This morning’s diary of a Europe cruise virgin begins with a romantic sunrise across the tip of Sicily. I adore the blend of architectural styles, shapes and colours dotted along mountainsides in this part of the world. I was looking forward to the excursion into the region today too. We could view Palermo (capital city of Sicily) from the ship, and it was lovely to take a closer look as we wandered around on foot and via the coach tour we’d later embark on.
Much of the city is ‘new’ (last 50 years), as a rebuild was necessary following World War II bombings. Rather than spending money to restore the old, at the time of re-design, the majority voted for constructing ‘modern’, hence the contemporary edge the city showcases via restaurants, shops, apartment blocks and public spaces. The bustling centre of this Mediterranean port city boats the usual cool high streets and luxury shopping typical of this corner of the world. Palermo even features a little ‘French’ flavour as the plans for some of the central boulevards were inspired by popular Parisian neighbourhoods.
Our ‘official’ day trip meant a short coach ride up the mountain which we’d also spotted first thing in the morning. The drive was spectacular, marked by steep hairpin turns and dramatic views overlooking Palermo, as we headed towards the grotto of Santa Rosalia, patron Saint of Palermo. According to legend, Rosalia was born to a noble family who wanted to marry her off. She refused to marry someone she didn’t love though, and decided it would be better to live alone. A feminist before feminism existed, perhaps? The story is a little sad, for someone we would otherwise look up to for standing her ground. You see, she retired to the hills around this area, and lived as a hermit in a cave on Mount Pellegrino where she died in 1166. Nothing was heard or known of Rosalia for centuries, and her remains were never found during her lifetime.
In 1624 the plague reached Palermo’s peaceful shores, thanks to a ship that had arrived from where we’d just cruised from, Tunisia. Citizens were dying in droves, and as the story goes, it was during this hardship that Saint Rosalia appeared to a hunter in a dream, lead him to the location of her remains, and insisted that if her bones were carried in a procession through the city, the people would be saved. Being the religious bunch that they were, this went ahead, and it’s been recorded that indeed, people were healed and the plague disappeared. Ever since, the people of Palermo have been grateful, and pray to her to help with all manner of issues (including, apparently, wins in football – it is important here, after all).
Whether a believer or not, the story is charming because it’s brimming with faith and promise. Visiting the grotto (cave) where her bones were discovered, and a shrine has been built, was a lovely experience. It’s always nice to have something and someone to believe in, and I think this quaint little city is certainly lucky to have Rosalia looking over it. On a personal note, the adventure made me think of my sweet Auntie Rosalie – perhaps her parents had been inspired by Rosalia too?
The rest of the afternoon was spent in Mondello, a delightful beach-side fishing village. In the summer this place is pumping with tourists from all over the UK and Europe. Being winter, it was somewhat quieter, but still we could appreciate the attraction. Bright buildings, smiling tradespeople and fisherman, market-wares for sale along the beach-side promenade, and dogs wandering around everywhere; gelato stands, cheap, delicious espresso and red wine sold in nearly every second bar/cafe/restaurant we walked by.
Quaint, charming, and very pretty. I can imagine it would be nice to hang out here with cool holiday-makers in the European summer. You’ll have to make friends with the ‘right people’ though; in these parts, traditionally families own various sections of the beach, and they rent the land out over summer, complete with cute beach huts.
One sweet note – we heard many mentions of ‘siestas’ in this part of the world (my kinda plan … nanna naps during the day)! Anyway, seems the dogs were in on it too, as we spotted loads of pooches taking a (presumably happy) nap during the afternoon, despite many tourists milling around them. Sadly, many dogs along the Mediterranean wouldn’t talk to us though – seems they don’t understand English so didn’t realise we were trying to get their attention ;-) Spot the sleepy Sicilian dogs in our 2-minute video journey (linked above).
Do you have a cruising story, or a Mediterranean travel tale to share? Let us know, tweet @sarahblinco or find us on Facebook. You can also read the rest of the stories in this series (more to come in coming days) HERE.
We awoke early today and to our delight discovered lights of the northern tip of Africa in the distance. It’s an amazing day 3 in the diary of a Europe cruise virgin!
