Adriatic and Black Sea 2013


Sunday October 6th, 2013

This was my first trip to Amsterdam but Sandra had been twice before – so I was looking forward to a bit of a guided tour. With only one day to fit in all the major sites, we sat with a map over breakfast in the hotel and roughed out a plan. First up was a visit to the Rijks Museum.

We decided to walk the 30 minutes from the hotel to the museum and soak up the Amsterdam culture along the way. There is no doubt about it; Amsterdam is a very photogenic city…

   

The Rijks Museum has only recently reopened after a 10-year shutdown for major renovations; we had pre-purchased our tickets on the Internet a few weeks before leaving which meant we could skip the ticket line and go right in. If you are only going to spend a day in a major city, and you want to hit a significant museum, you need a plan. We’ve been known to make short lists of the most important works in a museum, along with their locations, to ensure a swift but satisfying visit. 

The Rijks Museum seems to have thought of this and has created a “Hall of Honor” to hold all of what they consider their most prized possessions. This special hall is located on the upper floor of the central building of the museum, which also has identical wings off each side of the center – a very well designed and laid out museum. Each level in the museum is dedicated to a particular century – all very logical, I loved it!

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The star of the show is the famous “Night Watch” painting by Rembrandt and it has pride of place in a room by itself at one end of the Hall of Honor. This painting is simply magnificent!

How has The Netherlands produced so many brilliant artists?

Our next stop was Rembrandt's House Museum and along the way we stopped at the flower market, crossed several incredibly picturesque bridges and had to pass the Heineken Brewery - despite my dry throat.

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We also noticed some unusual  "popsicles" in the flower mart...

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One of Rembrandt’s former homes has been converted into a museum and contains a collection of period furniture and other pieces that either belonged to the grand master or were very similar to items he owned at the time. It turns out the artist went through a bit of a rough patch (don’t they all) and filed for bankruptcy – this resulted in all of his possessions being sold off. The interior of the museum was created from period sketches and descriptions. 

A walk through the house really does give you a good idea of what Rembrandt’s life was like at that time, and includes a reception area that was basically his sales department where he not only sold his works – but he dealt in works by other artists as well. The top floor is a recreation of the artist’s workshop – along with a demonstration of his painting techniques. Beware of the almost vertical spiral staircases.

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Next we headed for the Anne Frank House Museum and along the way Sandra insisted (she really did) we pass through the Red Light District – which was nothing like I’d imagined it to be. Yes you have the ladies in the windows, but the area is actually very nice and the most amazing thing was to see the large tour groups being escorted through – picture 30 or so older Japanese ladies trailing behind a tour guide holding up a little flag. We also passed through Dam Square (there is no dam, but they do have a royal palace) and saw some other strange shops.

    

By the time we got to the Anne Frank House the line (queue) was very, very long; it was late afternoon so we decided to take a ride on one of the many narrated canal boats and hope that the line would be reduced by the time we got back.

Tickets for the canal boats can be purchased at several places around the canal system; multi-day tickets (hop on, hop off) are available, but we picked the 1 hour narrated version. At this point in our day we were glad to get to sit down for an hour, so we just sat back and took it all in.

In addition to the traditional canals, the tour also passed through the wider dock areas with some stunning modern architecture - although it was difficult to get good shots through the windows of the boat.

  

  

By the time we got off the boat, right by the Anne Frank House, the queue had almost disappeared so we paid the entry fee and prepared ourselves for what we expected would be a very emotional visit.

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The story of the Franks hiding out in an attic space during the Nazi occupation is well known, but some of the details were new to me. The Franks actually hid out in the attic of the family jam making business, not their actual house. The family was betrayed just days before Amsterdam was liberated, it’s not known who betrayed them – even worse, Anne died just days before the Allies walked into the concentration camp. Otto Frank, Anne’s father, actually survived the camps and returned to Amsterdam where he lobbied to get Anne’s diary published. The diary was kept safe by Otto’s secretary, who also helped to hide the family.

A visit to the Anne Frank House Museum is a must if you are coming to Amsterdam. The space where the family hid out was recreated under the direction of Otto Frank and includes the bookcase that hides the secret door to the attic space, the walls where Anne pasted pictures from Hollywood magazines and a great selection of actual pages from the diary.

Sorry but pictures were not allowed inside the museum. 

Finally a few words about our great hotel in Amsterdam – the Hotel Pulitzer. This unique hotel is comprised of 25 adjacent canal houses dating to the 17th and 18th century; the houses are in two rows, back to back facing canals. The space between the two rows has been made into glass-enclosed public rooms and outdoor gardens, all very nicely done. We had a great room in the attic space of one of the houses, it was very comfortable and quiet.

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Oh well that's it, home tomorrow!


Saturday October 5th, 2013

Time for one last spin around Plaka before heading out to the airport. 

