28 September 2008

Another Day, Another Continent, An Ancient City

25 September 2008

Our port of call today is Kusadasi, Turkey, which is on the larger Asian portion of the country.  It is pronounced “koo SHAH dah suh”, or something close to that, and it means 'bird island' because of a small island just offshore that must look like a bird.  Thanks to our awesome travel agent, Carol Wilcox, and Virtuoso Explorer, we got to go on a free private shore excursion to the ancient city of Ephesus, which is about 30 miles north of the port at Kusadasi.  You have probably heard of Ephesus from the Bible (Paul's letters to the Ephesians) but you may not know that only Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch (in Syria) were more renowned than Ephesus at its prime, between 600 BC and 500 AD.  It used to be a port city itself, but today there is no sign of an ocean there.  It was home to 300,000 people and was one of the most beautiful and well-located cities of ancient times.  Today, its ruins are being excavated and painstakingly reconstructed – it is one of the world's most fascinating sites of antiquity.

It is a mystery to me exactly why Ephesus became such a ghost town, given its prime location and its stunning building and incredible city planning.  Evidently, there was a malaria outbreak that caused people to leave the area, and they were afraid to return.  After a while, people came back to Ephesus to take marble and pieces of buildings that they could use elsewhere (early recycling) but they did not rebuild or repopulate the city.  Over time, there were earthquakes and the Aegean Sea receded and silt deposits covered the city, layer after layer.  The result is that Ephesus is the Aegean's best preserved ancient city.

Our guide, Eti, was a 65 year old Turkish woman who had been a museum curator for 35 years.  She was so knowledgeable and passionate about Ephesus and I think we all learned something on this tour.  She was able to help us imagine what life would have been like here, 2000 years ago!  Some of the most incredible things we learned about Ephesus – it had hot and cold running water throughout the city, as well as separate lines for sewage; the men's latrine, which seated about 30 or 40, in close quarters, was THE place to be for social gatherings – precursor to fraternities and men's clubs, I guess; the great theatre of Ephesus could hold 1500 spectators, had 22 tiers, and was acoustically perfect; the Temple of Diana (Roman goddess of fertility) was four times the size of the Parthenon; the brothel was located right near the seaport; the Library of Celsus, which was huge, held over 10,000 parchment and papyri documents, and the walls were very thick so that the documents would not mildew; the streets were laid out in a grid pattern, and the main roads were lined with marble, while the adjacent pedestrian ways were elaborate mosaics; we saw the ancient symbols for medicine and pharmacy carved in stone here, and they are the same ones used today; and the terrace houses were gigantic and gorgeous.

One of the things we got to do on this special tour (that the other gazillion people on tours from our ship and all the others in port that day didn't) was visit the current excavation project of the Yamac Homes of Antiquity (the elite Terrace Houses.  These sites were under cover, which was nice, because we finally had a hot, sunny day.  The house we toured was over 9000 square feet, and it was covered with frescoes and mosaics and was full of fountains.  It reminded me most of ancient Pompeii, which also had homes with beautiful frescoes and stunning mosaics.  We walked on 'sidewalks' made of plexiglass, so we could see the area being restored beneath our feet.  It was really something!

After we had spent about three hours roaming through the ruins of Ephesus, we got back on our bus and went for refreshments at the Kismet Mansion Hotel back in Kusadasi.  Here we had refreshing lemonade and three different kinds of Turkish pastries that Eti had picked for us – one filled with spinach, one with cheese, and one with tahini.  They were delicious and the hotel was beautiful.  It was a short ride back to the ship, but Judy, Nancy, and Emma got off to do some shopping while the men and I went up to the Lido deck for hamburgers.  This is Bob's favorite place on board, I think.  I'm pretty sure he's had at least one burger a day here, and boy, are they good!

By today, all of us except Emma and Rex were sick with varying degrees of colds and sore throats, and we weren't the only ones.  It seemed that most of the people on our tour were hacking and sniffing, too.  I vowed not to touch any more handrails!  So, it was a good afternoon for a nap (aren't they all?) so that we could all get better and rest up for our day in Santorini.  Judy especially felt bad today – we're pretty sure she had a fever and everything.  The show tonight was a comedian, Rikki Jay – I missed it, so I can't report on that.  Dinner in the Vista dining room was scrumptious, as usual, and we were all off to bed to cough and snort and hopefully sleep!

Awed by the wisdom of the ancients,


A Day in Paradise

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Today I swam in the Aegean Sea.  I could stop here and you would know what the highlight of my day was, but there is so much more to tell!  

Our ship docked at Greek's party island, Mykonos, sometime in the night.  Our group did not have a grand plan for the day – I had looked into some private tours for us, but the one that was offered us seemed to be too much to pay for too little – so everyone was in charge of finding our own fun here.  Rex and I took it easy in the morning, and it was almost noon before we took a shuttle bus from the ship to Chora, the city closest to the port.  As we were riding in, we passed a few rental car companies, and on the spur of the moment, decided to see what kind of deal we could get.  We found an Avis shop just at the top of the stairs on the main road, and when we learned we could have a car until 8 PM for only 53 Euros, we sealed the deal.  Soon we were tucked away in our tiny Fiat Panda, in search of real Greek food and a beach.

Our little Fiat was a five speed and all the street names and street signs were in Greek, so it took both of us paying good attention to get us where we wanted to be.  Mykonos is not a large island – its population is around 10,000 people, and it has only a few main villages – in addition to Chora on the west coast, there are Ornos and Platys Gialos on the southwest coast, Kalafatis on the southeast coast, Ano Mera near the center of the island, Fanari on the northwest coast, and Ag Stefanos and Tourlos on the west coast north of Chora.  It is only about 10 km from Chora to Kalafati, so we didn't think we could get too lost.  As usual, searching for food quickly became our first order of business, at least right after getting out of town without incident or accident!  Rex really wanted to see some of the famous party beaches (clothing optional, of course), especially Paradise and/or Super P, so we started following signs to them in hopes of coming across a taverna along the way.  Mykonos is mostly made of granite, and there is little fresh water here – desalination and bottled water are a big deal.  The countryside was very rocky, dotted with small white houses in typical Greek island postcard fashion.  We passed almost as many small, white, red-roofed churches as we did homes, which led us to believe they were family churches or chapels, which we later learned they are.  We saw several homes under construction, which was pretty neat.  They consisted of vertical and horizontal concrete girders and beams that were reinforced with rebar and arranged to form small cubes.  The sides of the homes were then bricked in, plastered, and painted white.  We noticed lots of solar-powered hot water tanks on the ceilings of the homes, and most of these houses had flat roofs, while the churches had arched barrel roofs.

We came to a quaint little building advertising crepes, pizza, spaghetti, and hamburgers, so we pulled in for lunch on the patio.  There was a man sweeping up who led us to believe he was open for business, even though no one else was there.  Once inside though, it turned out he didn't open until 6:30 - we were out of luck.  He told us just to turn right and keep going and we would find something, so we did. We came to a fork in the road, with signs pointing left for Paradise, Super P, and lots of eateries.  The sign pointing right just had one place on it – Restaurant Nicolas – so I told Rex to head that way.  Just around the bend we almost ran into a small complex consisting of an inn and a patio restaurant that opened onto a small beach.  Perfect!  And even better, it was open!  Rex parked the car (you just kind of make up your own parking places here) and we were greeted by a pretty young woman named Katerina.  She showed us three refrigerator cases of food (appetizers, cooked main courses, and meats and seafood that could be grilled) and told us we could choose from these or order from the menu.  We took a seat outside and looked over the menu, and then chose to order some of the goodies she had shown us.  Rex ordered 'rubbit' (rabbit) in tomato sauce and I opted for stuffed tomatoes and peppers.  Then I went inside to pick out some first courses – cold potatoes with onions, capers, parsley, and olive oil; black-eyed peas (!) with parsley, olive oil, peppers, and spices; and a teeny portion of macaroni and cheese, which turned out to be a huge square of macaroni, topped with meat sauce, more macaroni, bechemal sauce, and cheese. YUM!  Add a huge plate of grilled bread slathered with olive oil and two small carafes of wine and we were good to go!  We ate and ate until it was all gone, and then Katerina brought out some dessert for us (on the house, I guess since we enjoyed our meal with such gusto and cleaned our plates!).  The dessert looked like snickerdoodle dough and it was almost as tasty!  I'm not sure how to spell what it was called – chava maybe? - but Katerina told me it was semolina, sugar, and cinnamon – in other words, snickerdoodle dough!  It was yummy, too!

Since we were stuffed and had been drinking, we asked if we could linger on the beach.  Katerina told us that Aia Anna Paraga beach was a free public beach, showed us where to change into our swimsuits and where to find beach chairs, and there were plenty of open thatched umbrellas waiting for us.

