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Queen Victoria 2010 Cruises
Baltic Explorer and Jewels of the Mediterranean - Part 6
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Copenhagen, Denmark - two days and an overnight Stockholm, Sweden Tallinn, Estonia St Petersburg, Russia - two days and an overnight Helsinki Oslo, Norway Kristiansand, Norway Southampton - link covers in transit between cruises   Map Barcelona, Spain Gibraltar, Great Britain Morte Carlo, Monaco Livorno, Italy - for Florence Civitavecchia, Italy - for Rome Southampton, Great Britain
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Saturday 21 August – Livorno, the closest port for Florence and Pisa

Livorno is the gateway to Tuscany, and is a thriving commercial harbour. The Queen Victoria arrived early and at 0740 we were the very first to disembark. It was even before the port authorities had got their shuttle buses organised, charging 5 Euros return to the Piazza Grande. It is a long distance from the Piazza Grande to Livorno Centrale station and we had already decided it was better to catch a direct taxi. It did cost 20 Euros, but meant we just managed to catch the 0810 train to Firenze (Florence). We bought our ticket at 0808, and it was stamped 0812 at the machines; the train left as we climbed on board. Our original intention had been to catch the shuttle bus then the number 1 bus to the station and then the train at 1010, so we were well ahead.

Pauline had visited Firenze once, over 35 years ago. The two highlights for her had been the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) and the Ponte Vecchio bridge over the River Arno. In addition Firenze is famous for its Renaissance art and there are many churches, palazzo and galleries – the most famous being the Uffizi gallery which has Michaelangelo’s statue of David.

In Firenze the exit from the Statione Centrale di Sanata Maria Novella is directly opposite the church of Santa Maria Novella, with its tall fine spire. Firenze is a compact city, and much of the centre is pedestrianised. It was only a short walk to the square with the striking white marble Duomo cathedral, campanile tower and Baptistry. We arrived before the cathedral opened at 1000 and joined the queue to go inside. Entry is free but everyone who enters is inspected to make sure they match the dress code.

The first stone was laid in 1296 and the final part, the enormous Renaissance dome, was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and built between 1420 and 1436. The lantern on top was made in 1446 and the gilded copper ball on top was set up in 1471. The wonderful neo-gothic facade, in green white and pink marble, was added in the 19th century. Inside the cathedral is an enormous empty space, 135 metres long and 90 metres wide at the crossing point. Notable wall decoration are the two mercenaries John Hawkwood (1436) and Niccolo da Tolentino (1456). The frescoes in the dome were painted between 1572 and 1579 by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari of the Last Judgement.

We had not expected to be able to do any more than admire the building from the ground, but there were still spaces on the 1030 tour of the Cathedral Roof Walkways which also included access to the two walkways inside the dome where there was an excellent view down of the interior of the church as well as a close-up view of the frescoes, as well as wonderful views across Firenze from the walkway at the base of the lantern. When we read our guidebook later it said there were 463 steps; we cannot confirm the precise number but the sets of steps are narrow and winding, although punctuated by wonderful views. The tour cost 15 Euros and gave access to areas which are impossible to reach otherwise as well as excellent one hour commentary.

No buildings in Firenze are allowed to be higher than the Duomo, so even the separate Campanile di Giotto bell tower was overshadowed. The campanile was begun in 1334 and completed in 1359 and again faced in green white and pink marble. It boasts 414 steps to the top. The two are completely in harmony in design and in colour. In the same square is the Baptistery, an octagonal Romanesque building said to be the oldest building in Firenze, built in the early part of the 12th century. It is famous for its three sets of gilded bronze doors, dating from the 14th century. Those in position now are only copies, and the originals are safely in a museum. The east doors, facing the Duomo, are called the Gates of Paradise.

We had seen the key buildings from the top of the Duomo so now had a plan for the rest of the day. We were heading south, along the Via della Calzaiuoli, towards the Ponte Vecchio. On our route, the square fortress-like church of Orsanmichele is unusual because it was originally built by the silk guild for use as a market, and converted into a church in 1380. Crossing the Via del Corso we saw the large arch leading to the Piazza della Republica, once the site of the Roman forum. We lingered in the Piazza della Signoria, admiring the statues and fountains. In the heat many people were sheltering in the Loggia dei Lanzi, whereas we went into the cool of the Palazzo Vecchio. The statues outside, including the David by Michaelangelo, are only copies.

