Review: MSC Armonia, Naples

Ange asked me if I had felt the ship shudder as it had docked at the port in Naples. I professed ignorance but apparently the sideways motion had woken her at 6am. We were up reasonably early, wanting to be away quickly as we were doing our own excursion to the ruined city of Herculaneum.

We’d both done Pompeii previously and Herculaneum’s location (closer to Naples than Pompeii) and compactness (about a quarter to a half as big as Pompeii) were big drawcards. One of the MSC excursions was a trip to Pompeii, so we figured we should have enough time to get there and back by public transport, ready for the ship to depart at 1pm. So! The plan:

  • Have breakfast in the buffet at 6.30
  • Head off the ship as soon as the doors open
  • Walk to the metro station
  • Metro to Naples Central Train station
  • Train to Herculaneum
  • Tour the site
  • Walk back to the train station
  • Train back to Naples central train station
  • Metro to station nearest the port
  • Walk back to the ship

Sounds simple right?

Just time to brush our teeth before heading down to the exit, past the groups of passengers waiting for their excursions to begin. We headed up the hill, past hawkers and taxi drivers and paused briefly at a tour driver beside a sign saying ‘Herculaneum’. We established the price there and back wasn’t too much more than what we would be paying for public transport (which surprised me), and the mini-van looked comfortable.

We were on the verge of throwing our independent travel plans out the window when they mentioned that they wouldn’t be leaving for an hour to try to maximise the number of passengers they would take. Realising that even if the coach filled earlier, there was the gamble that we would be trading our time onsite for the security of transport when we didn’t have to. So we said “thanks but no thanks” and continued on.

The metro station was brand new, and the transfer to the train station straightforward. We had a little wait at Naples for the train and then squashed on with large groups of young people, presumably all heading to Pompeii (the same train serves both Pompeii and Herculaneum).

The walk from the station to the ruins was a short walk but we were hailed maybe three times by people wanting to be guides. One young chap started his spiel, saw my face and faltered, trailing off with a “…the ruins are that way…”. We arrived pretty much on time at Herculaneum, rocking up maybe a half hour after it opened, so about 9am. We made our way to the ticket booth where a queue of two couples ahead of us made me smile. We should be inside the complex in no time! Hmmmm….

There was a heated discussion between the man at the front of the queue and the lady at the front desk. Something about passports, dates of birth, that sort of thing. Other staff behind the counter were trying to help, but no resolution seemed to be forthcoming. We waited patiently but after five minutes with not much actually happening, I decided some action was required.

An older gentleman came over and addressed the queue, asking if anyone wanted a guide. I smiled at him and loudly stated that I didn’t need a guide: I needed a ticket. I then moved over to the vacant adjacent ticket window and started waving my euros around. “Any chance I could buy a ticket?” The three people behind the counter look embarrassed but nobody came to the counter I was at.

Continued discussions ensued and I returned to Ange in line. We’d made good time getting to the ruins, but this delay when we were so close was frustrating. A couple of minutes later a harried staff member came running over with an armful of tickets, and started selling them to those ahead of us in the queue. Maybe some sort of ticketing issue caused the problem, not the discussion at the head of the queue? Anyway, ticket in hand we head back out into the sun, past an unmanned ticket checking station, and into the ruins.

I’m glad for the early start – like Pompeii, there is no protection from the sun. The site itself is compact – whereas Pompeii sprawls over a square mile, Herculaneum only covers a quarter of that. It’s no less an impressive site though. While Pompeii was covered in ash, Herculaneum suffered from the ocean floor being raised and the escape route of the sea being denied to the citizens as they attempted to flee the superheated mud that flowed down from Vesuvius. I won’t spoil the site experience for you, sufficient to say that the houses and frescos were better preserved than those of Pompeii. And while the bodies of those citizens in Pompeii were removed form the site, at Herculaneum they remain, testament to the human tragedy.

We finish up and head back towards the entrance. The sun is really starting to get fierce and Ange stops off to use the bathroom on the way out. While waiting I watch the crowds waiting in line for their tickets. The queues go out the door and I wonder if the trip would have been worthwhile if we had had to wait in that sort of line for tickets when we had arrived.

Ange arrives and we walk back to the station. The touts are out in force and even though we’re obviously heading away from the ruins, some hardy souls try to sell us tours. We arrive at the train station and head up the stairs to the platform, about half way up the passengers who have just arrived are heading down and I realise that we might be able to make that train if we hustle.

Unfortunately by the time we make it to the platform level the train has left. No problem though, I’d been paranoid about missing the ship (which would involve an 18 hour train ride to Genoa to catch up), and so we had two more bites at the apple: two more trains are scheduled to run through which will also get us onto the ship in time.

So we wait. The next scheduled train arrives and they only open one door. We hustle over and the ticket conductor wants to see our tickets. We show them to him and he says that they are not good for this train, that this train is a non-stopping train and so costs more. About half the passengers try to get on and he turns them all away as having the wrong ticket. What I don’t think to do is try and pay the difference in fare then and there. But we have the other train we can catch coming a little later, so all should be good, right?