I popped in my iPod and dozed while listening to music, and Rex got in the water and then rested, too.  Soon I was hot enough get in the water – or so I thought.  It was CHILLY!!!  I got in about up to my waist, and a young man on the beach was teasing me and telling me how warm it was - about 68 degrees – brrr!!  The water was crystal clear – I could see straight to the bottom (covered with smooth round rocks) and it was strange to see all the fish that you know are in there but usually don't see.  Rex's mom would not have liked that part!!  Finally I gave up and just dove in!  It was great!  I kept my eyes open before I remembered I was in salt water, but it didn't matter.  Although even Rex had no trouble floating, the water did not seem all that salty.  I swam out a few yards and was soon in way over my head, but it was still clear enough to see the bottom.  It was heavenly!  We just floated out there for a while and then came back to sit in the sun and dry off.  The sand on the beach was light brown and very coarse and gritty, and there were no seashells to be found.  The sand brushed right off our feet once they were dry – wish our beaches were like that!

About 4:30, we finally roused ourselves, changed back into our clothes, and went in search of more Mykonos.  Our next stop was Super Paradise, beach to the rich, famous, young, glamorous, and skinny crowd.  Not our kind of place on SO many levels!  But we can say we've been there and seen it, topless women and all! We passed on Super P – seen one trendy Mykonos beach, seen them all – and took off for Lake Marathi and Panormos Bay on the north side of the island (Paradise is on the south side).  In fifteen minutes, we were on the shore of the bay.  This is a big, beautiful bay with hardly any development to it – there was one tiny village – Ikaros Village, down at the bottom of the dirt road that went from the highway at the top of the hill down to the shore.  We passed a few lovely homes with pools and terraces, but that's about it.  From here, we went through the village of Ano Mera, home to the Moni Panagias Tourlianis, which was built in the 6th century.  It has a big bell tower and icons painted by people from the Cretan School, but the big draw is its beautiful wooden iconostasis which was carved in Florence in the late 1700's.  We passed the monastery but did not stop in.  I forgot to mention that Mykonos is also the windmill island, and one of the old, white, conical windmills with its thatched roof was in Ano Mera.  

We continued on through Ano Mera, the only village in the interior of the island, passed a few fenced in areas with cows and horses in them, and then we passed a herd of sheep, and soon we were in Kalifatis, which is the wind surfing headquarters of Mykonos.  It was soon evident why – there was a stiff breeze blowing over here  I'm just confused about why most of the windmills are on the west side of the island instead of over here!  We drove past a little surf shop and a yellow 'surfer crossing' traffic sign on our way to a lovely beach that was almost deserted, except for the tour bus full of cruisers who were swarming all over the area.  We saw Sheila and Eleanor and spoke to them for a little while, then we turned around and went to explore a small fishing village.  We parked in an open area at the base of a rocky hill, behind and between a fishing marina and a small taverna, and were shocked to see some wild turkeys and some other birds – maybe guinea hens? - grazing on the path up the hill.  On the opposite hill were about a half dozen mountain goats, so we decided to walk up the turkey hill and check out the view, which was gorgeous! 

There were lots of cairns atop this hill, and German couple that we had passed on the road a few minutes ago was up there having a little picnic.  We had a great view of the Aegean and some kind of navy ship a little ways offshore, and we could tell it would not be long before sunset, so we didn't linger too long.

On the way back to town, we passed a high school and “Go Kart Plaza” and we had our European gassing up experience, which was full service.  We paid 7.50 Euro for our gallon (maybe!) of gasoline – YIKES!  We got behind a slow moving bus but managed to find our way back to the Avis place with no trouble.  We got the car turned in and hustled down to the “Little Venice” section of Chora in search of dinner by sunset on the sea.  The narrow sidewalks were lined with shops and filled with crowds of people – just like Venice, except that all of the buildings were painted white with mostly blue trim, and it didn't seem nearly as old as Venice.  It may have been, but it was so much lighter and cosmopolitan feeling.  Shops selling jewelry, clothing, and souvenirs abounded, with restaurants, bars, and nightclubs mixed in.  Music was blaring from many doorways, and right along the coast the sidewalk widened with restaurants to our left and their seating areas right on the waterfront.  The sunset was beautiful over the water, where about five cruise ships were anchored.  No wonder there were so many people in town!  We walked all the way to the end of 'restaurant row' up to a row of about five windmills, then went back in search of a good place to eat.  We ended up at Little Venice Taverna, where we sat right on next to the water and had a delicious seafood dinner.  Rex had a whole sea bass, which was light and yummy, and I had six big juicy shrimp.  We had rice and french fries (a common combination over here) and shared a wonderful big Greek salad.  The table next to us (and I really mean NEXT to us – like almost at our table!) was occupied with a couple of young Asian women that we had seen earlier in the afternoon.  They were about our kids' ages – one was 25, the other 23, and they were from Japan and Taiwan.  The live in Qatar, now, and were on a short holiday from their job as flight attendants for Qatar airlines.  We enjoyed talking to them over dinner, and then we skipped dessert (!) and decided to get back to the ship before curfew.  It was about 8:30 when we left the restaurant and we were back on board before nine.  The rest of our gang was at dinner on board, so we sent them a message that we were back, safe and sound.  No shows for us tonight – we'd already had a full day of fun!

Still floating,


27 September 2008

Ottoman Wonders

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

By 8:30 this morning we had dutifully followed our fellow cruisers and had been properly distributed onto the scores of waiting tour buses for our guided tour of the wonders of the Old City of Istanbul. On our agenda were the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Covered Bazaar. Although I'm not generally a fan of the big organized tours, this was the only way we could see Topkapi Palace, since it is closed on Tuesdays. Holland America has a special arrangement, so if we booked this shore excursion, we would be able to visit this palace. So here we were, playing the roles of lemmings for the day and wearing our 'Orange #7' stickers. Our guide was a personable Turkish woman named Ayshem, and of course, our bus was full.

We drove down the busy main street that we had walked along the night before, and we crossed the Golden Horn on the Galata Bridge. The pedestrian walkways on both sides of the bridge were lined with fishermen, who Ayshem told us were probably fishing for their families. Fully loaded ferry boats and lots of other boats and ships filled the inlet – it was a busy place! Just on the old side of the bridge were some familiar sights, Burger King and McDonald's, which are laughingly referred to as the American Embassies over here. We passed an Otopark, and office supply store featuring Baturays and Fotokopis, and a Pattiserie/Cafe with mouth-watering pastries filling the windows. As we neared the Blue Mosque, we passed Ayia Sofia and the Hippodrome, so let me tell you a little bit about them.

Ayia Sofia (also spelled Haghia Sophia) was once the focal point of Christian religious life in the Byzantine Empire; after the conquest of Istanbul by the Turks it served as a mosque for nearly 500 years, and since 1935 it has been one of the most popular museums in the world. Its name means 'Divine Wisdom' and it is a domed basilica consisting of a hall with a narthex and an exonarthex, a central room with three naves and a gallery, and a garden surrounding the building. Like San Marco, it is full of many beautiful mosaics – I was sorry we didn't get to go inside this building. It is the fourth largest basilica in the world, only outranked by St. Peter's in Rome, the Doumo in Milan, and St. Paul's in London. I think it is interesting that even though the building served as a mosque for so long, the Christian mosaics were not destroyed.

The Hippodrome was built in 203 AD by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, and it was later enlarged by Constantine the Great. The Hippodrome was the center of Byzantine activities – chariot races, gladiator fights, celebrations in honor of the emperor, riots, and bloody battles have all taken place on this site. It is large – about 400 m. long and 120 m. wide, and it seated 40,000 spectators. Long ago there was an arcade of columns where four bronze-gilt horses once stood, until 1204 when the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo claimed them as war trophies and took them to stand guard atop the main gate of San Marco in Venice. Today there are still several obelisks still standing in what used to be the center of the race course.

We got off the bus at one side of the Hippodrome and walked a short way to the Blue Mosque. This mosque was founded by the Sultan Ahmet I, who was only twenty years old at the time he commissioned it. It is the only mosque with six minarets in the entire world. Ayshem told us a possible reason for this – legend has it that the Sultan ordered his architects to build the minarets out of gold, but the architects found that there wasn't enough money left in the building fund to do that. Lucky for them, in Turkish, the word for gold is 'altin' and the word for six is 'alti' so they built six and claimed it was a simple misunderstanding. It could've happened!

We entered the mosque from the west, where we went through a gate where a metal chain was hanging down. Out of respect for God, the Sultan had to bow low every time he rode his horse through the gate. From here we went to the inner courtyard, which is the same size as the prayer hall (64 x 72m). The interior of the mosque was spectacular – I won't begin to be able to do it justice! There are 260 windows, many of which are stained glass with lots of deep blue glass. The predominate color of the tile work and paint inside the mosque is a blue-green color, and the prayer carpets are red. Huge chandeliers hang very low, because they used to have oil lamps in them instead of electric bulbs. Since Islam forbids the representation of God in human form, all of the interior decorations are mostly floral. I will post photos as soon as I can! We didn't get to stay here too long – you know how tours are – and before we were ready to go we were back outside, getting our shoes back on and finding our group for the walk over to Topkapi Palace.

