Monday, May 5, 2014

Let's Cruise: Bari, Katakolon, Santorini, Pyrius (Athens), Corfu, Dubrovnik

For our last year in Germany, we were running out of time to fit in all of the places on our travel wish list.  Cruises have become very popular in the military community over here, especially with budget prices and extra deals for U.S. military.  We knew we wanted to go on a cruise, but we had a tough time trying to decide on the destination and the itinerary.  Our final decision was to do an eastern Mediterranean itinerary that hit several of the Greek Islands as well as Dubrovnik in Croatia.

We booked our cruise back in October, so we had been looking forward to it for months!  It was hard to believe it was finally time to head out to sea.  Our cruise was with MSC Cruiseline, which we picked because of the itinerary, the family-friendly atmosphere and company, and the budget price.  The ship was the MSC Fantasia - a behemoth of a ship - and we were in a cabin with a balcony on the 10th floor.  Can you believe I just said "10th Floor" while referring to a ship?!  It took us about 2 days to figure out where most of the things on the ship were located, and there were definitely some parts of the boat that we never saw or even knew were there.

Blown away by its size as we got ready to board

Admiring the ship from Katakolon

Yep, it's a big beauty!

Part of the reason we chose this itinerary is because it embarked and debarked in Venice.  Venice is a beautiful place, but we actually never visited it (doh!) and chose it more because it was a fairly easy port for us to drive to and keep the trip under our budget.  We drove down from Germany through the Alps and into the Venezia region of Italy.  It's a good 7-8 hour drive, but it's also easily one of our favorites especially if the weather is nice.  We stayed in Vincenza at a budget hotel, and enjoyed dinner with some of our favorite people - Phil and Amy - who are stationed there.  (Not sure if you remember, but we joined them on a trip to Portugal last year.)  Dinner was delicious, and it made for a very yummy and relaxing start to our vacation.

My silly monkey

Charming store front in Vicenza

It was a gorgeous day in Vicenza
After admiring the view and the gorgeous day in Venice as we pulled out of port, it was time to explore the ship to figure out where everything was located.  We had some time before they would have our bags delivered to our room, so we used that free time to go up and down a million stairs (we learned quickly that the elevators were slow and always full - we climbed so many stairs on this cruise, I think that's the only reason we didn't gain any weight!), scheduled a couple of massages at the spa, explored the kids' club and the fun for little r on the ship, and enjoyed some ice cream and our first glass of Prosecco - seemed appropriate, we were in Italy afterall.

Each night we did dinner in the dining room with baby c and sometimes little r.  Our approach was to let little r decide if he wanted to join us for dinner or adventures off the ship, or if he'd rather have fun with the kids in the kids' club.  We've been traveling together for a long time, so we really wanted little r to finally have the option not to get dragged along for things that weren't too terribly exciting for him.  He ate dinner with us a couple of times, and the remaining days he enjoyed hanging out with his new friends.  After dinner most evenings, we would pick up little r, and go enjoy a glass of wine at one of the cozy lounges or bring it back to our room to sip on the deck after the boys were asleep in bed.  Most of the evenings were enjoyable and relaxing, and the boys were incredibly well behaved for the majority of the trip.  As you well know, little r can always make things exciting, so we had a few moments, and baby c is at that age where life is too exciting to sit still, but really, I was very impressed with how good they both were all week.


Venice pretty much speaks for itself.  I'm not sure there is another place in the world, or at least Europe, that is better recognized. It is definitely beautiful, but for some reason it hasn't been our favorite travel spot. That said, seeing Venice in the sunshine as we floated down the canal on our ship was incredible!  It really is such a charming city, and one we probably prefer to see from afar (haha).  Big R got some wonderful photos of this very photogenic city.  It almost felt as though we had visited the city afterall.

The canal view of Venice is beautiful in B&W...

and in color!

This building looks important - I think it's a church

classic shot of a Venetian canal and bridge 

another view of the church in B&W

coming up on St. Marcus square

St. Marcus Square - only a few people there that day - wow!

