Ancient Technology, Old Neighborhoods, and Traditional Food

If Tuesday was all about seeing the sights everyone must see, Wednesday was about going to see some sites that a lot of people overlook. We took a morning Hidden Gems tour with Walks of Italy. Our day started at the Theatre of Marcellus (Teatro Marcelo) which predates the Colosseum. 

From there, we crossed over to Tiber Island to the Basilica of St. Bartholomew, then back across the river to the Jewish Ghetto. Our guide pointed out numerous small bronze plaques embedded in the sidewalks in front of the homes. They are a sobering reminder of what happened to the inhabitants during a terrible time in history.

After the Jewish Ghetto we boarded our small bus part for the driving part of our tour.  Our first stop was Circus Maximus, the Roman chariot racing and entertainment area located near the Forum and the Colosseum. 

Next, we drove to the remains of the Baths of Caracalla. The massive site was built between 212 and 217 AD, and once housed cold, warm, and hot baths that could hold over 1,500 people at one time.  The complex also housed a library. Today it is used for outdoor concerts.

The next stop on our tour was The Appian Way.  We walked on a stretch of excavated stones from ancient times (recreated), and learned how to use a Roman drinking fountain.  

Our last stop outside the city was at the Park of the Aqueducts where we saw the Aqua Claudia…a true engineering marvel that stretched 56 km above and below ground, and provided water to 14 districts of Rome every day.  Without the aqueducts, Ancient Rome wouldn’t have existed.  Aqua Claudia was one of 11 aqueducts that provided water to Ancient Rome. Parts of the aqueducts are still in use today, including one that feeds the Trevi Fountain.

Before we returned to our starting point we went to Janiculum Hill for the noon cannon shot and a view of the city. Unfortunately it was kind of hazy so the views were not spectacular, but it was an interesting experience. After the tour we headed back to Campo de’ Fiori for lunch where we made another critical food mistake, but very a very different one than the day before. 

We knew our restaurant choice was fine, because friends recommended it. We weren’t in a tourist area like the streets around the Vatican and the prices were reasonable. Our calzones were delicious, so what was the problem? One between the two of us would have been plenty! Our calzones were delicious, but they were the size of a small platter! 

After lunch we walked around the market a bit, they we went back to the apartment to shower and do a quick load of laundry. The only problem was the words quick, laundry, and Rome should never be used in the same sentence. We left the washer running and went out for our evening tour. I believe the washer ran about 3 hours for a light load.

We did an evening food tour in Trastevere with Eating Italy. We loved this, and think food tours are a great way to get a feel for an area or neighborhood while sampling delicious food. We visited 7 restaurants and shops, and I thought some of the more memorable tastes were the Buffalata and tomatoes, the fried Jerusalem artichoke, the pastas, and the Gelato, although everything we had was good.

We got home about 9:30 and transferred the laundry to the dryer. At 1:00 a.m. I pulled out everything that was approaching dry and reset the dryer, which unfortunately was in the closet in our bedroom! The dryer finally turned off around 1:45 and I fell asleep, but it was a lengthy process getting our small load of laundry to dry…if I had to guess, I would say the washing and drying process took about 8 hours!😳

Up next – medieval castles and a newly renovated ship!

Who Needs a Gym?

Not the Rouses in Rome, that’s for sure! We had an action packed two days, and we saw as much as we could in the short time we had. 

Tuesday was dedicated to two Italian icons, the Vatican and the Colosseum. I tried not to schedule our tours that way, but it was the only way to fit everything in so we went ahead with it. In hindsight, it wasn’t too bad and it was a good way for us to keep going and ignore the jet lag on an absolutely gorgeous day.

We started with an early admission tour of the Vatican with a 7:15 meeting time. In my opinion, this is the only sane way to see the Sistine Chapel and tour the museum, unless of course you enjoy spending your time in a throng of shuffling tourists waving selfie sticks. Jim and I were both stunned at the size of Vatican City – it’s huge! In particular, St. Peter’s Basilica was much bigger than we thought it was. We’ve only seen it on TV, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the inside, but pictures don’t really do it justice. St. Peter’s and St. Peter’s Square are massive and magnificent. On the other hand, the Sistine Chapel is much smaller than I envisioned.

It was wonderful to have a guide who could tell us about the history of the structures and the meaning behind all the paintings and artwork. To really do the Vatican Museums justice would require days, not hours. Touring does give you a sense of how much power and money the pope and the Catholic Church had at one time.