We wandered through the streets and made our way up to Parliament Square, site of the previous days “funny walks” incident. On the way to the square we noticed crowds gathering and then came across a couple of large vans disgorging several squads of riot police. Greece is in a fairly dire state of political and economic unrest with high debt and unemployment – and the people were venting their frustration with a rally. It turned out to be all very friendly with the two opposing sides taking turns to express their opinions via bullhorns in front of the parliament building. The democratic process at work, in the birthplace of democracy.

   

We arrived in Amsterdam at about 8pm for the last stop on this vacation; the 3 1/2 hour flight up from Athens and taxi ride to the hotel were fairly uneventful. Following check-in we had a quick bite to eat in the hotel bar followed by a short stroll along the adjacent canal before collapsing into bed – knackered!

It seemed appropriate, having started in Venice, to be ending our trip in "The Venice of the North". 

Friday October 4th, 2013

Today the ship docked at the port of Piraeus which is about 6 miles south of Athens; this was a "turn around" day for the ship with most passengers disembarking at the end of their cruise. In our experience the whole process of getting >2000 people safely off a big ship in one morning can either go really good or really bad - this time it went really well, at least for us. We were promised a departure time of 8:30am and we were in the terminal collecting our bags at about 8:40am.

To ease the transition from the port to our hotel in Athens, we had arranged (through the hotel) for a car to pick us up. It's always a thrill for me to see my name on a card held up by a smartly dressed driver in a crowed terminal - I introduced myself to George and he promptly whisked us off to his car, loaded up our bags and we set off for Athens. We took an instant like to George and his nicely appointed Mercedes (including wifi connectivity!) - we found him to be knowledgable and informative, but not pushy. We quickly arranged for him to take us to the airport the next day. In addition, George offered his services as a tour guide and driver at an hourly rate.

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The Electra Palace Hotel is located right in the heart of Athens Plaka district; Pláka (Greek: Πλάκα) is the old historical neighborhood of Athens, clustered around the northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis, and incorporating labyrinthine streets and neoclassical architecture. Plaka is built on top of the residential areas of the ancient town of Athens. It is known as the "Neighbourhood of the Gods" due to its proximity to the Acropolis and its many archaeological sites.

Since we arrived before the official check-in time, our room was not yet ready - so we ditched our bags and set out to explore the city. On our last visit to Athens were took a Cunard organized shore excursion that included a trip to the Parthenon, national museum, original Olympic Stadium and many other city highlights. So we decided to spend the rest of the morning exploring the Plaka district.

During the aforementioned shore excursion we had visited an area of Plaka that was mostly filled with trinket shops and this had not left us with a very favorable impression; and so we were very pleasantly surprised to find that most of Plaka is actually not just full of tourist focused shops. In fact it seems to be the place where many Athenians go on a Saturday to shop and hang out.

Please be aware that the term “pedestrian area” in Greece is only a very loose guideline – on several occasions we found ourselves almost mowed down by scooters, motorcycles and even some small cars whizzing through the so-called pedestrian areas. 

Sandra was doubly happy; she found a whole area devoted to fabric shops AND a six-story Marks and Spencers shop! Admittedly, the M&S store did have a very small footprint.

   

   

We decided to take George up on his offer to provide us with his driving services and take the opportunity to get outside of Athens. A quick phone call and George was set up for 4 hours after lunch.

Back at the hotel we were finally able to check-in to our very nicely appointed and situated room – we could actually see the Acropolis from our window, with only slight neck distortion. The view from the adjacent roof pool and bar was simply breathtaking.

  

George arrived exactly at the arranged time and set off on our tour; he had previously mentioned visiting the Temple of Poseidon located about 1½ hours south of Athens. Over lunch, Sandra and I researched this location and we quickly decided that this would be a great trip. 

As we left the outskirts of Athens the scenery quickly changed to reveal beautiful bays with many small islands offshore and several summer resort towns with a mix of apartments and large exclusive homes – all were shuttered for the coming winter.

  

Cape Sounion is a promontory located 69 kilometres SSE of Athens, at the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula in Greece and is noted as the site of ruins of an ancient Greek temple of Poseidon, the god of the sea in classical mythology. The remains are perched on the headland, surrounded on three sides by the sea. As we approached the tip of the peninsula the ruined temple came into view.

After paying a nominal entry fee we made our way up the hill towards the temple – we were immediately struck by how few people were around, just one small tour group and a couple of other tourists; we put this down to the relative remoteness of the location coupled with the lateness of the season, either way it made the whole experience very pleasant to not be tripping over squads of people.

The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion is simply awesome.

   

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Our amazing driver, George, somehow managed to make the 1 ½ drive back from Sounion, through the busy Athens streets and get us right in front of the parliament building at about 4 minutes before 6pm; the ceremonial changing of the guard takes place at 6pm. We jumped out of the car and ran towards the small crowd that was gathered in from of the main building – having just enough time to get into position and fire up our cameras; perfect timing! After watching the proceedings I knew for sure where John Cleese got his inspiration from for the Monty Python “Ministry of Funny Walks" sketch. Many in the crowd were actually giggling as the young men swung their legs high into the air only to briefly hold them there before slapping them into the ground.

