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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hot as Hades Tour: SHOPPING!!!!!

Who doesn't love to do a little shopping in a foreign country. Those of you that know me, know that this is one of my favorite things to matter where I am. :-) I do try and contain myself and stick to items that are relevant to the country and our "chosen" souvenir.

After talking with other avid travelers we decided early on, unfortunately after we had already traveled a few times, that we needed to have a common themed souvenir that we would try and look for in each new location. This was two fold. First of all, it deterred from the kids asking for every thing that they saw with the name of the place we were in and secondly, it made for a nice collection, rather than random souvenirs. We don't always find our particular type souvenir in each new place, but that is par for the course.

Chad's "chosen" souvenir is probably the hardest to find and mine coming in at a close second. The kids have "chosen" wisely as theirs are found in just about every spot. Chad has decided to get a souvenir Hard Rock glass in each place that has a Hard Rock. He has racked up quite the collection and of different styles of glasses. This will all add to his "man cave" at some point. :-) I chose to collect watercolor scenes in hopes to have a "true" travel wall someday. Tanner decided on key chains and Ellie on snow globes. We also, sometimes, venture off our beaten path and get something that is unique to that country.

The fun thing about cruises is that you can accumulate quite the collection during all the different ports. Our first port was Messina, Italy on the Island of Sicily. We visited Mt. Etna and the village of Taormina. On our tour our guide mentioned that Sicily is often represented by a three-legged woman, known as the trinacria. The three legs symbolize the three coastlines of Sicily with a head at it's center. The three coastlines are considered as gorgeous as the legs of a beautiful woman.

The three-legged trinacria, here, is made in a Gaudi style. I actually collect figures in this style, so I was thrilled to see this. I have several from Spain, such as: Don Quixote, a flamenco dancer and a bull fighter. Whenever I see one in another place I scoop it up.

In Rick Steves' guides he usually includes a section on shopping and what items to look for in each area, but since we didn't have a Rick Steves guide for Sicily, we just stuck to our tried and true, key chain, globe and print.

In Athens we didn't have a whole lot of time to shop. Some of the authentic items that Rick Steves recommends in Athens include: jewelry, sandals, carpets, religious items and worry beads.

It is no secret that the tour guides in some locations are in cahoots with a local shop owner. In Athens, it was no different. During the tour, our guide passed around a piece of jewelry that was popular amongst tourists. It was a charm that had your name written in Greek on one side and in English (or your native language) on the backside. After the Acropolis our guide brought us directly to a "select" shop that sells these and guarantees to have them ready before the cruise ship disembarks that evening. I admit, we fell into this scheme. I knew I wouldn't wear anything like this, but the woman mentioned that they could turn them into key chains for the kids. Well, this was a super unique souvenir. We all agreed this was going to be their souvenir and they would have to fore go their traditional one. I found some great prints, but couldn't chose just one.

Staying on the theme of tour guides in cahoots with a local trade, was VERY apparent in Turkey. Our tour ended with a tour of a "traditional" Turkish Carpet shop. We were basically wined and dined and then the bargaining began. We already knew going into this location that we were NOT in the market for a Turkish Carpet. After speaking to some other passengers on the ship, it turns out that EVERY tour ended with one of these presentations at a Turkish Carpet spot. Rick Steves warns you of this in his book, so we were prepared to just walk away, which we did, but I do have to say the presentation was really interesting.

The story goes...Carpet making is a dying trade. These warehouses or family owned business/franchises or whatever you want to call them, provide woman in tiny villages with the training and supplies in order to keep this trade alive. Again, after talking with other passengers, this was the same story they got. Who knows if it is true or not. The materials that this particular shop used were wool, silk and cotton/wool blend. They did a small demonstration on the process of collecting the silk. Ellie thought this was fascinating because in her 2nd grade class, last year, they studied silk worms. Her class actually had a bunch of them, fed them, watched them build their cocoons and then turn into moths and fly away.

The cocoons are very tightly wound. There is no way you can pull the threads out of them. So they have to soak the cocoons in hot water first. Being so tightly wound, they still cannot find an end to the cocoon. They take a wooden broom looking thing and begin to tap down on the cocoons until the threads catch. They then thread those threads onto a wheel. This wheel would spin the silk threads into a much stronger thickness. It really was amazing.