After we left the Vatican, we made the only mistake of the trip so far. We didn’t think we had enough time to go elsewhere for lunch and be at the Colosseum at 1:00, so we did something we’d been warned not to do. We ate lunch in one of the tourist restaurants near St. Peter’s Square. My thought was that an Italian restaurant couldn’t ruin pizza, but I was sorely mistaken. We spent 55 Euros for personal pizzas, one salad, and two bottles of water!😝 Not only was it extremely overpriced (we found food and wine in Rome to be very reasonable), it was just awful. Have you ever had mall pizza? I would have traded my lunch for mall food in a heartbeat! Nevertheless, it did serve the purpose of saving some time, but next time we will know better.

We had an afternoon tour of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum with the same guide we had in the morning. It was fantastic! Andrea really knows his stuff, and was able to explain not only how the Colosseum was built, but how it worked and what it was used for. 

I thought the Colosseum was very interesting, because I saw so many similarities to modern stadiums. It was a very thorough and engaging tour, although I did wonder why anybody would build such a nice stadium without escalators!😉 Our tour included the dungeons and the third tier. The stairs were steep…much steeper than stairs in a modern house.


From the Colosseum, we walked over to Palatine Hill and then through the Forum before our tour ended. It was time for a taxi back to the apartment! We had walked six miles which isn’t too far, but according to Jim’s tracker we had climbed the equivalent of 23 stories! At that point my legs were done. It’s a very different kind of exercise than a class at the gym, especially since the stairs were steep and uneven…there were times I was literally pulling myself up them!

We had a nice dinner with new friends – it sort of made up for lunch!🙂 Rome is a city filled with tiny restaurants and delicious food and wine. We were both stunned at how inexpensive really good wine is. We chose a bottle of Montepulciano for 20 Euros, and it was one of the more expensive ones on the list. I checked it on my wine app, and it retails for about $19 in the US. There was only a very slight mark-up! 

We could barely keep our eyes open at the end of dinner. We were both asleep well before 10:00! It had been a long, wonderful day!

My original plan was to update this all the way through Wednesday in one post. That was before I wrote all of Tuesday and Wednesday and hit the wrong button.😢 My writing went to that big cyber-cemetery where all failed tech attempts live, never to be seen again. Since it’s now Friday night and we’re on the ship, I think I’ll take it one day at a time until I get caught up. I will also add the pictures as I can. Enjoy!

Can Excitement and Gelato Cure Sleep Deprivation?

We are in Rome! After 15 months of obsession over every minute detail we are here! The good news so far is we’re here, all our clothes and other worldly goods made it without taking a detour, and the apartment we rented is great! The bad news is between the two of us we got about 2.5 hours of sleep on the way over, and since my sleep wasn’t long enough to register on the clock Jim gets credit for all 2.5 hours and I earned a big fat zero!😝 Sadly, it was expected, and honestly wouldn’t have been any different in business or first class…I just don’t sleep on planes.

We were pretty happy with Lufthansa Premium Economy. Our seats were roomy and comfortable, the food was decent – not 1972 TWA good, but perfectly edible, and the service was friendly and attentive. We would choose it again, especially since we bought our tickets early and they were only marginally more expensive than United Economy Plus for a much better experience.

We thought changing planes in Frankfurt was an interesting experience. The A380 requires a special gate, because the two decks board by their own jetway. The A380 gates are always at the end of a terminal. That means our flight came in to Germany and then we had to walk to Austria to catch our flight to Rome.😮 Our trek across the continent involved a fairly quick immigration line and an “interesting” trip through security. Even though we seemingly never left the secure area of the airport, everyone coming off an intercontinental flight onto a “local” flight has to clear security. The experience reminded me very much of going through immigration in Russia…they are in charge, they are not your friend, and if they take a dislike to you you will probably miss your flight. Fortunately we did not run afoul of the lovely lady who was manning our line, but she was greatly offended by the guy in front of us who we let go ahead because his flight was boarding. Apparently that irked her, because he got patted down, wanded, probed, and the agents completely unpacked his carry-ons! I stood quietly by and practiced saying “yes ma’am” because at that point in the journey the thought of getting groped didn’t excite me!

Our flight from Frankfurt to Rome was interesting in that I was expecting German efficiency in the boarding process, but instead the process was, “Economy, you can line up and board.” We were looking forward to catching a quick nap, but our seats were moved to an exit row with fixed armrests, and it’s hard to fall asleep when your seat only fits part of your body! Still, we were on time, the weather is beautiful, and most importantly our suitcases made it!

After we checked into our apartment we found the local grocery store for a few essentials (coffee!☕️) and walked over to Piazza Navona to meet our tour. 

