Welcome to the Royal Princess on her voyage across The Mediterranean including Istanbul, The Greek Isles, Rome, Florence, Pisa, Pompeii, the French Riviera and Barcelona. Thanks to Princess Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.
Day One: Istanbul and a Royal Welcome!
Morning: Old Town Istanbul
Before we board The Royal Princess for our journey across The Mediterranean, we join up with some of the other passengers for a tour of some of Istanbul‘s most beautiful and historic sites.
First stop, The Blue Mosque, which is perhaps Istanbul’s best known landmark. With a main dome, eight secondary domes, and six minarets, it is considered the pinnacle of two centuries of Ottoman mosque development. On viewing the amazing sight, we had to wonder about the name… we didn’t see any blue but the sky. Built in 1609 by Sultan Ahmed I, it’s actually called the Sultanahmet Mosque, and we soon see that the blue refers to the tiles on the walls inside.
If you can’t find it here, you don’t really need it – The Grand Bazaar
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar ranks among the oldest, and certainly largest covered markets in the world. With sixty-one covered streets and over 3,000 shops, it attracts up to 400,000 visitors each day. As we add ourselves to those numbers, we are blown away by the sheer amount of merchandise on display.
Everything from cheesy souvenirs, to all sorts of clothing, to fine silks, to myriads of carpets, to dazzling jewels are for sale in the little booth-like shops that line the “streets” that are more like alleyways.
WATCH: A romp through the Grand Bazaar – Veronica learns to haggle!
After adjusting to the spectacle of product overload, we can focus the architecture. When the market was built in 1455, Istanbul was very much the crossroad between Europe and Asia, and the bazaar soon became the hub of trade between the continents, so it had to be spectacular.
But over the course of four and a half centuries things had changed, fires and earthquakes nearly dealt a death blow to the already declining bazaar. After fading and falling into in disrepair until the 1950s, it staged a comeback. By the 80s, restorations had taken place and now the name “grand is” fitting once again.
Afternoon: Sultans and Emperors
Hagia Sophia is one of the most impressive structures we’ve ever seen, not so much for the building itself, although it is spectacular, but for the fact that this massive cathedral was built in the year 532, and finished in only five years.
The Roman Emperor Justinian wanted to build the largest church in the world, and succeeded… by a long shot.
It remained unchallenged for almost one thousand years, until the Renaissance cathedrals of Europe finally caught up. Like many of the churches in Istanbul, it served first as a cathedral, then as a mosque. Now it is a museum showing both of those pasts.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the sultans of the Ottoman Empire ruled Turkey from Istanbul.
Our tour continues at The Topkapı Palace, where the sultans and their courts lived for four hundred years. When the Ottoman Empire ended after World War I, The Palace became a museum of the imperial era.
Jaw dropping jewels, a gold box full of emeralds, ruby handled swords, and the seventh largest diamond in the world are all on display. Across the courtyard there are perhaps even more valuable treasures, holy relics from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, including Muhammed’s cloak and sword, the staff Moses carried, and bones of John The Baptist.
Welcome to our stateroom – we’ve escaped from steerage!
Evening: Aboard The Royal Princess
The first thing we notice walking into The Atrium on The Royal Princess are the faces on almost everyone, ourselves included, looking up. The open space, three stories high, feels like an Italian-style piazza, right down to the gelateria. We opted for a glass of vino at the wine bar, Vines.
That put us in the mood for an Italian dinner and lucky thing Sabatini’s is right around the corner. Artichoke soufflé, lobster risotto, lobster tails… and for dessert, a Napoliton of Three Mousses – chocolate, coffee and Cointreau. Bravissimo!
Don’t think we can top that even when we stop in Italy in a few days.
Day Two: Whitewashed Beauty and the Birth of a God
Morning: Mykonos, in the Greek Islands
With our first glance we see that Mykonos is everything a Greek Isle is expected to be. Bright whitewashed buildings, gleaming in the Mediterranean sun, surround the busy bay with fishing boats and ferries scurrying to and fro. Little chapels with colorful domes, where prayers have been offered for the fishermen for centuries, dot the coast.
Behind the bustling harbor, tiny cobble stone streets wind up the hill through neighborhoods that allow the pace of day to day life to slow down, giving us the urge to stop and smell the bougainvillea.
Afternoon: Delos, Apollo’s Hometown
From Mykonos we take a short ferry ride to Delos, the mythological birth place of Apollo, god of the sun. On a day like today we can certainly see why, the solar power is strong on this island. Much of the ancient city was destroyed before archeologists found it just over one hundred years ago, but with the continuing excavations, we can get a good idea of how this was once a major Mediterranean port.
