An Apartment (?!) in Firenze!!!!

Our friend, Charlene Harb, had provided the contact with Francesca Carrera, where she rents an apartment for a month in Firenze. We rented a ‘two bedroom with bath and kitchen for the two weeks we were to be to Firenze.

When we stepped into the ‘apartment’, we were overwhelmed. We had been given the piana nobile, an entire floor of this 18th century piazza. Here is what we found:

20161013_151953It is a u-shaped apartment with grand halls with black and white marble floors. Each of the walls are frescos with fleur-de-lys meticulously painted on the walls.

20161013_152149 We have a grand living room with fireplace, lots of seating and a very large dining table where we are spending most of our time.

20161013_15220220161013_151920Each of the ceilings have magnificent frescos, hand painted by a relative of Francesca’s.

20161013_151813The back side of the apartment  overlooks a walled garden, 20161013_152357complete with a greenhouse and path and large trees. An inner courtyard has lots of lush plants.

Then we got to the bedrooms! Instead of one bathroom, each bedroom has its own bathroom.

Here is the master suite:

20161013_151900 20161013_15191620161013_151904


20161013_152013Karen immediately chose this bathroom, after seeing the tub. Bear in mind, she can’t even get it in without sitting on the side and swinging herself around.

Henrietta and Carol will be joining us20161013_151807 tomorrow and will be living in this bedroom with a personal seating area

And then we saw the kitchen, in true Spartan European manner, the stove and oven are inside the armoire. But check out the sink – you have to stand on a stool just to be able to reach the water faucets, which are dragon heads.



So, for what we thought would be a small apartment, where we might all fall all over each other, this is where we are ‘suffering’ for two weeks.

Life is good!


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Eidfjord – Deep in the Fjords of Norway

The quaint village of Eidfjord is nestled in one of Norway’s most scenic regions. From the Norwegian Sea, the waters of the expansive Hardangerfjord lead to the smaller Eidfjorden and to this charming mountain hamlet. Eidfjord embodies the Norway of every traveler’s dream, the gateway to Hardangervidda, Europe’s large mountain plateau of soaring beauty.

We sailed into the fjord just as the sun was rising and had spectacular views, even though it was raining. The village is surrounded by huge rocks and waterfalls, giving it the ultimate scenic representation of Norway.

A little history on fjords: a fjord is formed when there are cracks in the rocks that are under glaciers. As the glaciers recede, these cracks open up and water rushes in to the spaces left by the glacier receding and a fjord is formed. The fjords are always dead ends – they do not feed into other bodies of water. A hint as to the depth of the fjord is to look at how high the surrounding rocks are – the water is usually as deep as the height.

Since we were at the bow as we came into port, we were able to see how they got the lay lines to shore to secure the boat.

This was a very easy day for us – we took a bus trip to a nature center so learn about the flora and fauna in the Norwegian fjord areas. As we rode to the nature museum, we followed a glacial river.


There was a display of actual glacier ice. The ice is extremely pure and  amazingly dense. . . and obviously cold!

The fjord around Eidfjord is full of mountains and waterfalls, as well as sheep farms.







I found this Norse princess in the gift shop – should I take her home?




While we were ashore the crew had to do a mandatory evacuation drill, which included exercising the life boats. The life pods are certainly a lot better than open row boats!

We ate at the Chef’s Table tonight and was presented an Erling’s Scandinavian Bistro. We started with Reindeer Consomme with a reindeer ravioli served with Basiano Granacha from Spain.

This was followed by a most unusually presented dish. One piece was poached salmon rolled in dill and the other was aquavit-infused gravlax with lingonberry tartare, caviar and pickled cucumber, accompanied by Les Meridiennes Vaucluse Blanc. It was almost too pretty to eat – but we did!

