On Sunday, my family and I returned from our vacation in Europe. We had an amazing two weeks touring Europe and, even though we just got home, it seems like the trip was a bit of a dream. I feel so incredibly blessed to have gone on this trip and visited such beautiful places with my family.
We started our voyage in Venice. This was my second time visiting the city (the last time I was here was in 2006 when Italy won the World Cup- quite the memorable experience, to say the least). As we strolled down the narrow side streets this time, I couldn’t help but notice a certain charm in the city absent from those in the United States. Maybe it’s due to the flowers in the windowsills that somehow seem to perpetually be in bloom, the quaint outdoor seating areas where friends and couples are more than content to sit for hours drinking espresso and talking, or the men rowing the gondolas through the canals. Whatever it is, it works.
After exploring Venice for a few days, we made our way to the port (which was quite the ordeal after we got on the wrong water shuttle with our 6 massive pieces of luggage) and settled into our cabin aboard the Royal Princess. Our first two days on board were sea days, and we made the most of this free time by exploring the ship, exercising and relaxing by the pool.
Our second destination (after Venice) was Athens. Here, we visited the site of the first Olympics, the Acropolis Museum, the Plaka (with wonderful boutiques, cafés and tavernas), and the Acropolis. I have read about the Parthenon and learned about it in so many of my classes throughout high school and college, but seeing it in person was surreal. There’s no other way to describe the experience.
Next, we headed to Kusadasi, Turkey. First, we were able to see the House of the Virgin Mary, widely recognized as the final resting place of the Virgin Mary. A small shrine dedicated to St. Mary was found when the ruins of the house were first discovered. Next, we went to see Ephesus, the ruins of the Roman provincial capital. There was a major theater here, which is supposedly where St. Paul preached to the Ephesians. Finally, we saw the Basilica of St. John. Built by the Emperor Justinian over the tomb of St. John the Apostle, the ruined Basilica once rivaled St. Sophia in size and features many graceful columns and colorful mosaics.
After Kusadasi, we traveled to Istanbul. We explored the Grand Bazaar, which is the largest covered market in the world! The origins of this market can be traced back to the 1400’s when the bazaar was an important center of commerce. There are an overwhelming 4,000 shops. I would say that we were able to visit only about 10 out of the 4,000. It’s a start! It is common- even expected- to bargain when you are at the market so I tried my best, but it’s always a bit nerve-racking when you’re in a foreign country trying to bargain.
We witnessed a carpet demonstration and learned about the different stages of the carpet making process while sipping on the most delicious apple tea. Who knew that it took so many years and so much concentration to make a Turkish carpet? This experience definitely gave me a new perspective on the rugs I walk on everyday.
In Istanbul, we also visited the famous Hagia Sophia, which definitely lived up to its reputation as the most magnificent model of Byzantine architecture. Built by Constantine the Great in 324, it was converted to a mosque by the Sultan Mehmet in 1453. Interestingly enough, the Islamic faith does not permit graphic images in a place of worship; however, the Byzantine mosaics were so beautiful that they were not destroyed, but rather plastered over. When the building became a museum in 1936, these exceptional mosaics were dramatically revealed.
The Blue Mosque was built between 1609 and 1617 and is now known as one of Istanbul’s most enduring landmarks due to its fantastic domes and widely recognized 6 minarets. The interior is dotted with 20,000 blue Iznik tiles in 33 shades, which is why the monument received its name. Upon entering the mosque, we had to remove our shoes and women had to put on a headscarf.
Finally, we made our way to the Topkapi Palace, which was once the treasure-filled residence of the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years and is built on the ruins of Constantine’s Imperial Palace. Now, it is home to the famed Topkapi diamond and various exhibits of gold, jade and Oriental porcelain. It overlooks the sea and offers magnificent views, so of course we took advantage of the Kodak moments.
After Istanbul, we headed back to Greece to relax on the beaches of Mykonos. It belongs to the island group known as the Cyclades and is composed primarily of spectacular white granite houses with crystal clear water. Its beauty is simply timeless.
After Mykonos, we had another sea day before heading to Italy. Our first stop in Italy was Napoli. First, we enjoyed free time in Sorrento to shop and eat some delicious Margherita Pizza (named Marherita after the Queen of Italy who especially loved the new dish because the chefs had made on in the colors of Italy).
Next, we headed to Pompeii to explore the ancient ruins. In 79 A.D., after the big celebration to the region’s god of fire (Vulcanalia), Pompeii disappeared under volcanic ash due to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. It lay forgotten for more than 1,500 years and features some artwork, amazingly enough, still intact.
After Naples, we made our way to Rome. Since we have already been to Rome before, we decided to do Rome on our own and not participate in a scheduled tour. We were able to see the Trevi Fountain and make a wish, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, the Vatican, and St. Peter’s Square. At one point during the day while lost and walking around the cobblestone streets, we stopped so that I could put band-aids on the back of my heels (I made the poor choice of picking shoes for their looks rather than for comfort that day!). By chance, we happened to stop right in front of the Church of St. Ignatius and decided to take a look. I’m so happy we did; it was spectacular.
Our last stop in Italy was Florence. However, since we have already visited the major sites of Florence and Pisa, we decided to go to Cinque Terre, a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera in the Liguria region of Italy. Its name means “Five Lands” and is composed of five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. It is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason. There are spectacular views along the windy roads of colorful clusters of houses built into the steep landscape and overlooking the magnificent Mediterranean. The only way to make you way into one of the towns is by boat or by walking, there is no car traffic which gives the towns a unique charm.
After visiting the Big 3 in Italy, we sailed to the south of France and visited Aix-en-Provence. Lauren studied abroad in Aix, so she was able to show us around this quaint town. We were able to see her school and also where she lived when she studied here two years ago. We walked down the elegant Cours-Mirabeau and visited the market to buy some lavender. Lauren also showed us the best place to buy some goat cheese flavored with the herbs de Provence and some baguette. Visiting France made me very excited to study abroad in Paris this semester (although I did try to talk French to a waiter and he looked at me like I was crazy- hopefully that’s not an indication of how my encounters in Paris will transpire!).
Our final stop on our trip was Barcelona! Here, we visited the Sagrada Familiga, the Picasso museum, and the famous La Rambla. We sat outside for dinner and ate some delicious Paella with Sangria. It was a perfect end to a long day and a great trip.