Sunday, March 26, 2023

Steve's 50th Birthday - Barcelona to Venice on the Mediterranean!

When I set out to plan Steve’s 50th birthday, I knew travel was inevitable. He’s not a guy who wants a party, and he’s definitely not a guy who wants a surprise party. He wants new experiences, great food, great drinks, and to be with me. We had never traveled across the pond together, and I couldn’t choose just one destination! I love to plan plan plan, but this was a daunting task. We’re not big “cruisers” but Viking Ocean offers an exceptional adults-only experience with smaller ships. I knew they wouldn’t disappoint. I also invited his parents, who had both just turned 80 last year. It was a great excuse for all of use to celebrate together.

I will say, this was a GREAT time to travel the Mediterranean. There weren't many crowds and the weather was in the low/mid-50's and into the low 60's. It was pretty perfect.

So, we departed Cleveland on March 1st to embark on a trip of a lifetime...Barcelona to Venice along the Mediterranean.  

We upgraded our flights to United Polaris, and it was quite the experience. The Polaris lounge in Newark was pretty incredible and they made it very easy to spend our four hour layover eating and drinking our way through the lounge. The bar in the lounge was first class, and not only was there a buffet, but also an a la carte restaurant. Yes, everything was included.

The seats on the plane were so comfortable and allowed us to both sleep for a little bit. Airplane food is never good, so there is no need to report on that :) The beets and jicama on the salad were the best part, if that's any indication. Except for the ice cream cart. That was pretty good!

Stop #1 | Barcelona, Spain

When in Spain, you do chocolate, tapas, pintxos, cocktails, and cava. 

Then you repeat.

Steve and I arrived in Barcelona a day early so we could catch up on our sleep and enjoy some of the sites before the ship arrived. I booked a room at the H10 Madison in the Gothic Quarter. The location was perfect. 

To our surprise, Steve's sister Karen, Andrew, Rory and Julian were also in Barcelona! 

Coincidence? I don't think so!

Soon after we met up with the Horan family, we embarked on a food tour around Barcelona. There was no shortage of tapas and cava on our agenda.

We stopped at Mercado de La Boqueria and looked at all of the beautiful food!

Following the food tour, we ventured out for some cocktails and (cheap!) cava.

This included a stop at the #1 bar in the world!

Karen's drink had edible paper...

That night we enjoyed dinner at Tapeo in what seemed like an endless amount of delicious plates of food. We love patatas bravas and there was never a shortage on our table. 

The next morning Steve and I enjoyed a mascarpone croissant from Pastelería Hofmann. The pastries were all so beautiful, but the croissant...yes, it's that good. 

Later that morning, Steve and I boarded the Viking Sky and got situation in our room.

Paul and Sue arrived that afternoon and we headed back into the city where we walked around the Cathedral of Barcelona. Then, we enjoyed dinner with the Horan family at El Cer Cle where Steve had his first (and best) birthday cake. 

Having everyone together was incredibly heartfelt. 

We couldn't believe we were all together in SPAIN to celebrate Steve's birthday!

The next day was March 4th and Steve's 50th Birthday!!

We started with a family fun day exploring Barcelona. 

Our first stop was Park Güell. The park was built from 1900 to 1914 and was officially opened as a public park in 1926. In 1984, UNESCO declared the park a World Heritage Site under "Works of Antoni Gaudí".

Our next stop was more pintxos for lunch at Bilbao Berria. When you eat pintxos, they charge you by the number (and type) or toothpicks you have on your table. We had a lot of toothpicks!

The grand finale was the famous Sagrada Familia. What a spectacular sight to see. This is architect Antoni Gaudi's most famous creation, and still unfinished after 141 years. One of Barcelona’s most iconic symbols, the Sagrada Familia is the most visited landmark in Spain. Considered to be a great example of modernist architecture designed by Gaudi, many tourists from across the world come to visit this unfinished church. 

Gaudi is buried in the chapel of the Sagrada Familia crypt.

Steve and I opted to go up into the Nativity Tower...easy elevator up, but woah on the stairs going down. 

That night we had dinner with Paul and Sue at our favorite restaurant on the ship, The Chef's Table. They offer a pre-fixed menu and wine pairings...and Steve had his second cake. The halibut was one of the better dishes we had here. 

50 years is something to celebrate and Stephen Martin deserves all of it and more! This selfless, hilarious and kind man is the best of the best. 

This is a really long post mostly about our destinations, so if you want to read more about the Viking ocean cruise experience, read my post from our trip in 2019. 

It's an incredible cruise line!
So, after three days in Barcelona it was time to set sail and head to France!

Stop #2 | Sète, France

Good morning from Sète!

I'd consider our stop in Sète a success. We had a relaxing day walking around the quiet port and enjoyed oysters, escargot, rose wine, champagne, cheese, bread and biscuits. We did good.