Our palate cleanser was a granite made of beets and apples, with an orange foam on top. The main course as Lamb Far-I-kal, loosely translated ‘sheep in cabbage’. I have never seen a crisped cabbage leaf used as a garnish. One piece was a lamb loin encased in a lettuce leaf and the lower was a lamb timbale. These were served with a French Brise Marine Red.

The dessert (dumb me – I forgot to take a picture) was a white chocolate panna cotta with sesame ice cream on top and a sesame strip that was inserted in the ice cream to look like reindeer antlers. A very sweet Moscato d’Asti ended the evening.

Just before we left, clouds moved in and made a pretty picture.




We are off to Bergen tomorrow for the last leg of our cruise. Although it has been wonderful, it will be good to get home.























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Stavanger – Wooden Houses and Fjords

 Stavanger is a commercial fishing village and a classic Old Town with wooden houses, some dating from the 17th century. The harbor is used for commercial trade and has a large boat basin for yachts; out of the 7 million Norwegians, almost 500,000 people own boats.

Their fish market is a major source for food and wine.

Mussels are farmed by dropping lines in the water with bait attached. The mussels them attach themselves to the line and are harvested after about 18 months.

There are lots of salmon farms in the waters outside Stavanger. If you get Norwegian salmon in the U.S., it probably comes from these farms.

Almost all the houses in Old Town are white clapboard, but one brave soul decided to be different.

You have to love the signs on the toilets:

The highlight of Stavanger was sailing into the Lysefjord. Words cannot express how wonderful this cruise was; pictures probably can’t either, but I going to leave it to the pictures.

Halfway through the cruise, we stopped and had waffles (the national Norwegian snack) at a cliffside restaurant.

Further along, we saw three goats who spring and summer on the fjord and then are brought back to Stavanger in the winter.

There is one area called Vagabond Cave; two men who refused to pay their taxes hid in the cave and the authorities could never find them. At some point, someone installed a mailbox, just in case they would pay their taxes.

Deeper into the fjord were a lot of waterfalls carrying the melt from the upper glaciers.

One of the most famous sites in the fjord is Pulpit Rock. It is a large block of stone overhanging the water. If you are really

energetic, you can climb out on top of the rock.








Another amazing site is Whiskey Falls. Legend goes that a widow lived on top of the fjord; she harbored a German deserter and they fell in love and married. He was an inventive guy and developed a pulley system to lower her dairy products down to the water; surprisingly his wife tested it – brave woman. The other thing the man did was make whiskey, which was illegal. When the authorities came after him, he used to pour the whiskey down the waterfall. Legend says you can still taste the whiskey in the water.

We are fortunate to be there where conditions were right and saw beautiful rainbows.

It was interesting to note that around the harbor were the bare footprints of Nobel Peace Prize winners. I wander if, when they receive the prize they have to take off their shoes and make a cast of their feet. Here is Desmond Tutu’s. Did not check all the feet for Obama’s.

And of course I can’t end without the ubiquitous troll!



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Aalborg – Quaint Denmark

Aalborg, Denmark is one of the quaintest villages we have visited so far. It has managed to mix the old and new and still respect the old. It is small (only 22,000 people in the city), but just what you would see on postcards of Denmark.

Founded in 700s by the Vikings, Aalborg contains lots of history related to the Vikings and their adventures. With sea port, it became a center of trade, as well as shipbuilding. The old city is full of buildings, some from 1200s, and has significant churches and an old monastery.

Once ringed by a wall, the Aalborg Castle is very modest.

The city center is full of charming shops and houses, reflecting their long history of growth. For as old as the city is, their street lights look almost alien.


One of the residents was a little to snooty for the majority of the people and often shunned. To express his opinion of the people, he had these bas reliefs on the side of his house – notice they are sticking their tongues out!  



The most imposing structure is the Saint Budolfi Cathedral, Saint Budolfi is  credited with bringing Christianity to this city.  It is a very ornate Lutheran church which kept most of its gild when converted from Roman Catholic during the Reformation (everyone in Scandinavia must have been really pissed with the Pope because almost all the churches were  converted by Martin Luther.

