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Our Amazing European Adventure! Including 2 cruises and 7 days in Italy!

Our Amazing European Adventure! Including 2 cruises and 7 days in Italy!

Old Jul 4th, 2013, 06:09 PM
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Loving your trip report, and I added your food tour to my list for future travel.
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Old Jul 5th, 2013, 04:38 AM
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This is so great! I know that I will be constantly checking. And the hint about the apartment ...can't wait! Better than a book.
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Old Jul 5th, 2013, 06:18 AM
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It is a great pleasure to be reading this report. Shell, you are definitely a good trip planner, you have done a great job in organizing your family trip! I am in awe! Fun photos too. Usually don't like to wade thru unedited pictures, but yours are actually giving us readers a view of your family dynamics, and everyone seems to be having such fun! Thanks.
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Old Jul 5th, 2013, 08:34 AM
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Monday, June 10, Sicily
I woke up early again! I love sitting out on the balcony. The sea is just beautiful! There are some islands in the haze. We must be getting close to Sicily! We don’t dock until 10 am though. I woke everyone up for breakfast at the Windjammer so we’d have time to eat before our tour. It was a bit of a crazy mad house there. I don’t know how many times I want to eat there for breakfast. Far too hectic for me! But have no fear. We all found something to eat and we found a table for six too!

Once we passed through the Straights of Messina, we docked Sicily on one side an mainland Italy on the other! We’d later learn from our driver that the Straight is only 1.8 miles wide! Today we’re going on a tour with fellow Cruise Critic members Catherine and Ger from Ireland! We’re meeting them at the Champagne Bar at 10:15. We’d met yesterday at our informal gathering, but we’d arranged a few months ago this meeting spot so we could walk off the ship together to find our guide from Sicily Life.

Today we’re going to Mt Etna!

We found our driver with no problem. Antonio was his name and he was as friendly as could be! Catherine and I shared the front row seats with him. As we drove out of Messina and towards Mt Etna, Anthony shared much of the island’s history and many interesting facts with us. Unfortunately the others in the van couldn’t really hear a word of our often very lively conversation! Megan, Keith and Alex slept for much of the ride.

We drive for maybe about two hours and shortly Mt Etna came into view. We could see the peaks and the wisps of smoke puffing out of the top. A reminder that this is indeed one of the most active volcanoes in the world! Antonio told us how these puffs indicate that by letting off steam that it’s a good thing. The pressure isn’t building up inside. They constantly are monitoring the activity and yes, we’re safe!

On our way up to the Mt, we made a stop at a local honey farm. I admit we got a little laugh when we arrived because when I thought of farm, I actually expected a farm. Not a bee farm. Silly….it was a wonderful stop though! They produce mainly honey, but also various other products such as olive oil and wines. We got to sample many little tidbits. One of my favorites was a sweet garlic clove! Many flavors of olives, olive oils with all sorts of infusions of flavors, wines, different spreads that when you add water turns into delicious pasta sauces and of course many different varieties of honey. We made a few purchases here – never felt any pressure to buy. As a matter of fact, last night we had pasta (bought in Rome!) with the sauce made from the paste from the shop in Italy! Delicious!

I’ll make a short mention here, that it’s when you learn that no matter where you are, and when you stop to always use the restrooms! This has been a questions I’ve often seen asked - about restrooms in Europe. While I didn’t find any particularly awful ones – sometimes they’re not always nearby. I had the most difficult time convincing my daughter to go when available, if you know what I mean! Usually in restaurants or places the guides took us, we found very clean WC’s! Don’t wait until you’re at the top of the Acropolis let’s say to have to go!

Anyway…moving on. After our lovely stop we drove ahead towards Mt Etna. The views were spectacular. I kept thinking how it was such an amazing thing that something so devastating could produce a landscape that was so beautiful! Of course the volcanic soil was so rich. The terrain was so unique!