The sun is very strong on the platform as more and more passengers arrive, all looking to get back to Naples. The scheduled arrival time of our train comes and goes and I’m getting very nervous. I start thinking in terms of contingency plans. How long should we wait before grabbing a cab back to the ship? We discuss our options and we’ve decided that if the train doesn’t come by ten to 12 then we won’t have time to get back to the main train station (15 mins), transfer to the metro (5 mins), catch the metro to the station near the port (10 mins) and then dash to the ship (10 mins). Not knowing how much a taxi will cost or the time it will take (can you imagine missing the ship leaving because you got an expensive taxi which took too long because of a traffic jam?) is less of a worry than having a solid plan, so I’m feeling a little calmer.

At 11:45 am (hallelujah!) the train pulls in. All the seats are very quickly swamped but I’m just happy to be moving. We count the stations remaining and will the train to make better time. When we hit the station we dash off and curse the slow moving fellow travellers in front of us. Up escalators we run and dodge and “scusi” our way through the crowds. I’m glad I paid so much attention on the way in, so that we pick up time by knowing where we’re going and already having tickets.

We sprint (OK, Ange sprints, I lumber) through the transfer to the metro and manage to get down to the train level, panting slightly and enjoying the cool underground air. The platforms are our friends: there’s nothing to do except wait – I don’t know which end of the platform we want to be at for the exit at the other end, so we elect to be in the middle. We’re ahead of schedule, but my guestimation of how long it takes to get to the port station still might be woefully inaccurate so we decide that as soon as the doors open, we’ll still go hard out up the escalators and not rest until we’re onboard.

Woosh, the doors open and we’re off. The newness of the station is ignored as we find each set of escalators and do our best manic stair climbing. We’re spat out into the sun again and sprint past the street hawkers that weren’t there that morning. I power climb the last marble staircase into the customs hall and we make our way across the jetty at 12:22 pm. We decide to head up to the running track level to watch what happens with cast off, and how they deal with late comers.

At 12:50, a full 20 minutes after “all aboard” time, the last of the stragglers are aboard, all meandering slowly across the gangway as I mutter darkly from our vantage point. Apart from having already visited Pompeii, one of the reasons that we hadn’t gone on that excursion was that it just looked too expensive. We were tempted by the fact that the ship will wait for you if you’re on one of the official cruise organised tours – so maybe those latecomers were on such a tour?

Ange turns to me and asks if it was her fault that we were late – because she used the bathroom at the ruins. I thought about it for a while and said no. Well it was her fault that we missed that first train. Those 3 minutes would have meant we got on it. But it wasn’t her fault that we didn’t have the right tickets for the fast train. And it definitely wasn’t her fault that the other train was 20 minutes late. So if the ship had left without us it wouldn’t have been her fault – just the Naples train system’s.

Feeling peckish in only the way that having a stressful sprint across town up and down escalators will make you, we head down to the buffet restaurant. It looks like everyone else on the ship has the same idea. It’s a feeding frenzy!

We didn’t really have a good feeling of how many people were on board, but after lunch we certainly have abetter idea! After piling our plates we figure theres no room to sit so we head upstairs to the running track level and pull up a couple of sunloungers. I manage to angle the sun screener so that it serves reasonably well as a table (as long as I balance the plate correctly!) and we chomp our way through.

When we were watching the other latecomers come aboard we had left our spot before the ship had left the port to avoid the super loud horn from blasting our eardrums. We’d forgotten all about that while getting lunch until the ship left the harbour and gave a very large blast of the horn. Being on the running track level got us as close as possible to the horn!

After lunch we headed back to the cabin and I noticed that a note had been slipped under the door. “Please contact Guest Services” it said. I turned to Ange and told her that it looked like the IT manager had a response and headed down to Guest services.  The lovely staff member behind the counter smiled and brought up the message and read it out. The IT manager has said that you are on the wrong plan and that if you upgrade then your webpages will work.

I stare at her in disbelief. I make sure my volume and tone remain under control and I explain my position: The pages I’m using aren’t any more special than something like Google I tell her. All it is is a form that gets submitted. No streaming, no downloading big files at all. There is no technical reason why I should need to upgrade my package. It sounds like you are just trying to get more money out of me. But I guess there is no point arguing with you – your IT Manager has answered my question and you can’t override or change that.

As I was speaking she started to nod and come to a decision. She tells me that she can’t do anything about the internet charges, but that she can wipe off the service charge. I hesitate. She continues – the internet service you selected is not acceptable to you, so I can take off the service charge to reflect that and then you can spend that on the upgraded service. I nod slowly and thank her and head back to the cabin. I’m a bit concerned that this will reflect badly on Perpetue or that her pay will be adversely affected by the lack of service charge. Ange is curious why they would remove the service charge. I tell her that the customer service desk probably only have one form of pacifying customers- removing the charge. They wouldn’t have the authority to do anything else.

We do some more work and watch the allowance get chewed up pretty quickly. Uploading photos is looking like a bad thing to do as it really uses it up quickly, but at least by upgrading the package we can finally save our blog posts!

We have a quick snack at 6pm to get us to the 9pm second sitting in the flash restaurant.

The dress code was for informal, so everyone was in jeans and t.shirts. We’d received a ticket saying that our table number had been changed for tonight, and so we headed down a little late for dinner at 9:15pm and tried to find our table.

There was only one likely looking table but it was a table for four with a couple already on the other side of it and a missing number placard. Every other table being taken kinda indicated the one remaining was ours and eventually the waiters figure that out themselves and we sit. The other couple don’t look particularly pleased. Dinner is nice enough, but I score big time with my choice of dessert – a parfait.

So we head back to our cabin, after a relatively eventful day!