We usually try to do something to keep us going on our first night in Europe. We took a Walks of Italy Welcome to Rome tour, which covered some of the main tourist sights in a short two hour walking tour. Our guide was great, but everything was very crowded with locals since Tuesday is a holiday and many people are taking a four day weekend. I really started dragging at the Pantheon, but fortunately that ancient architectural miracle was followed by the ancient tradition of eating gelato, and the sugar rush revived me temporarily.


We were both asleep by about 9:00 Rome time, or 2 in the afternoon at home. That means that I started writing this at 3 a.m. Tuesday, but when I have jet lag I’ll take sleep when I can get it! On tap for today is the Vatican, the Colosseum, and dinner with new friends…I can’t wait!

First, we have to get there!

Whoever said getting there is half the fun hasn’t flown commercial since about 1985 and certainly hasn’t experienced a long haul flight in the back of the bus. I know I’m dating myself here, but I still remember my first Trans-Atlantic flight. The year was 1972 (long gone), the airline was TWA (also long gone), and the service in Economy was superb (what’s service?). That flight bore little resemblance to the experience of flying in 2017. Back in the “olden” days, if you flew at all you were special, and if you were flying internationally you were really treated well. This is exhibit A – the menu from coach on my first overseas flight. Can you imagine someone going through a time warp machine and expecting this today?😳

Since we live in Houston, we normally fly the “friendly” skies where I don’t think anyone has smiled since the merger with Continental. Alas, a look at our account let us know we didn’t have enough miles for round-trip Business tickets (Jim is fond of reminding me I’m a retired educator!🙄), so the search was on. I’m all about comfort, and I’m a fidgety flyer at the best of times…the thought of 10 hours in one of United’s Economy Plus seats almost made me not want to go. On my flights in December and March it seemed like they had removed all the padding from the seats and replaced the cushions with overstock from Lumber Liquidators! That didn’t seem very “friendly” to me, and I knew there had to be something out there that I could tolerate and Jim would approve!😉

Anyway, back to the search. I discovered Premium Economy which is a fairly new concept…it’s a way of making people without the money or points for the front of the plane feel like they’re still getting something for their money…slightly wider seats, more recline, better food service, bigger IFE screens, etc. Another way of looking at it is the experience will probably be pretty close to flying Trans-Atlantic in the 70s!

We chose a Lufthansa flight, mostly because Jim wanted to fly on the A380, so we are flying Houston-Frankfurt-Rome on the biggest plane we’ve ever flown on. It seats about 100 people more than a 747, and looking at the seat map, today’s flight is full! Our seats are 51 H&K, which look to be about as good as you can get these days without paying for Business or First. I liked that the seats are a little secluded and there should be very little foot traffic. Maybe I’ll even sleep…I got up at 4:50 this morning, so I should be ready for a nap by the time we get to the Atlantic!😊

We got picked up a few minutes early, and when we were at the airport at 1:00 I thought we were home free. Unfortunately we still had to navigate Terminal D security, which had to be the most incompetent display of a security checkpoint I’ve ever seen. TSA pre-check? “Yes, ma’am, go here. No, go there. Oops, we need everybody to get out of line and go get sniffed by the dog.” We navigated that roadblock (by this time we were both sweating like pigs) and finally made it past the surly TSA agent to be told, “Oh, everybody’s pre-check today!” Of course, most of the people didn’t know what that meant, and there was nobody there to tell them, so they’re unpacking their bags at the x-ray machine anyway. It was a complete circus. I don’t know who was responsible, but I do hope that was the worst part of the day! 

We finally crawled into a quiet corner in the United Club, and this is where we stayed until it was time to go to the gate. I don’t deal well with airports anymore. They are just SO crowded, and it seems like nobody knows where they’re going and half the people are angry.

Can you guess which drink is Jim’s and which one is mine?😆

We’re at the gate waiting to board. Hopefully I’ll be able to post again once we’re on the plane, but if not, Addio Houston, a presto a Roma!😂

Baby steps…

What’s Next?

What’s next for us? How about 21 days, 7 countries, some land, some sea, 11 ports, and too many sights to count? We’re leaving for Italy and the Med tomorrow, and we couldn’t be more excited. We started planning this trip in January 2016, which has given me plenty of time to research and obsess over the most minute details! This was one of those trips it took us a long time to choose. I considered almost every cruise line I could find doing an Eastern Mediterranean itinerary, and in the process ended up finding the cruise we chose and also greatly increasing our junk mail!😳 Be warned – if you even glance in Oceania’s direction you will receive several catalogs and flyers every week. Every. single. week.

Remember in my first blog post I said travel is full of surprises? This cruise is another one of them. If you had told me in early 2016 when I started researching we would end up on the Holland America Westerdam I would have said you were crazy. We were on the Westerdam to Alaska in September 2013 and didn’t like the ship AT ALL! In fact, we pretty much wrote HAL off after that cruise, so this trip is a great example of never say never.