The other major church is The Church of Our Lady.


Aalborg was occupied by the Germans during the war and they liked to frequent a local watering hole, which irritated the residents. To get their pub back, they imposed a ‘membership’ fee that excluded anyone but the locals.

Aalborg once had a monastery; a local resident wanted to open a monastery and hospital, but needed the consent of the Pope, so she walked all the way to Rome, got approval, and walked back to Aalborg to establish the Monastery of The Holy Ghost for nuns and monks. After the Reformation, the monastery remained as a hospital. Now it is a residence for senior citizens.

In the basement of the monastery, a Churchill Club gathered. This group of people were part of the resistance against the Germans during the war.

Members of the resistance were eventually caught and imprisoned with death sentences; most of those condemned were liberated before the sentences could be carried out.

When we were walking around the city, we saw some sewer replacement work being done. All excavation in Aalborg must have an archeologist present. At this site, about 12 feet down, there is a wooden sidewalk that was built by previous residents.

An interesting observation: there is a predominance of buckeye trees in this area, some of them hundreds of years old. Ohio Buckeyes are everywhere!

We toured a pottery cooperative and found some very interesting pieces:

The Utzon Center is another landmark of Aalborg. It was the last building designed and constructed by Jørn Utzon, who also designed the Sydney Australia Opera House.

As part of our city tour, we visited a Viking camp, and enjoyed some honey mead.

Needless to say, we found Aalborg to be the best city that we have visited so far.










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Copenhagen – City of The Little Mermaid

Copenhagen’s most famous site is The Little Mermaid from Hans Christian Andersen’s story. If you, like us, thought The Little Mermaid was in the middle of the harbor of Copenhagen, it is sitting right next to the harbor.  It was a dreary, misty day – the first time on the cruise that the weather wasn’t nice. As we came into the harbor, there were lots of wind turbines;  over 54% of Copenhagen’s power comes from the wind turbines. And by 2020 they will be using no coal or petroleum to generate electricity. This trash burning plan burns 90% of all the trash and uses it to create electricity. After completion of the building, it will be used as a ski slope since almost all of Denmark is absolutely flat. Talk about multi-use!

Copenhagen is made of a series of islands with canals connecting each island.





Bicycles are the mode of transportation (almost 80% of the people) and we soon found out that bicyclists do not accommodate for the pedestrian – you are just as likely to get run over by a biker. The streets are cobblestoned and very uneven – gives your calves a real workout. The architecture shows a varied style, starting in the 1200’s.


Copenhagen has a large number of churches, representing any religion that either the royalty attended or visitors so that they would feel welcome.

The Palace Square is composed of four buildings, one for the reigning monarch as well as other families of the monarch. Each of the palaces that have occupants in them have a royal guard. If there are two guards, it means that a member of the royal family is in the palace. Two representations of the pier guard the Palace Square:

The royal yacht is always available in the harbor.

Churchill Park is near the palace and is the entrance to the Copenhagen Citadel.

There is a statue of  representing the myth of the founding of the island; one of the daughters of a Norse god asked for some land, so her father gave her a piece of ocean, but only for 24 hours. She turned her sons into bulls and they created the island of Copenhagen .  

Surprisingly, there is an Anglican Church here; most of Scandinavia is Lutheran so this was a surprise.

The Copenhagen Cathedral (Lutheran) is one of the prime sites to visit; it certainly dominates the skyline. When we were there people in costumes were re-enacting the nailing of the treatises to the door. This used to be a Roman Catholic Church, but was converted after the Reformation (like all the other churches in Denmark). In this case, all the gilded goo-ga was removed and the church painted white.

Interesting fact: this is the first Lutheran Church in Denmark that has a female vicar.


 The pews are unusual: because the pulpit is in the center of the church, the congregation sits on one side facing the altar until the sermon. Then they move to the opposite pew so they are facing the pulpit, and move back again for Eucharist. Thought only Episcopalians did pew aerobics!

