Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Last stop: Limonc(h)ell's, Nancy's smelts, th'land o' the golden egg...

Naples, from the back of the Brilliance
I know the title's a stretch for these lyrics, but my sixth grader's mind was stuck there thanks to the smelts.

6:20 a.m.

We're trying to decide what to do in Naples. Capri is supposed to be beautiful, but we're a bit gun shy about going far from the ship after learning that we just missed the train problems in Rome that saw a group of fellow cruisers stranded and forced to catch a flight to Santorini to meet us. That, and, after watching the news, Stephen said that the Greek protests that closed the port in Athens yesterday looked a lot like the places we went; maybe they started late in the day before. Surreal, to say the least!

6:11 p.m.

On the train to Sorrento
In the end, we decided to throw caution to the wind and take the train to Sorrento. What a wonderful voyage to what must be the lemon capital of the world. We sampled limoncello -- picking up a little bottle for Stephen's dad -- munched on lovely grapes and peaches, and finally sat down for a bit of Napoli's famous dish: pizza.

We also ran into the Amazing Race couple! They'd come by organized tour.

Emboldened by our early success, we then made our way down to Sorrento's breathtaking coastline and bought tickets for a ferry to Capri. We stopped for a bite at an outdoor restaurant by the wharf, while we waited for our 1 p.m. berth. Seafood dominated the recommendations, so Tea had bream, Nancy had smelts, and I had mussels in olive oil with parmesan and garlic. Stephen had lasagna, staying with the Italian theme of the morning.

Half an hour later, we were in the land of the rich and famous -- at least, as I imagine it, after ogling the yachts in Capri's harbour, and all the zeroes on the price tags in the shop windows. We took the funicular to the top, where, defying nature, it seemed even hotter than the frying pan of the streets below. After a bit of sightseeing -- and a stop in the posh pay washrooms to splash cold water around our heads -- we started back down, by the pedestrian way this time. Despite the 700 odd steps, it only took us about 15 minutes -- thankfully, there wasn't a donkey in sight -- where we caught the 4 p.m. ferry back to the port of Naples.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Athens: touring amidst protests

The Parthenon
It's amazing what a difference a few hours make: we were off the ship and on the metro early enough to have pictures of the Parthenon with no one else in them. A few hours later -- after 10 a.m., say -- the wait was hours, and the place, a madhouse. By then, however, we'd enjoyed a snack -- more baklava and another pastry, called kadaifi on the menu -- and taking in the Temple of Zeus.

There was some sort of protest going on outside the President's residence, which, unfortunately, closed the nearby national gardens, so we skipped ahead on our itinerary and, as luck would have it, happened upon the changing of the guard outside the palace. Our luck continued as we found a covered patio moments before the skies opened, raining down buckets. And just as we were finishing up our fantastic Greek salads, the sun broke through again. (Oh, I tried ouzo for the first time as well -- very similar to sambuca, which I love.)

The Odeon
The Erechtheum

If you're as confused by all buildings as I was, check out the site plan on the Acropolis' Wikipedia page -- I could've used it a bit sooner!

Hadrian's Arch -- the Acropolis in the distance
We decided to catch the metro back to the ship at that point, and it's a good thing we did: the combination of the port authority jamming all the cruise passengers into a single line -- one of the cruise lines was registering hundreds of passengers who were about to begin their cruise, no less -- and a massive failure of the body scanners had us waiting for an hour to board the ship. And the worst part was that no one could tell us anything: Royal Caribbean personnel didn't even appear until half an hour had passed. With everyone pushing and squeezing closer and closer together, no air conditioning, no water, many languages, military dogs barking savagely... Well, honestly, you felt the anxiety approaching riot levels.

However, the worst moment for me was when a Greek soldier near the defunct body scanners pointed at me from behind their barricade, shouting, "Hey! You! Stop!"

The Temple of Zeus
I'd been filming (and photographing) all this, since no one from Royal Caribbean was around (at least, initially), and I figured they wouldn't believe me without some sort of evidence. (Some of the staff don't speak English very well, so it can really help things along if you have something to point at.) As the soldier hopped the barricade and approached me, I had visions of him taking my camera and smashing it, or simply confiscating it. Instead, he stopped beside me, pointed at the camera, and said, "Delete it!", watching and repeating the instruction as I deleted each video and photo in succession, back to a picture of Nancy and Stephen that I'd clearly taken on the docks. Then he simply nodded and walked back to their line. The adrenaline didn't hit me for a few minutes, but when it did, I was shaking for some time.