Looking back, I think a lot of the things we disliked were circumstantial and specific to that cruise. First and foremost, it was a replacement for a Celebrity Pacific Coastal Wine cruise that was cancelled at the 11th hour, so we booked Alaska at the last minute in a desperate attempt to save our vacation. The cruise already had one strike against it since it wasn’t what we planned, and then that was compounded by bad weather, a VERY quiet, non-social group of passengers, and the fact that it was the end of the season and they were practically shutting things down as we left ports. The crew was tired and ready to reposition, and unfortunately it showed. Anyway, even my mother who was 82 at the time thought the ship was boring. Jim and I were stunned, because we LOVED the Noordam, which is a sister ship. After that trip we really thought we were done with HAL, and certainly the Westerdam.

Never say never…the most important thing to us if we’re going to float around the Caribbean for a week with few ports is that we love the ship. I like sea days in the Caribbean, because it gives us a chance to relax and unwind. However, if I’m going to the time and expense of flying to Europe it’s all about the ports. I can relax on my balcony in the Caribbean, but overseas I want to be off the ship exploring. With that in mind, we decided to gamble and give the Westerdam a second chance. We both love the itinerary, we really wanted a cruise that focused on one small region, and in the end our thought process was that we will be off the ship every day but one and that one will probably be spent sleeping and resting our tired feet!

Here’s the itinerary:

There are a couple things we’re especially excited about. For Jim, he keeps talking about the Godfather tour we’re taking in Sicily. We’ll visit the tiny villages where scenes from the movie were shot. For me, I think I’m most excited about our tour in Dubrovnik. We’re taking a wine tour to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where we’ll visit a a market, a home, and a monastery where they’ve been making wine since the 1400s. Why does that excite me? Well, first of all I never thought I would visit Bosnia, and second, it’s wine!🍷

It’s not quite time to leave yet. We’re more or less packed, but I have some very important things to get done before we leave. Yes, today is all about hair and nails! Tomorrow we’re off!


In 2015 Jim and I took a cruise that departed from New Orleans. That was my first trip to New Orleans…hard to believe since I had lived in Houston for 32+ years! We drove from Houston and stayed at the Hampton Inn on St. Charles (in the Garden District) which worked out perfectly for us. I liked being a little bit away from the action, and the very reasonable price of our room included parking for the cruise! We actually changed our plans and stayed two nights instead of one, since the price was so reasonable. We were upgraded at check-in, and we had a huge room overlooking St. Charles with a seating area and dining area. I would stay here again and recommend it as a great choice for anyone who wants a quieter location than the hotels in the center of the action. The cab fare to the port is fixed, so it cost us $7.00 per person to get from the hotel to the port.

After a long, wet, boring drive we enjoyed dinner at Commander’s Palace the night we arrived, and I would call it a must do for anyone who has never been to NOLA. 

We had a VERY busy Friday. We started with a self-guided walking tour of the Garden District, including Lafayette Cemetery. What a fascinating place! 

At one point during our walk through the cemetery I moved an old, broken plastic vase that I didn’t think looked good in my picture.  Jim immediately told me I was going to regret disturbing the spirits, which earned him an eye roll 🙄.  Remember this, because as you’ll find out Jim will never let me forget it for good reason!

After we finished touring the cemetery, we walked around the Garden District for another 30 minutes or so, admiring the lovely restored homes and interesting architecture. 

We rode the street car down to the Quarter, and had lunch at Tableau – another Brennan family restaurant which we really enjoyed.

After lunch, we took a photography walking tour of the French Quarter with American Photo Safari. This was good, and we definitely saw a couple things we might have missed otherwise, but I thought it was a little heavy on technical camera instruction as opposed to seeing unusual sights and the composition part of photography. 

At some point during the tour, I remarked to my husband that I didn’t know what all the fuss was about, that New Orleans was no wilder or weirder than any other big city. That earned me an eye roll 🙄 from Jim, and a reminder that I had already disturbed the spirits and I was living dangerously! Although I didn’t believe it at the time, as you’ll find out soon enough Jim was right and I was wrong!

We were fortunate to have “private guides” for our evening. Friends we met on the Mariner in 2012 know New Orleans well, and they helped us find our way around and see the important sights. We started at the Carousel Bar, then went to Felix’s for dinner.

We followed that up with Pat O’Brien’s (twice), had front row seating at Preservation Hall (fabulous – don’t miss this!), and ended the night at Café du Monde for a fat and sugar fix!

