Saturday, September 25, 2010

Day 6: Monaco, Monte Carlo, Villefranche

As we sailed away from Italy and towards France, I was just thinking of the strong somking culture in Italy. You see police cars moving around with the police officers openly smoking away on duty. The dock security smoke, the pedestrians smoke and people at work at tourist destinations smoke. It's quite a unique sight to see 2 police officers standing near their patrol unit smoking away. Oh and I love the Italian police sirens. They still have the old police sirens that you hear in the original Italian Job movie.

Today, we docked at Villefranche in France. The coast is too shallow for the ship to dock so we are moored a couple of miles away and we have to take a ferry from the ship to the port.

I had an option of seeing Villefranche, Nice and Eze in France, but I learnt that the country of Monaco is pretty close by and so I chose to go there instead. After about a half an hour drive, we crossed the French border to enter Monaco. Now Monaco is considered Europe's playground for the rich and famous primarily due to the Le Grand Casino in Monte Carlo and also due to the fact that Monaco's a tax pay no income tax, road tax, car tax nothing. So interested in becoming a citizen? To get the application form, you need to fulfill three basic requirements:

1) Open a bank account in Monaco and deposit 500,000 Euros.
2) Buy a residential property in Monaco. The going rate? 50,000 Euros per square metre.
3) Commit to staying in Monaco for 6 months 1 day per year. Now this is tough for celebrities, sports stars and all so how does Monaco check? Well, as long as your utilities are running and you are raking up a utility bill for 6 months in a year, it's fine.

Interesting fact: Did you know Michael Shumacher lost his citizenship as he broke the speed limit and raked up just too many speeding tickets?

Now coming back to the trip to Monaco, we passed through Villefranche and a place called Beaux (or something like that). Beaux and Moaco are the places where the world's who who have their permanent and/or holiday homes. The prince of Egypt, Bill Gates, the U2 band, you name them and they have a house here. So when you visit, the wealth shows. From an Aston Martin to a Rolls Royce, I saw dozens of luxury cars on the trip. I saw houses that were way up in the hills with an external lft going right down to the sea.

Coming to Monaco, the Monaco Boat/Yacht show is currently on so we were lucky enough to see the world's most expensive yachts on display. We saw close up, a yacht belonging to the Financial Advisor of Saudi Arabia. Now his yacht is more than 300 feet long and the name of the boa ('Lady something') is inscribed in 24k gold on three places on the exterior of the yacht. Now he is never sure when he is going to get time to use it, so he keeps it in Monaco and makes sure his yacht staff of 60 are always on call to receive him when he visits once or twice a year. How does he visit? On a helicopter...the yacht has a helipad. So those are the kind of yachts we got to see.

I also got to see the Circuit de Monaco, the track (which is essentially the normal streets) where the F1 Grand Prix happens every year. Was able to see te tunnel, the hairpin bends and everything. Next was a visit to Saint Nicholas Cathedral, The cathedral is unique as compared to the others as visitors can see all the tombs on the Monaco royalty that have been laid to rest here. Inside the cathedral, you essentially have a circle and in the inner rim you have the tombs and opposite the tombs on the outer rim, you have a statue dedicated to the royal or the person of significant importance who has been laid to rest there.

I moved on to see the Prince's Palace of Monaco. I was lucky enough to be early and see the Palace's change of guard ceremony take place. Now Monaco has the largest police force to citizen ratio in the world. Though Wikipedia mentions a police force of 515, on ground zero, I was informed that including the police force, the royal guards and everything, for 32,000 citizens, Monaco has a force of close to 1,000 officers.

We finally reached Monte Carlo to see the Monte Carlo Casino. This is where the country of Monaco makes its money. From Russian grand dukes to railway magnates, if you are somebody in Europe (and to a lesser extent, even the world), you gamble here. The place has been featured in the James Bond movies, 'Never Say Never Again' and 'Golden Eye.'

I felt very happy that I was able to see Monaco and see how a certain section of the world lives. Satisfied with seeing all of Monaco (almost literaly), I headed back to the ship. In the evening, I visited the Pig & Whistle pub where there was an Irish style St. Patrick's party today followed by a parade on the ship. Oh and everyday, the ship has a shooter of the day.' Today's was something called the 'French Kiss.' Contains Bailey's Irish Cream, amaretto and creamed de cacao white served in a yellow glass.

They had crepes for dinner which is one of my favourite dishes (rarely do you get them in Hyderabad) and I thoroughly enjoyed having them. The ship also has tons of activities for those who stay back on board every day such as salsa classes, 70 syle dance classes, Wii tournaments etc, but as I usually head out, I miss these activities.

This will be my last email for the trip. Tomorrow, we are docking at Toulon in France and I will be visiting the city of Marseille all day. Day after, we will dock at Barcelona in Spain. The highlight there will be the visit to the the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, a church that has been under construction since 1882 and is not yet complete (current secheduled date of compltion is 2026). Check out the pics, it's one of the most unique building designs you will see. This will be followed by going for a Spanish Flamenco dance show.

And that concludes my cruise holiday. Thank you for staying with me and till we meet again...

UPDATE: Had to write something about day 7. We docked at Toulon which is a military port. I get out to my balcony to see this huge ship...France's nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle a couple of hundred feet away! I could have jumped over and swam to the ship, it was that close!

Also, on the last day our ship ran into a storm as the winds hit 111km/hr and fury of Poseidon showed in the waves rocking our ship. The captain had to make an all ship announcement that all open decks were being closed and we may have to anchor till the storm ceases. The lifts on the ship were creaking away. Quite an experience!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Day 5: Livorno, Florence & Pisa

Day 5 is another exciting day though definitely less action-packed than day 4. A lot of time on day 5 was spent traveling as Florence is 1 1/2 hrs away from Livorno and then Pisa is another 1 1/2 hrs away from Florence and then 1 1/2 hrs back. So it was an extremely short day to see the cities but I was satisfied with covering a lot nevertheless.

Livorno is where our ship docked. Livorno was defined as an "ideal town" during the Italian Renaissance and is today the third-largest port on the western coast of Italy. I am guessing there is a military manufacturing unit close by because as we approached the shore, from the ship, I could see a part of the dock with hundreds of newly built army trucks being loaded on to a ship. Livorno looks very beautiful and well layed out in multiple tier formats (as in one tier then some altitude and then another tier and so on) from the sea and I guess that's why it may have been 'an ideal town.'

Not seeing anything here, we took the early morning bus to Florence. I felt strangely familiar with Florence as so much of Assassin's Creed 2 is based out of Florence. I could recognize most of the churches (which is a kudos to Assassin's Creed 2's level of detail). Without a doubt, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is the most impressive sight in Florence. I have climbed and jumped around it in Assassin's Creed 2...I was amazed at it's virtual Hi-Definition creation, I am amazed at the real thing. This is the third largest cathedral in the world, so after seeing St. Peter's Basilica yesterday, I am now fortunate enough to see the world's largest and thrd largest cathedrals. The second largest is St. Pauls' in London. Apart from the main Cathedral, there is something called the Giotto's bell tower outside the Cathedral (in Assassin's Creed 2 you do a 'leap of faith' from the top of this tower) and the Baptistery of St. John. While St. Peter's Basilica was definitely breathtaking from inside, I liked this Cathedral better in terms of the exterior and I have always loved the bell tower.

I then proceeded to see the Palazzo Vecchio (old palace). This palace is famous for it's finely preserved interiors. The interior paintings boast of being created by such great artists as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. So while I missed seeing Michelangelo's work at the Sistine Chapel, I did get a glimpse of them here. I also took the ticket to the top of the palace for a wonderful eagle eye's vision of Florence. I then spent some time at the Piazza della Signoria which is an open square that houses original sculpted works of such famous artists as Giambologna and Cellini.

I also visited the Santa Maria Novella (in Assassin's Creed 2, this houses an Assassin's tomb). In reality, the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella is a church in Florence, and chronologically its first great basilica, as well as the city's principal Dominican church.

As you can see, most of visits in Florence were heavily influenced by what I have seen in Assassin's Creed 2 and the same resulted in me covering the most important Florence sights. Howerver, I still missed seeing quite a few other landmarks or being able to completely explore the interiors of the above churces and I look forward to returning to completing the same.

I finally left to visit Pisa to go see another one of the seven wonders of the world, the Torre pendente di Pisa (aka leaning tower of Pisa). I never realised that the leaning tower of Pisa was actually a bell tower for a cathedral that is right next to it. Only since 2005 has the tower reopened to the public and I took the opportunity to climb the 296 steps to the very top of the tower. The view is great as you get to see the top of the cathedral and also the old city walls of Pisa that are standing to ths date. You can therefore see how the city was encompassed within the walls and the tower, thougha bell tower also makes for a pretty good watch tower. There are a total of 4 bells on top, each with intricate designs. The cathedral is called Duomo di Pisa. With this visit, I complete seeing 5 out of the 7 wonders of the world. A learning though that I took away after this visit was that there is a lot of difference and subjectivity between the definition of the 7 wonders of the world, the Wikipedia article itself being pretty dicey (they don't have Taj Mahal on the main list). However, according to what I have learnt, the traditional list is:

1) The Great Pyramid of Giza
2) The Taj Mahal
3) Colosseum
4) Leaning Tower of Pisa
5) Eiffel Tower
6) Great Wall of China
7) Hagia Sophia

I spent the evening on the ship at Cleopatra's Needle which is another pub but also has a Nintendo Wii on a giant screen.

As we sail away, I look forward to tomorrow's port of call.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Day 3: Pompeii: A City Frozen in Time & More + Day 4: The Eternal City of Rome & More

Day 3 and Day 4 are perhaps the most action packed of the lot. These were also the days for choices. For example, on day 2, I had to choose between choosing multiple destinations. Do I take a boat to the Isle of Capri or a full day tour of Naples? Do I choose to spend the whole day trekking to Mount Vesuvius, which is an active volcano or take a tour of Pompeii and another city? Choosing one meant sacrificing another.

Day 3

The ship docked at Naples. As we approached the dock, you could see the whole of Naples (which is on the shore) in front of you and it was a wonderful site. I began the day by taking a city bus tour of Naples and its surroundings in which I essentially covered Castel Nuovo, Naples Cathedral, Palace of Caserta, City Gates...all from outside. I only had a day on shore so had to prioritise accordingly.

Next visit was Pompeii. Pompeii, a wealthy Roman city that was destroyed and completely buried during a long catastrophic eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius spanning two days in 79 AD. What's unique about Pompeii is that since it was buried under ash and pumice, the objects buried beneath Pompeii were remarkably well-preserved for almost two thousand years. The lack of air and moisture allowed for the objects to remain underground with little to no deterioration.

Do cite some examples, you can actually see the positions of the victims as and when they got buried along with their facial expressions. The preservation was great to such an extent, that archaeologists were able to recover bread from the ovens in the bakeries. Pompeii has been on my "100 things to do" list and it was great to visit this today.

It was great to see ancient Roman houses lying intact with pools, paintings, pottery and all. One house, you could actually see the entrance of a house having a drawing of a dog with the words 'beware of dog' in Latin. I saw the forum, markets, wine shopsc etc. Pompeii is so well preserved, you could also see the barber shop, the local eatery and the brothel. While a lot is definitely left to imagination, the layouts of each of these are so well preserved. You could see original Roman streets with road blocks and one ways. Some of the walls still retain original election propaganda messages. I saw bakeries with the ovens still lying intact. The water fountains were still there with clearly visible carvings of Gods and animals. You could witness the leads pipes that provided water to the city (Romans were unaware of lead posioning then).

I also wanted to go see the many recovered Pompeii artefacts and the infamous 'Secret Museum' the Naples National Archaeological Museum, but the museum is closed on Tuesdays.

I then proceeded to check out the city of Herculaneum. Herculaneum was also destroyed by Mount Vesuvius. Though again remarkably well preserved, however not as well preserved as Pompeii since it was first hit by a huge earthquake before the eruption. Additionally, over time, there was modern construction over Herculaneum which has made it impossible to excavate the entire lost city. Herculaneum served as a resort city for wealthy Romans which is why over here you would see huge palatial type houses with baths, steam rooms and such. I was able to see a lot of simple paintings here that essentially shed light on the way Romans lived. Again, a lot of the city was preserved thanks to the ash, so the ancient paintings showed how Romans enjoyed fruit of all kind, sauces imported from Spain, how they used cups made of glass and how these resort houses were designed such that they could benefit from sunlight at all times of the day.

There was quite a few walls on Herculaneum with well preserved ancient advertisements. There was a wall that you could claerly make out sold wine with the different qualities of wine mentioned selling for different prices. Another wall advertised a play that was playing at the local theater. To be able to read these advertisements 2 centuries later is a sight indeed.

At the end of the day, it was definitely a great day to remember and I left feeling satisfied that I had covered what I wanted to see. Towards the evening, I headed out to check out the Aquarium Bar on the ship. The brochure said it would give a feel of staying in between the sea life so I imagined a real aquarium but turned out to be just a fake plastic themed place. Pretty disappointing.

Let's see what day 4 holds as we head to another port of call.

Day 4

We docked at Civitavecchia. This harbor was constructed by the Emperor Trajan at the beginning of the 2nd century. We saw the ancient Civitavecchia fort and the harbor itself.

Moving on, afer a 1 1/2hrs drive...

Rome has conquered! (a famous line a faction leader shouts in Rome: Total War, when you conquer a neighbouring faction city). Rome is another place on my '100 things to do' list.

I feel a close affinity to Italy, Florence and Rome simply because of it's influence on video games over time. One of my favourite games as a kid was Caesar, in which you have to build and manage a Roman city. Rome Total War, is my favourite war-time strategy game. Assassin's Creed, is heavily based in Italy and a lot of monuments and churches that I want to see are due to their presecence in this game. Additionally, I have always been greatly influenced by quotes of famous Roman generals and leaders and one often sees me using them in my status messages, emails and verbal communication.

So it was but a dream come true to finally visit the land in which the senate once presided over all. Rome is just so huge and I saw tons of places, most by bus due to time constraints. Where to begin? I saw the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. Although the Colosseum is pretty much in ruins, it was still an impressive sight. Did you know that the most of the Colosseum stands destroyed not bcause of time but because it's construction material was so superior that the Romans and Popes through the ages destroyed it's parts to have their own statues, tombs etc consructed? I saw the Castel Sant'Angelo. It was initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. The building was later used by the popes as a fortress and castle. The castle also appears in Assassin's Creed 2. I saw the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of an unified Italy. I am specifically mentioning this as I was impressed by it's presenation and grandeur. I saw the ancient Roman forum. I saw the remains of the Theatre of Pompey, the infamous sites where Julius Caesar was murdered. There are 100's of such buildings all over Rome and I could see but maybe a dozen.

Are we done for the day? Heck no!

Next on the agenda was Vatican City State. Vatican City State is a country of it's own. It has an area of approximately 44 hectares (110 acres), and a population of just over 800. It has complete sovereignity from it's own postal system to issuing its own passports. The Pope is the head of State. The destination to see here was St. Peter's Basilica, one of the holiest Christian sites and as "the greatest of all churches of Christendom." I stood over an hour in line to enter the Basilica. Once in, I was but speechless at what I saw. Grand is but an understatement. Elaborate frescoes, statues, the Papal Swiss Guard, everything just leaves you speechless. The Wikipedia article covers everything that I saw and I cannot type it simple because I just cannot remember the names of everything I saw. The one I thing that I do remember seeing (because of the simple name) is Saint Peter's tomb.

Am I done at the Vatican? Unfortunately no because I could not see Michelangelo's work at the Sistine Chapel and I do look forward to returning to see it one day.

Eveneing was spent at the Schooner bar, a nautical themed bar with a live pianist. I also gambled away $2 at the on board casino.

I am going to miss Rome. As I left Rome I made sure to visit Trevi Fountain (the most beautiful fountain I have seen till date), and tossed a coin over my shoulder which legend says shall ensure my return to Rome. I do hope so as I want to return to this historic city and quench my thirst of visiting all it's wonderful monuments and re-living this advanced civilisation brick by brick.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Day 1: Boarding the 'Voyager of the Seas' & Day 2: Cruising the Mediterranean

Day 1:

After traveling Hyderabad-Bangalore-Paris, we finally arrived in Barcelona. It was nice to back and just like last year, the airport was filled with teenagers from all over Europe (not sure if this is spring break season or similar).

We finally arrived at the port to board the 'Voyager of the Seas' at around 3:00pm. With a capacity of 3,114 passengers, a total crew of 1,181 and 15 decks (aka floors), the Voyager of the Seas was the world's largest passenger ship when it undertook it's maiden voyage in 1999 with many of the world's 'first to be on a ship feature' such as an ice skating rink. Today, it is the world's 5th largest passenger ship. This is my first cruise vacation ever and I did go wow as I saw my ship and how the other passenger ships on the dock were dwarfed by the size of the 'Voyager of the Seas.'

The stateroom is small but comfortable (and to think this is one of the bigger rooms). The best part of the room is that it has its own private sea-facing balcony.

After checking in, proceeded for lunch. Though the food selection was grand, for a vegeterian, it is the usual battle. The saving grace was the huge selection of fresh fruit from apples to kiwis.

Per international law, it is mandatory for a passenger ship to have a full-scale mandatory mock emergency drill pior to depature, so I also got the taste of the ship's emergency sirens and experience a 4,000 capacity ship evacuating itself during an emergency.

I spent the rest of the evening walking along the ship and surveying its many offergs and booking my shore excursions (of which I will write in the days to come). The night plan was to visit the nightclub on deck 3 for a champagne party but I came down with fever and had to sleep the night out. We will be at sea all day tomorrow as we sail towards our first port of call.

Day 2:

Today is going to be all day at sea. Got up and headed for a super breakfast. For us vegeterians, the breakfast is the best meal of the day. I moved on to the spa for an 'Ocean Wrap Massage.' This is the most unique massage I have ever had. The massage includes the use of seaweed for a full body massage. You feel very warm when the seaweed is applied and then suddenly cold and then you are covered in some kind of foil to keep you warm while other ocean treatments are applied. Overall, it lasts 2 hours and when you come out your skin feels super soft. Strangely, my cold disappeared after the massage (lets see if it hits back soon). They also had acupuncture massages but I am not yet comfortable with needles poking my body.

I moved on for lunch followed by an ice show called the 'Ice Odyssey' starring multiple international skating champions from Russia to the United States. This was the first time I have seen a live ice skating performance and it was amazing to see the kind of acrobatics and dances these artists do on skates.

Next target was to spend some time sunbathing on the upper deck. After spending 3 1/2 years sitting 9 hours a day in a super cold, air conditioned office devoid of any natural sunlight, it feels great to spend a couple of hours straight basking in the warm sun (which s not the harsh kind of intense sunlight) while experiencing fresh, unpolluted, breezy air and just seeing yourself sailing in deep blue water (it's not crystal clear though as in you cannot see through the water) with no land in sight. Oh and while I was on the top deck wearing a t-shirt and shorts, I still found myself feeling way over dressed. It was also a wonderful sight to see fellow guests just sitting and relaxing, reading books, listening to music, napping away, enjoying a drink at the sky bar or jogging away on the jogging track (all on the same deck!). The couple of hours here were much more relaxing than doing the same at a beach.

We are going to have the captain's dinner in the evening followed by which I will be heading to 'The Vault Bar,' one of the nightclubs on the ship. The ship has many night joints and my OKR (Google lingo, so if you are a non-Googler...please feel jealous!) is to visit every one of them while on the ship. For the statistically inclined, there are a total of 12 bars and lounges on the ship and 7 restaurants (and we haven't even begun talking about the swimming pool, casino, 9 hole miniature golf course etc).

Tomorrow will be our first port to call (won't break the suspense location now!). I miss not having a cheap data connection to mark my visits on FourSquare as and when I go to all the places.

I now sit on my balcony watching the sun set and seeing tons of stars slowly beginning to appear...2 of which are named 'Hadar' and 'Rigel Kentaurus A' according to Google Sky Map, which is an Android exclusive application (Disclaimer: Google did not pay me to type this).