We were about to dock in Tunisia! Food scoffed, dressed swiftly, we joined the other excursion groups in the designated area on board the MSC Splendida, as outlined in last night’s information newsletter which had been hand-delivered to our room.
Founded in 814BC – Tunis, the exotic capital of Tunisia, is an interesting stop. Another first; we’ve not stepped foot in Africa so weren’t too sure what to expect. I was excited to gain just a small taste of the continent as my parents travelled extensively here a while ago, and I’ve heard stories aplenty! Tourism is important to this particular region, so the locals look forward to events such as cruise ships docking. We were greeted by traditional performances, camels and all sorts of colourful entertainment at the port. Very cool!
Tunis is a popular resort destination in summer, however it was a bit chilly during our visit (well, for Africa – a mild 20 degrees), so we settled upon wandering through the bright Medina (situated within structures hundreds of years old), shopping at traditional market stalls; witnessing the production of rugs and perfume – various trade techniques alive and well after centuries of practice. The old Medina, in fact, acted as the commercial heart of the medieval town of Tunis, until the French Protectorate (French ‘colonisation’) in 1881. History, culture and shopping delicately entwined: what more can a traveller ask for?
An intriguing, contemporary city; and with the exception of being vaguely hassled to buy goods at the market (which to be fair, I suppose is expected), it all felt safe, hospitable and pleasant enough. Additionally, our guide on this excursion was friendly, informative and funny. Away from the hectic Medina and bustling streets, the city becomes quieter, and beautifully adorned with stunning mosques, mausoleums, Koranic schools, homes and doorways intricately decorated and designed. Around every corner is something unusual and equally beautiful to photograph.
Evidently there are plenty of terrific shops, markets, restaurants and museums (like the Bardo Museum for example, which boasts the most beautiful collection of Roman mosaics in Africa) to explore in the region. Additionally there are countless other unique destinations (such as the picturesque village of Sidi Bou Said, and the beaches of Gammarth), and experiences on offer; but as we were short on time, we’d chosen an expedition that included a visit to a world heritage listed archaeological site: the ancient Roman ruins of Carthage, overlooking the ocean. Spectacular.
Carthage was the centre of the Carthaginian Empire, and existed for nearly 3,000 years, developing from a Phoenician colony of the 1st millennium BC into the capital of an ancient empire. On this vast site palaces, amphitheatres, thermal baths, temples, water reservoirs, aqueducts and homes once existed; all belonging to one of the most powerful ancient maritime nations of the Mediterranean, the Phoenicians. The Romans all but destroyed Carthage during war in 146BC, but Carthage was eventually re-founded, and became the Roman empire’s fourth most important city of its time, remaining so until the Muslim conquest when it was destroyed again 698. Little is known of the people who lived here, but ruins remain so we may at least have the chance to explore and dream about what it might have been like to exist here in another lifetime.
Take a short tour of Tunis’ streets and Carthage with us:
Do you have a cruising story, or a tale out of Africa to share? Let us know, tweet @sarahblinco or find us on Facebook. You can also read the rest of the stories in this series (more to come in coming days) HERE.
Following a huge meal last night, the ‘welcome dinner’ of seven courses, we emerged at leisure from a peaceful night’s sleep. For me, sleeping on a ship feels a little similar to being on a water bed. I found it quite soothing, anyway.
The nicest part about the day (aside from the general opulence of this place!) had to have been stretching and Yoga on water this morning, with the class held in Club 33 at the top of the ship, featuring 240 degree views of the sprawling ocean. Following this healthy start, I began the day with a sensible breakfast of cereal and fruit, however the lure of the darn buffet (ever present, ever tempting) drew me back in mid-morning for a sweet treat. Ever since, Cooper and I have been eating like the world is running out of food and I fear the rest of the trip may be a little (or a lot) more of the same.
[more travel videos on YouTube’s TheSarahBlinco channel]
Today was an ‘at sea’ day as we cruise in the direction of the north African coast, therefore proving to be an ideal time to explore and rest. We even enjoyed a drink with some of the new American, Canadian and Puerto Rican friends we met at dinner (and subsequent Latin dancing) yesterday evening.