They also demonstrated how the carpets are made. A woman at a loom was actually tying little knots of thread making the pattern and then she would shave off the pieces sticking up making the top of the carpet a smooth surface. It is said that Turkish carpets are made differently from rugs anywhere in the world. They are double knotted, making them sturdier and more durable. Rugs elsewhere are said to be tied with a single fiber per vertical thread. Who knows, but they were impressive. Now for the ultimate presentation...

The owner of the shop began rolling carpet after carpet out. Don't get me wrong, these things were incredibly beautiful and intricate. If I was rich beyond my wildest dreams I may have considered, but that is not the case. Plus, as Rick Steves states...there is no way you can come to Turkey and get a good deal on a rug in 4 hours. As added marketing, they got the kids involved. They had them take their shoes off and run all over the carpets. The kids were the perfect tool, they ooohhheed and aaahhhheeedd all over the rugs. This allowed the presenter to then go into how to clean the rugs with kids and yada yada yada. Our kids were in love with the rugs and would have chosen every single one if we let them. As soon as the presentation was over and they invited you to go through "those" doors and look at many more and talk with one of "their guys", we were out of there. We ran for the door. Just to give you an idea of the price tag. We turned over a rug that was 100% silk and was maybe a 3 foot x 5 foot was $16,000. We didn't even stay to be offered a good price, but after talking to other passengers, they said that as soon as they walked away, the price dropped by 50%.

The other shopping experience in Turkey is their bazaar style shopping. We were told that you always bargain in Turkey. I hate this. I don't feel comfortable bargaining and I just don't care for the whole thing. Funny story...after leaving the ruins of Ephesus we were walking back to our bus. Between the point where you leave the ruins and the parking lot was a huge bazaar. There were vendors on either side and they are selling everything you might need from Turkey. They are also VERY aggressive. There is definitely not a "Just looking" response. Once you pick up something they start yelling out prices and I found it really uncomfortable. So, we found a spot that had globes and key chains. Chad decided that he was going to "bargain". All of this bargaining was going to be over about a euro or so. I am saying, "Are you kidding me". Ellie is always indecisive when it comes to her globe choice and she always T A K E S  F O R E V E R. This was causing me major stress here because the shop owners were hovering over us and every time she would pick one up to look at the owner would holler out a price. At this point I am like: Just pick one already and lets get the heck out of here. Well once we got back to the ship we unpacked the items and...

Look closely. Ummm....yeah...that is exactly what you think it is. Chad and I about died. Why on earth would this be on a globe of Turkey and Ephesus. Well it is what it is at this point and thankfully she hasn't really noticed. I just made sure it was turned the other direction on her shelf. HOLY COW!!!!

The Turkish evil eye was another symbol that we saw all over Turkey, and Greece, for that matter. These evil eye beads go back thousands of years. It is said to protect. We received a pin with an evil eye on it as part of our tour and Tanner picked a great key chain featuring the evil eye and the flag of Turkey, much more appropriate than his sister's choice.

Our stop on the Island of Crete was really a bust. We didn't find anything that fell into our categories. I did score some olive oil soap in one of the little villages we stopped at. They were only 1 euro a piece. I was thrilled.

Rome was a place to score a smorgasbord of trinkets. We were good and stuck to our usual's. Chad was able to get one of his glasses at Hard Rock as well.

Venice is where we fell off the wagon a bit. Hahaha. In the Shopping in Venice chapter of Rick Steves' Mediterranean Cruise Ports he says, "Long a city of aristocrats, luxury goods, and merchants, Venice was built to entice. While no one claims it's great for bargains, it has a shopping charm that makes paying too much strangely enjoyable. Carnevale masks, lace, glass, antique paper products, designer clothing, fancy accessories, and paintings are all popular with tourists visiting Venice." He wasn't kidding. We fell for the trap in a few places, but at the end of the day, we are happy with what we brought home.

Though you can probably buy Venetian Glass all over the world now, there was just something about going through the factory and drooling over all the beautiful pieces. We, obviously, weren't going home with one of their remarkable chandeliers, but we did want to leave with some nice pieces, that we could carry onto the airplane, I might add. We chose a beautiful pitcher and 8 glasses. We originally had 4 glasses (one we each picked out), but then the bargaining began. I was eyeing the pitcher and the salesman started lowering the price of the pitcher if we bought more glasses and then he gave us a package deal. Though, we are afraid to use them, for fear of one getting broken, we are excited with our Venetian luxury purchase.