After returning to the ship, Steve and I enjoyed a drink in the Explorer's Lounge before meeting Paul and Sue for another dinner at Chef's Table. This was pretty much our routine every night on the ship...a few drinks with beautiful views and sunsets, and then dinner with the parents. 

Sue trying to keep track of all of the wine pairings!

The servers and sommelier knew us very well. We typically had an 8:30 dinner reservation and we shut the place down every down every night!

Stop #3 | Marseille, France

We spent our day walking around the beautiful city of Marseille. We enjoyed it so much, we’ve added it to our list to return! Simply gorgeous. 

 Pizza in France? It was actually pretty good and cheap, but in all honestly, we just needed to use the restroom. Pizza, wine and restroom? Sign me up!

After returning to the ship, we met Paul and Sue for afternoon tea. Viking offers a selection of tea and towers of sandwiches and desserts every day at 4 pm. It was something we all really enjoyed. 

The desserts (especially the Success cake!) from Manfredi's were the best on the ship, and a nice compliment to afternoon tea.

Stop #4 | Nice, France

We actually anchored near Villefranche-sur-Mer and took a tender into Nice where we explored on our own. Paul and Sue went on a bus tour of Monaco. 

Nice is a beach town with beautiful turquoise water. We walked around and visited a local market and then enjoyed a French baguette and pistachio éclair. 

We had new experiences every day! We even paid for our first public toilet in Nice. 

Back on the ship, Steve and I enjoyed cocktails in the Explorer's Lounge before dinner with Paul and Sue at Manfredi's. This is the second specialty restaurant on Viking's ocean cruises. Neither Chef's Table or Manfredi's require an additional fee, but they do require reservations (that's where I come in) so we ate at one of these two pretty much every night.

Our first visit to France did not disappoint. We started in the fishing town of Sète, followed by the port city of Marseilles, and ended in the beach town of Nice. There were scooters and Mini Coopers everywhere, along with baguettes, pastries, champagne, and rose wine. I’d like to think we fit right in!  

Stop #5 | Florence, Italy

Oh, Italy. Why are you so delicious!??

We had a scheduled overnight stay in the port of Livorno, which is about an 1:20 train ride into Florence. Steve and I decided to make it an overnight stay and so happy we did.

We rode the train and then booked a room at the Market Urban Hotel, which was in a very central location to everything we needed and wanted to see. Yes, they even had a bidet, which is standard in Italian hotels! 

We felt right at home.

We walked around the streets and stopped to see The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore as well as the replica of the Statue of David. 

Florence was very cool and very touristy. There were college kids everywhere and English was standard. It's a beautiful place to visit and they have GREAT food. 

Great food seems to be a theme...

We stopped for lunch at the famous All' Antico Vinaio for a sandwich. There were two locations side-by-side and both with a line down the street. There was a very efficient line moderator to ensure no line jumping. 

We split the La Favolosa with Salame toscana, pecorino cream, artichoke cream, spicy eggplant. We found the prices everywhere to be very reasonable. This sandwich cost us 7€ in Florence. They have a location in NYC, and this same sandwich costs $19 USD. There is no possible way it's as good.

We continued on our way and visited il Mercato Centrale Firenze, stopped at a wine window, and then enjoyed some creamy gelato. 

That night, we enjoyed a few cocktails at Manifattura and Locale Firenze (#39 bar in the world!)

Even later that night (everyone eats late in Italy!), we finished with an exquisite and intimate Michelin experience at Ora d’Aria. This was a nine course dinner with wine pairings and only 8 tables per night. This is where Steve enjoyed his 3rd birthday dessert!

The next day, we were so excited for lunch! Hahaha. Yes, we had a limited amount of time in Florence, so made sure to find the best of the best. 

Lunch at Degusteria Italiana was simply divine. With only 8 tables in the entire restaurant, we had the place to ourselves.

Can we say truffle extravaganza!?!?! 

No words can truly describe this incredible experience. 

This was our best meal of the trip! 

Truffle cheese and cured meat tasting

62 degree egg with peas, artichoke, olives, thyme and black truffle

Tagliolini with black truffle

The Parmesan ravioli with balsamic caviar was the best dish we've had in recent memory!

Beef filet with potato and black truffle

Steve's 4th birthday dessert!! 

I think this was the last one...

Pumpkin Bavarese, hazelnut and black truffle

After lunch, we hopped back on the train and returned to the ship where we enjoyed a beautiful sunset.

Stop #6 | Rome, Italy

This was another loooong bus ride from the Civitavecchia
 cruise port to the Rome city center.
We were dropped off at the Coliseum where we wandered around for a bit and took our obligatory pictures.

You can see the people at the bottom of this picture, which shows the enormity of the Coliseum. Wow. It's impossible to capture in any photo. 