Obviously, this is the first time either of us has ever been in the middle of the ocean, at present, we’re somewhere in between Spain and Africa. I never imagined that at the beginning of 2012! It’s all very cool. My only stress is that the Internet is non-existent. Usually, not a major problem, however I’m on a deadline this week. Great! Fortunately I worked ahead (there are benefits to being a total deadline nerd) so not all will be lost. I am suffering technology withdrawals though (this post is being written in ‘real time’ but to be uploaded later on … shhh don’t tell)! How can we Tweet our every gorgeous cocktail with no Internet?
Meanwhile, must be off as we’ve just discovered free champers and Martinis are being served for an hour as part of the Captain’s Ball celebrations. Would be rude to not partake…
Gentle waves are lapping against the side of the ship to my right hand side, and the landscape is illuminated by soft glowing light from the deck below, and the sparkling city of Barcelona in the distance. I’m sitting on the little balcony outside our cabin on board the MSC Splendida. It’s about 8.30pm and the ship sailed from port about an hour and a half ago.
We had an early start this morning from London − 4am for check-in at Gatwick, followed by a simple-enough coach transfer to the dock but a very long wait until cruise check-in at 1.30pm. Fortunately, the cappuccinos are strong (and good) in Europe, so that kept us motivated until we made our way with excited anticipated onto the (huge) ship which is to take us on our first cruising adventure! Admittedly, I didn’t book a cruise for the sake of experiencing such a mode of transport. London had been the aspiration for a Christmas escape this year, but we wanted to explore elsewhere during our five weeks abroad. Generally the weather is unpredictable over here in winter, and as such, a ‘Mediterranean tour’ was all I could find that was operating. Open to new experiences − and great bargains (via Archersdirect.co.uk, out of interest, but you should also check out Cruise.co.uk and MSCCruises.co.uk) − this seven-night package promised us destinations never before experienced in these little travellers’ lives.
[more travel videos on YouTube’s TheSarahBlinco channel]
Neither Cooper or I had really thought too much about what to expect. In all honesty, I’ve been so busy working (managing my own business), and organising the general travel itinerary for the past few weeks, that I didn’t even have a chance to explore the ship’s website. I assumed it would at least be generally satisfactory. Turns out, the ship is only two to three years old, absolutely HUGE, glamorous, brimming with activities and facilities and … we have been pinching ourselves all afternoon trying to figure out how we wound up here, on the most-definitely-splendid MSC Splendida.
As I type, I am caught between looks to the mirror where I’m practising my ‘glitter pout’ (that is, I’ve spent the past half hour down in the duty-free store trying on Dior perfume and Lancôme lip-gloss which I’m kind of loving right now), and recalling the afternoon’s activities. We recently returned to our cabin following the 5.30pm safety briefing (just in case we need to make a run for it like Kate and Leo did). All guests were completely in awe of the M.C who continued to amaze with his narrative in five or six languages! We explored the ship only to discover one beautiful themed lounge and bar after another; pools, spa baths, gym, casino, saunas, beauty facilities, shops, restaurants, child-friendly areas and a niteclub (where we are heading later on).
We’re completely enamoured with the staircase in the entry foyer – each step of the two flights of stairs decks 6 to 8 (I believe) appears to be illuminated, and sparkles with crystals (Swarovski, apparently). At present, pianists, singers and other performers are entertaining the masses, while each of us wanders the decks in awe of Splendida’s beautifully designed spaces. We’re about to head off to the opening dinner … we are meant to be dressed in either formal (suit and tie) or ‘informal’ (cocktail) attire, but are prepared for neither. Here’s hoping they’ll be lenient tonight, or it’s back to the buffet for us (not that it’s a horrible option − actually, secretly we love a good buffet and had to be dragged out at 5pm this afternoon, dessert in hand). Still, so far we’re having a ball; and I’m about to be late for the ball so better sign off for now. S x
Welcome! We are Sarah + Cooper, Aussie expats living in the UK with our Westie dog, London. We like to inspire on how to travel for longer and to live and work from anywhere. Our most popular content here is about seeing the world with your pet, remote working & digital nomadism, and house + pet sitting. Create a global life of your dreams at any age! Subscribe to find out more :)