The farther up we drove the more fascinating it was!
Antonio pointed out old lava flows and various species of vegetation. He explained how the landscape changes dramatically around here during the hours of darkness and how he has witnessed foxes, rabbits, owls and even lynx cats up here after nightfall.

We drove past hoards of tourists to our first stop, we visited the highest restaurant in Sicily, not to eat, but to view photos taken by the owner in 1983 as the Volcano erupted. The owner looked on helplessly as the molten lava flowed towards him. He decided that he would be better off killed in the inferno than live without his livelihood. The range of pictures telling the story of how the lava flowed towards him within the space of one hour was both intriguing and fearsome. Moments before the owner was to meet certain death, the army arrived in a helicopter and scooped him to safety. The restaurant has since been rebuilt and there are pictures on the wall of both this eruption as well as prior eruptions. The only remaining piece of the restaurant from the 1983 eruption is a jukebox. And the songs are still there, from the 1980s!

After our bit of reality check – viewing the danger that this huge mountain can cause, which is such a contrast of the people casually climbing all over it. Not to mention that in the winter, it’s a ski resort! We went to the Silvestri Crater. I have never seen anything like this! We’ve been to volcano’s before. We’ve been to Costa Rica, seen the perfectly shaped conical Arenal volcano. Peered into the Poas volcano’s crater, but nothing can really prepare you for walking IN a volcano’s inactive crater! It was like walking on the moon!

It was getting very busy by now and we I heard a guide tell her coach load of maybe 50 people that they were to be back in 15 minutes. Wow, 15 minutes? You couldn’t possibly explore this area in only 15 minutes! Thank goodness we were on our own private tour! We were on our own time. The black basalt under foot was uneven and quickly filled our shoes. However, Keith and Alex were eyeing that crater. Before you could blink they practically ran down the steep hill! There they were right at the bottom waving! Now, there was a ring around the top you could walk around, or a sloped path you could use to walk down, or like them, just go down the steep way! Boys! Megan and I walked down the sloped way, we were standing in the middle of the crater before long! Amazing! The walk up wasn’t bad and the views from all around the ring were outstanding! My parents just walked around the top of the crater. Something for everyone!

I feel so lucky to have been able to be there! It was one of those once in a lifetime opportunities! To walk into a once active volcano crater!
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Old Jul 5th, 2013, 10:20 AM
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Marking for a leisurely read.
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Old Jul 5th, 2013, 11:14 AM
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Bookmarking...great review! I'm looking forward to the rest.
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Old Jul 5th, 2013, 06:12 PM
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Enjoying your report so much!
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Old Jul 5th, 2013, 06:58 PM
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Thank you everyone for the compliments! It's encouraging!

Continuing on with the rest of or day in Sicily!

After our Mt Etna experience, we piled back into the van and began our decent to Taormina. We were all hungry and we were all a bit sleepy! Antonio mentioned that this sleepy phenomenon happens all of the time and that it’s from being at the higher elevation with less oxygen. Sure, I’ll go with that! We enjoy our views as we ride along and in about an hour we arrive at the first of one the most charming little towns we’d have the pleasure of visiting this trip! Taormina.

Antonio dropped us off at the top of what seemed to be the main street and told us when we should meet him again, in order to be sure to be back at the ship in plenty of time. He also gave us a perfect restaurant recommendation for lunch. Tucked away just a bit from the main road to not draw only tourists, but close enough to satisfy our growling stomachs!

Amongst our group we had pizzas, pasta dishes, bruschetta, calzone, mozzarella, and of course wine. Everything was fantastic! Megan and I shared the bruschetta and a pizza Diavola which was spicy salami (this is our pepperoni), onions and hot pepper flakes. Yum! Grand pop had a pizza with gorgonzola, ham and walnuts! There were many different varieties to choose from.

After lunch we walked the medieval streets of Taormina. It was charming as could be. This would be the first port where we visited and I would say “I LOVE this place” with absolute enthusiasm, but it certainly was not the last!

