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Cary Lau’s excellent adventure in Europe: diary of a Mediterranean cruise

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Story by Cary Lau

The comment I hear most frequently as someone watches me drive up in a brand new 750i or 650i Cab is this: you are lucky to drive a BMW. While luck is part of the equation, I must acknowledge I have worked hard for my achievements. I am thankful for many things, and in particular, I consider myself most fortunate for the opportunity to have enjoyed multiple trips abroad. These days, traveling to Europe has become somewhat of an addiction for me, rather like being addicted to the feeling of driving a BMW.

Ever since my wife and I experienced our first trip to Europe with BMW Canada in 2002, we’ve become dedicated adventurers, intent on experiencing all that the continent has to offer.

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The Plan Normally

we prefer to travel about Europe in a rental car, which gives us the freedom to explore the cities and countryside at our own pace, buttwo years ago, we decided to try something different. This time our parents would be joining us.

Friends and customers suggested a cruise might be an especially smooth way to experience Europe when journeying with a small group. Planning our trip turned out to be simple when we booked a twelve-day November cruise of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Touch Down in Rome, Italy

After landing in Rome during the evening, we checked into a hotel on the famous Via Veneto, and headed out to stretch our legs on a walk to the Trevi Fountain. The Trevi is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome, and one of the world’s most notable. This was the third trip here for my wife and me, and so for the third time, we found ourselves repeating what had become a tradition at the Trevi Fountain tossing a coin into the waters and making a wish to return to Rome.

The previous coin tosses must have worked because here we were again, although this time around, we were witnessing the magic of the fountain at night. We stood amongst an energized crowd of locals and tourists, all admiring the Trevi beneath twinkling lights. Some visitors snapped photographs of each other posing in front of the fountain, while others just relaxed by the waters. Our second day began in Vatican City, where I didn’t mind viewing Michelangelo’s The Creation for a second time.

And on this visit, we did not line up fortwo hours in orderto get in to the museum (like lasttime!) My wife managed to purchase entrance tickets online, allowing us to avoid the queue. Another repeat visitfound us at St. Peter’s Basilica. Particularly awe- inspiring was the incredible Bramante’s Dome, standing 448 feetfrom the floor of the basilica to the top of the cross the tallest dome in the world. On this beautiful Sunday afternoon, we strolled leisurely through the streets, as many roads were closed to car traffic. Next stop was the Colosseum, where once again with tickets purchased online in hand, we skipped the long entrance lineup.

The city square of Piazza Navona was next, followed by a visitto the Pantheon, where we spotted a table outside a ristorante to enjoy classic thin-crust pizza and fresh pasta with black and white truffles. All of this good food was washed down with cool Italian sodas and cappuccinos. Then it was on to the glamorous Via dei Condotti – a street near the Spanish Steps lined with important Italian fashion retailers like Bulgari, Valentino and Armani.

All Aboard to Santorini, Greece

After a few days in the busy streets of Rome, it was a completely different experience to board a large cruise liner. Walking up the gangplank to board The Solstice, we joined other passengers from the US, Europe and Canada, including a few from Vancouver. Having been on ourfeetfor days, it was such a relief to check into our rooms, explore the ship, and enjoy dinner without worrying about keeping to a schedule.

When we awoke the next day, our ship was anchored about one kilometer off stunning Santorini Island. The wind and waves made it a challenge to disembark one-by-one from the ship onto small, waiting ferry boats that would take us ashore. After clambering on board, I used my camera’s zoom lens to take a closer look our destination’s coastline.

What met my eyes were a series of donkeys trudging up a steep, winding path to high cliffs hundreds offeet above the water. When our little boat reached land, our group elected to pass on the donkey ride, and instead stepped into a gondola which delivered us in five minutes to the top. The view from the edge of the 300-meter-high cliff was exceptionally beautiful.

It was also wildly windy! Santorini is a geological wonder – its interesting shape the result of a huge volcanic eruption 3,000 years ago

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Mykonos, Greece

Oursecond port-of-call was to the island ofMykonos. Believed to be named afterthe grandson of Apollo, it is one ofthe most popular and cosmopolitan ofthe Greek isles. Once again, with ourlarge cruise ship anchored in the bay (as it was too lengthy for the pier), we climbed onto small ferries to shuttle us to shore.