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Back in the car George drove us past many of the major sights in the city, most of which started with “the first…” library, courthouse, museum… Finally we stopped at the highest point in the area and from a vista point we could see the whole city spread out beneath us with the Acropolis rising up and Piraeus off in the distance.

   


Thursday October 3rd, 2013

The ship sailed from Istanbul at about midnight last night; we had thought we might get an additional morning in port but this was not to be. So we had one more sea day before arriving at our final port - Athens. The highlight of the day was a slow sail past the site of the World War One Gallipoli landings - with commentary provided from the bridge. The ship sailed close enough to get a few shots of the British and Turkish war memorials.

   


Wednesday October 2nd, 2013

A full day in Istanbul!

The weather was quite miserable today; raining and cold with  strong winds - but we vowed not to let this get in the way of our sight seeing. Having visited Istanbul a few years ago, we wanted to focus this trip on some of the things we had not seen or that we felt were worth a second look - first up was the Dolmabahce Palace.

On exiting the cruise terminal, to get to the Dolmabahce Palace, turn right and walk about 1km along the main street - it took us about 15 minutes. Our umbrellas were working overtime to keep the wind and rain out, but we were in good spirits as we knew we had a good day ahead of us.

The Sultan and his harem moved from the Topkapi Palace in the old quarter of Istanbul to the newly constructed Dolmabahce Palace in 1853. The new palace is constructed almost entirely in European style - there is very little Turkish influence. The last six Ottoman Sultans lived in the Dolmabahce before the empire collapsed at the end of the first world war in 1918.

There are two ticket options for the palace; the full tour which includes the palace and the harem, or a ticket for just the palace - we opted for the full tour.

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We were a bit surprised and disappointed to find that all tours of the palace are in guided groups - Sandra had visited many years ago and wandered freely. After only a short wait, while donning plastic overshoes, we were ushered into an entry hall - our group consisted of about 75 people, way too big for this kind of tour. After the first stop on the tour we gave up trying to hear what the guide was saying. The other big disappointment was that no photography was allowed inside the palace - Sandra and others tried a few shots to test the strength of the anti-photo police and after the group was politely reminded of the policy she put her camera way. Not so several idiots who continued to shoot away and attract the wrath of the palace employees - this was very irritating. While I found the camera policy a bit baffling, you have to respect the rules - we don't want anarchy breaking out!

Even with all these annoying issues, I found the Dolmabahce Palace to be absolutely amazing - it is one of the most elaborately adorned palaces I have ever visited. The interior is filled with original furnishing left from the time of the last sultan - I suppose this has to do with the relatively "easy" transition from Ottoman rule to the Turkish republic, compared to counties like France for example.

The building is basically divided into too separate functional areas; the formal Palace side where matters of state were attended - and the "family" side (AKA Harem which mean forbidden), where the Sultan lived with his mother, up to 4 chosen wives (any more than this had to live outside the palace but close by), other female family members and male members before they were circumcised; after they met the knife (at about age 10) they were considered men and had to go and live on the Palace side. Interestingly the sultan never actually officially married any of his "wives" so as to avoid giving them any legal standing they might challenge his power.

  

              One of the many halls in the Dolmabahce Palace                                            The famous crystal staircase

Strangely, after finishing the palace tour which lasted about 45 minutes - we were required to exit the building, walk all the way around to the back, line p again, put on overshoes again and reenter for the harem part of the tour which lasted an additional 30 minutes.

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Our next intended stop was the Grand Bazaar. We exited the palace and walked about 5 minutes back down the main street in the direction of the ship to get to the streetcar stop. Though limited in the extent of the system - the streetcars in Istanbul are very modern and cheap to ride. Access to the system is gained by purchasing a "giton" token for 3 Turkish Lire (about $1.50) from machines at the stop, and for this price you get to ride as far as you want on that particular streetcar. The streetcars can get very crowded, as ours did as it made its way closer to the center of the city - by the time we got off at the Sultan Ahmad stop (right by the Blue Mosque), the car was packed. Its always a good idea to keep alert in situations like this as we were well aware that we probably stuck out as tourists - and may be targeted by pickpockets. We had no problems of this kind - however after the streetcar had pulled away, and we were walking along the street, Sandra informed me that she had been groped as she was getting of the train; she did not know whether to be flattered or furious (she was slightly furious).