It may have been over run with tourists and the standard tourist shops selling postcards and magnets, but going beyond that, the buildings and flowers and the charming art shops and gelaterias were enough to make you stop and take it all in and just soak in the charm of this ancient town! There were stairs leading up, steps leading down, all covered in the most beautiful flowers. Every terrace had its own flowers as well. We even saw a wedding party at one of the churches.

The view of the sea from one of the main piazzas was so beautiful. The perfect place to stop and enjoy a gelato! This time I had orange and Nutella! I also got my magnet – I collect magnets from all of the towns or cities where I visit in the world and hang them on my “magnet” board in my office. It’s going to fill up nicely after this trip!

We had enough time to stroll the street, but wished we had a bit more time. We didn’t have time to get to the Greek amphitheater. I guess we’ll have to put Sicily on our list for a definite must return to place! For sure we loved it here and for sure there is so much more we’d love to see.

The beauty of a cruise – sometimes you get to a port and experience the island or town and feel as if you have seen what you came to see and coming back would be ok, but there’s not a great need to do so. Other times, you go to a place and fall in love with the country or city – the people, the landscape or just something clicks and you just know you will be back. Well, I felt this way here! We’ll be back to Sicily at some point!
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Old Jul 5th, 2013, 07:00 PM
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And here is the link to the pictures from our day in Sicily

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tripsnp...7634474494416/
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Old Jul 6th, 2013, 02:11 PM
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Brava, ShellD! You are reminding me of my first time also and how "blown away" I was by how much of our daily life originated in Italy.

Love your daughter's cap mustache. You really have done a beautiful job. Except my face would have been in a plate, asleep that first day. LOL.
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Old Jul 6th, 2013, 07:02 PM
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Curious on how your parents enjoyed the 4 hour walking/eating tour. After reading your post, I'm thinking of booking. Like you, there are 6 of us including my parents, similar age to yours and 2 kids!
Thanks
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Old Jul 7th, 2013, 06:00 AM
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travelmamana - my parents loved the walking/eating tour. Even after everything else we did, they found it to be one of their favorite tours of the entire trip. It was the combination of the food and the history that they enjoyed so much. The kids really enjoyed it as well. It never felt too long or that there was too much walking. We all highly recommend it!
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Old Jul 7th, 2013, 06:22 AM
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Enjoying your report. Rome was the first place I visited in Europe and it has a special place in my heart. Like you I had an oh my it's the colosseum! moment. Looking forward to reading more.
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Old Jul 7th, 2013, 07:02 AM
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Tuesday, June 11th, Sea Day

Hopefully readers here won't mind too much if I gloss over our sea day - I was going to skip it all together, but then I thought it wouldn't really do justice to our trip to skip it. The trip needs that downtime to let everyone regroup! So bear with me I suppose!

We set our clocks ahead an hour last night since we are sailing towards Athens. I slept like a log! We planned to meet my parents at 9:00 for breakfast in the Main Dining Room, but I didn’t even wake up until 9:00! No problem there, today’s our first Sea Day! Once everyone was up, the kids, my parents, and I all went to a nice and relaxing breakfast. Keith went to find some chairs and to get some sun. Today was his kind of vacation! Lying in the sun, nothing to do – that is the type of vacation he lives for!

So, breakfast in the MDR was so much nicer than in the Windjammer buffet! So calm! A nice selection on the menu, as well as a little buffet of their own! We were seated with two other couples. We very much enjoyed breakfast here and would come back on mornings that we didn’t have early port times.

Next up we found Keith, found some chairs and I started my day of relaxation! Reading in the sun. Lovely! The weather was fantastic, just a bit of a breeze. Alex went off for the teen photo scavenger hunt and after a bit Megan went to her age group’s activity. This was the first time ever I think I’ve had both kids in their respective clubs at the same time. I just napped in the sun. Heaven!