The walk over was quite hazardous, as we got to see Turkish driving at its finest. Have you ever ridden in bumper cars? Imagine that with a few giant tour buses thrown in! It was crazy! But we all arrived at the palace in one piece, even the lady in the wheelchair. Topkapi Palace is humongous! It is considered the most extensive monument in Turkish civil architecture, as it covers 700,000 square meters! It is actually a complex of many buildings, courtyards, gates, pavilions, mosques, and fountains, and it is surrounded by a wall that goes from the Byzantine sea walls along the Golden Horn to the ones along the Marmara Sea. Trust me, it is BIG! The palace was built in 1459 by Mehmet II and it was the official residence of sultans until 1839 when they moved to the new palace, Dolmabahce. The harem portion of Topkapi Palace was added in the 16th century – we were not going to be able to see it, so the guys were upset about that.

We entered the Palace through the first court, which is a parking lot now, passed by Haghia Eirene, and went through the Gate of Salutations. This opened out into the second court, which was a huge open space. Armed Turkish guards were present – that was a little creepy. Lining the right side of this courtyard were the old kitchens, olive oil refinery, and soap factory. These now house collections of porcelains, but we did not see them, either. From here, we went through the Gate of Felicity and into the third court. We saw the Imperial Hall, where the sultan used to sit on his imperial thrones and receive state visitors. There was a fountain at the entrance here, because the sound of running water would discourage eavesdropping. and the Library of Sultan Ahmet II. In this courtyard were models of the palace, and Ayshem told us about some of the things we would want to be sure to see. Since the palace serves as a huge museum now, some of the finest treasures in the world are housed in the Treasury, which opens into this courtyard and was originally built as a summer palace for Mehmet II. We were to be on the lookout for the Topkapi dagger, which is famous because it was in the movie, Topkapi. It is heavily jeweled with three big emeralds and even has a watch at the top of it. Also on our list was the Spoonmaker's Diamond, which is the seventh largest diamond in the world at 86 carats. It was unbelievable!! It is surrounded by 49 brilliants, and it's kind of shaped like an upside-down heart. It was so beautiful and it shone like sunshine! The story behind it is very interesting, too – it was allegedly bought (in raw, uncut form) from a junk dealer for three silver spoons. A jeweler recognized it for what is was and cut it to reveal its beauty. At some point, the diamond was bought from a maharajah and taken to France, where it was bought at auction by Napoleon's mother, who then sold it to rescue her son from exile. It was purchased by Tepedelenli Ali Pasa, who cooperated in a rebellion against Sultan Mahmut II in the 19th century, so his treasure and property was confiscated by the Turks. The whole treasury was fascinating – I've never seen so many jewels and beautiful objects in one place! There were boxes overflowing with huge emeralds, a bejeweled set of armor (nothing like calling attention to yourself – let's get the guy covered in money!), jewel-crusted gold thrones, jade, feathered and jeweled turbans, jeweled crystal, and the third item on our list, a pair of gigantic gold and jewel candlesticks. We didn't really have time to take it all in – there was just SO MUCH!!

We made a quick trip to the WC in the restaurant which is in the fourth court, which also had buildings which housed the Chamber of the Head Physician and the Pharmacy. By the time we left there, it was starting to sprinkle a bit, so we brought out our rain gear. That turned out to be a good plan, because it POURED! Most people were unprepared, and lost valuable sightseeing time because they couldn't cross the open courtyards to get to other buildings. The unexpected shower didn't last too long, and by the time we were walking back to our bus, it was clearing up again. The rain wreaked havoc on the already snarled traffic, though. We were lucky to be in a big bus and we only got out of the tangle of cars and buses because we were behind a secret policeman who flashed his credentials at the traffic policeman. The cop got so flustered that he let us follow the official and we were free from the traffic jam. We were off to the covered bazaar!

On the way to the bazaar, we passed Gagaloglu Hamami, which is a 300 year old Turkish Bath. I had really wanted to try one, but no one else in the group was interested. Oh well. We started our 'bazaar' trip at Galata Carpet Weavers' Association. We were escorted up to a large room with padded benches lining the walls. We were served hot apple tea while young Turkish men rolled out carpet after carpet – cotton-on-cotton, wool-on-wool, cotton-on-wool, and silk – each one more elaborate or beautiful than the one before. On some, the reverse side of the carpet was so pretty that we thought it was the right side. Others could be flipped in a way that the colors changed – a for-real magic carpet! When the demonstration was over, most people left the room, but once again, Judy and I proved to be salesman magnets. Quickly, two men, Farouk and Mehmet (you can call me Michael) cornered us (along with John and Rex this time) and proceeded with the hard sell. We were ushered into a smaller room with a beautiful hardwood floor and the selling show began. Judy really had her eye on one carpet, and before we knew it, John was bargaining hard! An agreement was reached and in about six weeks, Judy will be finding a place for her new Turkish rug! Rex and I passed this time! Meanwhile, the Youngs were getting the same treatment (no deal) and the Smarts were downstairs buying jewelry. As we left, we passed a room where a young woman was making a rug, so we stopped for instruction. She went so fast I could not begin to keep up, but Judy actually put a few knots in the rug in progress.

Our time was almost up, but I was getting really hungry so Rex and I went in search of food. We found a small shop called Kahve Dunyasi (Chocolate World) and I bought a bagful of melt-in-your-mouth truffles. And I shared them when we got back on the bus! Then we passed a Starbucks, so I got an iced chai latte (no regular tea) and a pastry with potatoes and leeks in it, which Rex and I split. We made it back to our meeting place in time, and then we walked a few blocks to find our bus. With that, our 'bazaar' trip was over – it wasn't what most of us were expecting. We opted not to try to get to the Egyptian Spice Market on our own – we had talked to several people that morning who had been pick-pocketed there the day before.

Back at the ship by a little after 1:30, we headed upstairs for some lunch and a little poolside photo downloading and blogging, and then, you guessed it, it was naptime! It was formal night for dinner again, and I shocked the rest of the group when I appeared in a dress. We had another delightful dinner – great conversation and good food – and the ship was sailing. Time to rest up for Mykonos!

Dreaming of diamonds and jewels,


25 September 2008

Greetings from the Golden Horn

Monday, 22 September 2008

If only every Monday could start with a lazy morning!  We were at sea today, scheduled to dock in Istanbul, Turkey, at 4 PM, so we took advantage of our vacation time and slept in.  Our route took us through the Dardanelles, a narrow strait the connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara.  The first activity on my daily agenda (other than meals, of course) was to be sure to be on deck as our ship sailed through the Sea of Marmara and into the Golden Horn, just before we would have entered the Bosphorus Strait.  We had been told this was a sight worth seeing, so even though it was chilly, windy, and threatening rain, Judy and I made our way to the bow about 2:30.  We got a few photos and then decided to head up to the fifth deck and avoid the crowds on the bow.  It took a couple of tries and a few wrong turns, but we were rewarded with a great viewing spot with not many people.  Shortly after getting up there, we found John on the bow and told him how to find his way to us, but we never saw the rest of the gang.  Turns out everyone else had their own ideas about the best place to watch from.

Some of the things we were able to see as we steamed into port – the Blue Mosque, with its unusual number of six minarets, Ayia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, the Suleymaniye Mosque, Dolmabahce Palace, Beylerbeyi Palace, the Palace of Ciragan, and the three major bridges – the Bosphorus Bridge, Galata Bridge, and Ataturk Bridge – as well as the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul.  Istanbul is the only city in the world that crosses two continents – it straddles Europe and Asia – and it is home to about 14 million people.  The European section of the city is the main portion, and it is separated into the Old and New cities by the Golden Horn, a sea inlet which is one of the great natural harbors of the world.  It got its name because it is horn-shaped, and when the sun sets on it in the evening, the water turns a beautiful golden color.  The Blue Mosque, Ayia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, the covered Bazaar, and the Egyptian Spice Market are all in the Old City; Galata Tower, Dolmabahce Palace, and the business districts and centre city of Istanbul are all in the New City.  The Asian section of Istanbul is mainly suburbs, and traffic is a huge problem, especially in the mornings and evenings when people are commuting to and from work.  Like many European cities, driving seems to be more of an art form than a structured exercise – no one and everyone has the right-of-way – it's like playing chicken on steroids.

But I'm getting ahead of myself!  We docked a bit early so we decided to go ashore and just walk around town for a while.  It took some doing, but we were finally able to convince the taxi drivers and bus drivers that we would not be needing their services.  Our destination was Galata Tower, which appeared on the map we had not to be too far away.  Not only that, but we could see it, so we figured we wouldn't get TOO lost.  Galata Tower was built by the Genoese in 1348 on the site of the 6th century Tower of Christ.  It has been used as a fire-watch tower, a prison, and a fortress of some sort, and nowdays it houses a restaurant, a Turkish cafe, and a Genoese tavern.  As we walked down the busy thoroughfare from the port towards Galata, we passed a mosque and decided to peek in.  Before entering a mosque, you must remove your shoes (actually, before stepping on the area before you enter the mosque – we learned this the hard way...) and women must have their heads covered.  Modest clothing (no shorts or tank tops) must be worn by both sexes.  We got there just before evening prayer time – the minarets began signaling the call to prayer just as we were ready to leave.  It is also Ramadan, which means Moslems are fasting during the day, not eating until after sunset, so there were special restaurant and cafe areas set up so that hungry people could eat in a festive atmosphere.  We passed a few more mosques on our way to the tower.  Traffic was crazy, since it was almost rush hour, and the light rail train and buses out of town were filling up.  The train ran right down the middle of this busy street – we had to walk carefully!