As you can see from our previous five stops, Steve and I weren't here to see too many of the sites.

Let's eat!

We first stopped and enjoyed a couple glasses of wine and then we were off to our next food stop. 


When in Rome, you eat Carbonara and Cacio e Pepe. You won’t find better anywhere else in the world! We did our research and found Luciano's to be a pretty solid choice. Our research did not disappoint us.

We also had some tiramisu and gelato for good measure.

Earlier that morning, we noticed we didn't arrive at our next port (Naples) until 12:30 pm the next day. When were we going to have time to eat all of the pizza of our dreams!?! 

So, Steve and I decided to skip the ship and rode the one hour fast train from Rome to Naples. That also allowed us to avoid the long bus ride back! Don't worry, we let Viking know.

See ya Rome, and let the pizza crawl commence! 

Stop #7 | Naples, Italy

We arrived in Naples around 5 pm and checked into the inconspicuous Amadomus Luxury Suites. This was an interesting seven room hotel in the center of historic Napoli. 

Soon after we checked-in, we set out for our first two pizza stops. We were determined to find the best Pizza Margherita in world!

Sorbillo was our first stop and it was utter confusion as soon as we arrived. You put your name in at the host stand, and then just waited for them to call your name over an old speaker that was impossible to understand. 

After 45 minutes, we were in!

Steve and I shared one Margherita Pizza at each location. That was our rule. We quickly learned that NO ONE shared a pizza in Napoli. 

We still shared a pizza. There was no way we would get through this crawl any other way. 

 Being our first pizza in Naples, the was pretty memorable. It was like nothing we had ever tasted in our lives. Simple ingredients and pure deliciousness. And we were in and out within 15 minutes. 

Like I said, prices everywhere were amazing. Sorbillo's pizza cost us a whopping 5.50€. The wine was an additional 3.50€ per glass. 

Nearly every place charges a "cover charge" and here it was 2€ per person. 

 Our next stop was Dal Presidente Pizzeria. There was no wait, the pizza was very good, the wine was tolerable, but the was service terrible. I don't know it if was because we were American, ordered one pizza, or he was having a bad day, but this kid hated us. 

One pizza at Dal Presidente was 5.00€ and a jug of wine was about 10.00€.

The next day, we started with a latte and espresso, because that's what people do in Italy. Then, we roamed around until THE famous Antica Pizzeria Da Michele opened at 11 am. 

Pizzeria Da Michele was amazing. 

We arrived at 10:25 am and there were about 6 people ahead of us in line (yes, they open at 11 am). They started filling seats around 10:45 and after all of the seats we filled, they handed out "deli-counter" tickets so you could see where you were in line. 

They basically offer TWO pizzas at Da Michele -   Marinara (no cheese) and Margherita (with cheese) 

As soon as we sat down, they took our order and the first pizza was out of the oven at 10:55 am. The pure efficiency
 of their operation put it near the top of the list. Pizza here was 5.50€ and they didn't serve wine, so we enjoyed two Peroni beers.

Then, we had the pizza. OMG. This pizza. I don't really know how to explain it. I took notes and they say "simple and cheesy, sauce was creamy and the combination of dough, cheese and sauce just worked..."

So there you have it! My sophisticated explanation of the best pizza in the world. 

Stop four was a bit of a trek...we also had to stop at the ship to get our passports (long story...)

We watched so many YouTube videos to determine what stops we'd make on this pizza crawl. Starita rose to the top of many lists, so while it was a little out of the way, we insisted we give it a try.

This place was huge, and much more of a restaurant setting than the other places. 

The pizza was excellent and cost us a steep 6.00€. There seemed to be a lot of Italians eating here, so that's always promising. The crust was a little fluffier, which might appeal to some, but we ended up liking the floppier crust at La Michelle and Sorbillo. It was still a memorable pizza experience. 

In the end, we walked over 15 miles and enjoyed four different Pizza Margheritas in Napoli. They were all so good!! Not entirely different, so you honestly can’t go wrong with any of them. Antica Pizzeria Da Michele reigned superior over the rest due to the creamy combination of dough, sauce and cheese (per my notes!) The overall efficient and kind experience was also our favorite. 

Naples was really fun, but it was time to head back to the ship, full of pizza, and excited for the rest of our adventure. 


Stop #8 | Messina, Italy (Sicily)

Unfortunately, we had to skip our stop in Sicily due to weather (even though it looked perfect!) While I was dreaming mountains of pistachios and cannolis (this isn’t a joke), they’ll just have to wait for another time. We enjoyed a relaxing day at sea with views of Mt. Etna from afar.

We had a very lazy day and started with bloody Mary's and an a la carte breakfast at The Restaurant. We loved their goat cheese omelet. 