Tonight was formal night, so at about 5:00 we went back to the cabin to get ready for dinner. The kids were back, and Alex wanted a pre-dinner snack. He decided that since he didn’t usually find anything on the menu he liked for an appetizer, why not! Teen boys, the never ending pit of a stomach! So- while we got ready, he got room service. Pizza for him, and we got the cheese platter and opened our other bottle of wine we brought on board. We really liked the RCI room service selections. We thoroughly enjoyed sitting on our balcony with our wine and cheese just watching the sea go by.

Dinner was good. Our servers have realized that Alex likes his steak. A lot. And he doesn’t like any of the sides. They now automatically just bring him two steaks, no sides. Do you want to see a happy face on my son? Bring him two pieces of steak! Without him asking!

After dinner, Alex left us for the teen club – I think he wandered back to their cabin sometime by 1:00 am. The teen curfew is 1:00 am. This is tough on a parent. You want to be sure your kid is back, but are exhausted and want to sleep! You want them to have a great time, but again, want to sleep! He’s in the adjoining cabin…. I told him to make sure he comes in to let me know he’s back when he gets in. That seemed to work for us. Again, we left our balcony’s open, but not the connecting inside doors. When he’d get in, we’d lock our doors out to the balcony.

My parents, Megan and I went to the show that night. It was the Broadway, Then and Now. I thought it was just ok. I didn’t recognize most of the songs. The performance was good, but I had no idea what shows the songs were from. My daughter is heavily into Broadway. She performs with a local theater group and she enjoyed the show.

Today was a totally relaxing day sailing on the ship us each doing our own thing, yet meeting up when we wanted some together time and for our dinner.

Pictures from our day at sea:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tripsnp...7634501540786/

Off to bed – tomorrow is Athens! And again, I know this is an Italy forum, our next couple of ports are not in Italy, so feel free to skip ahead if you aren't interested! But we had a fantastic time in the Eastern Med!
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Old Jul 7th, 2013, 09:55 AM
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Oh my gosh. I just accidentally saw your awesome Day 5 photos on Flickr. Enjoyed them immensely!
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Old Jul 7th, 2013, 10:20 AM
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<Oh my gosh. I just accidentally saw your awesome Day 5 photos on Flickr. Enjoyed them immensely!>

KL467 - You're too funny! Thank you so much for the compliment! I'll be posting about our day in Athens next. Glad you enjoyed the pictures!
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Old Jul 7th, 2013, 10:28 AM
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That is one happy kid with the steak!
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Old Jul 7th, 2013, 11:13 AM
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Looking forward to Greece!
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Old Jul 7th, 2013, 12:04 PM
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I can't believe how organized you are. We all thank you for posting as you go. It is all fresh in your mind and we feel like we are traveling along with you.

Onward..........tomorrow is another adventure!
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Old Jul 7th, 2013, 12:04 PM
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Wednesday, June 12th, Athens

Today was a very early morning! I was up before 5 am! Again, I think it’s the anticipation of the upcoming day, but we also had to meet our guide at 7:30 am to see Athens! I do like a little quiet time before getting our little group of four going in the morning. Sometimes it’s quite a challenge to get Megan out of bed. She’s never been what I’d call a morning person!

This morning we thought we’d give room service a try. I liked that you could order a hot breakfast and this worked out well for us. Although there’s not a lot of room for trays or plates, we managed to juggle everything and quite enjoyed eating on our balcony as we waited to go to our meeting spot.

Today we’d be joining our new friends from Ireland again, as well as another family from England who we’d also met on Cruise Critic. Again we arranged to meet at the Champagne Bar about 15 minutes to our scheduled tour so we could walk off the ship together to find our guide all as one group. We did so and easily found our guide Georgia and our driver, Paul, from PK Travel, (Athens by Taxi).

The port was a crazy mess out there, but they very quickly whisked us into a nice large van and off we went! As we drove through Plantaris Georgia started to tell us about what we were seeing and the history of the area. We paid a bit extra for a guide for the day, in addition to just a driver and it was very well worth it!