Outside the church is a tribute to Martin Luther.

The Opera House is an unusual structure and a centerpiece of the harbor.

In the afternoon I attended a Taste of Copenhagen – which turned out to be a real disappointment. We had been on other food tasting and there were a lot of tastings. At the cheese shop we had three types of cheese (in spite of what the tour guide said, blue cheese still tastes like dirty feet!); the second stop we had some chai tea. However, I did discover a smapler (Danish for a sandwich where you can’t see the bread for all the goodies stacked on top. Then we went to a candy store, which is one of the favorites of the royal family. They were beginning to manufacture Christmas candies. Then we ended with a piece of chocolate

Of course, no trip to Denmark is complete without a troll!






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Gdansk – Not This Time

Yesterday we were to visit Gdansk, Poland, but the winds were so strong that we could not safely dock, so we had a day at sea. They wouldn’t even let anyone outside because of the winds; I tried to open a deck door and the wind was so strong I could only open a crack before the wind blow it shut. In the morning you had to either walk like a duck or sway from side to side to be able to walk because of the wind. But it abated by the afternoon.

As a result, I could finish my blogs about Saint Petersburg.

There is a lounge on the ship called the Explorers Lounge with glass  that wraps around the prow of the boat; it is very quiet up there and you get a great view of the sea. There are plush chairs, each with a fur on the back and a fireplace to warm your toes.   

It also has a restaurant where you can get a Norwegian-style breakfast, so we ate there yesterday. The place is named ‘Mamsen’s’ which is a familiar for the mother of the family who owns the cruise line. All the food that is served there is from her recipes.  The Norwegian pancake was covered with berries, but I ate them before I took this picture.

There is a second level to the Explorers Lounge that is the perfect place to watch arrivals and departures.

Since it was a free day, I took pictures of other parts of the ship that you haven’t seen. This is the indoor pool area; on each side there are lounging chair, where people can read or sleep (there was a lot of that yesterday).

Parts of the lounging areas have ornate wrought iron screens of depicting various flora and fauna of Scandinavia. Even the elevator has a sea motif.

The Star Theater is where all the lectures and presentations and show take place. It can seat about 600 of the 920 passengers and is in use a lot.

Because we were not expected to be at sea, but rather on shore, there were additional presentations in the Star Theater. One of the most interesting one was one on Amber. The Baltic area is one of the most prolific sources of amber in the world. We learned some interesting facts about amber.

Amber is not a gemstone; in fact, it is petrified conifer resin from extinct trees in the Tertiary period. Real amber must be at 1 million years old; archeologists have determined the amber began to be formed 2-10 million years ago. In some cases, amber contains fossilized extinct bugs which got trapped in the resin as it began to harden. Ancient people thought that amber was a gift from the sun god, because it often was washed up on the banks of the sea melting of icebergs or dredging that disturbs the ancient sediment. Others thought it was the tears of the gods or hastened honey.

Amber is and is sold by weight. There are three different type of knock-offs. The first is made entirely of plastic; another has been reconstituted by taking small pieces of amber and crushing them and them melding them into amber pieces. The third is when a piece of amber is split, a modern insect is place in the center and the two pieces are fused back together. If you see a piece of amber with a common housefly or spider in it, it is surely a fake.

There are four major colors of amber: the most commonly seen honey colored, white amber, cherry amber and green amber. Those pieces of amber that have bubbles in them result from impurities (water, air) trapped as the resin fossilizing. As the pressure increases they form what are called …. White amber is formed with calcium carbonite is trapped in the resin (they didn’t say how that happened). The green amber (see picture) is formed by exposure to marshy environment amid decaying organic matter.

The most expensive amber is known as cherry amber, and has been under the most pressure for the longest time. Sometimes the cherry color is so dark that is looks black.

Thus ends your lesson on amber.