Tuesday, June 29, 2:30 p.m.: Epilogue

Stephen has an interesting theory about yesterday -- courtesy of his dad's speculations prior to our sailing. The chances of all three scanners failing simultaneously are astronomically small -- Stephen managed to find someone in the industry who claimed they're never interconnected -- so it's likely that at least one of the machines was working correctly, and they simply claimed that all of them were broken.

Why? Well, Greek government employees have been protesting government cuts to their wages (and benefits, possibly -- I'm not up on the details) for some time now, and the fact that the cruise line that was registering people seemed to cater to locals means that we could have been caught up in an attempt by the government employees -- both port authority workers and the army -- to gum up the works just enough to garner public support for negotiations regarding those cuts (even if only to get Greece back to normal from the layman's point of view).

I like the theory. Especially when you consider that all the scanners started working again simultaneously. Oh well, time to catch a few rays. Tomorrow we're in Naples (and possibly Pompeii).

Have a look at my Athens album for more pictures of the Parthenon and the Temple of Zeus:
2010 06 - Athens

Up next: Naples (our last port of call), Sorrento and Capri.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Efes and Kuşadası: "Come on, Joanne! HUSTLE!"

The 'coach' and his flock in the theatre
In the morning, we took a cab to Ephesus in time to see it open. As the first bus arrived, the tempo began to pick up. One tour leader was even yelling at his party like a football coach with his team a few yards from the goal on the third down: "Come on, Joanne! HUSTLE!" [And, poor Joanne was in, or just coming out of, the washroom for that beauty -- I kid you not.] Turns out that he was the preacher of a prayer group that wanted to have a sermon or lesson in the theatre before the crowds started going through. [And they did make it, for the most part: I think they were winding it up as we went through.]

The library
The theatre
After that, we did a bit of shopping. We learned how Turkish carpets are made, and even bought one. We're hoping it won't cost too much to carry it back on our flight. [It didn't cost us anything, in the end: I took it on our BA flight as a second piece of hand luggage -- Thank goodness we weren't flying a discount airline.]

We spent the afternoon in Kuşadası. [While many of the shop owners were overly aggressive, this tailed off the farther we got from the port. One of these owners was a bit philosophical about it, saying that most of them don't understand that they'll get a lot more business if they just lay back, like him. We chatted for some time, enjoyed some Turkish tea with him, and, importantly, spent more money in that shop than in the rest of the afternoon's shopping combined.] Afterwards, Stephen and I enjoyed a replay of the American loss to Ghana at the World Cup over pints -- Efes Pilsener is excellent, incidentally -- on a great misted patio, while the girls continued to shop.

One of the waiters was an absolute riot: he had this big belly, always smiling and jovial. He'd take my hat and wear it in goofy positions, and yell into our walkie-talkies like the other handset was on the moon. The funniest part was how he kept patting Stephen's not inconsiderable belly: he didn't speak much English, so it's difficult to say for certain, but I suspect that this had as much to do with his personality as any cultural differences. Stephen took it all in stride, laughing and shrugging.

As we were heading back to the ship, a pastry shop caught our eye. Later, our fingers sticky with the sugary goodness of baklava, we reflected on what a surprise the stop had been: I don't think any of us knew what to expect, but to enjoy ourselves that much, particularly after all we'd seen to that point, really says something about Turkey and its people, I think.

Up next: Athens

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Santorini: oh, my poor a••!

After two days at sea, we tendered to Firá, on the Greek island of Santorini in the southern Aegean Sea.

I thought we would walk the 600 steps to Firá proper, but we quickly reassessed that once we realized that we'd have to share those steps with many, many laden donkeys (to say nothing of their s••t). The smell was so bad at one point that both Tea and Stephen were near retching.

I was surprisingly terse on this point in my journal, so let me elaborate: seeing Stephen in such a state had Tea bent double with laughter, which is never a good thing when you're nauseous. In Stephen's defence, as he stood about, contemplating the finer points of the awful smell I guess, a donkey started backing up toward him, relieving itself as it went. I don't know how he didn't end up covered in it, but that was definitely his lowest moment, shall we say.

