Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Touring In Tunisia

Tunis, our port city, is the capital of Tunisia. Tunisia is located in Northern Africa and our visit aboard the Disney Magic marks our first visit to the continent. Tunisia is located between the countries of Algeria and Libya. The coast of Tunisia was settled in the 10th century B.C. by the Phoenicians. In the 6th century B.C. Carthage rose to power but was conquered by the Romans in the 2nd century B.C. Afterwards, it was held by Vandals and Byzantines for two centuries and in the 7th century it was conquered by Arabs. The region became known as Ifriqiya and the Berber population was converted to Islam. Successive Muslim dynasties ruled, interrupted by Berber rebellions. The reigns of the Aghlabids in the 9th century and of the Zirids (from 972), Berber followers of the Fatmids, were especially prosperous. When the Zirids angered the Fatimids in Cairo (1050) the latter ravaged Tunisia. The coasts were briefly held by the Normans of Sicily in the 12th century. In 1159, Tunisia was conquered by the Almohad caliphs of Morocco. The Almohads were succeeded by the Berber Hafsids under whom Tunisia prospered. In the last years of the Hafsids, Spain seized many of the coastal cities, but there were recovered for Islam by the Ottoman Turks. Under its Turkish governors, the beys, Tunisia attained virtual independence. In the late 16th century the coast became a pirate stronghold. The Hussein dynasty of beys, established in 1705, lasted until 1957.

We actually docked in La Goulette, not Tunis and our ship was greeted by several camels, their handlers and two bands playing music. Tunis was the only port where we booked a Disney Cruise Line tour. We had not found any private tour guides on Cruise Critic or Trip Advisor with good ratings so decided to stay with the safety of Disney. Our excursion, as I’d posted before our cruise in the blog, was a Jeep 4x4 excursion into Tunisia. All of the Jeeps were in fact Toyota Landcruisers or similar large engine SUVs…there wasn’t a “Jeep” in the lot (thank goodness, since Jeeps aren’t the most reliable vehicles). There were 8 vehicles, each with 5 to 6 guests in them. We traveled in a convoy fashion – always sticking together. Truth be told, we really only needed the 4x4 capability and high ground clearance for 1 spot in the whole trip and that was for a bridge that had either been washed out or was under construction. All other travel was on paved roads or graded gravel. Our first stop was in what appeared to be a “made for tourists” example of a Berber village. There were only a few people there and they seemed to be there only to play a little music, bake a little bread and “populate” the exhibit. I asked our Disney person on the trip if we were going to see a “real” town at some point. He said he didn’t know. Hmmmm? We did enjoy the Berber bread with honey and olive oil and the spiced tea. The elaborate tiled bath area was also worth a look.

We got back in our SUVs and made our way to stop #2. On the way we passed a small pickup truck loaded down with beds – headboards, footboards and mattresses. We expected the truck to turn over at any time given its high center of gravity. We also passed a number of people riding their donkeys or leading one piled high with varying types of goods. I found the Tunisia countryside to be really interesting. There were olive trees everywhere. The landscape (minus the olive trees) reminded me of Arizona or even northern California with the hills and dry land.

Stop #2 turned out to be a real town. Our convoy of SUVs entered the small town square where there was a little market going on – simple things like sheets, blankets and various household items. We were lead to a high point in the town, past the local mosque, where we could take pictures. We also visited a typical house, which had few furnishings but seemed to be well made. Inside was a woman in traditional dress who wove/braided grass into various craft items. Most of the locals were dressed in this traditional manner; however, I was struck when I noticed a few women wearing Crocs – the rubber shoes that have become so popular in the U.S. The younger kids seemed to be wearing more Westernized clothes.

Soon it was time to get back in our SUVs and head to stop #3, which was some Roman ruins. These were pretty interesting but I knew they would pale in comparison to what we would see soon in Rome. We spent about 20 minutes at this third stop before moving onto our final stop nearby where we had lunch.

This last stop was at a restaurant/resort. We had a nice salad, bread, some type of grilled bird (we joked that it might have been crow), cous cous and fruit. It was a good meal. After about 45 minutes, we were on the road again for our 1 hour drive back to the port. All in all, we give this tour a thumbs up but it was a lot of driving.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Our Day In Malta

The Maltese Archipelago, consisting of the inhabited islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino are located in the Mediterranean Sea, about 52 miles south of Sicily. The history of the Maltese Islands goes back some 7,000 years, to the dawn of civilization. Malta and Gozo are the home to mysterious prehistoric temples that pre-date the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge in England.