This year is Chad and I's 15th Wedding Anniversary and though the traditional gift is crystal, we are going with Venetian Glass. :-)

One of the other "luxuries" I couldn't resist was a leather jacket. I had eyed one in Greece and then regretted not buying it for such a good price, so when I saw this one, in one of the many leather shops in Venice, I couldn't resist. I was told that I have to put it away until my birthday in September...Deal!

Honestly, normally, I wouldn't look at things like this, but as Rick Steves said...there is just something about Venice. :-)

The kids scored some pretty great items as well. Because we were such GREAT customers at the Glass Factory they threw in a couple of their glass signature pieces, the horses, free of charge. The kids were over the moon about this, while Chad and I were like, "They better give us a gift with purchase". Hahahaha. The kids also loved the masks, but we didn't think it was practical to have these super fancy masks that they couldn't really use, because they were too fancy. So, as we were walking through the cute little mask shop we saw plain ones that you could decorate yourself. Well this was right up our alley. They were cheap and the kids could make them whatever they wanted and not be afraid to actually use them. Win, win in my book. They were also able to find their usual's and Chad got his Venice Hard Rock glass. It was a good thing we were so good in all the other places because by the end of our Venice trip we were glad we had all the extra space in our suitcases.

Well, we certainly got some pretty nice souvenirs of our great vacation. I always hope that our choices are ones that we will be able to enjoy for a long time to come.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Hot as Hades Tour: Venice

Well, if you are one of my Facebook friends you might remember this dilemma...Do we go to Florence for a day and then to Venice for a day or do we just go to Venice and not rush for 2 days? Well I got a ton of great feedback on both sides of the fence. In reality, I could already hear my children (and husband for that matter) saying, "Do we really have to go see another museum? Why are all these statues naked? This is totally inappropriate." If you are the parent of younger children, can't you hear your's saying the same? Well with this in mind I decided to skip the David in Florence and just have some relaxing, no rush time in Venice. Well, for my family, that was just what they needed. The kids were way more excited about riding in boats on canals than naked statues anyway. :-)

Don't you think?

We arrived into Venice around 9:00 pm. Our first thought was to get ourselves to the hotel...however that was going to work. We walked out of the train station and what do you know...a boat taxi stand. THIS WAS AWESOME!!!!!!

Excuse Chad's drunk eye...that tends to happen in our pictures. Hahaha. We hopped into our boat taxi and we cruised through the canals to our hotel. These were the only Venice by night pictures I got, so you'll have to just bare with me. They are not the best. I was just snapping whatever caught my eye.

Our first morning we decided to take advantage of one of the offers by our hotel, which was a free tour of one of the Murano glass factories over on the Island of Murano. Murano is famous for its glassmaking. A tour such as this was on our list of "try to do's" for Venice and we were thrilled that our hotel gave this as a complimentary tour. We arrived at the New Murano Gallery and got our own personal guide to show us through the factory.

They had just done their final production day the day before. Many European businesses take the month of August off as their summer vacation. Because of this, they were not making any pieces at the time, but they did have a great demonstration that the kids got to take part in. The glass maker (not sure the official name of these guys) demonstrated a vase, a horse and then he let the kids blow a glass bubble. The horse was crazy impressive.

Okay, so let me explain what took place above. The top picture, obviously, is the end product. The detail is hard to make out in the bottom pictures. He was doing this incredibly fast. I was fascinated. The first picture shows him turning the molten glass. He had just taken those big tweezers, in his hand, to make the mane of the horse. He just sort of plucked at the glass and...voila, a mane. Next he spun it around so that he could pull out the legs. Finally, from where the glass was connected to the metal stick, he pulled it off forming the tail and then placed the sculpture on the rock next to him and formed out the body. This, literally, took him less than a minute.

He also demonstrated the vase above and then the kids got to have a go.

You weren't allowed to take any pictures inside their showroom. I suppose this is for fear of people getting an idea and having the piece copied. I was able to snap a few on our way that showed some of their work. It really was incredibly beautiful.

After the tour and the walk through the showroom, we headed back to our hotel, to drop off our purchases (this will be revealed in my post on shopping) and to figure out our next move. We had another opportunity to enjoy the scenery as the boat brought us back to the hotel.