They don't smell much better once you're riding them, incidentally, and you're trading the possibility of getting bumped off the steep steps or crushed against the rock wall for being thrown off said steps by mounting them, but, hey, every adventure needs the fear of bodily harm, right?

One final point in this aside: that donkey is a lot bigger than it looks. Honestly! I'm at least a foot off the ground in that picture!

Firá, from the other side of town
Firá, from the ship

The whitewash of Firá reminded me of our trip to southern Spain. We took a cab to a nearby black beach, played in the sun, and laid out on a proper bed -- four poster, with shade and room for us all, for only €10 -- fantastic! And the Greek salad they brought out to us on said bed was so good: covered in peppery olive oil that I was sopping up with the fresh bread, tomatoes like I've never tasted... A few hours later, we took the local bus back to Firá, and a cable car down to the tender. (We'd had enough fear for one day by then.)

I'm glad we bought pictures of the donkey ride, 'cause I don't think Tea or I would believe we did it in even a few months' time otherwise.

Nancy and Stephen enjoying the shade

Up next: Kuşadası, Turkey

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Rome: all excursions lead there too, it seems

Our third stop (in a row!) was Civitavecchia, and while the train ride to Rome wasn't quite as far as the one from Liverno to Florence, we still felt we needed an early start. Stephen was off the boat like a shot, grabbing the first cab, and in no time we were waiting at the station for an early commuter train to Rome.

The desolate platform (with bleary-eyed locals slowly arriving over the twenty or so minutes we waited) save for one other party from the ship -- two ladies who'd been to Rome at least twice before, and had arranged a private tour this time -- contributed to this feeling that we were on The Amazing Race; particularly when we got talking with the ladies, and were comparing the detail and quality of our maps. [We kept running into them in places that were pretty far-flung from the ship as the cruise continued; they were forever "the Amazing Race couple" in our minds, and I'll be referring to them often in the coming posts. --JJ]

There was some confusion about which stop we needed for the Vatican, but before long we were standing outside Saint Peter's Square, a little deflated at the line before us. It seemed that everyone had these yellow cards -- issued by their tour guides, which was the first time that our policy of avoiding excursions gave me pause (unnecessarily, as it turned out) -- and the terribly winding snake ending at metal detectors. Luckily, just as despair threatened to overwhelm us, an American reporter (I believe), who'd been to the Vatican many, many times, noticed our plight, and pointed to an area well off to the side of all the lines and confusion. You can just walk right into the Square! I still don't know what those people were waiting for (possibly guiding tours of the museums), but that American truly saved our bacon that day, because the line inside Saint Peter's Square, for the Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, was still very short at that hour.

The basilica was truly astounding; so much so that I almost lost my hat! I dropped it, gaping about, and were it not for a kind stranger pointing out the fact, who knows when I would've noticed it. [This is where pictures are sorely needed; soon! --JJ]

We decided to save the Sistine Chapel for our next visit, since we hadn't purchased tickets in advance and, therefore, faced a long line (and no getting around this one) by the time we'd finished in St. Peter's Basilica. Plus, time was a tickin'! On to the Spanish Steps!

On the way, we passed the impressive Castel Sant'Angelo and stopped for a snack to fortify us against the heat: what looked like fantastic pizza for Tea, Nancy and Stephen, and some candied fruit for me. (Yes, I would come to regret this.) The Steps were teeming with folks, like so many crows, and we joined in, snacking on roasted chestnuts, of all things.

Up next was Trevi Fountain; one minute you're walking through these narrow streets, then there are some statues beside you, and, presto! an enormous fountain. The pictures don't do it justice, in my opinion, because you don't feel how close and intimate it all is -- especially with all those people; so many people, and every one determined to get that picture, but in that good way that makes you feel truly alive and part of something bigger.

The Coliseum was next on our agenda, but we got turned about at Il Vittoriano, and ended up at the Theatre of Marcellus, which, I maintain, can look like the Coliseum from a distance when you're hot and tired. (O.K., maybe not, but we were really hot 'n' tired at this point -- walking Rome does that to you, incidentally; you've been warned!)