The Roman Empire dominated the islands from about 218 BC. Malta changed hands a number of times after the Roman rule, most notably under the Arabs from 870 AD. Other occupiers included the Byzantines, the Normans, the Swabians and the Arogonese. In 1530, the Knights of the Order of Saint John arrived in Malta. During their rule, the Order fought off the great Ottoman Empire of Turkey in the famous great siege of Malta. The period of leadership under the knights ended in 1798 when Napoleon Bonaparte took the islands, but this occupation was short lived when the Maltese revolted against the French and the islands fell under the protection of the British Empire in 1800. Malta became an independent state within the British Commonwealth in 1964 and became a Republic ten years later. Malta, officially the Republic of Malta, is a small and densely populated island nation comprising an archipelago of seven islands, three of which are inhabited. It has a warm, inviting Mediterranean climate. The main island is 17 miles long and 9 miles wide.

Our tour of Malta started off a bit rocky as we were expecting our private tour provider, Duncan Zammit of UPhotoMalta, to meet us at the cruise ship pier at 8:30 am when the ship docked but he didn’t show up until 9 am. I don’t know if it was my mistake or his but regardless, once the tour started, the hiccup at the beginning was quickly forgotten. Duncan was very knowledgeable about Malta, where he’d been born, raised and still lived. We started off by driving about a few spots in Valletta, including a park across from where the Magic was docked, allowing us to get some great photos. We then headed off to Marsaxlokk, an authentic fishing village. The boats in the harbor were all shapes and sizes, from the smallest one person boat to large boats. Most were brightly painted in blue, yellow, green, red and brown.

From there we headed to Mdina, the old walled part of Malta. However, before entering Mdina, we stopped at a local tea shop/bar for a local pastry filled with peas (pastizzi) and a hot, spicy tea. Both were very good. The Mdina was walled, and where we entered it was about 20 feet thick. The roads were little more than alleyways, limiting traffic to residents and, during certain hours, small trucks for delivery of supplies and goods.

We then drove into what seemed like the interior of the island where there was a distinct focus on agriculture. We saw various types of vegetables being grown. It was interesting that the farmers had to erect greenhouse-like structures, not to accelerate the growing process, but instead to protect the crops from the high winds. From there we visited several overlooks from which we saw beautiful beaches, stunning cliffs and scenery. All the while, we were talking with Duncan, who we found to be very personable and funny. His easy-going nature and willingness to share personal insights about Malta and its people made our half-day tour one we will remember.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Embarkation and Our First Sea Day (plus some teaser photos of Malta)

I'm taking advantage of free internet on the cruise port walkway, down near the far end of the row of restaurants and shops, there is free wi-fi internet.  The wi fi is just past the ATM near a shop called Bristow Potteries and there is another called Sterling Jewelry.  Back to the embarkation day.

Well, somehow I just deleted two paragraphs of typing!  Uggghhh.  How frustrating.  Anyway, from the time we got out of the taxi to when we boarded the ship was just under 30 minutes so I guess we arrived in a lull period.  I heard from other people that boarded about 2:30 that it was busier but they also mentioned some computer problems so that probably contributed to the backup.  Once aboard we walked around to get Brian used to the layout since he'd not been on board since 2001.  At 3 pm, we made our way down to Promenade Lounge where we met up with more than 120 of our fellow cruisers who had been posting on the DIS boards about this cruise for quite a few months, where we've been helping each other plan and research the ports.  We handed out lanyards and chatted until we had to break up to attend the mandatory muster drill at 4 pm (was scheduled for 5 pm). 

The Sail Away party was held at 4:45 pm even though we didn't actually leave the port until 9:30 pm.  I guess Disney decided after its first cruise on 4/24 that more guests would participate if it was held during the day when it was warmer.

The 6:30 welcome aboard show was the typical show, with entertainers giving us a sample of their comedy and magic coming up during the cruise.  Dinner was good and I'm drawing a blank about what we did after that.  I think we crashed, still suffering from jet lag.

The next day was our first sea day where we cruised down to Malta and the seas were pretty choppy. Wave heights were announced at 8 - 13 feet and they were coming across the ship making for quite a side to side rocking motion. We had our first DIS Group Brunch in Palo and it was really nice to be in the private room at one table where we could all chat and get to know one another better. 
After the brunch was a private DIS wine tasting set up by rashdecision (Rob) in the Sessions Lounge.  We had 6 wines to taste, accompanied by white and dark chocolate, which was a nice touch to illustrate how the taste of the wines changed when paired with the chocolate.  As if that wasn't enough drinking, Brian talked me into a beer tasting in Diversions at 3 pm.  We had 5 beers - Stella, Newcastle, Guinness, Sam Adams one other - Beck's perhaps?  Anyway, these were half size glasses so it was quite a "tasting" of beer.  I think after this we handed out some fish extender gifts and then got ready for Formal Night photos and the "Twice Charmed" show.  We took a good 3 or 4 nice family pics so I guess we'll see how they turned out tonight after I get back on the ship.  Susan, Katy and I finished up the night with Heath Hyche's adult show and I have to say Health doesn't suck anymore.  He's gotten better but his routine still included some routines that didn't quite click.  Tomorrow is Tunis, Tunisia for us and it's supposed to be a long day so I'm not sure when my next update will be. 