At this point we decided to take the advice of Rick Steves and attempt a Grand Canal Cruise, upon one of the vaporetto boats, these are just like a city bus, except on the water.

Rick Steves suggests that you get on one of these, just like the one above, with seats in the front and you just "cruise" the canal...well, that certainly was not as feasible as we had hoped. We hopped on and off a few, but the bottom line was, they were packed liked sardines and we never had one, at any of the stops we were at, that had the seating in the front. So we just rode them, like a bus or a metro, and set off to find the Hard Rock for lunch. I was able to get some good pictures, though they were only from the side of the boat I was smashed into. :-)

We found the Hard Rock and had a yummy lunch. Some of the things we love about going to The Hard Rock is that 1) the menu is pretty much the same everywhere, this means we know exactly what we are ordering and we know the kids will eat and 2) the wait staff is from all over the world and we meet people with super interesting stories no matter what country we are in. We love this. Our waitress spoke perfect English, so of course, this strikes up conversation. Well it turned out that she was from Mexico, but really close to the California border, so she learned English that way. We asked her how she ended up in Venice and her response, "Love". Well that was just perfect for this little town. She fell in love with an Italian and now they live there. So neat.

We had to wait a few minutes for a table and we just took in the beauty of the little square where Hard Rock was located.

After lunch we walked around Venice. It becomes clear, very quickly, though one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, it would be a very difficult place to live your life. There really are two parts of Venice. There is the mainland Venice and the island part of Venice. If you look at a map of Venice you can see the island part is shaped like a fish. The island of Venice, where we stayed, does not have any cars. The only means of transportation are boats, which was awesome for us on vacation, but imagine living here on a daily basis and transporting things. We saw construction taking place, moving boats and even a UPS boat. I don't know about you, but this looks a bit daunting to me. Being a military family and moving every couple of years I can't even imagine the time and energy it takes to move your household goods into a place on this boatload at a time (literally).

This city is basically hundreds of little islands connected by over 400 bridges and 2,000 alleys. It survives on tourism alone. All of these bridges have stairs to walk up one side and down the other. We saw construction men hauling their wheelbarrows up, down and over these bridges. We saw elderly women lugging their grocery wheeled carts up, down and over these bridges. We saw moms with strollers bumping up, down and across these bridges. I was thankful at that moment that our kids were beyond that stage. :-) Here is a look at a few of the bridges.

The bridge at the top of this photo is called, Rialto Bridge. It was constructed in 1588. Until the 1850's, this was the only bridge crossing the Grand Canal. It was the grandest bridge that we saw.

Today, Venice is home to 58,000 people in this old city, which has decreased by half from just 30 years ago. Including mainland Venice there are about 270,000 people in total. Many of them come to the island to work each day, but then clear out in the evening. The evenings were quieter with much less people. It was nice to stand atop the Rialto Bridge and look out over the Grand Canal. It is absolutely breathtaking.

I could sit all day and watch all the boats, people and gondolas. Now you can't come to Venice and not ride in a gondola, right? Well we didn't ride in one, but got lots of pictures. We were actually going to try and take one of the gondolas that just cross the canal, but we just didn't get the chance. Taking a gondola ride is not only expensive, but during the day, you bake in the sun for most of the ride and as we watched all the riders, it looked a bit miserable.

Our last full day in Venice we needed to cross off: St. Mark's Square, St. Mark's Basilica, Doge's Palace, the Bridge of Sighs and a peek at some Venetian masks. We took the free shuttle boat from our hotel to Piazza San Marco.

It was just a short walk to St. Mark's Square and Basilica. We didn't go inside the Basilica because, honestly, the kids and Chad could have cared less at this point.

This is the largest square in Venice. It is nearly the size of two football fields long. St. Mark's Basilica is at the far end of the square. It was built in the 11th century. The bell tower that you see in the first picture is called Campanile. It is possible to ride an elevator 325 feet to the top, but we didn't.

On an edge of the square there is the Clock Tower, which was built during the Renaissance in 1496 and it marks the entry to the main shopping area called the Mercerie.

Just next to St. Mark's Basilica is Doge's Palace. This palace was the seat of the Venetian government and home to its ruling duke, or doge. It was the most powerful half-acre in Europe for 400 years.

We now set off to find the Bridge of Sighs. This bridge connects the Palace with the prison. It is said that a condemned man would be led over this bridge on his way to the prison, to take one last look at the glory of Venice, and sigh.