St. Marcus Square in B&W


Our first port of call was Bari, Italy.  It sits at the achilles heel of the Italy "boot" and we really had no expectations.  We opted not to spend money on any excursions, and instead walked from the port into the old town and explored things for a few hours.  We were surprised by how charming the little town was.  It seemed very representative of southern Italy with all of the charm you would expect.  I'm pretty sure our cruise boat was the only real tourism there that day, so we swarmed in and took over.  Our goal was to get lost in the side alleys and streets to enjoy as much of the culture as we could take in with as few tourists as possible to get in our way.  It was easier to do that than we expected, and it was a wonderful afternoon.  (We were feeling super relaxed, too, because we had both received amazing massages that morning before we docked around noon.)

Side streets in Bari had such southern Italian charm

We loved all the colors

Even the buildings that needed some love looked charming and beautiful there

Only in Italy can you take pictures of laundry and say it's still beautiful

B&W beauty

Loving my new sun hat!

just pretty...

Front facade of the Duomo in Bari

Beautiful side street on our stroll through Bari

Another view of the Bari Duomo


Our next port of call was Katakolon, Greece.  It's part of the main peninsula and is better known for its proximity to Olympus.  For some reason we just weren't interested in going to Olympus with the masses that day, and opted instead to wonder off the ship and explore whatever the tiny town of Katakolon had to offer.  We obviously have no idea what we missed, but we really enjoyed our day in Katakolon.  We bought a beautiful oil on canvas painting, some local olive oil and beauty products, and used a little train tour to see other parts of the town including a quaint winery and a secluded beach.  (The train was quite literally one of those Austrian gas powered vehicle trains.  There was still German writing on the train - pretty funny.)  The train tour was fairly cheap, and both of the stops were fantastic.  We really enjoyed the winery and wished we'd had more time to explore it.  We quickly tasted a couple wines and made sure to buy a bottle of red and white to bring home.  The beach was breathtaking, and it probably didn't hurt that it was a beautiful day in Katakolon.  We had just enough time to get a bite to eat at a restaurant on the port before heading back to the ship.  All in all, it was a perfect little afternoon.

The winery in Katakolon

Another view of the winery

Facade of the large estate behind the winery

Peacocks enjoyed the estate as well

little r running through the old orchards at the winery

the boys always love saying 'hello' to ponies

a view from the beach in Katakolon

The water was immaculate

View of the Ionian Sea from Katakolon

little r really enjoyed his beach time...

...and so did I!

The water was clear and warmer than we expected

baby c's first time at the beach - trying to decide how to eat the sand

just breathtaking...

The water was so clear you could see the bottom from the cliffs above

sailing away from Katakolon - beautiful sunset view from our deck


Our next port of call was the one we were most excited about - Santorini!  The ship was too large to dock at the small port, so we anchored and were shuttled to the island on small tenders.  If you weren't going on an excursion (which we opted not to do because they were really expensive for Santorini), the cruise opened a line at 7:45 a.m. to collect a ticket for the tenders.  The ticket was free, but you couldn't get off the ship without one.  We wanted to get to Santorini before the rush, so Big R was in line before 7:30 a.m. He got us tickets on the first tender to the island, and we did, in fact, beat the tourist rush.

There are several options for exploring Santorini without an excursion.  There were tour options available to take speed boats to other parts of the island to explore beaches and other towns.  You could take a funicular up from the port to the capital town of Fira.  The option we went with was to take a "donkey" ride up to Fira.  Using mules was (and often still is) the primary mode for the Greeks in Santorini to get goods from the port to the mainland because it is surrounded by cliffs.  It was a curious and adventurous way to get to Fira.  Definitely an experience I'm not soon going to forget.