We got to the place where we needed to cross the street and head up the hill to get to the tower, and the street we chose to walk up was most interesting.  For starters, it was more like a cobblestone alley.  We passed a WC that was an open storefront, with a wide open door and several urinals.  I don't think so!  Then we went past a number of shoe shine men, one of whom spoke great English and was very nice – the others looked pretty sketchy.  By this time, most of us were panting pretty heavily, and somehow Bob and Rex were leading the pack, leaving the four of us women alone together while Robert and John trailed behind.  This didn't seem like such a good idea, since there were hardly any women out on the streets at all, so I caught up with Bob and sent Rex back to escort the other women the rest of the way up the hill.  Oh, and at the top of the hill was a lovely sex shop.  We can really pick the streets!  We got to the top of the hill, only to realize we needed to turn and go up a little farther, but it wasn't too bad.  The tower was very cool looking, and it was open, although only Rex and I were planning to go up into it if there were stairs involved.  When we saw there was an elevator, we all shelled out our Euros for a ride up.  What they don't tell you is you ride up five stories, then walk up a carpeted spiral staircase with very narrow treads for the next two (I would have said four) stories.  I'm pleased to report we all made it and it was worth it!  You could go out onto the ledge (OSHA would have had a field day with this one!) and walk all the way around the tower, taking in the whole city and of course, taking lots of pictures.  The views were just magnificent!

Unfortunately, the restaurants were closed until the next day, so we walked back down the stairs and went to a little cafe in hopes of getting some adult beverages.  But no, we are in Moslem territory here, so we moved along.  We found another little bistro around the corner called Kiva Han, and we ascertained that they did serve wine and beer, so we took a seat.  The proprietor spoke a little English, and sitting near us was a Turkish man, dressed in a business suit and cowboy books, who spoke English and enjoyed talking with us.  He was on holiday and had lived in Germany and Texas – most interesting.  A couple of observations – almost EVERYONE in Istanbul smokes, and many of them smoke American brands.  I've seen a lot of the Marlboro Man around here!  Also, there are tons of cats all over Istanbul – it sort of reminded me of Rome.  They were everywhere!  Anyway, we enjoyed our respite at the restaurant and took a few group photos with the tower in the background. 

We took a different street back down the hill, and passed many different doorways, shops, and even a little cemetery (fenced in).  We saw children out playing and men working and shopping – very few women were out and about, and those that we saw were mostly businesswomen.  We passed a bakery where some delicious looking bread and bobolis were selling fast.  We got back to the port with no trouble, and from there we decided to part ways.  Robert and Nancy were going back to the ship for dinner, but the rest of us were going in search of a restaurant for dinner.  Soon after we started off, we met a young woman who told us there wasn't anything nearby, so the Smarts and Woodys decided to go back to the ship after all.  Rex and I walked on, though, sure we would find something soon.  I guess it depends on your definition of soon...  We walked about half an hour, passing the University, Dolmabahce Palace, two big soccer stadiums, a beautiful tree lined avenue (in front of the Palace, which was lovely at twilight), the bus terminal, a ferryboat terminal, more buses and taxis, and we finally found some cafes along the waterfront.  By this time, we were almost to the foot of the Bosphorus Bridge, which entertained us with a stunning LED (way to go, Cree!) light show.  The bridge is a suspension bridge, and the light show was great!  We had some grilled lamb, grilled chicken, grilled pork (just one kabob of each) and some fried meat balls in addition to sharing onion rings (nothing special – frozen round ones like you could find here, although they were served with salsa and French fries!) and a garden salad.  Two things we still don't know – why Greek salads have no lettuce, and what the hell is a garden rocket?!?!  We had about three cats as dinner companions – one who wouldn't leave until two bigger cats showed up.  They were very persistent, but we were hungry so they stayed hungry. It was getting chilly by the time we finished, but we walked down closer to the bridge and watched the light show for a while, then walked back to the taxi stand/bus station/ferry terminal and caught a taxi back to the ship.  It was about 9 PM by the time we returned, but no one was out looking for us yet!

We went up to the Crow's Nest bar to watch the bridge some more, and found John and Judy up there.  We had a drink with them and then called it a night – we had to rest up for our Ottoman Wonders tour the next morning!

Walking does Galata good,


It's All Greek to Me!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Our day began with a beautiful sunrise over the port of Piraeus that Bob and Emma invited us to see from their balcony.  Much to Bob's chagrin, we were up this early for our date with Nicholas and the city of Athens, and the sunrise gave us hope that we would have sunshine today and not the rain that was forecast.  Alas, by the time we all got off the ship, through the terminal, and outside, it was chilly and drizzling.  And we saw no sign of Nicholas!  Already there were murmurs of uncertainty among us, but since we were a little early, we just crossed our fingers that Nicholas would arrive shortly.  We huddled up and watched other voyagers board their huge buses and turned away offers from Greek taxi drivers who saw us as possible passengers.  Before too long, Rex saw a young man stride into the terminal with a rolled up sign under his arm, and sure enough, it was our driver.  Hooray!  Nicholas led us across the parking lot to his brand-new (as advertised) Mercedes minibus.  The van had seats for twelve, so we had plenty of room.

As Nicholas drove us along the coastline of Piraeus, he explained that Piraeus just sort of runs into Athens (sort of like Raleigh-Durham, only bigger – we know how Piraeus feels!) and it's hard to know where one stops and the other begins.  We passed the Church of St. Nicholas, who Nicholas told us is the guardian of the sailor, so every port city has a church named for him.  Along the way, Nicholas pointed out several Olympic venues – beach volleyball, soccer, basketball, and swimming – as we passed them.  By 8:15 or so we had passed (but not stopped at) the Temple of Zeus the Olympian, the Parliament Building, and the University, and we had seen the church on the highest point in Athens and soon, we had caught a glimpse of the Parthenon high atop the Acropolis.  Nick gave us a quick Greek lesson as we had to figure out that Acropolis means 'high city' – he was making us earn our ride!  Since it was early Sunday morning, traffic was light in downtown Athens (we were SO glad we weren't there for rush hour, if this was light traffic!) so we went into the center of the city and saw the financial district, the government areas, and the business districts.

Nick dropped us off below the Acropolis, told us where to walk, warned us to be extra careful on our way up the slick marble steps, and told us where to meet him and how to call him when we were ready to go.  We were hoping that we'd find our way back to our meeting spot!  I had not realized that in addition to the Parthenon, there are several other temples built on the Acropolis.  After walking up the slippery marble walkway, we looked down into the Odeon of Herides Atticus (a Greek theatre, which is currently being used for the Hellenic Festival) and purchased our tickets at a modern ticket booth, then entered the Acropolis through the Beule' Gate, which is an Roman arch that was added in the 3rd century.  A few steps later, we passed through the Propylaia, which was the ancient (in case 3 AD isn't ancient enough for you!) entrance.  Most of the buildings atop the Acropolis were begun during the golden age of Athens, in 5 BC, under the orders of Pericles.  The Porpylaia was damaged during bombardment by the Venetians in the 17th century, but has been restored.  Next we passed a small temple which is almost completely covered in scaffolding and inaccessible to us.  It is the Temple of Athena Nike, named for the goddess Athena (wisdom), for whom Athens was named, and the goddess Nike (pronounced nee-kee in Greek), who is the goddess of victory.

The most majestic temple on the Acropolis is the one everyone has heard of and the one we really came to see – the famous Parthenon.  It was completed in 438 BC, and it is LARGE!  One thing I didn't know (or if I did, I didn't remember it) about the Parthenon is that it was very ingeniously built – the base of it curves upwards, and the columns actually get narrower at the top – this makes the building always look straight by counter-acting optical illusions.  Today, there is a lot of reconstruction and restoration taking place, especially at the Parthenon.  Pieces of marble are organized all over the Acropolis, marked with numbers and sorted into piles by the types of pieces.  It is painstaking work!  The other large temple up here is the Erechtheion, which is famous for its Caryatids, which are the six maidens who support one side of it.  It is also being restored.  There is wall around the Acropolis (good thing – it's pretty high up there!) and at one end is a raised platform with the Greek flag flying.  It's a good place to gather and to see the whole area, so we took a group photo there.  You will likely not see it in the Durham Herald-Sun, though! 

The Acropolis Museum, which was housed up here, is now closed and will reopen later at a site down in Athens - Nick had pointed the new building out to us earlier.  It is truly amazing what was built so long ago, with neither mortar (a Roman invention, later on) nor the equipment we have today (like the cranes, which looked so out of place at the Parthenon).  We agreed we would have loved to have been able to see the Parthenon all lit up at night, but that wasn't happening this trip.  Rex and I particularly enjoyed seeing the real thing, after spending many hours in Centennial Park in Nashville, TN, and enjoying the replica of the Parthenon there.  From our awesome vantage point high above Athens, we looked down upon the Temple of Zeus the Olympian and recognized several other places that Nick had already taken us past.