We began wondering through the much less touristy alleys of Venice in search for our lunch location. A Rick Steves recommendation. Upon our wandering we stumbled upon the cutest Venetian mask shop. I had hoped we would come upon such a place and we were in luck. The kids and I were itching to go inside. These masks were truly amazing. The shop we found appeared to house all hand made masks and not manufactured ones, as the woman behind the counter was gluing on decorations as we were walking through. We didn't let the kids touch or try on these "fancy" masks, but they did get the chance to try one on in a souvenir shop, as these weren't as delicate.

We found our lunch spot and it was as authentic as we had hoped. Ellie loves pasta, but doesn't like a tomato based sauce, so when the waiter mentioned a spaghetti with clams, she lit up like nobody's business. We opted for a more traditional meat sauce spaghetti for our second dish. These pasta dishes are meant for two people and they weren't kidding.They were so delicious. Ellie was sad at the end that we wouldn't let her take home the clam shells. Sheesh!!!!

With one last sleep our time in Venice quickly came to a close. This blog, I am sure, does not do Venice justice. It was, by far, one of the most beautiful places we have ever been. We were not disappointed in our decision to skip Florence and spend some relaxing days in Venice instead. Though we were sad to go, the time had come, so we boarded our water taxi to the airport, which made our last experience in Venice one we certainly won't forget.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hot as Hades Tour: Rome on our Own

After our "extremely" warm morning we were relieved to reach the hotel, though it was much farther than we thought. This ended up being a blessing in disguise. Because we were so far from the heart of Rome, we had to go into the city each day with a purpose and a plan. After the morning of our excursion we were happy to take a rest during the heat of the day. We decided to head back into Rome around 4:00 in the afternoon. It actually turned out to be wonderful. It wasn't as hot as it was earlier in the day (though still toasty). The hotel shuttle bus dropped us off just outside Vatican City and we decided to just take a stroll towards the Hard Rock Cafe. This is one of our "traditions" we have for each city we visit that has a Hard Rock. We had probably walked about 30 minutes or so and it began to get warm again. It really is amazing the temperature difference between the streets shaded by the buildings lining them and the streets without those "protecting" buildings. The kids were thrilled when we stumbled across this fun fountain. It was just what they needed to continue on.

Before we stopped for our "traditional" Hard Rock meal we made it to Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.

Trevi Fountain, our first stop, is a true example of how Rome took full advantage of the abundance of water brought into the city by its great aqueducts. This fountain was completed in 1762. The fountain is set in front of the palace and represents water in every form. It is said that tossing a coin into the fountain will ensure a return to Rome one day. We didn't toss a coin in. :-)

We were off to see the Spanish Steps. The Spanish Steps are located in the Piazza di Spagna, just about 10 minutes from the Trevi Fountain. These steps got their name because they were located where the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican has been for 300 years. We arrived in the early evening and the sun had set on part of the staircase. I thought they just looked inviting, peaceful, and a great place grab a gelato and rest, but we had dinner to find.

Next stop...Hard Rock. Thankfully Hard Rock wasn't that far of a walk from the Spanish Steps, but the kids had pretty much had their fill of walking Rome for the day. The were delighted when we finally saw this...

After dinner we just hopped in a taxi and headed back to our hotel...located in the Egypt of Rome (hahaha).

The next morning we awoke refreshed and ready to take on more of Rome. Day 2 we set out to find the Pantheon, pizza and our souvenirs from Rome. We started off our morning by taking the shuttle to the designated drop off near Vatican City and began our search for the USO Rome. For all you military peeps out there, this can be a great break. We got a complimentary drink and we had hoped to join one of the tours later that day, but unfortunately the tours fill up quickly and can get filled weeks in advance, who knew. We were hoping to do the Rome Underground tour, but we had to regroup once the woman at the front desk (whom was completely rude I might add) informed us that the tour was filled. We grabbed a drink and sat at the tables and began to plan our next move. There was another couple in the USO, whom coincidentally, happened to be on our cruise as well, though we had not met them on the boat. We began chatting with them and they recommended a tour that they had done off the cruise ship, the Capuchin Crypt. Well we had a little experience with a Crypt on our trip to Portugal, so we were ready to compare, yet another similar sight.