As we tried to snake our way around the Roman Forum, I lagged behind to snap a picture. As I ran to catch up, approaching a side street, in one of those last second glances, I noticed a scooter pull out from the line of cars beside me and put its signal on; I stopped up so quick that he did too, and the van behind him couldn't stop in time. The van driver was immediately out and checking on the scooter driver, who seemed to be O.K. I waited around for some time, but they ignored me, save to give me a look that would wither the healthiest May blooms when I attempted to say, "Mi dispiace."

Convinced that I wasn't needed, and certainly not wanted, I joined the group again, who, upon hearing the crash, were convinced I was done for. Then, suddenly, my head popped up amongst the parked cars. (I'd never been on the ground; their view had just been temporarily obstructed.) The best part was that we ended up backtracking around the forum anyway, and I got to take tons of pictures, all of which were better than that one that almost cost me dearly.

In the end, we made it to the Coliseum, but were so tired that we decided the outside was impressive enough. We paused for a breath, caught a cab to the train station, and were back on the ship with plenty of time to spare. What we didn't know was that the very next train to Civitavecchia (or the track itself, possibly) experienced catastrophic problems; we learned that many, many cruisers were stranded on the tracks for hours, missed the ship, and had to fly to our next stop, Santorini! [And our luck didn't end there! --JJ]

Up next:
After two days at sea, beautiful Santorini, Greece -- yes, really, this time; somehow I forgot Rome, O.K.? -- with pictures... and donkeys!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Florence and Pisa

We got an early start this morning: off the ship by 7 a.m. and a quick cab ride to Liverno's train station. We were lucky all day: we never waited more than a few minutes for any train, as we rode the line all the way out to Florence, and then back to Pisa around 1 p.m., before returning to Liverno and the ship around 5 p.m.

We were a bit smug about our exploits today as we talked to people on the train and in the jacuzzi, but the truth is that I'm proud of what we accomplished on our own today. It cost people $99 each to book the Florence excursion, which basically just got them there. We got there for €13 each, plus a €20 cab fare, and then had time for a separate 'excursion' to the leaning tower of Pisa, which would've cost cruisers even more -- $188 per person for both.

And the best part was that we saw these tour guides holding up Royal Caribbean paddles throughout the day at various points; we had an equivalent experience for a fraction of the cost, and, more importantly, at our own pace.

Florence was so beautiful, and the San Lorenzo market was very impressive -- particularly the covered food market, with such eye-catching selections as octopuses, truffles and what I thought of as pig's face, but, after a quick google, what may be called careta (or Spanish for mask, I believe). The stuff of Fear Factor, either way, that last one.

Pisa's tower and cathedral were even more impressive than we'd expected -- Stephen was really taken with the tower, I think -- particularly when contrasted with the city's tough exterior of excessive graffiti [which turned out to be a reoccurring theme through most of Italy and Greece, incidentally] and heavy construction.

I'd expected Tuscany to be beautiful, but here again, as the train rolled on, the countryside really captivated me. Tea's talked about renting a villa there for a good amount of time, and I couldn't be more excited about the prospect now.

We met some great people today: our first taxi driver in Liverno was really fantastic: he had some great stories, and was very reassuring when it came to our plans for the day; he even came into the train station to explain the boards and show us where to buy tickets.

Then we shared a cab back to the ship with a group (family?) of Australians who'd left Spain when they were children. They spoke English with an Australian accent, and Spanish with a southern one. One of the guys was talking about how they taught the locals to eat and dress; that many of the staples of the Australian diet, and their styles, came directly from the Spanish immigrants of the middle of the last century. (And directly from this guy and his dad, the modest gentleman seemed to imply.)

Good times!

Up next: Roma

Monday, June 21, 2010

The French Riviera: Villefranche and Nice

Our cruise got off to a rough start: as we sailed away from Barcelona, listening to the captain's log over the intercom, the phrase "extremely uncomfortable" caught in our ears. With Tea's double-take and nervous laughter as a backdrop, we learned that we would be skirting a storm on our way to Villefranche, and wouldn't find calm waters again until 5 a.m. or so.

