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Norwegain Gem Mediterranean Cruise in November: Rome or Vatican City? -- Entry 1

(I thought I'd blog daily, but I was having too much fun. I'll start catching up entries now, but I won't add any pictures until after we get home... The cruise ship Internet service is pretty good, but it's still 40 cents a minute.)

Thursday -- Vatican City

This is our ninth cruise (and our third with Norwegian), and I have to admit that I had some concerns about cruising the Mediterranean in November. After all, November is the “off-season,” and we assumed it would be rainy and cold. Actually, however, the temperatures have been in the 70s, and it’s been so warm and humid that I now couldn’t imagine cruising the Mediterranean in the summer. The off-season has the additional advantage of not being nearly so crowded. Trust me on this: if you come in November, you’ll still be sharing the experience with a lot of tourists everywhere you go – so just imagine how many thousands more would be in your way at “peak times.”

Ports are about choices. There’s always too much to do, and never enough time to even scratch the surface of seeing it all. Today, for example, we planned to take the train into Rome and spend 4 hours running around the major sights. At breakfast, though, we realized that it might be easier to go to Vatican City and get more accomplished. The major “sights” of the Vatican are closer together after all… Of course what we failed to realize is how big the Vatican museum really is. It’s so huge that if you looked at every item it contains for just ten seconds each, it would take something like 12 years to see everything.

Please, if you ever go on the Mediterranean cruise, avoid the ship-sponsored cruise excursions. Here’s why. The port city is an hour away from Rome by train and cost just 9 euros per person round trip. The walk to the train station is only 4 blocks from the port, and then when you get to the St. Peter’s station, it’s maybe just another 4 blocks to St. Peter’s Square. So, you can get there for 18 euros ($27). The cruise ship will take you to Rome via bus for a minimum of $119 per person, and that’s just to drop you off. If you want to do anything more on your excursion, prices go up to over $400 per person. If that’s not bad enough, it takes longer to get to Rome via bus than by train.

The train ride itself is an interesting experience. The seats are built for people under 5’ 8”, and every seat is full. The ride there smelled like sitting in a kitty litter box for an hour, but hey, it’s cheap. Everyone in Italy apparently knows just enough English, too, to communicate with Americans. Some of the signs around the country are written in English as well, so finding your way around is pretty straight-forward.

Lines at St. Peter’s Square are LONG. On a typical day 60,000 people may be visiting the Square and Sistine Chapel and the Church. The day we were there was pretty light – maybe just 40,000 people. To avoid the lines, we did something we don’t normally do – we joined a group tour. That turned out to be a really good decision in this case, though. It cost us 40 euros per person, but our tour started and 11 and when straight through to 3:30. Jim, our tour guide from Michigan, conveyed information for 4 ½ straight hours. He only took a 15 minute break when we visited the Sistine Chapel – and that’s because people are supposed to be completely silent when visiting there.

Amusingly, it’s not completely silent in the Sistine Chapel. Employees walk around yelling “Silence!” and they do their best to stop people from talking, and taking pictures. Both are losing battles. Apparently people aren’t allowed to take pictures in the Chapel because the Japanese company that paid $180 million for the restoration owns the copyright. So it becomes a game. People try to see how much they can get away with, and stern-looking Italians try to stop them.

All told, we spend almost 6 hours at Vatican City, and it was an incredible experience. Some people attempt to visit both Rome and Vatican City in a single day. How they do that, I don’t know. If you try to see it all, you’ll end up seeing nothing. And like I noted above, even 6 hours in Vatican City isn’t nearly enough time. It’s a place that deserves weeks, if not months.

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