We got really lucky – the early morning rain had stopped shortly after we got to the Acropolis, and the sun had come out, so we were enjoying a perfect morning.  The stalls that lined the street we walked up were opening for business, and the tour groups from the several cruise ships were now clogging up the area, so it was a good time to make our way back to our meeting place with Nick.  We found it and him with no trouble – what service!  Our next stop was the Temple of Olympian Zeus. You will remember, I'm sure, that Zeus, the most powerful of all the gods, was from Mt. Olympus - it is only fitting that the largest temple of all be built in his honor.  The construction of the temple was begun in the 6th century BC, but it was abandoned for lack of funds.  Finally, Hadrian made sure it was finished in 131 AD, over 700 years later.  Hadrian, being a Roman, loved to have gates erected in his honor, and sure enough, there is yet another Hadrian's Gate at one corner of this temple area.  Although they are no longer standing, Hadrian also had a colossal statue of Zeus built in the middle of the cella, and he put an equally large one of himself there, too.  At least he got the job done!  When it was completed, this temple had 104 Corinthian columns which were 17 meters high and almost 2 meters in diameter.  Today, only 15 of them remain, and one is on its side, looking like a sliced banana.  It was toppled over in a gale in 1852.

We left Zeus at 10:30 so that we could get a good spot to view the changing of the guard at the Parliament building.  On the way there, we passed the Olympic Stadium from the first modern Olympics, which were held in 1896.  The stadium seats 70,000 (on hard marble bleachers, it appeared) and it used today for some outdoor concerts.  It does not have many modern conveniences...  As we turned the corner, we ran smack into the back of the parade of evzones (guards) in traditional Greek dress (and I do mean DRESS) marching down the street behind a military band.  We didn't actually hit them, but we got to follow and then pass them as they proceeded to the Parliament building.  Nick let us out right where they were turning the corner, so we had the perfect view of the whole processional!  We hurried over to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but there was already such a crowd there that only us taller folks were able to see anything or get any good pictures.  However, here's a tip for all of you travelers – don't leave the area when the rest of the crowd leaves.  I have seen more cool things, from blazing sunsets to poignant moments to the actual event when I have stayed around after everyone else takes off for the next thing on their lists.  There was a whole ceremony that took place AFTER the guards had changed places, and 90% of the people that were there for it missed it, much like they had missed the parade because they were there early to get a good viewing spot!  

A couple of funny things happened while we were here – first, we saw a man in women's panties and maybe pantyhose watching the parade.  How did we know he was wearing panties?  Well, his black and white tartan plaid skirt covered about half of his rear end (sorry, we only got a rear view) and he was wearing a red puffy coat that looked like it had been taken from an eight year old.  Be sure to look for him in the fashion DON'T section!  There was an elderly man selling pigeon food (which some idiots were foolish enough to buy!) so everyone who couldn't see the changing of the guard was entertained by the hundreds of pigeons on the square.  Rows of pigeons lined the walls behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, so it looked like they were watching the whole procession, too.  Once the festivities were over, we made our way back to the place Nick said he would be, and by some miracle, he was there.  I cannot begin to tell you how glad we were that we had not rented a car on our own – traffic was unbelievable and parking nonexistent.

Next stop – the Sunday flea market, the Ancient Agora and the Roman Agora, and lunch.  Nick dropped us off at the street that would take us down through the flea market (which covered BLOCKS of the Monastiraki area of Athens) and would lead us to the entrance to the Agora, or marketplace.  I have forgotten to mention that the tickets we purchased at the Acropolis have come in handy – we used the same ones to get in to see Zeus, the Agora, and the museum here – so hold onto your ticket stubs if you ever visit Athens!  We fought through the crowds past vendors selling everything from t-shirts and silly souvenirs to furniture, crystal, jewelry, tires, broken typewriters, old sewing machines, photos of the ancestors, you name it and you could find it here!  The smell of good things cooking and the sight of ice cream was making my mouth water, but we pushed on and made it to the entrance to the Agora.  Nick had told us that while the ancient Greek agora was mostly in ruins, the Roman agora still had a roof and walls, so that we would be able to imagine what it had all looked like centuries ago.  The juxtaposition between the modern street market and the ancient agora was made even more pronounced as a metro train went flying down tracks adjacent to the ancient agora.  Wild!  We enjoyed a leisurely, uncrowded stroll through these old meeting places (guess the cruise ship tours don't come here!) and marveled at some of the centuries-old technologies and philosophies – drainage systems, elaborate friezes, sundials, a building whose sides were once plastered with 'posters' carrying the news of the day, big schools and amphitheatres, governmental centers and systems, ways to determine systems of weights and measures – all found here and founded here.

By now, the sun was hot and we were hungry so we skipped the museum (for now) and went in search of good Greek food.  We stopped at one cafe that offered plenty of drinks, but the only food options were a club sandwich and something else equally as American.  Plus, we were sitting in the hot sun, so we moved on.  We ducked into Diados, where we found a tiny WC (water closet, aka rest room), shade, tables for eight, and Greek food!  Bob ordered a hamburger and got a plate of five little burgers, no buns, and French fries, no ketchup.  Robert got a plate of three huge sausages, Emma got chicken souvlaki, Nancy got 
moussaka, and our table (John, Judy, Rex, and I) split two orders of moussaka and two Greek salads.  YUM!  Rex was brave and ordered some ouzo, but when I smelled that licorice smell I couldn't even think about trying it!  It was clear in the little mini bottle, but over ice (!) it got cloudy.  I don't know how anyone drinks the stuff, unless they love licorice.  Our food was delicious and we left happy, ready to tackle the museum back at the  agoras.

The Agora Museum is housed in the Stoa of Attalos, an ancient arcade, and it had some really interesting exhibits, mostly of things that had been excavated from the site.  Some of the ones that were most fascinating to me were a mechanism for voting (democracy was founded at the agora), some ostracism ballots (another voting thing), a 'potty seat' for small children, and the grave of a young girl.  When we had had enough culture and refinement, we were ready to brave the streets of the flea market again in hopes of finding Nicholas and the spot where he dropped us off.  As we left the agora, a little old man was pushing a hurdy-gurdy (no monkey) along and singing a horribly off-key song.  It didn't look like he was getting much money as he walked and sang his way up and down the street that was lined with cafes full of people.  Rex and I gave in and got the Greek version of gelato – I had peach and Rex got chocolate, but it wasn't as good as the Italian stuff – as we strolled through the flea market.  None of us were tempted to buy much, and we found our way to our meeting spot with no trouble.  It seemed like we had just called Nick and voila! - there he was.  We noticed for the second time today that garbage pickup was being done, which we thought was odd for a Sunday.

On our way out of Athens, Nick took us past the most expensive apartments in the city, by the Prime Minister's house and the President's house and back by the old Olympic stadium.  We then drove along the busy coastal road in Piraeus, where seafood restaurants lined the narrow streets.  It was very unusual to us – the seating areas of the restaurants were right on the seaside, but the kitchens were across the street in separate buildings.  Even with all of the traffic (again, where would you park if you wanted to eat out?) we saw waiters carrying plates loaded with food and busboys carrying trays of dirty dishes across the street from the kitchens to the restaurants and back.  Talk about needing hazard pay! All too soon we were back at the port, so we pooled our Euros and paid Nicholas for a job well done.

It was about 3:30 when we got back to the ship, so we all retired to our staterooms to rest and revive after our busy day.  We set sail for Istanbul, Turkey, at five, and we met for dinner at 7:30.  No show for us tonight, but a fantastic day in Greece!

Glad the ancient civilizations were so smart!


23 September 2008

A Lazy Day at Sea

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Today we would be at sea all day, so I had visions of getting this blog up to date.  You see how well that worked!  Believe it or not, I did get up early today, but only because I had a date at the Spa at 8 AM for a hot stone massage – my fave!!  There aren't many things that could get me up that early on vacation (or most days, to be honest) but I make exceptions for things like massages.  Leah, my masseuse, was a delightful young woman with a wonderful British accent, and she did a great job; however, the room was so chilly that even with the hot stones I never adequately relaxed.  And I'm still searching for the hot stone massage that will even come close to the one I experienced in Sedona...it's a tough job, but I'll keep searching and let you know when I find it.  Leah encouraged me to relax for the rest of the day, so I took her advice to heart, went back to our stateroom, and slept until sometime after one.  I finally roused myself enough to go get a bite of lunch, and then I really did blog, read, and download photos while sitting by the pool.

I ran into some of the rest of our group while at the pool, and we started discussing how we would be spending our next day in Athens.  Even though it was short notice and we weren't sure anything would work out, it was decided that I should contact George, the Best Taxi Driver in Athens (http://www.greecetravel.com/taxi/), to see if we could arrange a private tour.  We had done a little research and were pretty sure that we wanted to see these things: the Acropolis, site of the Parthenon and several other temples; the parade and changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which takes place only at 11 AM on Sundays in front of Parliament; the  Temple of Zeus the Olympian; and the Sunday flea market and the nearby ancient Agora.  So I emailed George, but wasn't feeling very confident that we would get anything arranged, and Plan B was to rent a car and try and figure it out on our own.  Thankfully, George got right back to me and we made a deal for a Mercedes mini-bus and a driver named Nicholas to meet us at the docks in Piraeus the next morning.  Bob was a little miffed that we had to get up early, but we were all glad we had a plan that didn't involve any of us having to drive.  Little did we know just HOW glad we would be about that!

