By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
We were strangers joined by the same cruise ship boarding card in our pockets and the desire to soak up as many sights as possible on a whirlwind tour of the western Mediterranean.
Heading to parts unknown to me, I was certain only that I wanted to avoid the cattle call of the excursion bus tours organized by the cruise line.
Online exploration of alternatives led to a fortuitous meeting with Kyle Brinkman, a television news director in Lafayette, La., who was also booked on the MSC Divina and seeking others to join in small-group tours of some of the ports with his wife, Lisa, and daughter, Emily.
There are numerous operators offering tours in cars and vans from ports frequented by cruise ships in Europe. The price is reasonable when shared for a driver and vehicle seating up to eight – about 70 euros apiece for the two outings Fran and I took in Italy: to the Amalfi coast south from Naples and the Florence /Tuscany region from La Spezia in May 2015.
The objective, as first-time visitors, was to get an overview of a variety of intriguing destinations, and to gain an appreciation of traveling in foreign places where we don’t speak the language. In that part of the world it proved to not be difficult to communicate; people were welcoming and accommodating everywhere we went.
In addition to three ports in Italy (Civitavecchia/Rome was the other), there were stops Cannes, Mallorca and two days post-cruise in Barcelona. Check back for Craigslegz tales from the various stops coming soon.
View a photo gallery from the scenic Amalfi Coast in southern Italy.
There is no way to truly know a place from such a breathless panorama where each day is a different destination. This was an appetizer for future travels.
At the top of the list of must returns is Barcelona, our new favorite most enchanting city. From the medieval gothic to Catalan modernista and happening-now graffiti, the city is a livable museum of art and architecture not found elsewhere.
The architect Antoni Gaudi left his distinctive mark on Barcelona like few artists have on any notable locale, aside from Michelangelo. No, Gaudi was not the genesis of the term gaudy, though the description has been applied to some of his work.
Gaudi’s Park Guell is as whimsical as PeeWee’s Playhouse. His greatest work, Sagrada Família, is unlike any church I’ve seen, and the only one which conveyed a spiritual uplifting feeling that made me reluctant to leave and determined to return.
So glad we chose Barcelona over Rome for the beginning and end of the cruise. One day in Rome was enough to fulfill a desire to visit the Colosseum. Otherwise, our impression of the city was overrated and overcrowded. For those drawn to the Vatican, you have plenty of company.
Tuscany merits further exploration. Not only Florence, which was difficult to appreciate in a few hours, but nearby Tuscan towns such as Lucca, where we stopped for a memorable dinner amid the maze-like medieval city center.
Most spectacular was the Amalfi Coast, south of Naples where the scenery is stunning and the lemons are the size of grapefruits.
The unexpected treasure was the side trip to Soller on the island of Mallora, where we supped on paella next to the town square, shopped for Mallorca pearls and rode the vintage wooden train back to port. The unexpected bonus was found in the Soller train station where there is an exhibit of artwork by Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso to browse at no charge, including an impressive collection of Picasso ceramics.
But their work was topped by the moon over Mallorca, which turned the sea into a sparking palette from the city to our ship.
Sights aside, what made all of the places and experiences memorable was the people we had the good fortune of sharing them with, as well as those we encountered along the way.
Kyle Brinkman was the facilitator who brought our impromptu travel family together. Toronto resident Janetta Clement, traveling with her daughter Lisa, arranged the Amalfi excursion with SeeAmalfiCoast tours and guide Mario Frenna. A western Canada couple, Janine and Darryn Burant, spearheaded the tour of Florence, Pisa and the Italian Riviera with Angelo of SmartCruiseTours.
Darryn also had a valuable tip on a stock guru. See, it is the people who connect the dots on any journey, whether a vacation week away or the greater journey through life.
And it is always the original characters that create the lasting impressions. Our drivers/guides Mario and Angelo could have come right out of Italian Central Casting. Their knowledge and untiring enthusiasm to convey an appreciation for their country made the days we spent with them feel as if we were being shown around by long, lost relatives.
Angelo had the tenacity of Kojak in circumventing traffic, lines at exhibits and any obstacle of authority. Not sure what he said to the impetuous ticket dispenser at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, but he wasn’t about to let our pre-purchased vouchers be rejected.
He drove to within a block of the Leaning Tower in Pisa for a rapid-fire photo session, and introduced us to his charming hometown of Lucca, which none of us were aware of, for a top-notch dinner.
Mario drove the tricky and treacherous Amalfi Coast roads with the dexterity of Mario Andretti while never wavering from a steady flow of insightful commentary. He took us to an unforgettable lunch in Ravello at Al Ristoro del Moro on an outdoor patio more than 1,000 feet above the sea.
Mario also introduced the unsung hero of the trip. Make that, most sung: Domenico Pignieri is also a driver in the Naples area with a velvet voice, and his CD of favorite Italian songs is staple with many of the tour guides. Mario gave me a copy of it so that I was able to bring The Voice of the Amalfi Coast back to South Florida.
People are most memorable when they surprise you. There was a man on the Amalfi Coast riding a motor scooter with his little dog on the foot bed. There were the silky sounds of the electric string quartet playing Coldplay’s Viva La Vida amid the stone arches at Barcelona’s Park Guell. One of the violinists resembled a younger Dave Matthews.
We saw two brides ready to take the big plunge, one of them posing with the wedding party in Rome outside the Colosseum. It seemed an odd backdrop for a couple to document the start of a life together considering the many lives brutally ended at that venue.
In Cannes, we met Roger and Trisha from Birmingham, England, at a sidewalk café. Like many Brits, they are frequent visitors to the South of France for a break from the weather at home, much like New Yorkers flock to Florida beaches. They have never been across the pond and were inquisitive about their nation’s former colonies, particularly our politicians.
Though, some of their curiosity was, well, quite curious.
“I say,” Trisha said, earnestly, “is that Bill Clinton quite demented?”
Not everyone encountered was pleasant and forthright. There was the guy in the gladiator costume in Rome who accosted me to pose with him for a photo, then demanded 10 Euros.
But that annoyance was offset by the waiter at the sidewalk pizza restaurant in Rome. He was not only agreeable to taking a photo for us, he took a selfie of himself.
The waiter was one of the few people we encountered in Rome who didn’t consider it essential for us to purchase a selfie stick.