What followed was probably our worst night on a cruise ship; certainly the equal of our return to Miami on our first cruise, where most of the staff were trying to serve us between bouts of illness, and tumbling displays and dishes were the norm. Thanks to Nancy and Stephen -- who'd kindly switched rooms with us -- we were lower in the ship (Deck 2) and centred this time: probably the best place of all, in truth. (To skip ahead for a moment, none of us where surprised when the captain's log for the following day highlighted much worse conditions than he'd expected, with winds in excess of 100 miles per hour and waves in excess of 40 feet.)

Still, we survived, and were greeted by the picturesque bay of Villefranche the following morning; paradise, it seemed. As beautifully dreamy as the previous night was nightmarish. Despite a hearty breakfast on the ship, we weren't long off the tender before our hands (and, soon, our tummies) were full of wonderful oranges, sandwiches made with delicious tomatoes (and French bread, of course -- ah, memories of Paris), quiche, and even some sausage rolls, if memory serves. We ate all this while climbing steps through the beautiful neighbourhoods, pausing often to take in the view behind.

We could've made it as far as Cannes or Monaco in the time allotted to us, but decided to make the short trip to Nice instead; 15 minutes by train. Here, as in parts of Paris, I was surrounded by a way of life that really spoke to me. The cafés, the chatter, the beach (in this case)... One could really get used it.

One encounter summed up the day for me: Tea and I were sitting on a low wall outside a hotel while Nancy and Stephen went in to confirm our directions. A couple walking their dog crossed the path of another man walking his dog, and, turning, exchanged a few words in French before smiling and stopping right in front of us. While the couple was clearly fluent in French, the man struggled after noting that their terriers were of similar breed.

Immediately the gentleman in the couple said, "English?" which the relieved American (unless I miss my guess) acknowledged. The couple, it turned out, were Swedish, and they had a great conversation about various breeds and local dog shows. At one point, Tea or I laughed, and, realizing we understood English, they then included us in the conversation. For me, this couple, fluent in many languages and so polite and friendly, was better than my best visions of Europe -- which were over the moon to beginning with, it has to be said.

From there we found a 'boot sale' to beat them all; so much history and beauty at these things over here. If you'll allow me a nose in the air moment, I fear the Great Glebe Garage Sale will seem like a collection of so many Barrhaven driveways after all this. I could've come home with armfuls, but limited myself to a few fantastic pins -- UPDATE: one of them is definitely the insignia of the 13e Régiment de Dragons Parachutistes -- no doubt dating from the middle of the last century.

The tables were in the middle of a square that was surrounded by little restaurants with shaded patios, so we decided to stop for some wine and food. (This was one of the few days that I took crib notes versus making a full entry, and they've failed me here: I know I had a delicious omelette, and Stephen had pasta, but the rest escapes me.) After lunch, we went down to the busy, rocky beach, and then up to a lookout well above it with a lovely park. (I hope I'll be able to share the fantastic pictures we got from this vantage shortly.)

We caught the train back to Villefranche with plenty of time to spare.

Up next: Firenze! (As Stephen loved to say.)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Vacation: Day 1: Barcelona, via London and Paris

Note: Due to technical difficulties, it will be some time before I'll have access to the pictures from the first part of our cruise. Over the coming days, I'll blog about our stops, and then (hopefully) update these posts with pictures at a later date.

What a posh title, eh? I feel slightly more important for writing it, I must say. I kept a journal during our two-week cruise of the Mediterranean, and I'll be posting the entries as they are dated there, with some additional exposition, as appropriate. For example, this post is about our overnight train to Barcelona, which might strike you as an odd choice of transportation. However, what I don't mention in my journal is that we booked this cruise right around the time that volcanic ash from Eyjafjallajökull was messing up most of Europe's airspace, and we had visions of missing the ship as it left Barcelona. Oh, the irony, as you'll soon learn.

Saturday, June 19, 9:45 a.m.

We're still at least an hour outside Barcelona. The train seems to pause often; don't know whether that's normal.

In one of those funny coincidences, I've just heard a conversation outside our compartment (in English, amazingly enough) about what has happened: we hit a car at some point in the night, dragged it for 200 metres, and are now on our way back to meet another locomotive, I believe. All told, we will be between six and seven hours late. Tea's managed to fall asleep again; I don't think I'll wake her to give her the bad news. Apparently that staff member has never heard of this happening before. Oh well, this is why you don't plan to travel on the day you sail.