Saturday, May 15, 2010

We've Arrived!

Things started out terribly for us.  With all my focus on the ash cloud over the last few days I'd neglected to pay any attention to the weather back in the US.  When we arrived at the Huntsville, AL airport on Thursday morning that all changed.  As time for our flight approached, American Airlines notified us we were on an indefinite hold for weather in Chicago.  When I pulled up the weather on weather.com I could see severe storms on top of Chicago with no letup in sight as storms extended from Illinois back southwest to Oklahoma - it was going to be storming for a long time.  I went to the check-in counter and spoke to the agent there and explained calmly and nicely that we needed to get to JFK to catch a flight to Barcelona today so we could make our Mediterranean cruise departing on Saturday.  American came through and got us all moved over to a Delta flight departing in 50 minutes!  Better yet, our original flight was connecting from Chicago to LaGuardia and we were going to have to transfer by bus or cab to JFK.  With the Delta flight, we went to Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C. and from there directly to JFK.  The only question I had in my mind was whether or not our bags would make it, but long story short, every one of our bags did make it!

We were able to meet up with DIS family ICollectBelle at JFK and had a nice chat with them while waiting for our flight to Barcelona.  After 8.5 hours we landed in a cool, rainy Barcelona.  Processing through customs was smooth.  Just make sure you find a "Non-EU" line to go through.  Our only hiccup was baggage claim.  It was so slow - we waited a good hour and ten minutes before finally collecting all our bags.  There must have been some kind of break down somewhere.  No biggie - we arrived on time and our bags made it too!  For those reading this that will be cruising later, there are PLENTY of taxis waiting at the airport.  The four of us plus 5 bags, 3 backpacks and a camera bag were fitted (tightly) into what we in the US would characterize as small-medium size vehicle.  I didn't see how the driver could get the bags in there but he did.

We stayed at the Novotel Barcelona City, which is further away from the port that it shows on Tripadvisor.  The good news is that it's a short two block walk to the Glories metro station.  We bought the 10 trip metro passes and we've had no problems at all using the metro to get anywhere we need to go.  It's clean and very efficient.  After a 3 hour or so nap, we met up with fellow DISer "sayhello" and walked Las Ramblas.  We had dinner at Amaya restaurant consisting of a sausage assortment, a truffled cannaloni, sizzling shrimp with garlic and Spanish tortilla/frittata, toasted bread topped with tomato and a pitcher of sangria.

After dinner, we headed to the Metro to see the Monjuic magic fountain show at 9 pm.  We met several other DISers including rashdecision (Rob) and his family, ggleigh (Tina, Andrew and Rachel), ICollectBelle (Donna), Appleguy (Gary) and their family, Pinmeister (Frank & Nancy).  The fountain shows were neat - the third show being all Disney themed.  Definitely well worth a visit!  Tomorrow - the Magic!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tomorrow's D (Departure) Day!

The departure day is rapidly approaching and the only thing standing between us and Barcelona is a ash-belching Icelandic volcano, with a name only two guys (Brynjulfur & Ragnheidur) in Iceland can pronounce - Eyjafjallajokull.  Grrr...

We've stopped our mail, newpaper (yes, we're among the few that actually still do read a newspaper), and will be dropping our dog (Oliver) and our daughter's dog (Bree) off at the kennel this afternoon.  We've yet to put anything into a suitcase yet, but have been working on our packing lists and gathering our stuff together in order to be ready to pack it.  We've also notified the bank and credit card company that will be traveling out of the country so they'll know (hopefully) not to freeze our cards while we're away. 

Our first flight in the morning departs at 6:05 am from Huntsville to Chicago.  We then fly from Chicago to New York (LaGuardia), where we'll catch a shuttle to JFK and then (knock on wood) catch our 8.5 hour flight to Barcelona departing at 6:25 pm.  If all goes well, we'll arrive in Barcelona at about 8:30 am on 5/14.  We're staying in the Novotel Barcelona City hotel.  We have plans to meet up with some of our fellow cruisers from the DISboards.com at the Montjuic Magic Fountain around 9 pm.