After the amber presentation, the Executive Chef and Pastry chef did a cooking demonstration, making Mushroom Risotto with Duck Confit and Tiramisu. Some of the interesting facts they presented was they use 15000 eggs per day! Any leftover food that wasn’t on the buffets are chilled to 40 degrees, covered and eaten by the evening and night crews, so there is very little wasted food. They have an entire walk-in refrigerator for the number of berries that are consumed. There are 120 chefs/cooks who work 24 hours a day; included in that number is 22 people who are solely responsible for clean-up and making sure that the galley environment is safe.

Friday night we ate at the Chef Table, a reservation-based dinner that offers a complete meal at the discretion of the chef. Each course had the appropriate accompanying wine. Our meal was a five-course menu inspired by China’s Cantonese and Haiyang cuisine. We were given a window table so we had a nice view as we ate.

We started with amuse bouche that  was a Hot & Sour Soup that was very flavorful and not overly hot; it was served with a French Muscadet. The first course was Fried Prawns, make crispy by panko. Pieces of Chinese red pepper were on top, and we both took them off. But the shrimp was very good! We drank a French Brise Marine white wine with it.

We had a palate cleanser of Coconut Granita, made with ginger and lemongrass. The Chinese believe that lemongrass helps flush hour toxins, kills bacteria, helps with digestion, and relieves aches and pains; ginger wards off strokes and heart disease and fights infections. I am not a huge fan of coconut, but this was very refreshing.

Our main course was Wok-Fried Beef in a black pepper sauce with rice in a lotus leaf. Accompanying this was a Spanish Basiano Tempranillo, which fit perfectly with the beef.

The beef was extremely tender and flavorful, with three scallops included. The black pepper sauce was a little spicy, but not too much.

The dessert was something neither one of us had ever had: Chilled Mango Cream. Mango was the base, but it also included sago (a type of tapioca), and pieces of pomelo (similar to a pink grapefruit). It was served with a French Gros & Petit Manseng wine. It was a delightful meal and not so much that you couldn’t walk out of the restaurant. We have two more reservations before we leave, and I looking forward to what they will do next.

Each day there is some type of tasting, and we went to the martini tasting. We had five  different martinis and discovered that a Cosmo is much better with a little strawberry liqueur.

So ends the unexpected sailing day.






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Rostock – City of Sevens

Instead of making the trip from Warnenmünde where we docked to Berlin, we chose to go to Rostock, not knowing a thing about it. Since on our last cruise we had spent almost three days in Berlin, we were not inclined to take a bus to a train (amounting to about 3 hours one way), spending 4 hours in Berlin, and take the train to a bus again to the ship. Those people going are going to come back dragging their tails.

Rostock, established in the 12th century, is a part of Mecklenberg Federation in the north east part of Germany, formally belonging to the Soviet East Germany until reunification in 1989.

It is a quaint little town with a lot of things to see while walking down the cobblestone streets along rows of early 17th century style houses and buildings. It lies along the Warnow River and is one of the Baltic’s largest ports. Prior to World War II, it was one of the largest ship and aircraft building ports in Europe; all these were destroyed during the war.

Rostock is known as the ‘City of Seven’; as you look at the pictures, look for seven. There were originally seven gates in the walled city, there were seven churches, seven sets of fountains  and many other sevens. Parts of the city wall and watch towers still exist and ring the inner city.


The city center is full of little shops and coffee shops and boutiques that cater to the tourists, which is their chief source of income.

The University of Rostock is spread over a lot of building around the city.

 When the Reformation occurred, most of the Roman Catholic monasteries were seized by the government; the only one not seized was the local convent. It is now use as an art museum. This sculpture depicts the life in the convent.

In the city center there is a fountain that was christened ‘The Fountain of Joy’, but the locals refer to it as the ‘porn fountain’.

The most striking site in Rostock is Saint Mary’s Church, previously a Roman Catholic church but became Lutheran when the Reformation occurred. A lot of the artifacts were removed during Reformation, but the inside is still quite amazing.