Our goal was to get to Oia on the other side of the island as soon as possible.  Oia is the picturesque part of the island with the blue domed orthodox churches and white buildings that are so popular. (Greeks even joke that most people do not know where Greece is, but they know how to find Santorini.) We didn't have the benefit of Rick Steves' and our lack of research about the island aside from a couple of tour guide books just didn't give us all the information we needed.  So, instead of wasting a bunch of time, we just hopped in a cab in Fira and headed to Oia for a big part of the day.

Oia is incredible.  It truly is the storybook town that you see in pictures.  Every turn would take your breath away, and we could not have been more fortunate with the weather.  I hope we make it back to Oia and Santorini again in our lifetime, but if we do not, I am so thrilled to have visited such a beautiful place.

We walked around Oia taking it all in, grabbed lunch, and then discovered the bus (for only 1 Euro a person!) to get back to Fira.  Fira is a nice town as well, but it's really rather dull after Oia, so we got a couple of super cheap "fish" pedicures (hey, we've been wanting to try that for awhile now!  too fun!), and sauntered back to the funicular.  The line was horrible and we were a little nervous we wouldn't make it back to the last tender for our ship, so we walked down the trail with the "donkeys".   Our adventure in Santorini was very memorable, and we can't recommend it enough!

Greek Orthodox Church in Oia

the little man with his daddy

You can see the red, black and white colored volcanic sand in the cliffs

Classic Oia photograph

Just beautiful

Big R added a little photographic effect to an already amazing picture

They love their mules in Santorini and so does little r

Looking down at the ruins of a castle at the edge of the island

Spring is such a perfect time to visit the Greek islands

Stray dogs are common stay in Greece, and Santorini was no exception

taking it all in...

beautiful blue roofs on the orthodox churches

just wow...

the bells on the main church in Oia

definitely our favorite spot on the island - glad we spent so much time here

fish pedicure anyone?!  this picture is hilarious - Big R couldn't stop giggling

Our mighty ship at anchor awaiting our return (and 3,000 other tourists)

We joined the mules for the walk back to the tender

panoramic view of Santorini as the ship pulled back out to sea

another great view of the volcanic rock layers


Our next stop was Pireaus, or the gateway to Athens from the sea.  We really had no idea how we were going to get to Athens to see the Acropolis, but we had some ideas in mind.  Our hope that we could easily get to the metro was blown away when we realized how large the port was and how long of a walk it would be.  In hindsight we should have taken a cab there and back, so if you go, definitely opt for the cab.  You really don't need an excursion of this location, it's easy to do on your own.  We got lulled into the Hop on Hop off bus hoping we'd be able to use it to see more of Athens. Unfortunately we ran out of time and really didn't get our money's worth out of the price.

We did make it to the Acropolis with a couple thousand of our best cruise buddies.  Holy cow, what a mess of people.  You need to pay for admission, and then walk up the stairs to the top.  Everyone warned us of the walk, but we really didn't think it was bad at all (guess we've climbed too many stairs in our travels!).  Little r stayed on the ship in kids' club for this excursion, and we were so glad that he did because he would have been miserable in Athens with all the people and all of the walking.

It was our least favorite stop of the trip.  Athens isn't that fancy, and it's pretty run down, so other than the Acropolis (and museums if you are into those), there isn't much there to offer other than a big city.  The downtown area was fun and it had great energy, and we had our best Greek gyros from the whole trip in Athens, but we'd be ok if we never got a chance to return.  I've heard other people have different feelings about Athens, so don't nix it just because we weren't huge fans, but do know what you are visiting and be prepared for it.

All that aside, Big R managed to get some great photographs of Acropolis, the weather wasn't perfect but we stayed dry, and little r had a fantastic time in kids' club all day.  In fact, our evening started with a show that the kids put on for us that they had practiced all day.  It was so much fun.  Little r is a complete ham, and he had a blast.

Odeon Theater in Acropolis

A wall of Odeon Theater

One of the ruins of the Acropolis

Admiring the ancient site

We are terrible at "selfies" so we were excited this turned out ok!