So, back to my earlier comments…how did the spirits get their revenge?  When we went into Felix’s for dinner it was still light, but when we walked out and rounded the corner onto Bourbon Street it was dark and my jaw hit my chin.  Bourbon Street after dark bears little resemblance to the daylight version!

I was stunned by the difference from day to night! Now, I’m not graceful at the best of times, but I’m especially clumsy when I’m gawking and not paying attention to where I’m walking! One of those little dips in the brick at the edge of the street got the best of me, and down I went, sprawled out in the middle of Bourbon Street. I have no excuse – at that point I had only had one drink – I just wasn’t paying attention. That, and I had disturbed the spirits!😳

My tumble took the skin off my right knee and I badly twisted my left ankle, but thankfully my husband used his leg to partially break my fall and both my head and my camera emerged unscathed. A “nice” merchant in a bead and junk shop was kind enough to sell me three band aids for $4.35, and I had some Neosporin in my purse (remember, I’m a klutz!), so I tended to my knee and went about enjoying the rest of the evening. 

Fortunately, walking to Café du Monde at the end of the evening we spied Rouse’s Grocery Store and bought a box of band aids and an ace bandage that would basically salvage my cruise. I had to go sandal-less and wear long pants for the week, but the cruise packing Gods were looking out for me because I actually had packed two pairs of closed toed shoes with Velcro straps that I could get on over the bandage. Usually I only have tennis shoes, and I never was able to get those on!

I would love to visit New Orleans again.  I would even go back to Lafayette Cemetery with my camera. However, this time I would leave everything just as I found it!

To and Through (Partially) the Panama Canal

Since I talked about Cartagena I should probably write about the Panama Canal too.  After all, the canal was the reason we chose the cruise. After three and a half years and several booked cruises worth of trying we finally made it to the Panama Canal!   

One of Jim’s non-negotiables when we booked this cruise was that we would still get to actually go through at least part of the canal. Since our ship didn’t transit the canal we needed to find a way to do that, and we thought the safest bet was to take an excursion through the cruise line. We chose a Celebrity tour through the canal . The tour was expensive and we knew it would be a long day, but we thought it was worth it to actually go through some locks and have the comfort of knowing that if the tour ran over the ship would wait for us.

Originally, our tour was scheduled to leave at 8:00 in the morning the day we were in Panama, but it was delayed until 9:00. We went to the meeting place a little early, and were assigned to the second of six buses. Almost all the other Celebrity tours had left before they began filling the buses for our tour. We ended up very close to the beginning of the line for our bus and sat in the third or fourth row. Once the bus filled we were joined by our guide Ariel and we were off!


I was surprised by Colon. I expected some poverty, but I was shocked by the trash lining the streets. I thought Colon was one of the dirtiest cities I’ve ever seen. There was garbage and debris almost everywhere we looked. Please excuse the quality of these pictures because they were taken out of the window of a moving bus.


Before I go on, let me explain a little bit what the Panama Canal excursion is and what it is not. When we booked this excursion we were under the impression that we would go all the way through the canal on a ferry. That is not what happened. Our bus took us as far as the town of Gamboa which is about halfway across Panama. It was a little over a one hour drive to get to Gamboa. 

After a short wait, we boarded our ferry which took us through Gatun Lake and then through the Gatun Locks before exiting the canal on the Atlantic side. We stayed on the ferry back to Colon, and then had a very short bus ride back to the ship.

I believe at some point after we booked this excursion it was changed. There were quite a few complaints from cruises in the fall and early winter about the length of the tour and the amount of waiting they had to do. People from one cruise said they had to sit on their buses at Gamboa for over two hours before they could get on their ferry! They visited the locks that we didn’t see, but they did not see Gatun Lake or the Gatun Locks. Those tours went all the way to Panama City before they were bussed back to Colon, but they could see little of the Miraflores Locks or the Bridge of the Americas because it was already dark! The reviews I read from people on that tour said they didn’t get back to the ship until 9:00 — five hours after the scheduled return. I have to think that Celebrity reevaluated and changed the tour to make it shorter and try to eliminate some of the delays.

Something I didn’t realize before I took this excursion was that you really truly are at the mercy of the Panama Canal Authority for your schedule. Once you board the ferry, that’s it. The Panama Canal Authority determines what time you will go through the locks and who will accompany you through.

We were fortunate in that our excursion went off almost without a hitch and had minimal delays, but it was still a very long day. We were gone for almost 9 hours. I’m glad we did the excursion because we had never seen the canal, but I would probably not choose to do it again. We had a decent lunch provided, we had brought protein snacks with us, and there was plenty of bottled water available, but the ferry itself was just not very comfortable for the many hours that we were on it. At the end of the day I told Jim I would happily transit the Panama Canal again – from my balcony on a cruise ship with my air conditioned cabin behind me! 🙂

With that said let’s move on and see the canal!