After a quick lunch at one of the many restaurants along the main street we headed up towards the Grand Bazaar. Along the way we discovered an unexpected treat; the shrine of the last 3 Ottoman sultans. We had noticed this area the last time were we in Istanbul but it was closed - it's on the right hand side of the main street that leads from the Blue Mosque to the bazaar. After walking through a small cemetery we entered the mausoleum of the sultans where we had to remove our shoes and Sandra had to put on her headscarf - it was a very small building and we were the only ones in there. Unlike christian tombs in a muslim tomb the dead are buried at a slight angle, with the head raised up. Another quirk we noticed was the fez placed on the pinnacle of each tomb. Awesome and well worth a visit.

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Off to the Grand Bazaar - the place is both grand and bazaar. There are over 4000 shops in the grand bazaar arranged in a warren of covered streets and alleys - its not like any other market I've ever visited. The bazaar dates from the 15th century and sells jewelry, carpets, spices, leather goods and various other trinkets. This was not our first visit, so we knew to expect a certain amount of hassle as shopkeepers tried to get us to come into their stores - a firm "no thanks" usually does the trick, but sometimes it feels as though you have something stuck on your shoe and you have to just keep shaking to get it off. Our visit was more about soaking up the atmosphere than buying anything in particular - so we wandered the streets trying to avoid sensory overload which is pretty difficult. We eventually bought a few trinkets, haggling over the price - as expected, and headed out.

  

  

Close by the Grand Bazaar is the Suleymaniye Mosque, constructed for Suleyman the Magnificent. Even though smaller than the Blue Mosque we found the Suleymaniye Mosque to be delightful - and it seemed to be more of a "working mosque", we were the only tourists inside.

By now it was getting a little late in the day but we decided to make one last stop at the Blue Mosque - even though we had visited it in the past we felt it was just too good an opportunity to pass up. The area around the Blue Mosque is now largely pedestrianized and had been updated since our last visit; in the open area to the side of the mosque we came upon two Egyptian obelisks - quite impressive!

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Entering the courtyard of the mosque really takes your breath away…

We made our way to the visitors entrance, there is a main entrance for those who are entering for prayers, and line up with the small crowd. There is a bit of a ritual to follow when entering a mosque; shoes must be removed and placed in provided plastic bags, no shorts for men, and women must have their shoulders covered and wear a headscarf - all this must be done in "production-line like" fashion as you are ushered to the entrance. We just made it inside before they shut off the entrance to get the mosque ready for prayers. 

The vast interior of the mosque is amazing; the men involved in prayer are permitted beyond a barrier that separates the front from the back, tourists are only allowed in a middle swathe and then, behind screens at the very back, are the women in prayer. Some people are unbelievable; we watched in amazement as one tourist who was not satisfied with trying to peer through the screen to see the women then pulled out his camera and held it above the screen so he could see what was going on - and then took flash pictures!  

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While the Blue Mosque is very busy, and it does feel a bit like being in a herd of cattle, it still rates as a "must see" in Istanbul.


Tuesday October 1st, 2013

Disappointment today as the seas were too rough for us to visit the town of Nessebur in Bulgaria. Overnight we sailed south along the Black Sea coast from Odessa and, for the first time, we could feel the ship rocking and rolling. Without a proper port, a cruise ship stop in Nessebur necessitates the use of tender boats to transport the passengers to shore. Shortly after we woke up the captain came on the tannoy in our cabin - it's never a good sign when messages are broadcast in the cabin, it's always something serious, he delivered the bad news with grace and apologies.

So close, yet so far…

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So we went to breakfast contemplating an unexpected sea day; however while munching on my toast, the captain made another announcement that they had secured a birth in Istanbul - this meant we would get an extra night in Istanbul as the original itinerary included staying over on Thursday night, the dining room let out a raucous cheer!

The entrance to the Bosphorus swung into view at about 4PM, we had camped out in the Commodore Club for an hour in order to secure some front row seats, and the ship began it's slow 2 hour transit down the Bosphorus to Istanbul. The weather was overcast with occasional rain, and this made us realize how lucky we had been whne we came up the Bosphorus a few days ago.

  

After a leisurely cruise down the Bosphorus we finally reached Istanbul and the ship pulled into it's birth at about 6PM.

  

In preparation for our Istanbul visit, Sandra had researched a few eating possibilities; CNN rated the 10 best kebab restaurants in Turkey and one of them was in Istanbul - Hamdi Restaurant. A quick look on Google showed that Hamdi was quite close to the Galata Bridge, about a 10 minute taxi ride from the boat dock - so I called and made a reservation. 

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We were joined for dinner by two of our table mates from the ship and as we headed out it began to rain, it was bitterly cold and there was a chilling wind - quite a contrast from the rest of our cruise. Still we were excited to be having dinner off the ship and heading for an unknown restaurant in a foreign city.

As we made our way to the restaurant from the taxi we were treated to some breathtaking views of Istanbul at night. In addition to being famous for it's kebabs, Hamdi Restaurant is also famous for the views that it's diners get from the higher floors across the Galata Bridge and out to the Bosphorus; however, since we had made a last minute reservation we were not able to get a great table - the place was busy even for a Tuesday night. 

