Monday, August 15, 2011

Day 11: Happy Birthday from Corsica.

All I wanted for my 30th birthday was to lie on a beach in Europe and soak in the sun and build sand castles. It was so perfect that our cruise stopped in Corsica where the beaches were supposed to be gorgeous, and we planned the whole day based on doing nothing but relaxing.

I woke up that morning and it was raining. It didn't rain the entire cruise except that one day, and it didn't stop until we pulled away from Corsica. All day long. So, we made the most of it.

The beach was out - it was such a dark and dreary day - and so we just decided to walk around town for awhile. We stopped to get our obligatory espresso drinks and milk (today in a wine glass, of course). We loved exploring the town, and it would have been perfect if the weather was halfway decent. Around noon, we got back on the boat. Jon picked up sandwiches on the way and they were delicious - he got me a "Napoli" pressed sandwich (tomato and mozzarella) - to continue the streak of eating "pizza" in each city along the way - and Lilly ate half of it!

Lilly napped during the afternoon, while I went to the spa for a blow dry, mini facial, and mani and pedi. Then, at 6, Lilly went to the kids club while Jon and I went to dinner at Palo. The food - and the service - and the wine - were all great. It was the only dinner the entire cruise that we didn't spend with Lilly, and it was nice having grown up conversation especially after so many interesting days. Lilly enjoyed the kids club, they bring food down to them at dinner time and she was in a good mood when we picked her up.

Afterwards, just as I started to feel a little homesick for not talking to any family or friends on my birthday, we ran into our friends from dinner and after seeing the show together, threw all the kids in the kids club and went to the piano bar.
I may have chugged a beer in a contest right before this picture was taken, but I definitely did not win.

It was a fun - and unique - birthday that I'll never forget.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Day 10: La Spezia, Santa Margherita, and Portofino

This was another Disney excursion day. You see, what happened was, I was reading In Touch or Us Weekly a couple weeks before the cruise. And Leonardo Di Caprio was in Portofino with Blake Lively. And while it's not like I'm a huge Leo fan (I'm not not a Leo fan - but it's not like I'm obsessed with him or anything) but I am a fan of Lilly doing what the stars do, going where they go. If Portofino is good enough for Leo, certainly my 5 year old daughter should check it out. Right?

So, we booked the excursion that left from La Spezia and went to Santa Margherita and Portofino. We met up with our tour group as Chip, Dale and Minnie were taking pictures...

The history lesson we got (slightly different from the one in Rome) was based on celebrities. Clark Gable used to hang out in this area. Perfect. (Lilly is not obsessed with Gone with the Wind yet but she has an appreciation.) And many other celebrities, from the 1940's until present. In fact, when we got back, we realized we were there at the same time as Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas. (We were also in Malta a week or two after Brad and Angelina. Of course.) Anyways, it was a nice day to walk around these two cities, appreciate their beauty, and see how the rich people vacation.

Would I pick this excursion again? Probably not, only because for us I think we needed a down day after Rome, and La Spezia actually had a lot to offer, from the glimpse we got - on the water (not sure if there's a beach), playgrounds, restaurants. But, would I recommend this excursion? Yes. A lot of people did Pisa or Florence this day, and I think this was a good alternative to those areas. It was beautiful and calm and exactly what you'd think the area would be. I loved it.

Lilly in the middle of town in Santa Margherita

On a carousel. No playground in town, but a horsie ride is just as good.

The beach - we didn't bring bathing suits (we should have) but we didn't have a ton of time either - we hung out on the beach for a half hour before meeting up with our group for a "pizza party." Which was all you can eat, but not nearly as good as the pizza in Naples - which was not to say it was bad pizza, but after Naples it's hard to eat any pizza. But a nice lunch either way, and the restaurant had a play area for kids which was minimal but nice.

Lilly listening to her ipod in Portofino.

We had a private ferry that took us to Portofino from Santa Margherita.

Behind Lilly and I is a castle that we walked up a gazillion steps to get to, because Lilly likes castles. She walked every step and it was exhausting for all of us! When we got there, we were so close to the castle that Lilly didn't appreciate it was a castle - she just saw a stone building - so we hiked another thousand steps down and when we got to the center of the city, Lilly was excited that she could see a castle far in the distance. *Sigh.*

Lilly drinking whiskey - I mean, milk. We stopped for gelato in Portofino before heading back.

And finally, Pirate night on the cruise ship. Mommy went to bed at 10 but Lilly and Jon stayed up late.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Day 9: When in Rome

Thus far, we had appreciated the natural beauty of the island nation of Malta. We had gone to the Sicilian countryside. We had eaten the best pizza on earth. And, it was time to delve into the most amazing historic experience.

The ancient Roman times are fascinating, and I couldn't wait to be there. See it. Experience the places that were so advanced for their time. You don't fully appreciate Rome until you're there, in the middle of it.

The Disney excursions looked both overwhelming and underinclusive and expensive. Not their fault; it's impossible to see the highlights of Rome in one day, and doing it on a large tour bus didn't seem to be the right thing for us. We wanted the flexibility of being able to do things at our own pace if necessary. And we wanted to zip in and zip out without waiting for 87 other people to be done using the restroom.