We slowly made our way over to the locks and arrived just after 2:00. The Island Princess was making her way through, followed by a cargo ship, and we were told we had been assigned the next time slot in the right hand lane. Our ferry would share the trip through the locks with the Kobe Star.


While we were waiting, we learned a little more about how the canal operates. There are two shipping lanes at each set of locks, and even though the lanes operate independently, traffic only flows in one direction at a time. Every 12 hours the flow of traffic reverses direction, and it takes a ship 8-10 hours to completely transit the canal. Every ship is given a specific time slot, hence our slow cruising speed from Gamboa to the Gatun Locks…if we were early we couldn’t have gone through early. 

“Mules” are used to pull big ships through the locks. The “mules” are actually locomotives that are tethered to a ship to do the job. Our ferry didn’t use the mules…we went through under our own steam.

At 2:45 the China Shipping Line ship started her transit in the left lane. Some of their crew were excited to see us taking pictures of them!

By 3:00 the Kobe Star was tethered to the mules and in position behind us. We had to wait for the first lock to completely fill from the ship ahead of us, and then it would be our turn!

Finally at 3:10 the gates to the first lock chamber slowly slid open and we were on our way. We moved forward and tied up, and then the Kobe star was pulled in behind us by the mules. Once our ferry and the big ship were both inside the lock chamber the back gates closed and the draining process began.

This takes a long time because over 26,000 gallons of water have to be drained in order to lower the ships to the level of the next chamber. This process has to be repeated three times at the Gatun Locks in order to lower the ships a total of 85 feet.

Here’s the marker once the lock chamber was almost drained:


We repeated the same process for the second lock chamber and finally made our way through the third chamber and out of the canal at 4:45. I thought the process was very interesting when we were going through the first lock chamber, but by the third I was ready for the transit to be over and to get back to the ship.😳


We made our way back to Colon, passing ships that were waiting for their turn to transit the canal and those who had completed their transit and docked in Colon. About 15 minutes before we arrived back we caught a glimpse of the Equinox. It was so close yet so far away!

We were on the ferry for six hours, but much of that was what I would consider downtime. I take a LOT of pictures, but even with my camera to occupy myself I got a little bored. With the exception of the locks themselves and the periodic cargo ship passing by there really wasn’t a lot to see. I would have been very happy if I had brought something to amuse myself – a book, a magazine, or a deck of cards would all have been greatly appreciated. If I’d brought a bunch I probably could have sold them and paid for the excursion!!!

Once the ferry docked in Colon we had a short bus ride back to the port. 

We were the last tour to arrive, and we got back to the ship about 45 minutes after the published departure time. I know it probably sounds like I couldn’t wait to get off the ferry and to an extent that is true but I’m still glad but we chose that excursion. I would have really hated to go to the Panama Canal and not actually go in the Panama Canal!

Jim and I decided that we were in desperate need of replenishment, so we cleaned up as best we could and hightailed it to the Martini Bar. One of these went a long way towards making me feel rejuvenated after a long day outdoors!


After dinner we enjoyed the Almost Elton John show. I wonder if the performer works for a company that specializes in Elton John impersonators, because we have seen different “Almost Eltons” on other ships. It was a very lively and entertaining show, and we enjoyed it very much. Once it was over it was straight up to Deck 11 and to bed for us. It had been a long day and we were ready for sleep!

Surprising Cartagena

Travel is full of surprises, especially if you keep an open mind about the places you’re going.  One of the most pleasant surprises we’ve had is Cartagena, Colombia. In March of 2016 Jim and I took a Panama Canal cruise. When we first booked our cruise I wasn’t enthusiastic about Cartagena. I didn’t think I wanted to stop there at all, let alone for an overnight stay. Colombia is not found on many garden-variety Caribbean itineraries, and information about Cartagena was not easy to find on Cruise Critic. Once I looked at Trip Advisor I started getting a little bit more excited. I found several reputable guides and sent inquiries. I heard back from Marelvy Pena-Hall ( or ) almost immediately, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

I ended up communicating with Marelvy for over a year and booked two separate tours with her. I shared both tours on my Cruise Critic Roll Call, and they were very well received. We ended up with 21 people on a Sunday evening tour, and more than 40 in several groups on a customized Monday Tour. I can’t recommend Marelvy highly enough! She was very easy to work with and provided one of the best experiences we have ever had in a port.  