Our experience at Hamdi was excellent; the menu was very well designed with pictures of each item and an explanation of how it was cooked. In addition we had an outstanding waiter who made excellent recommendations and spoke very good English.

Appetizers, kebabs, plenty of Turkish breads and baklava - all were great!

    

Back on the ship we ventured onto the balcony where we had this great view back towards the city (sorry it's a bit fuzzy)…


Monday September 30th, 2013

Odessa, Ukraine, is a lot larger than Yalta - in fact it has ten times the population, and with its wide boulevards lined with large balconied building from the 19th and 20th centuries it feels like a big city. Odessa is also a busy commercial port and this is reflected in the view of harbor from the ship…

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The weather today was markedly colder than yesterday; as we left the port I noticed a sign that showed the temperature as 9C - and with the cold wind that was blowing it felt very cold indeed. No short pants today.

The location of the port, and the cruise terminal, is very convenient for access to the city. Once again, passports in hand, we transited the deserted passport control area and out onto a wide plaza that was in front of the famous Potemkin Steps; a busy road separates the steps from the plaza - but a pedestrian tunnel provides safe crossing.

  

In 1905 there was an uprising and mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin while it was in Odessa harbor and this event was immortalized in a classic old black and white silent movie. Many of the local citizens were massacred on the steps and so they were renamed Potemkin Steps (I've watched a good bit of the old movie and would not recommend it - I must have a different definition of "classic").

The steps are a major tourist attraction; there are 192 of them (steps that is) arranged mostly in flights of 20. In addition the steps are almost twice as wide at the bottom than at the top - creating the illusion, when viewed from the top, that the stairway has a constant width. The slope is quite mild and we found the ascent to be quite easy; for those unable to manage the steps, there is a funicular railway immediately adjacent to the stairway.

  

The street across the top of the Potemkin Steps is called Prymorski Bulvar and on the right side consists of a beautiful tree-lined walkway. Sandra also spoted some high-end Ukrainian fashion on display…

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We set off up a wide boulevard and headed for the famous Odessa Opera House (is everything "famous" in this town?) which was a brisk 10 minute walk away.

  

The opera house is almost 100 years old and was built by Austrian architects in an impressive baroque style; we tried to go in but it was closed on Mondays, as was the archeology museum - I guess Mondays are not the best for visiting Odessa.

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Feeling the need to get in from the cold, we caved in and got some of the local Ukrainian currency so we could get a cup of coffee - no problems at the ATM machine, just select English and off you go.

Our string of luck with local cafes continued as we selected a place just down the street from the opera house, appropriately named Salieri's - I think he was Mozart's nemesis (have you noticed how no one seems to have a nemesis these days?).

  

Sufficiently recharged we set out again onto the frigid streets of Odessa where Sandra hit on the brilliant idea of watching where the guided groups of tourists were being taken. This led us to a great find, a small shopping arcade off the main City Garden area - it was an architectural gem, though on closer inspection we noticed several severe cracks in the buildings. In fact there is a bit of a "falling apart" feel to the whole of Odessa - and while there was some restoration work going on most of the older buildings were suffering from neglect, but in a quaint kind of way.

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We found the people of Odessa to be very friendly - especially the lady in the trinket shop who invited Sandra behind the counter for a closer inspection of the goods!

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I'll finish this entry with a few words on the remarkable maneuverability of this huge ship. I went up on the top deck to observe the Queen Elizabeth departing from Odessa harbor; I'd noticed that the exit from the harbor was especially tight so I was curious to see how it was done.

In these first images the ship is facing forwards and I am looking over the port (left) side. In order to exit the harbor, the ship must proceed forward towards the topmost seawall and then make a sharp left turn to go out between the two piers.

I'm happy to report that the maneuver was accomplished flawlessly; these images show the view of the left and right piers as we passed through.

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Sunday September 29th, 2013

Having crossed the Black Sea, this morning the ship docked in the port of Yalta which is on the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine; this was our first visit to Ukraine so we get to check another one off the country list. The weather was overcast and it had rained during the night but we were still able to stand on the balcony as the ship made it's final approach to the dock.

For this port we had purchased a Cunard shore excursion to visit several of the famous palaces in the area and since these locations were quite a few miles from the port, this was a convenient way to see them in a relatively short amount of time. The downside of shore excursions is being herded like cattle and having to stick to someone else's schedule. At the assigned time we headed to the Theater on the ship to await our turn to disembark; for this stop we were required to take our passports ashore, something we've never had to do in any other port. We followed our escort off the ship and waltzed through the passport control offices in the terminal building which were completely unoccupied - so much for needing the passport.

On board the bus we met our Ukrainian guide, Juri, who spoke good English but with a very heavy Russian accent and would occasionally take a while to search for the right word to complete a sentence. Initial impressions as the bus pulled away from the dock were that this was an old town with a lot of history trying to get modern but just not quite knowing how to do it. The streets in Yalta are very narrow and there are lots of parked cars and overhanging trees making for an exciting bus ride. 

