linked, they stroll and browse through the maze of shop-lined lanes. It has been this way for centuries, ever since Sorrento became a prescribed stop for Grand Tour travelers, who savored its mild winters while sopping up its culture and history. According to a letter from his traveling companion in 1876, the philosopher Nietzsche, not generally known for effervescence, "laughed with joy" at the thought of going to Sorrento, and French novelist Stendhal called it "the most beautiful place on earth." Many visitors still share his opinion.

Winding along a cliff above a small beach and two harbors, the town is split in two by a narrow ravine formed by a former mountain stream. To the east, dozens of hotels line busy Via Correale along the cliff—many have "grand" included in their names, and some indeed still are. To the west, however, is the historic sector, which still enchants. It's a relatively flat area, with winding, stone-paved lanes bordered by balconied buildings, some joined by medieval stone arches. The central piazza is named after the poet Torquato Tasso, born here in 1544. This part of town is a delightful place to walk through, especially in the mild evenings, when people are out and about, and everything is open. Craftspeople are often at work in their stalls and shops and are happy to let you watch; in fact, that's the point. Music spots and bars cluster in the side streets near Piazza Tasso.

After some sightseeing we decided to stop in a quaint restaurant and had a fabulous pizza. There is nothing like watching the world go by in a picture-postcard setting enjoying a good meal.

By late afternoon we caught a train from Sorrento back to Naples to board our ship. 

28 Oct 15 - Corsica, France

Today we arrived in Corsica, France, the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. This vertical chalky granite world of its own, rising in the Mediterranean between Provence and Tuscany, remains France's very own Wild West: a powerful natural setting and, literally, a breath of fresh air.
Corsica's strategic location 105 miles south of Monaco and 50 miles west of Italy made Corsica a prize hotly contested by a succession of Mediterranean powers, notably Genoa, Pisa, and France. Their vestiges remain: the city-state of Genoa ruled Corsica for more than 200 years, leaving impressive citadels, churches, bridges, and nearly 100 medieval watchtowers around the island's coastline. The Italian influence is also apparent in village architecture and in the Corsican language: a combination of Italian, Tuscan dialect, and Latin.

Corsica gives an impression of immensity, seeming far larger than its 133-mile length and 50-mile width, partly because its rugged, mountainous terrain makes for very slow traveling and partly because the landscape and the culture vary greatly from one microregion to another. Much of the terrain of Corsica that is not wooded or cultivated is covered with a dense thicket of undergrowth, which along with chestnut trees makes up the maquis, a variety of wild and aromatic plants including lavender, myrtle, and heather that gave Corsica one of its sobriquets, "the perfumed isle."

Once again we decided to take a train tram to tour the city which took about 90 minutes. Evidence of Napoleon's heritage are everywhere to be seen.

The city is quite beautiful and lush. After the tour we headed back to the ship. 

27 Oct 15 - Cannes, France

This morning we arrived in Cannes, France. Cannes a resort town on the French Riviera, is synonymous with glamour thanks to its world-famous film festival. Its Boulevard de la Croisette, curving along the coast, is lined with sandy beaches, upmarket boutiques and palatial hotels. It’s also home to the Palais des Festivals, a modern building complete with red carpet and Allée des Stars – Cannes’ walk of fame.

There's a small train tram which takes you all around the city showing all the main points of interest and stopping for photo-ops and we decided this was the best way to see the sights. 

It was a bit of a gray day today but thankfully there was no rain. We saw beautiful palm trees and fabulous luxury hotels along the waterfront in addition to prestigious condos with large flower-covered terraces facing the ocean. This is a town for the rich and famous. You can find small cafes on tiny narrow alleyways jutting out along the Croisette the main street along the ocean.

A tasteful and expensive breeding ground for the upper-upscale, Cannes has long been a sybaritic heaven further glamorized by the ongoing success of its film festival, as famous as (and, in the trade, more respected than) Hollywood's Academy Awards. About the closest many of us will get to feeling like a film star is a stroll here along the famous La Croisette promenade, lined with fancy boutiques and lorded over by the Carlton hotel, the legendary backdrop to Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. Nearly 60 years later with life imitating art, a whopping $53 million worth of jewels was stolen from this same hotel, one of many high-profile heists to hit Cannes during the summer of 2013.

Settled first by the Ligurians and then dubbed Cannoïs by the Romans (after the cane that waved in its marshes), Cannes was an important sentinel site for the monks who established themselves on Île St-Honorat in the Middle Ages. Its bay served as nothing more than a fishing port until in 1834 an English aristocrat, Lord Brougham, fell in love with the site during an emergency stopover with a sick daughter. He had a home built here and returned every winter for a sun cure—a ritual quickly picked up by his peers. Between the popularity of Le Train Blue transporting wealthy passengers from Calais, and the introduction in 1936 of France's first paid holidays, Cannes became the destination.