Our wonderful guide, Marelvy Pena-Hall

The first part of our evening tour was to walk the walls of the old city. Cartagena was founded in 1533 and faced numerous pirate attacks in its early years. Construction of the protective wall around the city was started as early as 1586 on the side of the city facing the ocean and continued on and off for over a century. The walls stretch 6.8 miles around the oldest part of Cartagena and today are enjoyed by residents and tourists alike. 

I thought I was witnessing a proposal, but alas, the guy was looking at his phone!

We exited the wall by what is commonly referred to as The Dungeons. The actual name for this structure is Las Bovedas or The Vaults. The building was constructed in colonial times for storage and to house military troops. Many say the building was also used as a jail but Marelvy disputed that. Today this area is used to house local craftsmen and artists who sell paintings, clothing, jewelry, and leather goods. 

Las Bovedas, aka The Dungeons

We took a short bus ride, and then walked around the streets admiring the beautiful flowers and the colonial architecture. Much of the old part of Cartagena is built around public squares that are lined with cafés, shops, and churches. The streets were filled with vacationing families – we were there on Palm Sunday, and Holy Week is one of the busiest holiday weeks of the year for Colombians. 

I’m not sure what I expected, but I was pleasantly surprised by the vibrant, clean, and beautiful city I found. Cartagena was bright and colorful. I loved the architecture, the narrow streets, and the abundance of flowers. Jim and I both thought Cartagena bore a lot of resemblance to the French Quarter of New Orleans. The main difference was that Cartagena was immaculate. I don’t think I saw one speck of trash on the streets in two days!

Even the street signs in the historic parts of the two cities were similar. I could really see the Spanish influence: 

Our next stop in this fantastic evening was at Plaza de Bolivar where there was a large crowd gathered watching a traditional Colombian dance troupe. Shortly after we arrived the dancers and musicians came around to the side of the square where we were sitting…they were about to do a special performance for us!

I know you can’t tell from the pictures, but it was HOT! We were all a sweaty mess! I felt like I was at a football game in Texas in August…the difference was it was only March and the buildings in Cartagena aren’t air conditioned like buildings in the states, so it’s harder to cool off.!

The evening was winding down, but it wasn’t over yet. We hadn’t eaten! We walked a short distance to a tiny restaurant called Sierva Maria, where we had a light meal/snack of arepas and beverages.  

We got an early start on Monday. Our first stop of the day was La Popa, the old convent high above the city of Cartagena oaverlooking the harbor and the city. A narrow, zigzagging road took us up the steep hill. We were definitely out and about early, because our group of three small buses were the first ones to arrive.

The 400 year old structure is built on the foundation of a razed Indian temple. There is a beautifully restored central courtyard with flowering trees and vines adorning the archways.

Our second stop of the day was at the fort – Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. Construction of the fort was begun in 1536 in a strategic location to protect against invaders from land and sea. The fort was significantly expanded in 1657 and renamed in honor of Prince Phillip IV of Spain.

Today the fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is open to visitors. The climb to the stop is quite steep, and we heeded Marelvy’s recommendation to admire the fort from below! At first, a few members of the group were disappointed that we weren’t going to climb. However, by the time everyone realized how hot it was even the youngest and most fit of the group were happy to stand in the shade and let Marelvy explain the history of the fort!

The next part of our day was the part I had been looking forward to the most…we visited the Getsemani neighborhood. I always like to see authentic places when I travel, and that usually means going a little bit off the beaten path to get a taste of the local people and their culture. Getsemani was perfect for that!

Getsemani is part of the old downtown walled city, but it has not been as influenced by tourism as the parts of the city that most visitors see. Getsemani’s narrow streets are lined with small houses, hostels, and cafes, and most of the residents have lived there their entire life. There was a casual, small town feel in Getsemani that was a direct contrast to the hustle and bustle of the tourist areas.

I found the neighborhood to be charming and the people friendly. I liked the street carts filled with fruits and vegetables and the graffiti art covering the ancient walls.

Cars have a difficult time navigating the very narrow streets because the space in front of a house is frequently used as a patio. Chairs spill off the sidewalks into the streets and many streets have screens strung overhead to provide some sun protection.

Like the rest of Cartagena, the streets are marked but change names at every corner and don’t seem to mean anything! I’m glad I didn’t attempt Getsemani on my own…I might still be trying to find my way out of there!

Plaza Trinidad is the hub of Getsemani. There is a 17th century church that anchors the plaza on one side, while small cafés and shops take up the rest of the space.

We spent about an hour walking around Getsemani, and I never saw any other tourists while we were there. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. We made our way back to the buses and had a short ride to the dungeons for a 30 minute shopping stop. Jim and I are in the habit of buying one or two nice souvenirs from our travels instead of lots of t-shirts and other stuff we don’t need. We found what we were looking for in one of the shops…a painting on raw wood that depicted the streets of Colonial Cartagena. We were happy with our purchase, and Jim was especially happy because he thought that meant we were done with shopping, but I had other ideas! More on that later!