We arrived at the Capuchin Crypt, which was back in the Hard Rock neighborhood. Thankfully day 2 was a bit overcast and not as hot as the previous day. I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside this location, but holy cow. If you google Capuchin Crypt you can see pictures of the artistically arranged bones of more than 4,000 friars who died between 1528 and 1870. Leading up to the crypt was an interesting museum detailing the life of the Capuchin friars. It housed clothing, artifacts, footwear, books and much more. I loved this museum and found it incredibly informative. The Capuchin order is still functioning today.

Next on the agenda...finding the Pantheon. Funny story. We were winding through all these streets full of tourists, with my Rick Steves guide in hand and we stumbled upon this building, which we thought to ourselves, "Finally, we have arrived at the Pantheon". I began taking pictures and all the vendors outside were selling the Pantheon artifacts, globes, keychains, watercolors and the vast.

We began walking around trying to find the entrance. We kept thinking, "It can't be this difficult to get inside the Pantheon". Well maybe this wasn't the right building, but it certainly looked "old" and there were columns, but it certainly wasn't as impressive as I had hoped. Well as we were trying to find the entrance we turned a corner and... that is impressive. The Pantheon was built 2,000 years ago, the impressive domed temple was a model for Michelangelo's dome of St. Peter's, as well as many others. Because the Pantheon became a church dedicated to the martyrs just after the fall of Rome, the barbarians left it alone and the locals didn't take the pre-cut stones to build other buildings. The columns used in this construction are actually one whole piece of stone, not individual pieces formed into one large column, such as those at the Acropolis. The Pantheon is the only ancient building in Rome continuously used since its construction. It is the greatest look at the splendor of Rome with antiquity's best preserved interior and original bronze doors.

After we left the Pantheon we decided to sit and enjoy some gelato. We needed an incentive to keep the kids motivated until we could get back to the neighborhood where we wanted to eat lunch. We headed back to the Hard Rock neighborhood...I am not sure why we were drawn to this neighborhood, but it was just quiet and shaded and peaceful. We were now in search for pizza. We found a super yummy spot. The pizza in Italy, is by far, the most amazing pizza you will ever eat. The thin crust, the super fresh ingredients and the price are all just phenomenal. The cost of a pizza, even in a fancier restaurant, is about 6-8 euro...less than $10 and though they call one pizza a single serving it can clearly serve more.

Holy Cow...are you kidding delicious. At this point we were sort of felling like we had conquered Rome. We still had a few hours before we were scheduled to catch the shuttle back to the hotel, so we thought maybe we would catch a movie. We took a taxi down to where there was a movie theater, but it turns out Italy is just like it is in Spain (and potentially how it is all over Europe), but movies don't start until early evening, so no afternoon movie for us. We decided to just take a leisurely stroll back near the Vatican to catch our bus.

One of the fun things about Rome is that there are, literally, fountains of all shapes and sizes all over the city. They range from fountains as grand as the Trevi fountain and ones hidden down a little side street used for filling up your water bottle. The water coming from these is ice cold and soooo refreshing. Here's a little compilation of some fountains and other fun sights along the way...

Our final day in Rome was spent in the hotel room waiting for our train. Originally, we figured we would want a later train to Venice, so that we could get a few more hours in Rome, but we were so far away that we just hung out until it was time to catch our train to Venice. At the train station we people watched, had some lunch and waited. Once on the train we enjoyed the scenery of Italy as we headed to Venice.

Don't miss our next stop on our Hot as Hades Tour: Venice.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Hot as Hades Tour Final Port: Rome

The sun has set on our cruise vacation for the Summer of 2013.

We have now arrived at our starting port city of Rome, where we begin our post cruise vacation visiting Rome and Venice. :-)

This was an early departure from the boat. We had to be up and out by 7:15 am. Yikes!!!! The port city near Rome is called Civitavecchia and is a good hour/hour and a half from Rome. We had to get off the boat and retrieve our luggage from the designated area and get on our bus. The departure routine is pretty organized. You have to set all your luggage out the night before, with the tags that your stateroom attendant leaves for you. By morning, your luggage is whisked away and waiting for you off the ship, to retrieve.

On the bus ride in to Rome our guide gave us numerous tid bits about Rome. The one piece that became clearly evident very quickly was that everybody had a car, but there wasn't anywhere to park all the cars.