Perhaps the most famous of the remaining relics are the lions that were presented as an offering to Apollo by the people from the nearby island of Naxos. Back around 600 BC, when the shrine was erected, there were at least a dozen big cats keeping watch along the sacred path, but now only five remain.
Evening: An Affair to Remember
As a special treat we are invited to The Winemaker’s Dinner hosted by Master Chef Alfredo Marzi and Professor Diletta Frescobaldi.
Ms. Frescobaldi is an absolute font of information about Tuscan wines, in fact the Frescobaldi family has been producing wine since the early 1300s, even supplying royal and Papal courts. If that wasn’t enough to complete her education, she holds a doctorate from Florence University.
Paired with our main course, Tournedos Rossini – a filet mignon topped with a foie gras terrine and truffles – was Lucente della Vite, a Frescobaldi Super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and Merlot.
The ensuing taste explosion was no accident, Chef Marzi knows how to match Super Tuscans – the Royal Princess carries the largest collection of these wines at sea.
We’re excited to try out our newfound knowledge when we visit Tuscany a bit later in the voyage.
Day Three: The Ship’s at Sea– time for some serious relaxing
Morning: Meet the Captain
Spending the day at sea gives us a chance to meet Captain Dino Sagani, and have a tour of the bridge. Starship Enterprise jumps to mind when we get a look at the expanse of high tech navigation and guidance systems. Huge touch screen computers and joy stick type controllers have replaced the good old sextant and wooden wheels that say… Cap’n Crunch might’ve used.
Captain Sagani goes on to show us the Safety Center, a kind of war room with instant access to every inch of the ship so that reaction to any emergency takes only seconds. Plus the entire system is linked to the onshore offices of Princess in California, so they can aid in solving any situation. This is a first of its kind vessel, with redundancies in every system, designed to be able to return to port from up to one thousand miles out to sea no matter the situation.
Afternoon: Relaxing Completely
With no port of call today, what better to do than go into full pamper mode? We hit the Lotus Spa for a couples massage, followed by a stint in the The Enclave.
After some hot stones and a deep tissue rubdown, The Enclave offers a Turkish-style steam room – and a place for a hot bath or shower – to finish off the serious relaxation.
Honestly, we forgot we were on a boat. Though why anyone would not want to be on a boat simply eludes us. 😉
Evening: Really? There’s even MORE relaxing to take care of?!
Just in case we weren’t complete tension-relieved blobs, we give The Sanctuary a try.
This adults-only escape, complete with food and beverage deliveries from “Serenity Stewards,” pretty much finishes us off.
In keeping with the peaceful atmosphere, the pool adjacent to The Sanctuary offers a nice escape from…
…the high-energy excitement of the main pool.
Nap time. Or maybe we’ll just sleep through the night. Wake us up when we get to Pompeii, dah-ling.
Day Four: Pompeii and the Sea Villages Near Naples
Morning: How’d they do this?
Though our port today is Napoli, Naples to the English speaking world, we chose to check things out on the outskirts of the city, beginning with Positano.
Sorrento, while not quite as dramatic as Positano, is also precariously perched above the sea.
It gives us a great setting for lunch, overlooking Naples and Mount Vesuvius across the bay.
Speaking of Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii, tragically buried by the volcano in 79 AD, is our last stop of the day. Because the city was nearly perfectly preserved when it was covered, it is one of the most important archeologic discoveries of all time.
We find it quite striking how little city life has changed in two thousand years, there are rows of shops and homes, a public square, a bakery, and even a corner restaurant.
There is also the stark reality that thousands of people perished here.
People who were just going about their day to day lives when disaster struck, then were immortalized in surprising detail by the volcanic ash.
Evening: It’s great – as long as we don’t look down!
Back on board, we manage to jolt ourselves back to the modern world on the SeaWalk.
Nothing like standing on a glass floor over a hundred feet above the waves below to perk up the senses.
WATCH: It’s crazy high – and the bartenders are just plain crazy!
Day Five: Ciao Roma!
Morning: Everywhere you look – there’s something old!
We dock at Civitavecchia, which serves as the port for Roma, for a day in the eternal city. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we will not see it all in a day either, but we are going to do a whirlwind pass of the highlights. We also discover a hidden gem in San Pietro in Vincoli, a remarkable statue of Moses, the first of several works by Renaissance master Michealangelo we will see today.