Paul and Sue often enjoyed breakfast at the World Café buffet. They offered breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We used this day at sea as an opportunity to use the amazing spa on the Viking ship. The Nordic Spa experience is free of charge and allows you to use all of the facilities at your leisure, including the sauna, snow grotto, hot tub, steam room, cold plunge pool...etc. 

We went here a lot...It's a great way to relax and detox!

Steve and I also spent time nearly every day playing a few games on Mahjong. 

Dinner was another night at Chef's Table. The menu changed every 2-3 days, so we were sure to try each and every one (sometimes twice).

After dinner, Steve and I would often get a nightcap at the Torshavn bar. 

Stop #8 | Crotone, Italy

Our next stop was in the small town of Crotone, Italy. 

For breakfast on the ship, we enjoyed a traditional Norweigan waffle from Mamsen's. They're heart-shaped and flavored with cardamom, then served with sour cream, fruit and brunost/gjetost brown cheese. I guess you can say the brown cheese had a peanut butter-ish texture and flavor? 


In addition to breakfast, Mamsen's served different snacks and desserts throughout the the day.

During the day, we visited the Ceraudo family winery and then took a short walk around Crotone in search of a cannoli. 

This was our least favorite port stop. While, the bus ride to the winery offered views of the beautiful countryside, the city itself was really small. Nothing was open when we went into the city because it was siesta time.

But we did find cannolis!

That night, we had another dinner at Manfredi's.

Stop #9 | Bari, Italy

The city of Bari in the Puglia region of Italy far exceeded our expectations. We barely scraped the surface, but it was our second favorite city visited on this cruise (#1 is coming up!) It was the first time it felt like real Italy. It was far from touristy and we were basically walking in people's backyards. The new town and old town were fascinating and we can't wait to go back to explore some more. 

We booked a private food tour via and our guide was amazing!!! 

Vito taught us about the culture, history and traditions of Bari, all while we indulged on tasty treats along the way (burrata, chocolate, focaccia, panzerotti, orecchiette, and gelato!) 

Best. Burrata. Ever.

The Puglia region of Italy is most known for their olive trees. The region produces over 40% of all of Italy's olive oil, with an estimated 60 million olive trees. Vito made a point to say he's never had to buy olive oil because someone is always making it from the trees in their backyard. 

We also visited Basilica San Nicola (including Santa’s crypt!) and a few other sites.

They worship St. Nicholas in Bari, so this is a very sacred place.

Santa's crypt!

The famous Bari pasta ladies were definitely a highlight. Starting around 10 am, you will find these women sitting outside their doorways, rolling out fresh Orecchiette made with simple semolina flour and water. They do it with with unbelievable speed while chatting away with neighbors and passerbys, never missing a beat. 

We brought a few pounds of pasta home with us and it's absolutely delicious. 


Stop #10 | Šibenik, Croatia

Strong winds limited our time in Croatia, but we anchored and then tendered and bussed into the city of Šibenik. We were the only two on our tender :) I guess everyone else went on organized tours. 

Steve and I wandered around on our own, and made a stop at St. James Cathedral. Overall, it was a quiet and beautiful city, and a country I’d love to return to.

That afternoon, Viking offered a wine tasting, so we signed up and enjoyed wine with a handful of fellow cruisers. 

Another new menu at Chef's Table was in store for us that night. 

Stop #11 | Venice, Italy

Venice has banned cruise ships from central Venice, so we docked at the Chioggia cruise port, which was a 90 minute ferry ride into Venice.

I love Venice. 

I loved this city when I visited last October, and I couldn’t wait to bring Steve. It was only fitting that our last day of this epic trip be spent getting lost in the City of Love. Venice is a destination unlike any other. We wandered around the endless canals and cobbled lanes without fear of getting clipped by a scooter or car passing by (which was the case in most cities). 

We met up with Paul and Sue following their walking tour and 
enjoyed an Aperol Spritz at Terrazza Aperol. Then, we enjoyed a delicious stracciatella agnolotti lunch at Guna, along with tiramisu and lemoncello.

Even amongst a few crowds of tourists, there’s still a quiet charm and romance that’s impossible to explain. I love Venice and now Steve does too, making this our #1 favorite stop of this awesome trip!

Caio for now, Italy. We’ll be back very soon.

We made this into our own little adventure and wouldn’t change a thing. From tapas in Barcelona, to oysters in Sète, to rose in Marseille, to eclairs in Nice, to truffles in Florence, to carbonara in Rome, to pizza pizza pizza pizza in Naples, to sadly missing Messina, to wine in Crotone, to orecchiette in Bari, to wandering around Sibnek, and finally getting lost in Venice…this was a trip of a lifetime and we truly had the time of our lives. 

Cheers! Salud! Saluti! Cin Cin! Živjeli!

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