Yalta sits in a large natural bay backed by a high mountain range, the Crimean Mountains. There is a long pedestrian embankment along about half of the bay called the Lenin Embankment; in places the embankment gives way to small beaches. Houses, hotels and businesses face the waterfront and progress back up the hillside away from the bay. The whole area is covered with trees which in parts are quite dense.

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After about 20 minutes we reached our first destination, the Lavadia Palace; famous as the site of the Yalta Conference, a meeting between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill in 1945 where they discussed the fate of Europe after the end of the war. The palace was originally owned by the Romanov Tzars until the outbreak of WW1 and was then, of course, put to other uses after the revolution in 1917 - in fact the bolsheviks turned the palace into retreat for peasants.

Lavadia was finally turned into a museum with an exhibit focussed on the Yalta conference; then in the 1980s when Gorbachev visited he ordered that the museum also exhibit the history of the Romanovs. The result is that now the Yalta conference is shown on the ground floor and the Romanov exhibit is upstairs.

The Yalta exhibit is a bit sparse; with the exception of the original conference table and chairs (which are excellent), the exhibit consists mostly of photographs and documents in display cases. Getting to stand with my hand on by Churchill's chair was a real treat.

  

Of course "Uncle Joe" had his seat with the back to the wall due to his extreme paranoia. Other rooms on the ground floor were also impressive.

  

Upstairs we got to see and hear about the life of the Romanovs - the displays had a lot of photos and documents but also a lot more furniture and artifacts.. Two things strike me when you see and how the Tzars lived in comparison to the rest of the country; the extreme state of luxury in which they existed, and second, how could they not see what was coming?

  

Back on the bus and off to the Swallows Nest castle - a small pad built on a rock outcrop by a German industrialist for his mistress back in 1912. Swallows Nest has become a famous Crimean landmark. This was a 20 minute quick fire stop; the bus pulled over near a cafe overlooking the castle and we all piled out to try and get a shot of the castle off in the distance, about half a mile away. There were also "5 star" bathrooms at this location at a cost of half a Euro per person - it also turned out that some of the best photo angles were on the way down the steps to the bathroom.

  

The last stop on our tour was at the Vorontsov Palace; Count Vorontsov rose to fame in the Russian army during the Napoleonic wars in 1812 and was rewarded by being made governor of new Southern Russia by the Tzar. The count had grown up in London where his father was the Russian ambassedor and so he became a bit of an anglophile - he also became extraordinarily wealthy from his land holdings in Russian and from the wine business he established (much of the Crimea is planted with grape vines). 

Vorontsov Palace is in the town of Alupka, about 11 miles from Yalta - note that the count also had a palace in Odessa, and maybe more. The palace is now a museum and sits in a 40 hectare (apologies to our American friends) park that was the former grounds. If you visit this palace on a bus tour, get ready for some pretty hairy moments as the bus navigates the tiny roads that are at times lined with cars and other buses. There is also a 600M walk from where the bus stops to the palace; this being a Sunday the park was full of young families out with their children for a morning stroll. 

Wanting to recapture some of his English upbringing, the count employed the same guy who extended Buckingham Palace, when it came time to build his palace in the Crimea. 

  

We crammed into the entry lobby where our guide ensured that we were OK for entry and announced that photo taking inside was only allowed if you purchased a permit, and that he would buy them for anyone who wanted one using his local currency - and then we could pay him the 1/2 Euro equivalent - at which point he promptly turned around and left the room instructing us to follow, no one got to buy a photo permit! By the time we got to the second room most people had started to take photos anyway, the "guards" did not seem to care - maybe our guide knew this all along. 

During the Yalta conference of 1945, Churchill used the Vorontsov Palace as his base, along with his entourage of 300 - some sleeping 8 to a room (the palace is not that big), there are also only 3 bathrooms in the the place. We found many of the palace room to be too small for the size of our tour group, invariably we could not hear what the guide was saying. The interior is in decent shape but there is not much left from the week that Churchill spent here.

  

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The palace is guarded by a crack group of ex-spatnez special forces soldiers from the legendary Sleeping Brigade...

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screenshot535The bus dropped us off back at the ship and we noticed that the dock was very close to the previously mentioned Lenin Embankment, and so we decided to take a little walk before re-boarding the ship. On the way to the embankment we passed some of the older buildings in Yalta.

The area then opened up into a wide plaza that anchored one end of the embankment. There was a carnival / fairground feel to the whole place; with kids rides, music playing, food vendors and lots of locals out for a Sunday afternoon walk. One of the few signs left over from the old Soviet era is the large statue of Lenin that is set back just a little from the embankment. Perhaps the biggest signal that the old regime is long gone was a group of teenagers using the base of the Lenin statue as a mini skateboard park, and not being sent to Siberia for exhibiting such anti-social behavior.