Our first destination on our tour was Vatican City. I didn't realize that Vatican city is actually a sovereign state and the smallest one at that, guarded by Swiss guards. Once we reached Vatican city we met up with a local tour guide. I am thankful that we arrived to the Vatican pretty early, for European standards, because there was not yet a line to get into St. Peter's basilica. We wandered through the barricades on St. Peter's Square and made it to the Swiss guards, whom were very strict on the dress code, as they should be, no knees or shoulders showing. They had no problem turning people away. Once inside the complex we were only given 20 minutes inside St. Peter's basilica, but what can you expect when we still had to see the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, all by 1:00 in the afternoon and it was now 9:30 am. It is absolutely impossible to take all St. Peter's has to offer in just 20 minutes, but again, it is what it is.

St. Peter's basilica is the greatest, largest basilica of the Christian world. When inside the basilica you can see markings on the floor to show where other churches in the world would end if they were placed inside the basilica. I was trying to buzz around the basilica as quickly as I could, taking in every nook and cranny I could reach. Ellie wasn't feeling well, as she was a bit overheated from the walk there and waiting in the short line, so a chunk of our time there we were dealing with a possible mad dash to the restroom, but thankfully that didn't happen and she was able to cool down once inside. The inside is just incredible. When you first walk in, off to the right, is the famous piece by Michelangelo, Pieta.

Like I said, this place was incredible. You just cannot even put into words how incredible it is.

Back outside, with a few minutes in the shade, to take in all the glory of St. Peter's square itself.

Back on the bus, and cooling off, we were off to our next location: Ancient Rome. As the bus drove us throughout the city we saw some other monumental buildings. I am glad that I attempted to take pictures through the window of the bus, because we didn't make it back to these areas for another photo op.

I am not sure what all of these sights are, but the upper right-hand corner and a close up in the lower left-hand corner is the Victor Emmanuel Monument. This ginormous monument was built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the country's unification in 1861 and was dedicated to the first king of Italy. The middle picture is part of the Colosseum.

The bus let us off in the midst of the Ancient Rome area and we began our next portion: The Roman Forum and The Colosseum. Now, mind you, it was about 11:00 am now and holy cow, it was Hot as Hades.

The Roman Forum is ancient Rome's birthplace and civic center. If there was anything important happening in Rome, it was happening here. There are many things to see in this area. I did not have my trusted Rick Steves' guide, so I really can't say what all we were seeing. We did have a guide telling us what things were, but honestly, it was so hot, I just can't remember. Here is, at least, a collage of the photos I took. You can always find more information on the internet regarding this sight, but this is all I got. :-)

After leaving the Roman Forum, we walked/bustled across the street to enter the Colosseum at our slotted time frame. This was certainly the beauty of having a guide, she had everything pre-arranged so we didn't have to wait in any lines...and let me tell you...the line to get into the Colosseum was INSANE! It was so insane I couldn't even get to my camera to take a picture of it. We made it inside and our guide stopped for a potty break. This next picture was accidental, but it actually portrays how we felt...a little steamy and a bit dizzy...after baking in the sun during the Forum and the whole entering fiasco...there were soooo many people. Haha...

This little bit of respite while our group went to the restroom was in desperate need. Once our group got back together we walked upstairs to view this incredible structure. Some more background...The Colosseum was built when the Roman Empire was at its peak in A.D. 80. This was an arena for gladiator contests and public spectacles. The 2,000 year old building is the classic example of Roman engineering. The outside once contained 3.5 million cubic feet of travertine stone.

Gladiators, criminals, and wild animal fought to the death in every conceivable scenario within these walls. It becomes apparent that the Roman's certainly enjoyed their fare share of violence. I guess not much has changed in these modern times, with all the violence on our televisions and movie screens. You can see, from the picture below, just how the process must have taken place below the stadium floor.

Today, only a third of the original Colosseum remains. Between earthquakes and looters, this is all that is left. Even with that said, it was an amazing sight and if you ask the kids about what they remembered about the Colosseum, they will tell you, "the floor was made of wood and they would sprinkle sand on the wood in order to soak up the blood of whatever was just killed so that they could just sweep it away". Well, at least it's something.

After The Colosseum it was time for us to get back on the bus. We were staying a few more days in Rome so we were dropped off at the Ostiense train station and got a taxi to our hotel, which was much farther than appeared on the map when we booked it, I might add. We got checked in and stayed inside from the heat of the day. I will continue on my next post with Hot as Hades Tour: Rome on our Own next.