Probably before I had digested lunch, it was time for dinner.  I'm not sure how everyone else spent most of their day, but I have a feeling there was a lot of napping and reading going on.  It was formal night in the dining room, and we were supposed to show up not only festively dressed, but also wearing Venetian masks.  We did neither.  Somehow, the men managed to dress appropriately, even though John had forgotten dress socks, Rex had no tie (thanks, John!), and Robert had spilled red wine on his button down shirt, so he had on a polo shirt with tie.  Very dapper.  Bob was completely put together, so he wins the prize.  As for me, I had on the only pair of nice black slacks I brought – they've seen lots of action in the dining room!  The other women looked great, and at any rate, they let us in and we ate and drank lots.  I think everyone went to a show that night, but truthfully I really couldn't tell you.  I went back to the room and blogged away.

And so it was a very restful and easy day at sea!

Hot stoned and very mellow,


22 September 2008

Our Split Personalities Are Showing

Friday, 19 September 2008

After sailing through the night, we reached the port of Split, Croatia, sometime in the early morning hours.  We were supposed to be able to disembark the ship after 8:30 AM, but that didn't seem to be happening.  Since we were anchored off-shore, we had to take tenders over to the city of Split.  Most of our group (Bob and Emma were sleeping in) met for breakfast and we were waiting for our tender tickets by 10, we were on our way by 10:30, and we were on shore by about 10:50.  We had chosen not to do a shore excursion here, but once ashore we were met with offers for tours of different varieties.  We had been led to believe that one of the most beautiful beaches in the world was about 15 km away, so we were hoping to find a tour that would take us there.  We spoke to a young woman who showed us a beach that we would visit that appeared to be some distance from the center of the city, so we were hoping that would be the one.  At any rate, we shelled out our Euros and hopped on board our open-air bus for a tour of Split.  You can check it out at www.visit-split-croatia.com if you're interested.

For today's history/geography lesson, here's a little background info about Split, which is the second largest city in Croatia (Dubrovnik, the capital, is the largest).  Split lies in the heart of the Dalmation coast, and it is most famous for housing the palace of Diocletian, a Roman emperor who founded Split in 293 AD.  Split is sheltered from the wind and experiences 2700 sunny hours per year; it has a population of 200,000 people who believe  Split is “the most beautiful city in the world and beyond.”  But back to Diocletian for a minute – being a rather typical Roman Emperor, he of course needed a palace built in his honor and to be his burial place.  Fascinated as he was by Egyptian culture, Diocletian imported marble from Luxor and even incorporated sphinx (I'm not even going to try to guess the plural) as part of his décor.  Diocletian was a clever man, and started the use of the elevated podium (from whence he addressed his people, who were on their knees in the courtyard below him) and he wore a purple robe to distinguish him from the commoners.  If you've ever been to the Vatican, some of this might sound familiar.  Okay, on with the day's adventures...

It was fairly overcast and a bit chilly for my taste; most of you know that anything under 80 and not sunny is a bit chilly for me, so I'll tell you it was probably in the low 60's and in an open air bus that was speeding through town, I was almost cold.  Here are the stops that we fairly FLEW by: Bacvice, with one of the only sandy beaches around; Gripe and the Maritime Museum and what passed for a shopping mall; Archaeological Museum and a park across the street from a big secondary school; Poljud, home to the huge futbol stadium (Croatia has quite the soccer team!) and another stadium of some indeterminate kind; and then we actually stopped at Bene, a rocky beach (not one of the most beautiful beaches in the world!) and recreation area.  We stayed there for 15 minutes – time for most of the bus to line up for the four toilettes in the small coffee shop there and to get a pictre or two of the swimming area.  Thankfully, no one was swimming, and I was the only one I saw who took off shoes and stuck my feet in the water.  It was WAY too cold for me!  Back on the bus, we backtracked to town and breezed past Kastelet with its Museum of Croatian Archaeological monuments; Zvoncac, with an old cemetery and a marina, and Sv. Frane, the monastery and church of St. Francis.  Whew.  

Our tour guide, Stella, talked almost non-stop and very rapidly throughout this portion of the tour, and most of us missed a lot of what she said, but here are a few things that stood out to me.  You may know that Croatia was once part of Yugoslavia, which was ruled by Marshal Tito and was a Soviet bloc country.  We passed several buildings which were left from the time of the Soviet regime, and they were what you would expect – cold blocks of stone and all business.  Today they house TV and radio stations.  Although Split was not adversely affected by the war (in the early 90's) as far as casualties and bombing goes, they were without electricity for TWO AND A HALF YEARS!!!  Can you imagine?  It is only recently that they have been able to recover and begin growing again.  Because of their location on the Adriatic Sea, their climate is very temperate.  In fact, one of the first things we noticed in Split was the abundance of palm trees, and on our tour we saw lots of bougainvillea and many beautiful potted plants on the balconies of apartments.  Most of the dwellings we passed were apartment buildings that looked like the Soviets had had a hand in them, too.  We saw very few private residences, and most of those were on the waterfront, but nothing like homes that would be on most any waterfront (not counting 'criks') in the States.  

The bus dropped us off at the Riva, which was a gorgeous, wide, new promenade along the beachfront of the marina.  Along the walkway were planted big plots of rosemary, sage, and lavender, so the smell was wonderful.  There were also many colorful flowers, particularly in the city center, as well as on the Riva.  We walked past many sidewalk cafes and shops as we made our way down to the highlight of our tour, the substructure of the palace of Diocletian.  This palace was gigantic, having four entrances – the bronze, iron, silver, and gold, and being surrounded by four towers on each corner and numerous smaller towers along three  sides.  One side, the beachfront side, must have originally gone right up to the waterfront. What's most amazing is that MUCH of this building, built in the 3rd century, is still standing.  Not only that, but most of the palace is being lived in or houses shops and businesses today! After the fall of the Roman Empire, Split has been governed by many peoples – the nearby Venetians, Croatians, Hungarians, French, and Austrio-Hungarian monarchs – who have all added something to the culture of the city.  In one section of the palace, Venetians actually copied a frieze exactly on a part they added to the original palace.  In the middle of the octagonal ruin that was to have been Diocletian's burial place (don't know if he got buried there or not!) is now a tall campanile that took MANY more years to build than it did to build the palace. You will just have to wait to see the incredible pictures of the palace, but in the meantime, it would be worth googling to see what you could learn!  Without the photos, I'll just tell you it is simply amazing to see 'ruins' that old that are still in good shape and being used today.  The four entranceways were gigantic arches that had had actual doors in them, covered in whatever material the gate was named.  We entered through the Bronze Gate, which still had its doors.  The golden gate was the largest and grandest, but you can believe it had no golden doors left on it...The whole downtown of Split has been built in and around this palace - it was really something.  It reminded me very much of being in Rome, where ancient ruins are just in the middle of a modern, bustling city.  Fascinating!

Here is some information about the palace from  http://w3.mrki.info/split/diokl.html:  “The ground plan of the palace is an irregular rectangle with towers projecting from the western, northern, and eastern facades. It combines qualities of a luxurious villa with those of a military camp. Only the southern facade, which rose directly from, or very near to, the sea, was unfortified. The elaborate architectural composition of the arcaded gallery on its upper floor differs from the more severe treatment of the three shore facades. A monumental gate in the middle of each of these walls led to an enclosed courtyard. The southern Sea Gate was simpler in shape and dimensions than the other three. Perhaps it was originally intended as the emperor's private access to boats, or as a service entrance for supplies.  The dual nature of the architectural scheme, derived from both villa and castrum types, is also evident in the arrangement of the interior. The transverse road (decumanus) linking the east and west gates divided the complex into two halves. In the southern half were the more luxurious structures; that is, the emperor's apartment, both public and private, and cult buildings. The emperor's apartment formed a block along the sea front. Because the sloping terrain created large differences in level, this block was situated above a substructure. Although for many centuries almost completely filled with refuse, most of the substructure is well preserved, giving us evidence as to the original shape and disposition of the rooms above.  A monumental court, called the Perystile, formed the northern access to the imperial apartments. It also gave access to Diocletian's Mausoleum on the east, and to three temples on the west.  The northern half of the palace, which was divided in two parts by the main longitudinal street (cardo) leading from the North Gate to the Perystile, is less well preserved. It is usually supposed that each of these parts formed a large residential complex, housing soldiers, servants, and possibly some other facilities. Both parts were apparently surrounded on all sides by streets. Leading to perimeter walls there were rectangular buildings, possibly storage magazines.  The Palace is built of white local limestone of high quality, most of which was from quarries on the island of Brac (Stella told us this is where the limestone used in building the White House was from); tuffa taken from the nearby river beds; and brick made in Salonitan and other workshops. Some material for decoration was imported: Egyptian granite columns and sphinxes, fine marble for revetments and some capitals produced in workshops in the Proconnesos.”