Our first stop was the Acropolis. Yes, we had heard that private tours often arrive before the crowds, and it seemed to be true! When we arrived the parking lot was almost empty! Georgia gave us an overview of what we’d be seeing and first we stopped at the Acropolis Theater. This was a little bit of a surprise at first for me. I almost had forgotten that this ancient theater was still in use for current performances!

Then we made our way up to the Temple of Athena Nike. Every step was even more impressive. We walked through the Propylaea and saw the Parthenon! Georgia gave us so much information and made the whole Acropolis come alive for us. Telling us stories of what it would have been like back in its heyday! I can not imagine being there without a guide. We had a good amount of time with her where she explained what each of the major temples were and told us more and more about each one. And then she gave us about 25 minutes to explore on our own.

I think the sheer size alone is striking! The fact that so much still stands today is also amazing. The restoration is going on right in front of you and that’s quite interesting. Much of what you see other than the main Temples are replicas, for example, the maidens on the porch on the temple, or some of the carvings on the temples– some of the original pieces are in the New Acropolis Museum, which we would visit later this day, other pieces are in the Elgin Museum in England!

The views from the Acropolis are stunning. Below we could see the Temple of Zeus. This would be our next stop.

Funny thing was when we were up at the Acropolis Georgia kept referring to this huge structure we could see and it kept sounding like she was saying the Temple of Juice. I knew that wasn’t right of course. It never occurred to me that she meant Zeus until I had this blank look on my face and my son caught it and looked at me and says “ZEUS mom, Zeus…not Juice!” He’s pretty into mythology and was following right along with everything, even though the look on his face in most of the pictures is pretty grim. It was if he was playing a game as to how grumpy he could look in a picture. Just wait until you see some of his expressions in Ephesus! Agh! But even though I was taking him away from his friends and computer for about a third of the summer, I’m pretty sure he was nearly as fascinated with all of the ancient history as I was! Anyway…after he read my mind and clarified that there is no god of Juice…we moved along to the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

In its day, back in 131 AD it was one of the largest in the ancient world and the fact that it stood in an open space made it even more impressive. There were a total of 104 columns, of which only 16 are preserved today. One fell in 1852 during a storm and still lies on the ground. Can you imagine the sound it must have made?

From here you can also see Hadrian’s Arch, on one side was notated the City of Athens, the other side, the City of Hadrian.

After leaving the Temple of Zeus, we drove to the Panatheniac Stadium – this is the original stadium built for the first modern Olympic games. It was built in 1863 for the games in 1896. We had a quick picture stop here.

Next we wanted to be sure to catch the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We arrived with a few minutes to spare, so Georgia suggested we check out the artifacts in the metro station at Stygmata Square. Sure – why not! What a gorgeous Metro Station! And yes, it was filled with artifacts on display. We spent about 10 minutes walking through, it was like a mini museum!

We came up, and got to the Parliament building just in time to see the Changing of the Guard ritual. Quite unusual. They do this either every 30 minutes or every hour – I can’t remember which. It’s a very serious position. They can’t smile, or flinch or talk. Georgia told us stories of when there were the riots in Stygmata Square a few years ago and one soldier was photographed with tears on his face from the tear gas being shot into the crowd – but he couldn’t leave his post or move until he was released from his duty by his superior. And even more amazing, another soldier who’s kilt was caught on fire by a pipe bomb who refused to leave his post until he was given the ok by his superior. He stood stoic at his post unflinching until given the ok to move, fire and all.

Luckily when we were there it was a calm day, all we saw were the thousands of pigeons and the people who seemed to think it was fun to buy pigeon food to have the birds sit all over them! Odd…there was one lone protester on the corner across the street.

Next we drove to the Hill of Lycabettous and had a beautiful view. This is the highest point in Athens and is in mythology credited to being created by Athena.

On the way to the Plaka, which is the oldest section in Athens, we passed this super cool statue! It’s the Running Man! You can see that in my pictures.