Dionysis Theater in Acropolis

Tree pose - why not?!

View of Athens from the Acropolis

More ruins...

The ruins with a touch of spring...

local wildlife - a sweet stray cat...

An old protestant church at the foot of the Acropolis

Streets of Athens

Happy day!

Another view of Odeon Theater

Looking up at the Acropolis....

little r hamming it up!

little r is loving the stage!


After an exhausting day in Athens, we had a restful excursion planned at our next port of call - Corfu.  Little did we know that Corfu Town, where we docked, was a charming old city, but our day ahead included a tour to the other side of the island.  We took an excursion to Palaiokastritsa, which is considered the Capri of Greece.  Although Corfu town seemed pretty incredible and we had no time to explore, we really have no regrets.  We saw a beautiful part of the island including an insane bus ride on a freaking sketchy road.  The views alone were worth the money.  We do hope to return to Corfu some day because the island definitely spoke to us.  If you head to Corfu, on a cruise or otherwise, I don't think you could go wrong.  It's a beautiful gem in the Greek Islands.

View of Corfu Town from our ship

The bay in Palaiokastritsa 

baby c enjoying the sea breeze

Another beautiful view of Palaiokastritsa

baby c and me reflecting...

One of the beaches at Palaiokastritsa

The water was so clear!

Big R enjoying the view

baby c having fun in the sand

crow pose, why not?!

guess the moment moved me :) 

The incredible views on the drive across Corfu island

More Corfu beauty

just wow, right?

a rock island off of Corfu

our excursion wore out the little guy

another shot of Corfu Town as we sailed back out to sea


Our last and final port of call was Dubrovnik in Croatia.  We've had this spot on our list from the moment we arrived in Europe, and we were so excited to have finally arrived in this beautiful city.  There really is no need to do an excursion at this location.  Exchange euros for the local currency before debarking the ship, and grab a cab ride to the old walled city.  You can pay to take a walk around the city walls, and it's definitely worth it.  We got off the ship as soon as they docked, and beat the crowds.  We wish the weather had cooperated a bit more, but it was still beautiful to see the old town and the sea from above the walls.  After our saunter around the old town walls, we explored the town itself - bought some wine, ate ice cream, enjoyed lunch, and walked up and down the side streets to take it all in.  It really is a charming little town, and it must be phenomenal to visit there in the summer when you can also explore the beaches.  Not that we necessarily need to see Dubrovnik again, but it is a great home base to adventure into other incredible locations in this part of the world.  We really hope to make it back for another visit when we can enjoy and explore the beaches, visit Montenegro, and really partake of the excellent food and wine in the region.

little r imagining life at a much earlier time

Cliff's eye view of the wall around Dubrovnik

beautiful rooftops and a view of the wall

little r insisted on a photo of him "in jail"

View from the wall down a side street

The old town port in Dubrovnik

silly boy was happy we were ahead of the crowds

such an amazing view!

panoramic view of the walled city

another incredible view of Dubrovnik

little r always looking for a different way to see things

just stunning!

Dubrovnik is just as charming at the street level

every side street had so much character

many cafes lined the side streets

we really enjoyed our walk through Dubrovnik

another beautiful side street

a walk with my boys to see the church

Such an amazing vacation.  The only thing we wish is that we had a little more time to see things.  A cruise is a great way to visit many locations in a short span of time, but the ship doesn't sit at port very long, and you have no real choice but to join the masses.  That aside, we created so many incredible memories, bought some wonderful wines from Greece and Croatia, our photographs will keep our memories vivid, and we saw a part of Europe we've always wanted to see.  I hope that if you are stationed in Europe that you can take advantage of the budget cruise prices and explore a region you would otherwise never have time to visit - the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the Norwegian Fjords... I don't think you could go wrong.

Thank you for letting me share this amazing experience with all of you.   

1 comment:

  1. Great trip report and photos. We were in Venice at the same time you were there. Flew back Space A from Aviano.
    Our photos at

    Space A at