It was then only a short walk alongside the Uffizi gallery to the banks of the River Arno. This route also meant there was chance to admire the Ponte Vecchio from a distance before walking across it. Ponte Vecchio is the oldest bridge in Firenze and the only one which was not destroyed in WWII. The retreating German army blew up many bridges. The bridge, lined on both sides with jewellers and goldsmiths shops, was built in 1345.

We stood in the centre of the bridge and glimpsed the dome of the Duomo, then walked towards it. We thereby got a close look at the Mercato Nuovo, originally built between 1547 and 1551 as a market for the sale of silk and gold, although now it sells souvenirs, leather goods and ‘pashmina’ scarves. It is often interesting to detour from the direct route, and this led us to explore the Via Pellicceria, a pleasant arcaded street with the main Post Office, a substantial building with a pretty interior, just on the edge of the Piazza della Repubblica. At the corner, the Via degli Strozzi leads past several interesting old palaces, and we explored the Palazzo Strozzi. There was construction work, with the installation of a new sliding roof, but we could still get free entrance into the small museum in the corner which described the history of the Strozzi family. Distinctive wrought iron torch holders and rings for tethering horses are set into the masonry.

Our plans to head back were modified when we realised we were not far from the River Arno and it was just beyond the Piazza Santa Trinita, so we had one last view of the Ponte Vecchio from the Ponte Santa Trinita. It really was time to turn back now, and with a meandering route through the streets, including a short stroll along the Via d. Purgatorio, we reached the facade of the church of Santa Maria Novella.

The railway station was just behind the church and trains ran every hour. We caught the 1427, which was one hour earlier than we planned, but we had been lucky and got to Firenze two hours ahead of our schedule. The journey time is about 1 hour 20. In Livorno, the number 1 bus was waiting outside the station and we jumped on, together with dozens of other escapees from the QV. There was plenty of time before we had to be back on board so we had chance to walk around the Piazza Grande and look inside the cathedral before finally catching the shuttle bus.

Sunday 22 August – Civitavecchia, the port for Rome.

To our delight the Queen Victoria arrived at Civitavecchia shortly after 0700. We wanted to get to Rome before the temperatures started to rise too high so we had an early breakfast and went out as soon as we thought there was a chance of the free Port Shuttle bus starting. We found a couple of people already on board and a few more joined us, all hoping for an early train and after some banter the driver left at 0730. We had printed the train times from the internet for 0800 onwards but found from the others that there was also a fast (twice the price) which left at 0752. We were at the drop off point at 0740 and a quick walk along the seafront to the railway station took us till 0748. We knew the route and the others followed us. We hastily bought tickets from the desk, there fortunately was no queue, and found the Intercity left for its final destination of Napoli from platform 3, and left exactly on time at 0752. The ticket came with automatic seat reservations so there was no need to stamp our ticket in the machine to validate it and we rushed down the platform to our booked seats in carriage 8, at the front. It was a corridor style train with compartments and we noted there were drop down seats so presumably it could carry a few extra people without booked seats.

We arrived in Roma Termini at 0844. Roma Termini station is enormous, full of little shops and very complex. Pauline bought stamps for her postacrds from a Tabac and we also spent 10 minutes finding out how to buy our return ticket from the ‘Fast Track’ automatic machines – very few just take cash, most take cards and a few both - and then how to get to the M-metro lines. Roma has two lines (A and B) which cross at Roma Termini and we were using line A. Tickets are 1 Euro per journey, or 4 Euros for a day ticket and machines take cash, notes and give change. We bought the day ticket and we believe they also work on buses – we actually did not make enough journeys for it to pay off but it makes life much simpler and more predictable as you do not have to allow any contingency for queues.

On our previous visit in January to Rome we had caught Line B to the Colosseum and then spent most of the day in the Roman Forum. Today we were going to start at Saint Peters and the Vatican then see how hot the weather became. The forecast was only for 35, which is difficult for long walks, but we think it was higher than that by the early afternoon. There was a very long walk underground to get to the Line A platforms, but the trains were not busy. Early Sunday morning is not a popular time to travel.