It's really exotic: this mix of French, English and Spanish (with both the soft 'c' that I'm used to, and the heavy 'th' of the north that sounds like yet another language to my ears). The staff really manage very well. I guess the list of destinations contribute to that exotic feeling as well: London, Paris, Barcelona... and all in less than 24 hours. (Well, according to the original plan.)

I still find it hard to believe that we hit a car! We're far back in the train, but I'd still expect to feel something. Thankfully it seems like no one was hurt too badly, otherwise I can't see the police allowing us to continue so quickly. Tea's awake now, and commented that that's probably the horrible diesel smell that filled the cabin (briefly, again, thankfully) in the middle of the night.

2:30 p.m.

The green continues to roll by. I pause as a tunnel blacks out the world. The chaos of the countryside is interrupted every so often by the perfect lines of groves and vineyards. My mobile tells me we still haven't hit the border yet. A few minutes later we stop in Cerbère.

4:20 p.m.

We're still in Cerbère. Apparently our conductor has left. There are rumours that he took some heat about the crash, and by leaving us at this border town at the end of his shift, a mere ten minutes from another station with plenty of drivers, he's really fixed us. It's difficult to get here by road, although the remaining crew assure us that we will be in Barcelona in three hours.

As the other passengers mill about out on the platform, with no one around and plenty of rusty old trains, I find myself speculating on our chances, were we the last humans on the continent.

I may come to regret my fascination with dystopian fiction and movies, particularly if we end up spending the night here; there are some really creepy tunnels just a few hundred yards down the tracks.

* * * * *

My journal skips ahead to our first stop, Villefranche-sur-Mer, at this point, but I won't leave you hanging: we made it to Barcelona; eight hours late. Still, we had time to walk along La Rambla -- stopping for some fantastic seafood paella along the way -- and down by the port with Nancy and Stephen before getting on the Brilliance the next day.

Up next: the French Riviera

Sunday, June 6, 2010


We decided to book a last-minute trip to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, since we plan to be setting sail on a Mediterranean cruise with Nancy and Stephen on the actual day. As you'd expect, had a number of suggestions, including Venice, and so it was.

We flew out of the East Midlands airport, outside Leicester, on an afternoon flight, arriving at Marco Polo Airport (just north of Venice) that evening. One really posh boat ride later – their version of public transportation, although it felt like I was on some cheesy night-time soap about the lives of the rich and famous as I sat on comfy seats below deck, surrounded by wood paneling – up the Grand Canal and we were in San Marco/Saint Mark's Square.

Saint Mark's Basilica
Picture this: just shy of midnight; the surrounding buildings beautifully lit; a string quartet, immaculately dressed, playing to our left; couples dancing, or simply walking hand-in-hand; the water of the canal lapping in the distance behind us. It was unreal, in its most striking sense. (And then there's me, ruining the moment: “Ha, it's just like Vegas!” Curse you, Venetian hotel, for making such a lasting impression on me!)

It wasn't difficult to find our hotel from there, thanks to Tea's knack for orienting herself. We did have to rouse the night man, which was an early test of our Italian (that I failed miserably – thank goodness they get so many English tourists).

The next morning, after quickly breaking fast at the hotel, it was off to the famous Rialto market. Tea's Italian was in fine form as she bought us some cherries, grapes – such grapes! Black, and the size of plum tomatoes! Now I understand the origins of red wine – and 'acqua': it was already heating up; happily, this trend continued for most of the four days, despite the initial forecast for rain throughout.

The view off the Rialto Bridge
At that point we heeded all of our guide books and got lost for a bit. This is exceedingly easy in Venice, incidentally. Simply take a few steps in any direction, and you're unlikely to find your way back. There are many, many signs on the buildings – be they fancy plates, graffiti, or simply print-outs taped to doors – for San Marco Square and the Rialto Bridge. I have no idea how we would've made it back to our hotel each night otherwise; and I honestly don't know how tourists who aren't fortunate enough to be staying near either of those landmarks manage it.

So, yes, we got lost, taking in the wonderful architecture, our fingers sticky with juice of luscious grapes and cherries. Eventually we came upon a little shop; it looked like it was run by a father and his son. The father was in the back, making small sandwiches that the Italians call cicchetti (tapas), and he couldn't keep them in the display, the locals were snapping them up so quickly. Tea bravely waded in, ordering us two, and two glasses of Prosecco, which Venice is famous for. The son poured the latter from a carafe! I wonder whether it'd ever seen a bottle, or if it was some overflow or contraband. Delicious, in either case (and I'm not a big fan of the bubbly as a rule).