Stella showed us a few statues, the largest one being a celebrated bronze monument to Bishop Grgur of Nin by the famous sculptor, Meštrović, which is located at the north portal to Diocletian's palace. Legend has it that wishes are fulfilled if one touches the big toe of his foot, which now looks gold while the rest of the sculpture still looks bronze.  Bishop Grgur was the adored by the people of Split because he was brave enough to stand up to the Pope and disagree with him about some issue.  At the end of our tour, we came to another statue, which was of a writer who wrote the first book in the Croatian language, and it was in a square near an apartment that had a plaque on it honoring Sigmund Freud, who evidently used to spend time there.  

At this point, Rex and I decided that we would stay in Split for lunch, while the Woodys and the Youngs were going to go back to the ship for lunch, so we split up.  We all found our way down to the city's fresh air market, which was a beehive of activity.  Temporary and permanent stalls lined the street and filled the square, and vendors were selling everything from cured meats (those big pigs' feet were something!) to gorgeous flowers (the Gerbera daisies were big and beautiful – all colors!) to fresh fruits and vegetables, figs, olive oil, nuts, dried beans, dried fruits, buttons of all colors and shapes, zippers, soccer shirts, touristy T-shirts, flip-flops, fresh herbs, eggs, cheeses, postcards, hats, purses – it was the place to be if you had kuna to spend!  After seeing all of that food, we were pretty hungry, so we took a seat at one of the tables on the Riva.  The menu was written in Croatian, English, Italian, and German and was pretty extensive, so we made our choices and then waited for our server to come by.  And waited, and waited...we are not in the States, that's for sure!  When he finally came to take our order (and clear our table from its previous guests), the things we had chosen weren't available.  He suggested we have the 'filet mignon' and split a salad and an order of pommes frite, so we did.  In the meantime, we struck up a conversation with the couple at the next table, who were from Denver and were also on our ship.  They were enjoying fresh calamari and told us that they had waited a good while for service, too, so we just sat back and enjoyed people watching and the yummy bread that we were served.  Before too long, our salad arrived and then our meal.  The 'filet mignon' was really more like three medallions of beef, which were tasty and served with sides of chopped raw onions and Dalmatian sauce, which was delicious.  The fries were good, too, although no ketchup was to be found (the Dalmatian sauce worked for me, though).  Carafes of red wine were all we needed to complete our meal, and we had seen gelato stands that we had to walk right past to get back to the ship.  Alas, the gelatarias only took the Croatian kuna, and we had none and didn't feel like getting any since we were leaving town.

We tendered back to the ship, where we promptly took a nap!  All too soon, it was time for dinner (didn't we just eat?) so we got dressed and met the rest of our group.  We had a table to ourselves this time, and again, the food was plentiful and tasty and the conversation was great.  After dinner, everyone but me took in the evening show – I came back to blog and download photos.  That's what happens when I get so behind!  

Trying to keep it together,


19 September 2008

Another Culturally Fine Day in Venice

Thursday, 18 September 2008

We were up and at'em this morning, meeting the rest of the gang (they're really here, Kimsey!) for breakfast at 8:15. Well, almost everyone – Bob had his coffee in his stateroom – I think that, like me, Bob is not a morning person. Since we're on the ship, we all ate like they might take our plates away any second and we wouldn't find more food. But we remember what our mothers told us about getting a good breakfast, and we had more Venice to explore. By 9:30, we all (even Bob) disembarked and opted to brave the traffic and walk from the port to Piazzale Roma. We crossed the bridge over the causeway, thankful that there was a pedestrian walkway. Ped xings don't seem to mean much to Italian drivers. Once we got to Piazzale Roma, we started off on the same route that Rex, John, Judy, and I had taken on Tuesday, since Judy and I wanted to purchase some jewelry we had seen that day.

Shortly after starting off, we decided to let the guys off the shopping hook, and determined that we would meet them at the Rialto Bridge at 11:00. For the first half-hour or so, the men were not far from us, but as we kept finding little shops to duck into, they got ahead of us. We had visions of seeing them enjoying a morning glass of vino at one of the many trattoria lining the streets. While Judy and I were both in agreement about where the shop was that we were specifically looking for, we didn't find it where we thought it was. We were definitely following our earlier route, as we recognized many of the shops we had seen before. I was lured into a divine smelling chocolate shop just by the aroma of deep, dark chocolate, and I purchased some macarons (not macaroons), which are a Venetian specialty. They are made of two small circles of meringue with a chocolate layer between them – they look like one inch burgers and taste heavenly! I also got a sheet of dark chocolate bark and a whiskey truffle. I could have just stayed in there all day, breathing in that delicious chocolate. We all stopped in a shop with Murano glass – pendants, earrings, necklaces, etc., and made some purchases, even though this was not the jewelry we were looking for. I got sidetracked by food again, and this time bought a bag of small meringues, although the ones that looked really good were enormous – about the size of a huge bagel! They come in all flavors – vanilla, chocolate, lemon, something pink (haven't tried that one yet), and pistachio. We were starting to get frustrated and more than a little concerned, because we had not yet found what we were looking for, and we were almost to the Rialto market. Of course, it was after 11 already...

At the Rialto market, I went off to find the men while Judy, Emma, and Nancy looked at neckties and scarves. Turns out the men had not bought any ties, or anything, for that matter. They were just waiting patiently for us – no wine in sight. We posed for a group picture on the bridge – I really wish I had enough internet time to post photos with these blog entries, and I don't, so you'll have to wait until we're back home for that. I am grateful that back home, we have 24/7 access to the internet! Since one of our goals for the day was to see the Basilica in bright sunlight and before high tide, we were a little behind schedule, so we followed our per San Marco signs, stopping only once at another Murano glass store in the higher rent district. The shopkeeper there (Alessandro) was so nice (and nice to look at) and he had the kind of necklaces we were looking for. He also had some of the way cool jellyfish in glass like I had seen in Maine this summer, so I got into a long conversation about those with him (turns out he is an artist as well), leaving with his website (
www.artofvenice.com) and contact info (www.alessandrocasson.com) as well as the name of another artist who makes similar pieces.

We stopped off at the little backpack repository, left our bags, and got our cards to take us to the front of the line. At the basilica, the water was not nearly as high as it had been on Tuesday, and we got right in the door. WOW!! What a difference a few hours makes! The golden mosaics were absolutely stunning, glimmering and glittering in the sunlight. We were so glad we had come back – it was truly worth the effort. The water was creeping up and we had to exit the church a different way this time. Out on the square, some young men (tourists) were dancing up a storm and attracting a crowd. They sort of did the 'dancing man' dance (you know, the guy who travels all over the world for free doing the same funny little dance and putting it on YouTube) and it was quite entertaining – they were utterly unself-conscious. At this point, most of the group was ready to head back to the ship for lunch, while Rex, Judy, and I wanted to see the Guggenheim, so we split up. I'm not sure if the others ended up taking a vaporetto down the Grand Canal, but that was their plan when we left them.

Rex, Judy, and I got our bearings and started following the 'alle Accademia' signs, and went in search of modern culture. We walked and walked, finally coming to the third bridge that crosses the Grand Canal, the wooden Accademia Bridge, which was built in 1932. We were so glad we went this way – once we got into the Dorsoduro (means 'hard backbone' and refers to the solid subsoil that this area is built on) sestieri, the streets were wider and the whole area was more open. And the rents looked to be higher! We passed the Gallerie dell' Accademia, and arrived at the Guggenheim a little before one. The museum is housed in Il Palazzo Nonfinito (the Unfinished Palace), which is a palazzo (Palazzo Venier dei Leoni) that was begun in the 18th century, intended to be four stories, and never completed. Peggy Guggenheim purchased it in 1949 for use as a home. There, we saw the Nasher Sculpture Garden, the Gianni Mattoli Collection, lots of strange and interesting modern art (some of which we thought we could have done). There were many Picassos, Calders, Pollacks, pieces by Max Ernst (Peggy Guggenheim's second husband) and more! We especially enjoyed the temporary exhibit, which was “Coming of Age: American Art 1850's to 1950's.” After we had gotten our fill of museum culture, we caught a vaporetto which would take us down the Grand Canal, at least from the Accademia to San Marco. Again, it was fun to be in the center of activity on the water! And, having learned from the day before to check the vaporetti schedule, we were back in time to have a gelato before we needed to catch one for the cruise ship terminal. On the water bus, we met a couple from outside Philly who were on our ship. He's a dentist and a HUGE Duke fan, and they had noticed Rex's “Duke Sports Medicine” shirt, so we talked to them all the way back to the ship. Soon we were on the ship, up in the Lido dining room, and having a very late lunch – I think it was about 3 o'clock before we got aboard! I wasn't sure whether I wanted to eat or sleep most, but since we had to muster at 4:15, I decided to eat now and sleep later.

I pretty much sleepwalked through the muster drill, which lasted way too long (hope we don't have to repeat it for real), and then I crashed until time for dinner. I slept through our bon voyage and missed the sailaway, but Rex and the rest took plenty of pictures for me. We all met for dinner at 7:15, and we sat at a table for ten with a couple of women, Eleanor and Sheila. Eleanor is from Sedona, AZ, so we had lots to talk about! She and Sheila have been friends for years, having met through their ex-husbands. And they are both still friends with Eleanor's ex! I think Sheila is from California. Dinner was yummy, but John was sorry he had only gotten an entree when most of us had gotten one or two (that would be me) other courses. The Youngs, Smarts, and Woodys all went to a show (which is where the Youngs and Smarts had been the night before when we couldn't find them) and Rex and I retired to our cabin so I could do some blogging. And sleeping! All that walking around Venice was exhausting – I can tell I'm getting older!