It is six stops from Termine to Ottaviano station for Saint Peters, and the train crosses the River Tiber over the Nenni bridge. The queues in Saint Peter’s Square were not long but we noted they were rigorously implementing the dress code of no bare shoulders and no shorts. Pete added his trouser extension to his shorts just in time as we reached the front of the queue - Rohan Convertibles are very practical but Pete got curious looks from neighbours in the queue when walking along with one short and one long trouser. The only reason for the queue was that they had an X-Ray machine and metal detecting loop although they did not seem interested in the bleeps from cameras etc. There were no problems once we were through them and we walked straight into the church, having looked back into the square.

The inside of Saint Peter’s Church is magnificent and huge although largely empty of seats. We admired the marble Pieta, now behind heavy glass after an earlier attempt to destroy it. The gates opened to attend Mass at the front, at 1015 - otherwise one is limited to look at the altar from the distance behind a fence. The Pope is on his holidays in August and parts of the Vatican including the Sistine Chapel were not open. We did however pay 6 Euros to enter the Museum and Treasury which had a copy of the Pieta you could approach and lots of stunning gold and gilded church artefacts and vestments going back to the start of the Church. The most famous objects are the tabernacle by Donatello, the 6th century Crux Vaticana made of bronze and set with jewels, and the massive tomb of Sixtus IV. We then went down into the crypt, directly beneath where Mass was being celebrated, which to our surprise was free (although again a no photo zone), and saw the tombs of many of the Popes including Pope John Paul II.

It was nice and cool inside so it was a shock to emerge into the hot square after an hour and a quarter indoors. The queues to go inside were now much longer but it would still be practical. We walked back to the Ottaviano M-station and took the metro to Spagna as our remaining two ‘targets’, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain were close to there. As we left we saw a small sign to an Ascenseur and found there was a small and deserted lift which took us straight to the church of Trinita del Monti right at top of the famous Spanish Steps. We walked round it and sat in the cool peace inside before we walked down the steps. Men were handing out red roses to ladies but we wondered if there were some strings attached. Some had been discarded into the Barcaccia fountain at the bottom. The crowds were thick by now and it was difficult to move to get a picture. We noted the Keats and Shelley house next door to the fountain but it was closed. We walked along Via Propoganda which is part of many of the walking tours so there were lots of guides and groups stopping randomly to block progress and we were glad to get to the Trevi Fountain. It is amazing and enormous. Designed in 1732 it depicts Neptune’s chariot being led by two horses. The name ‘trevi’ means tre via and refers to the three roads which meet here. There were hundred perhaps thousands of people milling round including many from Cunard tours, all melting in the heat. The best place for a photo was at the entrance to church above which, of course, we went into. The Churches are really beautiful and every one different and meriting time to look round and sit and contemplate.

We found we were still with the walking tour route as we passed the Templo Adriano and then on to the Pantheon. We had not intended to cover so much ground but the Pantheon was another memorable building in a large square. It has a huge dome and is perhaps the best preserved of all the Roman buildings. As well as being an interesting building it has the largest un-reinforced concrete dome ever built. It is a perfect semisphere and was later copied by Michaelangelo for the dome of Saint Peter’s. It dates from around 120 AD. Our intention now was to head back now in the general direction of Roma Termini station. We looked inside the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola then crossed the Via del Corso, which is a very serious main road. To the right we glimpsed Il Vittoriano, an enormous white edifice. From the top there are excellent views, and from everywhere the monument can be seen towering above the city. It was built in 1885 to commemorate italian unification and honour Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy. Locals are said to refer to it as the wedding cake because of its tiered shape. .

A bus went by, going to Statione Termini and we thought of catching the next one, free with our Metrobus pass, but there was lots of time before we had to go back. The buses were also very full. We retraced our steps to the Via Umilta and the Piazza Quirinale with its obelisk. It is here that the Changing of the Guard takes place every afternoon. The Palazzo del Quirinale is an enormous building, formerly the papal summer residence and now belonging to the president of the Republic. We walked through the Quirinale Gardens and then into Via Nationale near to the Palazzo della Esposizione. The nearest M-stsation was at the Piazza del Republica and we could see the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in the distance. The Piazza della Repubblica has a well-placed McDonalds pavement cafe, surrounded by neo-classical semi-circular colonades.