We headed back to the hotel for a nap at some point – it was the heat, not my age, I kept telling myself – and ate in a little pizzeria that evening. (You really need to make reservations in Venice. Even places you might consider middle of the road book up quickly.) It was fun, with a large family enjoying all sorts of local appetizers beside us. (I had the Quattro Stagioni, of course; very good.) Then we were off in search of a nightcap.

We aimed a little high, it seemed: before we realized it, our simple finish to the evening turned fancy. You know, when you've asked for some still water – I don't think they have tap water in Venice, by the way – the bread and olives have arrived, and then you open the menu... I mean, don't get me wrong, the cheese plate was the best I've had: a few pecorinos, a few asiagos, and other strange (but tasty) ones that I don't remember the names of and were served on spoons. This was paired with a local fortified wine. For dessert, I had fresh berries in port (hold the ice cream) and Tea had a fabulous chocolate cake of sorts. This was served with a local dessert wine called fragolino (as it's made with strawberries).

We toured Saint Mark's Basilica the following morning. It was overwhelming, really. At one point we passed a young girl sitting on the floor with a sketchbook and coloured pencils in front of her. Every surface of that basilica was a wonder, and the mosaic tiles on the floor were no exception; this girl was drawing pattern of a particular tiled area, with her mother or aunt crouched down beside her, offering colour suggestions.

Having explored a lot of the sestieri (areas) San Marco and San Polo the previous day, we then made our way to Sestiere Dorsoduro. We'd planned to spend some time in the Accademia, but it was so nice out that we decided to continue walking. Tea bought some gelato, and then we found this shaded dock that a restaurant had built out into the lagoon, facing the island of Giudecca.

We picked a corner table near the water, and spent the whole afternoon eating, drinking and enjoying the view. I had this incredible appetizer of six types of raw fish; Tea had an amazing pasta dish. For the main course, we shared a beautiful sea bass that had been caught within the hour, according to our waiter. They cooked it in salt, brought it to the table again to show us, then took it away to break that crust (with a spoon – really neat), clean it and plate it with seasonal veg. Delish! Dessert followed; then tea and espresso; and, finally, limoncello (a digestif – I liked it so much that I bought some in the airport on the way home). A great meal. We just took our time, watching the boats and ships go by – including two cruise ships, tugs in tow. It was picturesque, really.

We spent our last full day exploring Sestiere Cannaregio. Here, again, the highlight was a restaurant (surprise!). We sat outside again, by a canal that led out into the lagoon after a few hundred metres. This made for some interesting boat traffic as we ate: at one point, a boat pulled up beside two others that were parked abreast. The driver – it feels strange, using these road vehicle metaphors, but that's really the way it seems there – stepped lightly over this makeshift bridge and went into the restaurant; a few moments later he came out and retrieved two crates of vegetables from his boat, and then he was off again.

When we'd arrived, two guys had been chatting just outside the entrance to the restaurant. Partway through our meal, they stepped out on a boat that was parked directly behind us, and proceeded to pull Styrofoam trays out of chest freezer just in front of the cabin. It wasn't until black ink began to soak the plastic bags they were transferring the fish to – to say nothing of the trays themselves, or, in short order, the front of the chest freezer – that we realized we were witnessing a cuttlefish sale. We even noticed one of the patrons eating what looked like spaghetti al nero di seppia before we left.

While we weren't brave enough to order that, we did try another seafood antipasti tray. This one also included a few varieties of raw fish, and sea snails in olive oil, garlic and parsley. I believe they call it bovoletti; they give you toothpicks to work in the shells, and it really is very tasty (once you get past the texture). The highlight of the meal was definitely the primi: risotto with scampi and courgettes (zucchini); the best risotto I've ever tasted, hands down. We shared an amazing mixed grill for secondi, and finished with a limoncello (as you do).

And so, an incredible trip to Venice came to a close; my first trip, and Tea's second. It won't be our last, but we'll take in other parts of Italy before then: in a few short weeks, in fact, as our Mediterranean cruise stops in Florence, Rome and Naples!