La Croisette, which starts at the western end by the Palais des Festivals and leads over to the Jardin Alexandre III, is precisely the sort of place for which the French invented the verb flâner (to dawdle, saunter): from the broad expanse of mostly private beaches to the glamorous shops and luxurious hotels, which these days are filled with the not-so jet set and conventioneers.

The harbour was filled with million dollar yachts and as we walked the waterfront we enjoyed looking at the large palm trees and beautiful boutiques. 

We spent a few hours in this port before going back to the ship. We had a few hours to relax before dinner, saw a show and went to bed not too late. 

26 Oct 15 - Pisa & Florence

Today was another early start as we were headed to Pisa and Florence. The best way I find to visit these towns is to do it independently on the train. After a short train ride were were in Pisa. Once a maritime power to rival Genoa and Venice, Pisa now draws its fame from an architectural project gone terribly wrong. But the world-famous Leaning Tower is just one of many noteworthy sights in this compelling city. 

Education has fuelled the local economy since the 1400s, and students from across Italy compete for places in its elite university. This endows the centre of town with a vibrant cafe and bar scene, balancing an enviable portfolio of well-maintained Romanesque buildings, Gothic churches and Renaissance piazzas with a lively street life dominated by locals rather than tourists.

After some time in Pisa shopping for souvenirs (I got a Leaning Tower of Pisa coffee mug which leans, lol) we were back on the train to Florence.

Florence is a relatively compact historic city situated along the borders of the Arno river in the middle of the Tuscan hills. During the Renaissance period, when the city was at the height of its powers, talented artists such as Brunelleschi and Michelangelo left their mark with magnificent buildings and artwork.

The Cathedral of Florence, officially known as Cattedrale Santa Maria del Fiore but better known as the Duomo, was originally planned in 1296 as a Gothic cathedral by Arnolfo di Cambio. It replaced the church of Santa Reparata, a cathedral church with a history going back to the early Middle Ages.

The dome of the Duomo was the world's largest when it was completed in 1436 and still towers over the city. The lantern on top of the dome was added later, in 1461, by Michelozzi Michelozzo. The dome, a marvel of engineering, was designed by Brunelleschi, who submitted his plans after he went to Rome to study the Pantheon, which long had the world's largest dome. 

Brunelleschi managed to create the enormous dome without supports thanks to an ingenious design which consisted of an inner shell made of bricks with a herringbone pattern and a horizontal stone chain, which reduced stress and allowed the weight to be evenly distributed. The outer, much smaller shell supports the roof and protects the inner shell from the elements. Between the two shells is a staircase, which leads visitors to the base of the lantern.

The Baptistery is one of Florence's oldest buildings and predates the cathedral. It was constructed on top of Roman foundations, possibly as early as in the sixth century. The interior dates back to the thirteenth century when the mosaics on the ceiling - depicting stories from the bible - were created. The exterior white and green marble cladding was added around the same time. 

The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is a medieval bridge spanning the river Arno in Florence. It is one of the few remaining bridges with houses built upon. The Vasari corridor that runs over the houses connects the Uffizi with the Pitti Palace on the other side of the river. The pedestrian bridge is often teeming with tourists and the many musicians, portraitists and other entertainers create a constantly vibrant atmosphere. The bridge is at its most beautiful at dusk, especially when seen from the Ponte Santa Trinità.

The houses on the bridge were initially used as workshops and a diverse array of shopkeepers such as butchers and tanners did business here. In 1593 duke Ferdinand I decided to replace them with goldsmiths, reportedly because the shops produced too much garbage and caused a foul stench.

Today the houses are used as shops selling a wide assortment of jewelry, ranging from affordable modern jewels to pricey antiques. 
The Ponte Vecchio is the oldest bridge in Florence. It is believed that a bridge already existed here during the Roman times. Its current appearance dates back to 1345 when it was built to replace a bridge which was destroyed by a flood. Houses were built on the bridge, a common practice in large European cities during the Middle Ages. The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in Florence that survived the Second World War unscathed.

We had a great lunch at a lovely sidewalk cafe. I ordered spaghetti with meat sauce and they served it in a unique plate that had a large cup-like indentation in the middle to hold the pasta, very good meal in the most beautiful surroundings facing the Duomo.

After some shopping we headed back to the train station to return to the ship. We had a great meal tonight of shrimp cocktail, prime rib and a to-die-for chocolate souffle. After dinner we saw an entertaining show in the lounge and then happily went to bed after an exciting but tiring day.