These is an M-station here but the next stop, for Termini railway station, is just around the corner, so we walked. The Express Ticket machines gave us a selection of trains to go to Civitavecchia and we chose the 1415 train, which we later discovered went from platform 27 so it was a very long walk from the main concourse. This was the cheaper 4.50 Euros standard local train which takes just over an hour to reach Civitavecchia; this particular train continued to Livorno and Pisa. As well as being the gateway to Rome, Civitavecchia is a nice coastal town in its own right, and would be a good base for a holiday exploring the area, and much cheaper and quieter than staying to the centre of Rome. We investigated two nice seafront hotels: Roses Hotel de la Ville and the Hotel San Giorgio.

Tuesday 24 August – Gibraltar

The Rock of Gibraltar is one of the two Pillars of Hercules; the other is in Morocco, just opposite. Peaking at 425 metres, Gibraltar measures less than 3 square miles and is home to about 30,000 people. The strategic strait it controls links the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and is only 8 miles wide at its narrowest point. The territory has always been disputed. The British seized it from the Spanish in 1704 and there was a famous siege by a French-Spanish expedition from 1779 to 1783. During this time an extensive network of defensive galleries were hewn by hand, and these are open for visits.

This was our second visit to Gibraltar and again the Queen Victoria was only able to visit for the afternoon. There is not a lot to see in Gibraltar - the main attraction is normally the trip up the 'Rock' by cablecar or minibus. We did the trip by minibus last time we came because the cablecar had long lines from the ship tours. It was very interesting and we visited the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, took photos across the straits and continued to St Michael's Cave which is 300 metres above sea level with an excellent display of stalagmites and stalactites as well as an enormous natural auditorium which is used for concerts. The highlight is meeting the famous monkeys, there are two colonies of this tail-less Barbary Macaques on Gibraltar. One group lives on the rock face - the other group live at the Apes Den near the top of the cable car. We also walked through the Great Siege Tunnels which were excavated during the Great Siege of 1779-1783 and form a most impressive defensive system. Leaving the tunnels there are spectacular views.

The Queen Victoria was only scheduled to dock at the Cruise Terminal at 1300 and we had to be back aboard by 1730. This did not allow a lot of time so we decided not to repeat the 'Trip up the Rock' and just to have a walk around town. We did not hurry off the ship, had a light lunch and walked slowly because of the heat into town - there was not a cloud in the sky. We noticed that there had been a lot of new building since our last visit with lots of new blocks of apartments with shops underneath finishing construction as well as a whole new complex based round a marina called Ocean Village. We walked through Casemates Square, past the Convent where the Governor lives to the end of the main street just short of the base of the Cable Car. Retracing our steps along Main Street we lingered outside the Convent, before turning towards the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. It is the Mother Church of the Diocese in Europe. We recalled we had purchased the Commemorative Magazine last visit but had forgotten to bring it.

The main street is now even more packed with shops all with their doors wide open flooding the street with cold air from their air conditioning - very efficient. Gibraltar is famous as a place to buy cheap duty-free items, especially electrical goods and electronics. Like in Guernsey, there is a Marks and Spencer, next to posh boutiques and jewellers. Nearer to the Cruise Terminal there was a Morrisons supermarket, and we noticed that lots of their carrier bags were cluncking their way back to the ship. Many passengers seemed to prefer to purchase their duty-free allocation in Gibraltar instead of from the shops on board. We spent some time looking at a demonstration of glass blowing in Gibraltar Chrystal before we walked back to the ship. The designs there reminded us of Dartington crystal.

As we left in the evening we looked over the stern and found that the ship had been joined by several pods of Dolphins that were gambolling in our wake as the Rock faded into the distance.

Wednesday 25 and Thursday 26 August - Two days at Sea

We had the opportunity of a Galley tour on Wednesday Morning - these are rare because only small numbers can be taken round and there are obvious Health and Safety implecations so we were very pleased to accept. It was the first time in dozens of cruises that we had seen the Galleys. We were taken round by the Assistant Food and Beverage Manager who proved an excellent guide. We went round at 1030 so it was relatively quiet, breakfast having just ended, with mainly preparation for lunch being carried out.