The sunny island appeared so bright with its white sand and closely-built white-washed homes with blue roofs. It looked just like what we all picture to be the classic Greek Island. A number of seafood restaurants were situated right by the pier, and it was here where we first tasted one of the besttraditional Greek fish soups, Kakavia. Along the water, dozens oflittle buildings housed local artisan shops, similar to those we had visited on Santorini. Pelicans swooped around the bay looking for fish.

Istanbul, Turkey

As the cruise ship entered the port of Istanbul, from the deck we could already make out many ofthe famous tourist attractions ofthe area such as the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque. Geographically, Istanbul sits between Europe and Asia, and because ofthis unique location, has a good mix of both European and Middle Eastern influences.

It is not uncommon to see streets filled with young people dressed in a very modern way, walking with the elderly wearing more traditional wrap-style clothing, as well as Muslim women in hijab headscarves. Since we were at dock for two days, there was plenty of time for sightseeing and shopping. For the latter, everyone heads to the Grand Bazaar. Built during the mid-15th century, the bazaar is a frenetic shopping paradise with over 4,000 vendors vying for your business.

Hand-sewn carpets, gold jewelry, leather goods, and Turkish-carved meerschaum pipes were just some ofthe items for sale. Walking the market is rather like moving through a giant maze of small shops. And you must barter to get a good price. Typically the “real price” for us turned out to be about one tenth ofthe asking. Some ofthe more aggressive salesmen would exclaim “no!” when we offered to barter over a price, but as we turned away, they were very quick to chase after us to negotiate.

We sampled local foods in Istanbul like mutton and lamb kebabs. Beef, chicken and seafood were also popular, but no pork of course. Streetfood vendors served up grilled kofte, kokorec and something called sigara boregi – a cigar-shaped phyllo pastry made with feta cheese. If you like a proper espresso, then a strong and flavourful Turkish coffee is a must-try. So is Raki, a Turkish anise-flavoured cocktail style drink which often accompanies seafood dishes.

Naples & Capri, Italy

Before arriving to our final port in Naples or Napoli, we had one full day at sea to enjoy the mild November Mediterranean sunshine. It was great fun to take part in the formal dinners at sea, especially the Captain’s Night, when everyone dresses well and enjoys not only a number of nicely prepared courses, but a nightfull of entertainment in the ship’s main dining room.

Our waiters danced along to live music, showing-offtheirtalents for singing, including an Italian version of the Elvis Presley song ‘It’s Now or Never’ – very unique! Afloat at sea, with thousands of passengers all enjoying fine wine and cuisine, we soon recognized that our busy ship’s kitchen had somehow managed to plate thousands of dinners within minutes – so impressive.

For most dinners, we preferred to join fellow passengers during the second seating, as we found it was more fun to enjoy the entertainment prior to sitting down, and then have the luxury of taking our time while dining. Waking up at the port of Naples, it was a short walk to the pier, where we hopped aboard a hydro-foil that took us on a 45-minute ride to Capri. Although there were several interesting ways to spend the day in this area, we chose to visit Capri because we wanted to explore the spectacular gardens of the Giardini di Augusto.

Situated atop a south-facing cliff, the gardens offerthe bestvantage point in which to see the Faraglioni “stacks” three unusual rock formations along the south eastern coastline – made famous by many postcards. The origin of pizza is said to be Naples, so we made it a priorityto arrive back in time for lunch to find a restaurant serving traditional Neapolitan pizza. My family and I enjoyed ittremendously.

The flavours ofthe tomato and herbs tasted so fresh, and the crust was extra crispy, and not too filling. We were able to order a few other entrees. One was pasta of course which my mom never quite grew used to as it was prepared the proper “al dente” way. What we could agree on however, was the wonderful gelato. This refreshing dessert – matched with a cool glass of limoncello made from large, local lemons – was a fabulous treat. We bid goodbye to Naples, and boarded The Solstice for the cruise back to Rome which would mark the end our journey in southern Europe.

But I knew we would return. There was a shiny coin at the bottom of the Trevi fountain as a guarantee.

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