We chose a private tour guide, Stefano's Rome Tours (affiliated with Rome Cabs). The company gets great reviews on, and they were easy to work with to set things up. To reduce the cost, we found another family on our cruise that also had young kids so we could split it in half. It worked out perfectly, and I'd highly recommend them.

We woke up early, and I popped two Excedrin Migraine, while I drank my coffee and we scarfed down bagels and fruit in the room. Jon also went up to the buffet for crackers and cheese, to bring with us. We met the other family and walked off the boat around 8 am. Our driver was right there with a sign with my name on it - it couldn't be easier. We got in his van, and spent an hour or so driving to Rome.

First stop was the Colosseum. The coolest thing about the history of Rome - is watching it through Lilly's eyes. Seeing her, at 5 years old, kind of know that this is important. Explaining to her what she's looking at. And her being genuinely interested in what she's seeing. Here she is when we got out at the Colosseum, taking pictures.

And sweet Lilly in front:

As we walked in, I explained to her where she was going - to a really old place where they used to have events, kind of like when you go to baseball games with daddy, or a Broadway show. And, when she held her ticket to get in, she told me that we were going to a Hannah Montana concert. Then she changed her mind and told me it was Mamma Mia.

Lilly Lou sitting on stones that are 2000 years old. Craziness.
Lilly's camera skills hard at work: otherwise there would be no pictures of just mommy and daddy.

Lilly, touching history.
Of course, before we left she not only performed an Annie Medley but also Mary Poppins' Step in Time. My opinion is, if Lilly had lived when the Romans did a couple centuries ago, she would totally have performed on that stage in the Colosseum.

Next we went to the Forum and walked around through a few buildings. Lilly found this "stage" and performed her dance class "Gummy Bear" routine. (Of course.)

Next stop, the Pantheon. Lilly danced with Minnie Mouse, performing "I don't need anything but you" from Annie.

And outside she switched to "Maybe" from Annie.

Then we went to the Trevi Fountain, where we all threw in coins to ensure that we'd be back to Rome. Lilly apparently loves Rome so much that she threw in almost every coin in Jon's wallet. First the picture that Lilly took of us...

I'd like to stop here to say what an amazing tour guide we had that day. Each place we went, he dropped us off right in front. A month before, they told us to get tickets to the Vatican and Colosseum in advance, so we wouldn't wait in line. When we got to the Colosseum, he walked us right to the front with our tickets and got us in, no problems. He would tell us what time to meet him after each place - 20 minutes for this, 40 minutes for that - and it was always the right amount of time. He'd be waiting exactly where he said, and gave good directions on where to go. He gave tons of history while driving around, and knew the answers to all our questions, whether it was history or coffee. He took short cuts throughout Rome, and went places that tour buses definitely can't go (and won't fit!). We definitely didn't walk very far all day because of all his tricks.

Next stop: lunch. Our guide took us to an Italian restaurant near the Vatican, and I don't know what it was called. I do know that it wasn't touristy - it seemed pretty authentic - it was relatively inexpensive, and the food was delicious. He walked us in, where they had a table reserved for our group - no waiting. Perfect, again.

The pasta in Rome was amazing. Not as amazing as my pizza experience the day before, but definitely the best pasta I've ever had. And the best mozzarella. Wow the food was exactly what Italian food should be.

Lilly liked the pasta...

We had each ordered beers with lunch, which hit the spot but were also leaving us a little drowsy for the coolest part of Rome (in my Catholic opinion)...

The Vatican
Lilly with the Sistine Chapel behind her.
Our driver had arranged in advance for a Vatican tour guide to show us around for 2 hours - definitely money well spent. She was an expert on everything there. She showed us so much in a short amount of time, and wove us in and around it all with no problem, even though we had Lilly in a stroller. (She fell asleep right after we entered the Vatican museums. Or, she peacefully took in each exhibit.) I was surprised how cool the Vatican is - so much rich history and religion, it was fascinating. And without a personal tour guide, I think we would have missed a lot of it - especially having the kids there - she gave us everything we needed to know and everywhere we needed to go. We went through the museums, the Sistine Chapel, a gazillion stairs (noteworthy because of the sleeping child), and finally into St Peter's, where Lilly woke up.
Afterwards, we had gelato and the driver drove us back to the port.

Overall it was an amazing day. Jon says it was his favorite day of the trip - we accomplished so much in a small amount of time. Reading history books is one thing, and seeing it come alive before you is just so interesting.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Day 8: Naples

A couple port days under out belt: the first touring a half day on our own, and the second doing an all day excursion. It was time to slow it down - and not just for pacing reasons. But, because it was the day I've been waiting months - years, actually - to experience.

Almost everyone from our cruise went to Pompeii, to see the ancient ruins which I hear are magnificent. Or, if they've already done so, they tour Herculaneum or go to Capri or Sorrento for the day. All totally valid choices. And we've been warned time and again how dangerous Naples is - a city that is too busy, too crazy, too dirty. But I had my eye on the prize. I wouldn't classify myself as a pizza conosier exactly, but I've tasted it from all over. I've had the best of Chicago. I've discovered good pizza joints in Atlanta. I created my own in New Zealand (and found one - just one - decent pizzeria in Auckland). In Charlottesville we've tasted it all and had a few favorites. And in New York City, the mecca of good US pizza, we tried it all - watching Food Network shows about the best local pizzas, asking around, and eating as much as we could wherever we could.