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Even though we were able to use Euros at the trinket shops by the palaces, we found that the businesses along the embankment would only take the local Ukrainian currency - of which we had precisely zero, so no coffee and cake for us! In addition most of the locals spoke very little, if any, English - but it's amazing how much you can convey by pointing and gesturing. 

Strolling on for about half a mile we observed many families having lots of fun - this does seem to be a very popular spot with the locals on a Sunday. Eventually we reversed coarse and headed back to the ship.


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We managed to talk the Ukrainian port guard into posing for pictures - after her initial resistance we couldn't get her to stop!


Saturday September 28th, 2013

Another fantastic sea day - really fantastic, we got to sail through the Bosphorus Strait and into the Black Sea.

We had a lazy morning, though we did attend the second lecture by Margaret Gilmore the former BBC news person. This time Mrs. Gilmore focussed on anti-terrorism and gave a captivating speech to a packed house describing the methods that are used today to combat terrorism, and even described some events which the authorities had managed to head off.

During the night the ship had exited the Aegean Sea and entered the Dardanelles - a seaway that connects the Aegean with the Sea of Marmara. The Dardanelles are perhaps most famous for the ill-fated British landing attempt that took place here during World War One. We've actually sailed this way before and seen the British and Turkish war memorials on the shore, though we didn't get to see them last night I think we'll get to see them on our return from the Black Sea.

At about 1PM the ship exited the Sea of Marmara and entered the Bosphorus Strait; the captain had told us that the transit would take about 2 hours - so we had an early lunch and got set up on our balcony which was on the port side, ideal for viewing Istanbul as we passed by. 

As we approached the city we began to make out the familiar shapes of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia; using our binoculars we were able to get our bearings and figure out the ships position. Later we realized that there was strong cell phone reception in the area and we were able to follow the ship on Google Maps - what a treat! 

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Approaching Istanbul

The famous mosques and the Topkapi Palace loomed ever larger and soon we were able to start getting some photographs. Dolphins began to ride along with the ship, occasionally leaping from the water; and then the sounds of the muslim call to pray began to drift across the water to the ship. This was an absolutely awesome experience!

  

Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia

As we passed the main mosques and Topkapi Palace the famous Galata Bridge swung into view followed by the docked cruise ships and the Dolmabahce Palace. Soon we were passing under the first of two bridges across the strait that link Europe to Asia. The European shore is dotted with old mansions and palaces - which made for some great viewing.

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Topkapi Palace and Dolphins

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Galata Bridge

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Dolmabahce Palace

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Google Maps Showing Position of the Ship

  

  

Eventually we spotted the entrance to the Black Sea and noticed a brand new bridge under construction...

  

This has been one of the most impressive things we've ever experienced on a cruise ship.


Friday September 27th, 2013

Today we visited the port of Izmir on the west coast of Turkey. The primary attraction of stopping in Izmir is to use it as a starting point to visit the ancient cities of Ephesus and Pergamon; we'd already been to Ephesus and the reviews of Pergamon were not good enough to attract us - so we opted to guide ourselves around Izmir. We viewed this stop as an opportunity to see a normal, non-tourist Turkish city. 

The city is spread out around a large bay and the port is located at one end of a sweeping arc that comprises the majority of the metropolitan area. Even though there have been settlements on this site (it was formerly know as Smyrna) dating back 3500 years the city is actually quite modern with most of the buildings being constructed in the 20th century; Izmir is the 3rd largest city in Turkey. 

On leaving the ship we checked in at the local tourist office in the port terminal building; the ship had not provided a map for Izmir (this is a first for us, Cunard has always provided a town map for every port we've visited) and the tourist office had maps in every language, except English. We knew we wanted to head for Konak Square and the Kemeralti Bazaar, and the folks in the tourist office told us it would be about 12 Turkish Lire for a taxi or about 20 minutes to walk. 

As we exited the terminal building we were approached by a small swarm (is there such a thing?) of taxi drivers; we tried to negotiate but they all would not budge off a price of 10 Euros or 25 Turkish Lire - this is about $15, and while this is not a whole lot of money, our rip-off radar was flashing  - and so we walked. For several hundred yards after leaving the port we continued to be accosted by aggressive taxi drivers - in the end Sandra had to shout at one of the guys to get him to back off and he scurried way with his tail between his legs. Not a great introduction to Izmir.

The weather was warm in the shade and so as we began the hike we stayed close to the long line of buildings that faced the huge curved bay. The long cobble stoned road was lined with cafes and shops on the left and an esplanade-style walkway by the bay on the right - not a trinket shop in sight.