Marelvy wanted us to go to lunch early in order to beat the crowds since there were so many families vacationing in Cartagena. She had e-mailed me before the trip asking if I wanted to go to lunch at a “fancy” restaurant that was popular with tourists and would cost about $20 a person or if I wanted to go where the locals go and spend eight dollars a person. Of course, wanting the full flavor of Cartagena I chose the local restaurant!

We had a short walk down the street from Plaza Bolivar to get to our lunch restaurant, Espiritu Santo. We were the first ones there, and all 42 of us were seated at big tables near the air conditioning. Boy did that feel good!

The menu was a little puzzling because it was all in Spanish but our guides were right there to help. I chose Bandeja Paisa which is a typical Colombian dish. When I received it I discovered that the English translation of Bandeja Paisa is “Everything in the Kitchen” or “You’re not really going to eat all of that are you?” My plate had ground beef, beans, rice, plantains, ribs, sausage, arepas, avocado and was topped with a fried egg.

Yes, I did eat the whole thing. Never mind that we had reservations for a “fancy” dinner at 7:00 – it was so good I couldn’t stop!

The incredible thing about that restaurant to me was not only was the food delicious, but our meals only cost eight dollars a person no matter what we ordered. My Bandeja Paisa with a salad and a bottle of water was $8. Jim’s fish and a couple of beers was $8. Lunch was an incredible deal, a great taste of Cartagena, and a nice relaxing break in the middle of a long hot day.

After lunch we walked around the walled city a little longer, taking in the sights and enjoying the vibrant, friendly atmosphere.

Our day was coming to a close, but we weren’t done yet. It was time to head to Boca Grande to see some emeralds💚 at Joyeria Caribe. 

We started with an interesting and informative look at the mining industry in Colombia. There were displays that recreated sections of an emerald mine, so we could see what it might look like in one of the tunnels. There were also a variety of raw and cut gems on display, including this beauty:

This is Petra. Petra is a 236 pound “matrix” of white calcite with beautiful emeralds embedded throughout. We learned that Petra is very rare, because usually the matrix that holds the emeralds is broken up by the blasting process during mining. I immediately began plotting how to get Petra home, but decided I couldn’t afford the overweight baggage fees and if I got caught a Colombian prison probably wouldn’t be to my liking!

After the museum tour we were escorted downstairs to the factory and showroom.

This is where Joyeria Caribe has really fine-tuned their business…each person/couple had their own sales person! I knew I wanted something different without breaking the bank, and so we started with raw emeralds in 14 kt gold. My “consultant” kept going smaller and smaller to get in my price range. I finally asked for sterling instead of gold, then we were in business!

I have to tell you my sales person was good. I was just about to pull the plug on a pendant when she brought out something that wasn’t in the display case that “spoke” to me. She knew what she was doing…this is what I came home with:

Jim was shaking his head the whole time. We’d been married 28+ years at the time, and he knew he needed to just stand by and watch!

I hated to see our time with Marelvy come to an end…this was one of the best tours we’ve ever taken. Marelvy was professional, interesting, and flexible throughout the planning process and the tours. She did a lot of work in advance to prepare for our group, and it showed during both the Sunday evening tour and the Monday tour. I HIGHLY recommend Marelvy for tours in Cartagena, and would use her without question if we find ourselves in Cartagena again.

My first blog post…yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks!

Well, here I am!  After many years of saying I was going to start my own site to have a place for my travel journaling and pictures I finally did it!  I decided there’s no better time than a gloomy, rainy afternoon to try to learn a new technology.  I’m hoping this will be a place for three things I love…travel, photography, and writing to be combined in one location. My goal is to feel comfortable enough with how this site works to keep up with posts and pictures when we go to Europe in a couple weeks.

I’m starting with a handful of old pictures here so I can see how this works.  These are from our last great trip to Europe — a Baltic cruise in 2014.




We took a wonderful tour of some of the small Dutch villages around Amsterdam.  This picture was taken in Volendam.


The view from our balcony in Stockholm. 🙂

That wasn’t too difficult!  Here are a few more:

Shoe Planters

Somewhere in The Netherlands


St. Petersburg

Copenhagen Artist


That’s all for now…just a trial.  I’ll probably try to post a short entry and a few pictures every couple days so I’m comfortable (and faster!) by the time we leave.

ANOTHER TEST — I’m going to play with the app a little too.  Here’s a picture from Fredericksburg last weekend: