Mediterranean Cruise Pre & Post Stays in Cannes & Rome
By Christina Colon.
Few other destinations can conjure a sense of vacation opulence and romantic anticipation quite like the French Riviera. Upon learning that the port of embarkation for our Star Clippers cruise was Cannes, we decided it would be foolish and downright wrong not to arrive a few days early and take in some of the Euro charm and subdued elegance of the French Riviera. We also booked several nights in a hotel after the cruise in magical Rome, near the port of Civitavecchia where the cruise ended. We spent our days exploring nearby villas, galleries and small museums, which ran us about €15 (Euro) each per visit, including audio tour headphones.
The French Riviera
From New York’s JFK airport, we flew non-stop to Paris’ Charles De Gaul airport on American Airlines, then onward to Nice, before taking a taxi the 16 km to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. The road hugged the coast before winding through narrow streets and up steep roads to our hotel, the posh Royal Riviera.
We booked in to their smallest room for two nights, at about €500 per night. Nestled on the seaside with a pool and private beach, this sleek hotel evoked the image of the nearby villas built at the turn of the 20th century during the Belle Époque period (1871-1914).
The breezy lobby had large glass doors that opened onto a green lawn and tall hedges hiding a rectangular pool and open-air casual restaurant serving cocktails and Thai themed lunch fare. Like everything else in this hotel, it was all about the views of the coastline and the cool ocean breezes.
While the lunch fare was passable (if you’ve never been to Thailand) the primary restaurant back in the main hotel was far superior. The indoor seating was empty thanks to an expansive balcony which could accommodate the diners who all opted to dine under the stars.
A live jazz quartet made their rounds taking requests in French and English, serenading each table in succession. While proximity to the sea and beaches was clearly important to us, there was also a desire to stay within walking distance of two renowned villas which were high on our wish list.
Villa Ephrussi was top of our must-see list. This Gatsby-esque villa built in the early 1900s felt more like a bonafide palace and was the pet project of the eccentric and very wealthy Rothschild heiress. The façade was a strange composite of bay windows, gables and stone arches from old churches that were literally attached onto the front of the building.
It felt suspiciously like the inspiration for more than one American robber baron villa somewhere in Florida or perhaps Newport Rhode Island.
The main entrance hall decorated with marble columns formed an open square meticulously designed to echo the vaulted ceilings of a church and open courtyard of a cloister. The lavish rooms were overfilled with clocks, mantles, tapestries Royal French 17th-century furniture and priceless art, all bought at auction from cash-strapped European royals.
The only thing more lavish than the house were the outrageous gardens with dancing fountains, reflecting pools, secret paths below dripping trellises, geometric rose gardens, stone pergolas and an impressive assortment of cacti and arid plants.
Villa Kerylos was a far a more modest yet still amazing full reconstruction of a Greek villa, complete with elaborate baths, Grecian style furniture, and fanciful custom woven fabrics, all still intact to this day. The “patron archaeologist” owner created this in part to house his private collection of Greek antiquities which were on display in behind glass in floor to ceiling built in cases in the main library.
On display during our visit was a collection of fanciful turn-of-the-century clothing inspired by Greek garb and displayed in each room on mannequins. Below the house in what used to be a workshop was a collection of 19th-century reproductions of ancient Greek statues.
Both villas were a pleasant stroll from our hotel up steep roads that pass by elegant private homes and overlook the sea. They were each a dazzling way to fritter away an afternoon while taking in the breathtaking landscape, rocky coastline and serene seascape below.
Nearly every street in town was pleasant to walk along and offered views of the nearby coastline. A series of small parks in town supported diverse vegetation ranging from fig trees to cacti while cafes and shops offered refuge from the beating sun. After two days we were ready to make our way to the nearby train station continue our journey. It was short ride to Cannes (under 10 euros each) on a clean and efficient rail line.
Civitavecchia … When in Rome
While difficult to pronounce, this port city of Rome is relatively easy to navigate. Many cruises start out or wind up here so its port runs like a well-oiled machine. Upon arriving at the port and collecting our luggage, we boarded a free shuttle bus that whisked us out of the port where we breezed past a scrum of eager tour guides and taxi drivers.
We then boarded a city bus to the train station. After side stepping yet another tour bus ticket scalper and opting instead to use a ticket vending machine, we caught a high-speed train directly into the heart of Rome.
A short taxi ride down a small side street brought us to a set of large wooden doors set into a non-descript yet elegant building next to a small park. The demure Spalletti Trivelli Via Piacenza Hotel is located near the presidential Palace, also known as Palazzo Quirinale, and cost us about €500 per night.
Until recently it was a private home and retained that feel as we were welcomed by the concierge into a vestibule that opened onto several sizeable rooms. One was an oak library, another was a dining room so large it required two complete sofa sets, and a third was small dining room where complimentary breakfast was served.
Our room had high ceilings and was dominated by a window bigger than most doors. The large bathroom had double sinks and an inviting marble tub. We didn’t have time to linger, however, as we were on a very tight sightseeing schedule.
No trip to Rome is complete without the obligatory romp through the main tourist attractions including the 2,ooo-year-old Colosseum, Roman Forum, Victory Monument and of course the 18th-century Baroque Trevi Fountain.
Because this was not our first trip to the Eternal City, we opted to avoid the Vatican, which requires a minimum of several days to thoroughly explore. If time is limited, a wander through or at least above the Forum is an amazing trip through literally thousands of years of history all in one place.
Remnants of palaces, monuments, basilicas, temples and cloisters are preserved so well that in the cases of the Temple of Romulus, the bronze doors not only remain on their hinges, but the locks on the doors still work. On the first Sunday of every month, admission to many of Rome’s monuments and museums is free. While a boon for the bargain hunter, it can make for big crowds and long lines.
If ruins, crowds and long lines are not your thing, you are in luck as there are a nearly endless assortment of villas, museums and galleries throughout Rome. They house some of the world’s finest art and antiquities, some of which rival pieces and works found in the Vatican.
In fact, many of these palatial villas are former homes of popes and their descendants who came into great wealth and notoriety by virtue of being related to the Pope. In fact this is where the term nepotism comes from, as the nephew (nepote) of the Pope was given an honorary title and great power to boot.
One such collection can be found in a building whose garden was originally constructed on the site of an ancient Roman temple and adjacent to the current residence of the Prime Minister. It towers above the street level with a modest entrance up a cheery but obscure alley.
Once inside, this palatial Baroque abode reveals its riches in a series of rooms with intricate ceiling frescoes and spectacular intricate marble floor designs, one from an ancient Roman house.
Built in the 17th century by descendants of Pope Martin the 5th, works of art adorn the walls and ancient statues dot the rooms interspersed with modern furnishings lamps and framed family photos, revealing a lived-in aspect. On the other side of the family courtyard lies the magnificent great hall, built to impress, dazzle and intimidate all who enter.
As such it bears a similarity to the great hall of mirrors in Versailles. Paintings, frescoes and statues create such a visual overload you easily could miss the cannonball lodged into the steps, a reminder of an historic episode where the French attacked Rome. Perhaps the most famous aspect of this hall is that it was the setting for the final scene in the film Roman Holiday where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck say their last farewells.
Requiring timed tickets booked in advanced with a rigid two-hour visitation, this palazzo contains some of the greatest marble masterpieces by artists such as Canova. Stepping into this building is like climbing into a gilded jewelry box packed with royal treasures, jewels and gems.
The crown jewels are the world-class marble sculptures including Daphne and Apollo by the great 17th-century sculptor by Bernini and the scandalously sensuous Canova nude reclining sculpture of Pauline, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte. A well narrated audio guide makes these works of art come to life not only through descriptions of their finer points, but by placing them into an historic and cultural context.
Palazzo Dora Pamphilj
This privately-run gallery has a wonderful audio-guide narrated by the current owner and descendant of Pope Innocent the 10th. Walking through the rooms, the narrator imparted a personal narrative about roller-skating on the newly polished tile floors as a child.
The walls were covered with paintings from floor to ceiling with almost no room between frames. The apartments have been recently opened to the public and are separated from the gallery by a small gift shop. Most notable in this impressive collection is a portrait of Pope Innocent by Velasquez along with several works by the great Caravaggio.
This large museum houses many of the antiquities unearthed in the nearby Roman Forum and displays them in several buildings situated around a plaza. It also contains remains of an ancient Roman temple which are now enclosed within the building. An encyclopedic audio guide contains narration on most of the seemingly endless works.
Most notable is the original bronze statue from antiquity of Emperor Marcus Aurelius on horseback which is remarkably well preserved considering it was first erected in 175 AD. Until recently it stood outside in the plaza but was wisely moved indoors and replaced with a full-size replica.
And More ….
The best and worst thing about Rome is there is far too much to do and see in one trip. One could spend a lifetime exploring this city and just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s more. You find out there have been more archaeological discoveries unearthed or yet another ancient papal villa restored, or forfeit by the family (who are not allowed to sell off the treasures) and opened to the public for the people of Rome and all the world to appreciate.
In addition, there are over 900 churches that also contain some of the world’s greatest works of art, all in a continual rotation of renovations and restorations. For example, a visit to the Jesuit Church rewarded us with jaw dropping frescoes and sculptures on the ceiling, that just 10 years ago were obscured by soot and nearly invisible.
We also noticed several parks in disrepair and others closed to the public, all in desperate need of renovation, and even the botanic garden was mysteriously closed due to “fumigation.” When we return, we hope to explore these and many other outdoor treasures that we sadly missed this time.
Luckily, we both threw a coin in Trevi Fountain, so if the legend proves correct, we will return for more explorations through history in the Eternal City.
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