Bon voyage,


A Grand Day on the Grand Canal

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Morning came early today, and we were slow to greet it. Once we made it downstairs, we had our fill of breakfast pastries and breads at our continental breakfast. Rex and I were pleased to learn that the fancy coffee machine also made hot chocolate, so we enjoyed a cup. Those of you who know me well are probably wondering if I was suffering any ill effects from having neither iced tea nor ice since leaving New York. I am happy to report I'm not, but that first glass on board ship this afternoon will taste good!! Lack of ice and having to pay to use the bathroom are two European things that I can do without! One of our luggage casualties was Judy's big suitcase, which lost its wheel, so John's first priority of the day was to get it fixed. He borrowed a couple of screwdrivers from the front desk and set about his task. While he was working on that, I was transferring all of our digital images from memory cards to my laptop and Rex was snoozing (and snoring) away. Unbeknowst to us, John even made a trip to the hardware store in search of screws and washers. I was very impressed that he found his way to a hardware store (and back) and that he got what he was looking for. Before too long, that suitcase was ready to roll!

By now it was noon, so we decided to grab a bite to eat at a nearby trattoria before leaving for the ship. We went to a small place across the street and near the post office, not expecting that the servers there would speak about as much English as we did Italian. Even though we were linguistically handicapped, we were able to order vino, birra, sopa (the soup of the day, which we saw someone else eating) and I bravely ordered what I hoped was chicken curry with rice. Everything was delicious! The soup was hearty, filled with orzo (or some pasta like that) carrots, potatoes, celery, and maybe some ham in it. The chicken curry was just as advertised – chicken covered in a curry sauce and served with rice. It was good, too. So now it was one o'clock and all we'd done was eat two meals and get our things packed and ready to go. Good thing this is vacation! We called for a car to take us to the cruise ship terminal in Venice, and we had a nice ride over in a Mercedes van. We boarded ship with no problem and found out that the Youngs and Smarts had made it there, too, but they were nowhere to be found. I did all of the important things – signed up for internet service, went up to the top of the ship to survey Venice from there, and got a few (okay, three) glasses of iced tea – and then we left the ship for more time in Venice.

We caught a vaporetto at the terminal and rode over to San Marco, hoping to get there in time to see the basilica. We learned a neat trick about waiting in line there – if you have a backpack, you have to check it in a little room around the block, but they give you a card there that sends you to the front of the line. We're guessing this is an attempt to pacify all the tourists who either can't read (unlikely) or don't read (probably) the MANY signs (in four languages and with pictures) saying that backpacks are not allowed in the church. Somehow, they all think this does not apply to THEM, so they stand in line, hoping to be let in anyway. But no, at the door, they are turned away and told where to leave their backpacks (that's on the sign, too) and then they are angry that they've lost their place in line. So, Judy and I left John and Rex in line, checked our packs, and waltzed right in the door. Rex and John were up to the door by then, too, so that worked out well. The other thing that was really appalling was that even though there were LOTS of signs, in and outside the church, clearly stating that NO PHOTOGRAPHY (flash, no flash, video, NOTHING) was allowed, LOTS of people blatantly took flash, no flash, and video pictures inside. I will report that those that I noticed were mostly not Americans, but it was still interesting to see how many people just disregarded this simple request. The monitors were unable to stop everyone, but we did see one fellow get escorted out after he got caught a second time... Okay, so much for my complaints about our fellow tourists. The mosaics in the basilica were AMAZING!

The basilica is the third church to stand on this site; the first, built in the 9th century to entomb the body of St. Mark, was destroyed by fire. Its replacement was torn down in the 11th century so that a more spectacular church could be built, better representing the new power of the Republic. This building has been remodeled over the centuries, and since 1807 it has served as the cathedral of Venice. Until then it was the Doge's private chapel, used for State ceremonies. The domes, walls, and floors of the basilica are covered in mosaics – over 40,000 square feet in all – with the oldest ones dating from the 12th century. Those decorating the walls and ceiling are gold in color and depict stories from the Bible. The mosaics on the floor are made from marble, clay, and glass, and they are varied in design – some are intricate geometric patterns and some are allegorical scenes of birds and animals. Because the tidewaters often come into the church, some of the floor and lower parts of columns have been damaged over time. We were intrigued by the statues on the iconostasis – Christ flanked by Mary and the disciples, all carved out of marble in 1394 by the Dalle Masegne brothers. Judy seriously wanted to get out a dust rag – it did appear that it had been a long time since things had been cleaned well! Since it was late afternoon when we were here, we made a note to try and come back at noontime the next day so that we could see the mosaics in the sunlight.

After leaving the basilica and retrieving our backpacks, we ambled down the streets of San Marco and did some window shopping, and I found a pashmina that I couldn't live without (it was getting chilly and I knew we'd be getting on a gondola soon!) even though I bought a Duke blue one instead of a purple one. We went back to the docks at San Marco in search of a gondolier who would give us a great ride. John attempted to bargain with one, who wasn't having any of it, but who did agree to give us a ride. His name was Moreno, and he has been steering gondolas for thirty years. Since he appeared to be a fairly young man, I asked him if he started when he was twelve – and he told us that his father taught him when he was eleven! He has lived in Venice his whole life (and he told us he was lucky to live here) and bought his apartment 25 years ago, back before real estate prices went crazy here. Our ride began in front of the Doge's Palace and the first bridge we went under was the famous Bridge of Sighs, which was built in 1600 to link the Doge's Palace with the prisons. I think I would be doing more than sighing if I were going to visit the Inquisitors...

Along our ride, we learned that the ferro is what the piece at the front of the gondola is called, and its six 'teeth' symbolize the six sestieri of Venice while the shape represents the Doge's cap, which is of course over the six teeth. On each side of the gondolas is a golden hippocamus (sea horse) ornament. All gondolas are painted black, and it takes three months to build a new one. At the bow of our gondola was a decoration honoring Dante, the first Italian to write a book in Italian (rather than Latin). The gondolas are also asymmetrical, which you don't really notice when looking at them from the side. The prow curves to the left and is wider on the left than the right to counteract the force of the oar (on the right). As interesting as it was to watch the intricate 'dance of the gondolas' from land, it was much more exciting to see it and be a part of the action. Certain canals were marked for gondolas only; there were mirrors strategically placed for the gondoliers to be able to see someone coming from a side canal, and the gondoliers yelled back and forth to each other. Even then, there were a couple of times that I can't believe we didn't hit something! One of the most fascinating things about this ride through the canals of Venice was seeing the palazzi from a different perspective and seeing where boats were housed (in little boat garages) along the way. It is astounding to me that most of the buildings we passed have been in existence for at least 400 years! One thing we noticed as we walked the streets of Venice was an absence of children. Turns out that the average age of the Venetian population is 50; schools and maternity hospitals here have closed for lack of use. The main reason why the city shuts down so early at night (as we noticed!) is so that cooks, waiters, shopkeepers, etc. can catch the last bus home, usually to Mestre. Mestre was founded so that Venice could 'overflow its banks' as land is a decidedly finite quantity in Venice. Oh, and the reason there are so few lights on in the homes of Venice at night is that many of the palazzi now belong to wealthy foreigners who are only here for a week or two each year... But back to our gondola ride! We passed many beautiful palazzi, but the most famous were the homes of Marco Polo and Casanova. We also went by Hell's Kitchen, Venice, but our favorite part was entering and cruising down the Grand Canal! We went right under the Rialto Bridge and even got Moreno to take us down as far as Bancogiro so we could see it from the water. It was such fun to be in the center of all of the Grand Canal's frenetic activity! Our ride was over all too soon, but we got out and made our way to the water taxi for our ride back to the ship. But not so fast...the next vaporetto was not due for another 45 minutes!

To pass the time, we decided to duck into a bar, and Harry's American Bar was close by. Alas, Harry's, with its white-coated waiters and hoity-toity reputation, has a dress code which did not include “gentlemen in shorts” so we bounced out as quickly as we bounced in. But we can say we got kicked out of Harry's! The people at Piccolo Martini probably wished they could have kicked us out when we ordered only wine and limoncello (mine had three ice cubes in it!) but they didn't, so we enjoyed our drinks, their bread, and their free toilet facilities. We made it back to the dock in time to catch our water bus and soon we were boarding the Zuiderdam, our home for the next 11 or 12 days.

Our luggage had been delivered to our staterooms and we had still not seen the Youngs or the Smarts, so we headed up to the Lido deck and the food waiting for us there. Since we'll be eating LOTS of cruise ship food from here on out, I'll only tell you the details if it's something really special. After dinner, we went up to the internet cafe and library, where we checked out a few books and John got his internet minutes, and then we had a drink in the bar next door. We were about the only people there, so we sat at the bar and got to know Louie, our bartender, and listened to the piano player. We made plans to meet for breakfast and hoped that we would meet up with the rest of our party in the morning. It was a good ending to a grand day!