Looking forward to an early but exciting day tomorrow as we hit our first port of call. Stay tuned for more!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

UN Transport—Land/Sea/Air

To view the high resolution images,  click on the images above

On 2 September 2010, the United Nations Postal Administration (UNPA) issued three se-tenant strips of five stamps each in the denominations of 44 cents, F.s. 1,00 and € 0,65 on the theme “UN Transport—Land/ Sea/Air”. Each sheet of 20 stamps accommodates four se-tenant strips of five stamps. 

Single—one standard-size envelope affixed with one se-tenant strip of 5 stamps without M.I. for each location. 
Triple-cancelled—one jumbo envelope affixed with one of each se-tenant strip of five stamps without M.I. for each location. 

On 2 September 2010, first day hand-cancellations for UN Transport— Land/Sea/Air were made available at United Nations Headquarters in New York, Geneva and Vienna. 

Transportation plays an extremely important role for the United Nations in its efforts to maintain its peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. United Nations transport vehicles are critical for deploying UN personnel to peacekeeping missions, shipping large amounts of food to meet emergency needs, supplying emergency medical supplies and transporting other cargo and equipment to the field missions throughout the world. 

The Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) is dedicated to assisting the Member States and the Secretary- General in their efforts to maintain international peace and security. The Department’s mission is to plan, prepare, manage and direct UN peacekeeping operations using all forms of transport, whether by land, sea or air. 

In order for the United Nations to maintain its peacekeeping operations properly, it requires strong transport logistics. The Logistics Support Division (LSD) is a part of the Department of Field Support (DFS) at the United Nations. LSD is based at UN Headquarters in New York City, where a diverse and dedicated team of civilian staff provides logistical support to UN-led peacekeeping, peacebuilding and political missions around the world. 

The Logistics Support Division is responsible for the implementation and monitoring of policies and procedures for all logistic issues in United Nations peacekeeping. The Division consists of three elements: 

1. The Operational Support Service includes logistics, planning and programme support. 
2. The Specialist Support Service includes a range of technical logistics sections, including supply, engineering, contingent-owned equipment and property management, and cartographic and medical support. 
3. The Transportation and Movements Service ensures effective logistics capabilities in terms of air transport, strategic air- and sealift for movement of military and civilian personnel and cargo, and providing vehicles and spare parts at the required time and place, in the most efficient manner. 

The Logistics Support Division also oversees the operations of the United Nations Logistics Base in Brindisi, Italy, which manages reserve equipment stocks and strategic deployment stocks that assist in rapid establishment of new missions. 
United Nations peacekeeping efforts continue to evolve conceptually and operationally to meet new challenges and political realities. Faced with the rising demand for increasingly complex peace operations, the role of UN transport vehicles is as critical as ever in order to contribute to the most important function of the United Nations—maintaining international peace and security.

The stamps, in the denominations of 44 cents, F.s. 1,00 and € 0,65, measure 30 mm horizontally by 40 mm vertically, perforation to perforation. Perforation: 13 1/2. 

The vertical sheets of 20 stamps have four marginal inscriptions, two in the top margin and two in the bottom margin. The marginal inscription consists of the United Nations emblem with the text “United Nations” above the emblem and the year “2010” below the emblem. One copyright symbol appears in the lower left corner. 

The stamps were designed by Simon Williams (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). 

Simon Williams was born and raised in Swansea, South Wales, and showed artistic talent from a very early age. 

After studying architectural illustration at Swansea College of Art, Mr. Williams moved to London and worked in various advertising studios until going freelance in 1983. Since then he has worked for many blue-chip companies on a variety of projects, including household names such as Kraft, Polycell and EMI. 

Mr. Williams has produced stamps for Saint Kitts and Nevis and Gibraltar and was very pleased to become involved with the United Nations with the “Transport” series of stamps. 

Mr. Williams is married with one daughter and divides his time between his homes in Kent and Swansea, where he works with his wife producing a lifestyle magazine. 

The stamps were printed in offset by UAB Garsu Pasaulis (Lithuania).