The first stop was beside the giant dishwasher which takes everything through on a conveyor belt and delivering it two minutes latter clean and sterile at 170 degrees Fahrenheit so it dries almost instantly. We were shown the machines providing all the drinks, including the all important Espresso Coffee machine! We saw the starters being prepared and plated on mass before being held chilled ready for serving. Each dish has an example prepared by the executive chef to be copied - it was difficult to tell one from another. Apparently the demand for all the options is quite predictable, for example first sitting orders are predominantly fish and second sitting has far more carnivores. The demand is continuously monitored and adjusted from a command station as the meal progresses. Much of the food is cooked to order and each 'to order' dish has a station where up to 8 plates are readied simultaneously. There are separate galleys for each of the restaurants and the Britannia Galley is on two levels. At the end of the bottom level of the Britannia Galley is a separate area which currently handles Todd English on an 'on demand' basis and this will be used for the Verandah Restuarant when the change takes place.

Overall the tour took about 30 minutes with plenty of opportunities for questions by Jason who did an excellent job. The galley seemed a model of efficiency and everything seemed extremely professional, organised and under total control - a complete contrast to the impression the TV impresarios try to give - but one has to be professional to deliver 850 4 course dinners plus all the extras twice an evening every day of the year to Cunard standards.

 

We decided that we must go into lunch so we could actually sample the dishes we had watched being prepared and take some close up pictures. We had selected the Chilled Mediterranean vegetable and Buffalo Monzarella Terrine with Pesto Sauce as our starter, Mixed Grill and Tarte au Citrone with Vanilla Ice-cream. They were all as good as we expected. During the afternoon we first went to the Guitar Recital in the Queens room (deck 2) which just ended in time for us to get up to the pool area at the back of 9 deck to watch the ice carving. Running up the stairs does help keep one fit on board. Pete has also been building up to an hour and a half in the Gym on sea days with a 750 calorie burn on the Cross trainers followed by a work out with the weights - even so he thinks he has put on a few pounds in the 25 days. It turned out when we got home that Pete had actually lost a pound or so.

The evening was formal so we first got our pictures taken on the two sets of stairs by the onboard photographers - we have a free portrait included in our 'anniversary package'. It was then time for the Captain and Senior Officers Cocktails in Winter garden - another climb from 2 to 9 deck but slower this time because of Pauline's long dress! We had a number of interesting discussions with various Officers - it is always a good opportunity to make contacts and a function we look forwards too. It is limited to diamond and platinum guests.

It was then time for the special dinner in the restaurant which terminates in the parade of chefs. We did what we usually do and had a small starter size Lobster followed by the Beef Wellington, rare of course. It was one of the best pieces of beef we have had for years. After a double espresso it was then time to go to the show which was 'Victoriana'. We had booked a box so there was a glass of champagne and a tower of petit fours awaiting us topped by miniature ice-creams. We were led to our box by our 'bellboy' in his red uniform and pillbox hat where another chilled half bottle of champagne awaited us. It is a hard life on board! Victoriana is the signature show for the ship and although we had seen it two years ago it did not matter and we enjoyed it greatly. Cunard provide a special program with background on the Victorian Music Halls for everyone and one is issued with little Union Jacks, handkerchiefs to wave and streamers to throw. The boxes give a magnificent view and are well worth trying - the additional charge hardly covers all the champagne. We finally got to bed just after 1200.

Despite the late night Pete was up at 0600 for the Gym so he could meet his target of an average of 500 Cals a day on the Cross Trainer - he had forgotten that it does not open in Southampton so there was another day to make up! Once Pauline had been extracted from her slumbers it was time for breakfast in Lido - just fruit and our special yogurts followed by a quick trip to the ever efficient Pursers Office to balance our bills so we made best use of our $200 credit for booking on board which comes alongside a 5% reduction. We caught up with some logistics like packing and writing up yesterday before going along to listen to the final Celebrity Lecture by an entertaining rogue called Lord Jeffrey Archer. His first lecture had been an exposé of how to become a best selling author and his skilled and obviously well practiced self promotion was exemplary but enjoyed by all. Today's lecture covered the emotive topic of coalition government and we arrived early to bag a box but in fact even the body of the lecture theatre was not full at the start of his talk and there were still free boxes. At the end we noticed he took his glasses off before saying how nice it was to speak to a full lecture theatre.

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