So in Naples, neither history nor beauty would make me turn my back - er, stomach - from what they say is the best pizza in the world. We'd tackle the crazy dirty dangerous city for the best pizza of my life.

We woke up this morning, in no rush. I think this was the morning after we were out late with our cruise friends doing a grown up scavenger hunt, while the kids were in the kids club until midnight or so. But we had no plans that morning so Lilly slept in until 9:30. We again got coffee first thing. I can't remember exactly but I know we didn't eat anything and I'm pretty sure Lilly didn't end up eating anything either. When you're about to have the best pizza ever, you want to be hungry, so we skipped breakfast.

We got off the boat around 10:30 am, thinking the pizza place would be open at 11 or 11:30. We carried nothing with us - because everyone had terrified us so much about Naples. I took off my diamond engagement ring, just leaving my small wedding band. We didn't bring our camera, just Lilly's inexpensive one. Jon carried just enough money for food in his front pocket, and his hand never left it. No backpack, nothing else. We dressed down - I don't think I wore makeup, and we all wore tshirts and jeans. Lilly wore boyish looking pants, didn't want her to stand out as being too cute (it's hard!). Seriously, people had freaked us out and I was nervous but nothing would stop me from the pizza.

We got off the boat and found a map at the entrance to the port. We had directions that we printed out but they weren't that helpful, but we figured out where we were going. For anyone who needs help in the future: when you get off the cruise ship in the port, you'll see a castle looking thing a couple blocks away towards the diagonal left. If you walk a couple blocks more diagonally, you'll get to a square. Right near there is the pizzeria of choice: Pizzeria Brandi. We got there a little after 11 (it's just a 10 minute walk if you know where you're going) and we found out they didn't open until 12:30 on Sunday. So, we decided to kill time and walk around. We found a big open square a block away - and church bells were ringing. It was beautiful.

I started to realize my impression of Naples was wrong. Sure, maybe it's dirty or unfriendly or dangerous, but remember, we're coming from a year off New York City. It looked clean and nice to us. And with nothing of value on us - besides Lilly - we felt perfectly safe. It was Sunday morning, so maybe it was a little quieter than normal, but we totally loved the city.

We stopped at a nearby cafe on the corner for a cup of coffee. The staff was a little rude at first - which made us homesick for NYC - but after we ordered our drinks, they got a lot nicer. We ordered in Italian as the server spoke no English - but a few minutes back we realized he had just pretended not to speak/understand English, as he asked us in perfect English: "So, were are you from? New York City? I love NYC."
The best coffee of Jon's life. And, Lilly was happy because a waitress gave her two little drink umbrellas.

Afterwards we went for a walk down a tree lined street nearby. Naples was so pretty!
Here are Jon and Lilly outside Pizzeria Brandi (in the background) as we waited for it to open.
And walking down a side street. I think it's a pedestrian street without cars, but motorcycles could ride down it. And, for those who warned us about it being scary to cross streets because of the crazy traffic: it wasn't bad at all. Again, it was a Sunday, but our NY savvy and confidence prepared us for crossing the streets. If we hadn't come from a big crazy city then perhaps Naples would feel slightly overwhelming - but it seriously wasn't as bad as NYC in any aspect, in my opinion.

And the most important moment of the trip: the Margherita pizza. I had a certain thought in my head about how delicious it would be, imagined what it would taste like. And let me say: it was even more incredible than I had imagined. Not only best pizza of my life, but the best meal of my life hands down. And in my top 10 experiences of my life, up there with giving birth to Lilly and marrying Jon. Oh my goodness amazingness.
Jon and I each ordered our own pizza - which were huge - and ate the entire thing. Lilly had a slice but she ate bread after that, which made us happy because we didn't want to share. And FYI, the pizza is served whole, not in slices. Apparently the traditional way of eating it is to fold it in half and in half again and just take big bites. Or, tear it and eat it. We cut some of it, and just devoured the rest. It was the best tasting thing ever.

The rest of the meal at Brandi was good as well - the server super attentive, a big basket of bread, a delicious salad, sparkling water and bottled water (the sparkling water was probably the best I'd ever had as well), and Jon had a delicious beer. Every single person in the restaurant each ordered a whole Margherita pizza per person, it was funny to watch - they all know how amazing it is. Anyways, amazing meal for the family. Totally didn't let me down at all.

And after, we got Gelato from a street cafe. Lilly loved it.

Our day in Naples was wonderful - probably (arguably) the favorite of our trip. It was laid back and relaxing, Naples was pretty and charming, the food was insane, and it was just a nice family day. The rest of the day was spent napping (Lilly), doing laundry (me), I think an hour in the kids club before dinner (Lilly), and a nice dinner with our friends including local Limoncello and wine that we bought in Naples. Next stop: Rome.