What’s in the Plaka? Food! And many shops. It’s mainly closed to traffic. Here we left Georgia for maybe an hour or more? We were given time to eat and shop for a bit and then we’d meet here later. She gave us some suggestions on what to have for lunch and then we were on our own. Each of our own families split up and went our separate ways for this time.

I would imagine pretty much all of the restaurants in this area served basically the same things. Gyros! Of course other Greek specialties as well. We chose to sit down and eat as opposed to counter service. We all ordered gyros – they were served flat on the pita style bread instead of wrapped, which made them a bit challenging to eat. But we managed! Other than G-pop, we all enjoyed them. I’m not sure what he expected, but we soon started a running joke that he was looking for maybe a ham and cheese sandwich in Athens? Or wherever we were! The rest of us loved the authenticity of the food. The seasoning was phenomenal as well as the freshness! The meats were hanging in the restaurants and you would see them shave the meat for each serving.

Our server noticed that G-pop didn’t really enjoy his meal and brought him something else. They didn’t speak much English at all, so trying to explain that he didn’t really want anything else didn’t go over well. I can’t remember what they brought my dad, but it was another full plate of something that he really only picked at. Turns out he really isn’t a fan of Authentic Greek Food! They also brought us a huge plate of lamb k-bobs, which we were told was “on the house” which was nice, but none of us are big lamb eaters.

So, when it came time to pay, as best as we could tell, he wasn’t charged for the second meal and we weren’t charged for the lamb either. Then this older Greek man who spoke NO English came over and starts talking fast and waving his hands and has a 2nd bill. What we eventually figured out was that since my didn’t like his food, which he never complained about, just didn’t eat - now mind you, there was a TON of food, so none of us cleaned our plates, but anyway – the man brought us a second bill that was LESS – he deducted my dad’s meal because they couldn’t make him happy! This was totally unnecessary and unexpected! Definitely was a pleasant experience!

After lunch we had some time to shop, I got my magnet, the boys, their postcards and Megan got a nice leather backpack that she would later see in Italy for several Euros MORE! It was a good experience all around in the Plaka!

Then we walked to the ancient Agora. First we went to the museum which is in the best preserved building in Athens, the Stoa of Attalos, dating back to 2 BC! The museum has many of the artifacts that have been found at the site. Here the open square was transversed by the Panathenaic Way, a covered walkway, surrounded by public buildings. The Agora was a center for social and religious activities, commerce, theater and athletic performances were held here as well. We walked to the Temple of Hephaistos, which is also very well preserved, I believe it was at one time a church, which helps to keep the ruins preserved. And then we left the Agora and went to the New Acropolis Museum.

My dad was getting tired of walking. He has a bad knee and with the 55,000 stairs, or what felt like that many anyway! He decided to skip the museum and he and my mom went to a little café for some beer and snacks! The rest of us went to the museum.

The museum opened in 2009 and houses the artifacts of the Acropolis. As you walk in you are walking over excavations of ruins that were discovered while building the museum.

We went through the museum with Georgia and she explained many of the pieces there, beginning with the pottery and what the different markings meant as far as the dating and history. And then we moved to the various statues of offerings to Athena. Then we moved to the statues of the Porch of the Maidens. The originals are here – the ones in Greece anyway! They are currently being restored and you can see how they are doing that process.

Then we moved to the top floor where Georgia told us what the panels on the top of the Parthenon meant – what the mythology told us and showed us how the gods were represented.

If you like mythology, archaeology, ancient history – this was a totally fascinating day! For me, it was absolutely fascinating!

After the museum, we made our way back to the ship and had dinner in the Main Dining Room. The kids and I went to see the Ice Show. It was really good. Who would think they could pull off an ice show of that caliber on a moving ship? It’s a very small rink, and they still manage to do some pretty impressive moves! Alex of course left to go to the teen club, the rest of us went to bed.

Pictures from Day 5, Athens
http://www.flickr.com/photos/tripsnp...7634526952657/

Tomorrow is Ephesus!
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