The church takes its name, meaning Saint Peter in Chains, from chains said to be used to hold Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem that are displayed below the main alter.
To get a feel for the ancient city in the days of The Roman Empire, we move on to Foro Romano, The Forum.
Unfortunately, over the centuries much of the stone and marble has been taken away and used to build newer buildings. But with a little imagination we can reconstruct in our minds this epicenter of the western world’s most important city from two thousand years ago.
Afternoon: It’s HUGE! Life on a grand scale
It takes a lot less imagination to see the Colosseum, one of the most famous landmarks anywhere on Earth. While it has suffered significant damage, with some restorations over the years it is still remarkably intact for a structure built in 72 AD.
Looking closely, we notice numbers written in Roman numerals above each of the archways leading into the seating area, exactly the same system as stadiums use today. In addition to the numbered sections, it struck us just how similar many aspects of the Colosseum are to modern arenas. The stairways, seating, colonnade, even the toilettes, look familiar to anyone who has attended a sporting event.
Evening: St. Peter’s Basilica – the larger St. Peter
In contrast to the small St. Peter church we visited earlier in the day, spending the afternoon in The Vatican gives us a chance to explore the big one, Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Perhaps the greatest cathedral of all time, it is the final resting place for over one hundred popes, including the very first, Saint Peter.
It’s hard to wrap our heads around the size of the church so we ask our guide how tall the letters, backed in gold and surrounding the entire space, are. We are astonished by the answer, “seven feet.”
The Basilica also houses a vast array of art treasures, such as one of Michelangelo’s best known works, The Pieta, showing Jesus just after his crucifixion laying across Mary’s lap. The master sculptor captured emotion in the figures in a way that seems impossible.
Evening: Wow have we “worked” up an appetite
Absorbing ancient vistas all day can work up quite an appetite, but a huge hunk of beef ought to fix that, and there just happens to be a first rate steak house right on board, The Crown Grill. And we learned on our tour of the ship a few days ago that this is no prefab, frozen food operation. We were surprised to find a full scale butcher shop in the galley area, where meat that is specifically raised for the Princess line is cut.
Food & Beverage Director Francesco shows us around
In fact, The Royal Princess brings in an incredible amount of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, and seafood every week… an average of about 180 tons! All of this is cleaned and prepared on the ship, no prepackaged microwave meals. Every single baked good is made from scratch on board, timed to come out of the oven right before each meal.
Day Six: Florence, a city of art. And goofy Pisa antics
Morning: The Other David and Italy’s amazing artists
The center of the Italian art universe has to be Firenze, and if there is one must see work in Florence it is Michelangelo’s masterpiece David. So that is where we start our day, at the Accademia, where David stands sixteen feet tall in a special rotunda.
There is nothing to do but stare for as long as possible, hoping to permanently imprint him onto our brains. Unfortunately, photographs are not allowed, so we snapped some of a replica David that stands in Piazza della Signoria, the location the original held until being moved inside for protection in 1873.
Any attempt at an art tour of Florence must then proceed to the Uffizzi gallery. Once used as the ruling Medici family’s offices, The Uffizi now houses renowned works by Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. The gallery is set up with rooms dedicated to each artist off of a huge hallway. Almost every room we enter has a priceless masterpiece that we recognize instantly. Once again photos are not allowed, so we have to settle for the great human statues out front. And, of course, the Ponte Vecchio.
Afternoon: We couldn’t help it!
We, and it looks like nearly everybody else, pose for a variation on the classic “holding up the tower” picture.
Day Seven: A French Village of Flowers
Our final port of call is La Seyne-Sur-Mer, just outside of Toulon, in the Provence region of France.
Instead of exploring the big city, we went up the Côte d’Azur (Blue Coast) to the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas.
It is named for the mimosa flowers brought to the area by Captain Cook a few centuries ago, but they bloom in the winter so we had to settle for the dozens of other flower varieties that were blooming all over town.
Without any world-famous landmarks that we feel obligated to see, we can meander through the cobblestone streets and absorb a typical slice of life in the south of France.
See more about lovely Bormes-les-Mimosas
See more about lovely Bormes-les-Mimosas
With our last stop behind us, we climb back aboard The Royal Princess for our last evening on The Mediterranean and a fond farewell to all of our new friends we met along the way.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
Written aboard the Royal Princess on her voyage across The Mediterranean including Istanbul, The Greek Isles, Rome, Florence, Pisa, Pompeii, the French Riviera and Barcelona. Thanks to Princess Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.
YOUR TURN: Have we inspired you to explore the Mediterranean? Which would be YOUR first stop?