The inside of the church is not lavishly decorated in gold, but the wood carving are remarkable. The rood screen and triglyph are amazing.

After looking at the pulpit, I figured you needed to be really secure in what you were going to preach.

The altar displays a large carved screen that covers most of the back wall and the stained glass window at the entrance is very intricate. Most of the side walls contain private chapels or memorials to parishioners.

One of the reason some of the ornate structures were kept was because the Princes of the Federation came to services here and sat in their own private box. There is an astronomical clock in the church that has been keeping time since the 1200’s.





The organ occupies most of one wall and has 572 pipes. Locals say that when it is played, you can hear it all over the city.

We returned to the ship to rest. This was the German food night and we had lots of wurst, great weinerschnitzel, spaetzle, red cabbage, sauerkraut, and German beer.


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The Ultimate Tour of Saint Petersburg – The Hermitage & Peterhof Palace

The second day of our ‘Ultimate Tour’ started with a special pre-opening tour of The Hermitage, or Catherine’s ‘winter’ palace. We had been in the theater the night before for the ballet, but were not prepared for what we would see. Although this was the winter palace in the time of the Romanovs, it is now primarily an art museum. We have been to hundreds of art museums, but there is nothing that compares to this.

For the most part, I am only going to attach pictures with very little verbiage, unless needed. These will only begin to show you how magnificent this building (actually there are 5 buildings!) is.

This is what you see when you enter and start up the grand staircase:

The grand ballroom.

The grand gallery

The Throne Room

Catherine the Great  had many lovers and one of them gave her this peacock clock, which only needs winding once a week and still works. At the end of each hour the owl begins working. Its cage rotates, little bells ring, the owl turns its head to right and left, blinking its eyes and tapping its right foot. The cage makes twelve rotations and stops.

Roughly ninety seconds after the owl starts moving its mechanism starts up the peacock. It spreads its tail, stretches its neck, turns and throws back its head, opening its beak. When its tail is fully spread, the bird freezes for a second. Then it smoothly turns its tail to the viewers, again freezes for a moment, returns to its starting position, folds its tail and lowers its head.

At the end of its cycle the peacock mechanism starts the cockerel. After shaking its head several times, it crows. Complete illustrations of the workings can be seen at The Workings of the Peacock Clock

The Hermitage is proud of its small Egyptian collection.

Here is some of the religious displays.




During the school year, students at the art schools can come and make copies of masters to hone their eye and hand skills.

There are many more pictures of things in The Hermitage on my Facebook page.

After we completed our tour, we drove into the country to have lunch and see the Peterhof Palace. Instead of the rousing multi-course meal we had yesterday, we had a very stately dinner on white tablecloths and liveried servers. The meal consisted of tomato/cucumber salad, Beef Stroganoff (with a slightly ketchup sauce), mashed potatoes, and a yogurt dessert. Quite different from the previous day.

The Peterhof Palace was is the country home of Peter I, where he could escape Saint Petersburg. After having visited The Hermitage, it was a little bit of a letdown – but nothing in the world can top The Hermitage (in our opinions). Inside it is much more understated, and pictures are not allowed.

But the most striking part of Peterhof Palace is the fountains and entry to the palace from the Baltic Sea. Peter wanted to impress visitors by bringing them up a canal from the sea to the back entrance. There is a canal that contains gilded sculptures and many fountains, along with beautiful gardens and mini-forests. It is truly magnificent with the centerpiece being a fountain of Samson fighting a lion.

After the tour, we rode a hydrofoil (really just a water taxi) back to Saint Petersburg and went back to the ship. . . two very exhausted, but exhilarated people. The cost for this little excursion was a little bit high until your factor in all we did (Summer Palace, peasant lunch, Russian Ballet, The Hermitage, an elegant lunch, Peterhof Palace, water taxi), but it was really worth it.

We both crashed, not really even eating dinner.

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