We walked and walked, 20 minutes went by and we cursed the friendly and helpful tourist office employees for their "accurate" information - perhaps the people in Izmir just walk really fast? On we went, not a lot to see along this stretch. Along the way we were able to follow signs that indicated we were going in the right direction, and occasionally a shop keeper would try to tempt us into his "shopping center" - otherwise known as a small shop. After about 40 minutes the pathway turned away from the sea and we crossed a colorful pedestrian bridge over a major roadway - in the distance we could see the edge of Konak Square.

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Konak Square, with it's distinctive clock tower and mini-mosque, is a central meeting point for Izmir's locals.

  

Immediately inland from the square is the Kemeralti Bazzar - this is a huge warren of winding streets lined with shops and stalls selling everything that the people of Izmir might need; food, shoes, shirts, shoes, jewelry, shoes, pants, shoes… Kemeralti is NOT a tourist market (like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul) this is a place where the locals really do their shopping - we were rarely hassled by the store owners and had a hard time seeing any other tourists. 

  

We finally found a cafe (Lesmire Cafe) that looked appealing - off a quiet little side alley, trees for shade, beautiful Turkish table cloths and friendly staff. The waiter recited the list of drink possibilities in perfect English, but when we questioned him for some details we realized the recited list was probably the extent of his vocabulary - not to worry, through some pointing and verbalizing we got what we needed. It was so relaxing to sit in the shade, in this authentic Turkish cafe and enjoy a good cup of coffee - then as an added bonus the Muslim call to pray started with the haunting calls of the Imam from the local mosque.

 My coffee came with a curious chocolate spoon, very tasty but not very functional; Sandra had Turkish tea which she reported to be excellent. I also noticed a small safety pin on the side of my plate which had a tiny ceramic "evil eye" and fish attached to it - thinking this to be a nice little extra trinket I put it in my backpack as we were preparing to leave. 

Just then, the lady who was running the cafe appeared and was most insistent that I pin the little trinket to my shirt - all of this was conveyed without speaking a word of English. Not wanting to cause a major diplomatic incident, I complied and attached the safety pin to my shirt pocket. In a similar fashion, Sandra was instructed to attach two of the trinkets to her blouse, at the shoulders.

Having apparently now met all of the conditions for leaving, we wandered back into the bazaar - once out of sight we removed the pins, since we had no idea of their significance.

Who knew Turkey had the equivalent of Greggs the sandwich shop / bakery chain that is so prominent in the UK? The smell of fresh baked bread, and other goodies, was irresistible - so we didn't. A beautiful array of tasty fresh-baked items was on display at the Simit Care shop; we ordered a bagel-like item that was filled with cheese and warmed in the oven - noticing the fresh baked goodies and the line out the door, it was at this point that Sandra drew the analogy to Greggs.

Strolling through the streets eating our snack was a great way to finish our visit to Kemeralti Bazaar.

  


We didn't feel up to the 5km walk back to the ship so we decided that, despite the cost (within reason of course), we'd get a taxi back. Again we were quoted 25 Turkish Lire; we made sure this was the firm price - with no adders, and it covered both of us - then we hopped in for the ride back to the port. Despite what the Cunard information had indicated, most of the taxis we saw did not have meters - so it's always best to make sure the price is settled before you get in the car.

A nice touch from Cunard, an attendant meeting you on the dock with a drink of cold water…


Thursday September 26th, 2013

When we first started going on cruises we used to look upon sea days as wasted - but now we look forward to them as a day of no plans and pure relaxation. Today the ship is sailing south and east along the Greek coast and between several unpronounceable Greek islands and across to the east coast of Turkey and the port is Izmir; we'll arrive there tomorrow morning. The sea is almost dead calm, there is a warm breeze and our cabin is on the shaded side of the ship so it's perfect for sitting out on the balcony.

This morning we attended an excellent lecture by the former chief foreign correspondent for the BBC, Margaret Gilmore. The lecture was focused on terrorism and the balance between reporting quickly and reporting accurately. Mrs. Gilmore used the London bombings on July 7, 2005 as the basis for her talk which included many photographs and videos, some of which were difficult to watch. I found this talk to be very informative and commend Cunard for putting on what some might feel was a pretty controversial topic for a cruise.

There goes another island…

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We witnessed a spectacular sunset as the ship sailed past another Greek island.

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Some words and pictures to describe the ship; the Queen Elizabeth is the 3rd and newest ship in the Cunard fleet, launched in 2010 - she's bit smaller than the Queen Mary 2 and about the same size as the Queen Victoria. The Queen Elizabeth is lavishly decorating in the Art Deco style; rich wood paneling is everywhere and all the trim from the staircase railings to the light fixtures are perfectly designed for the period and just seem to flow together - we love it.


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Wednesday September 25th, 2013

Another beautiful day in the Adriatic. Today we stopped at the Greek island of Corfu which is the northern most of the Ionian Islands off the west coast of Greece - to the west lies Italy and Albania is to the east, which is apparently within swimming distance - though I didn't try it, anyway Albania is full of bandits. Having visited Corfu back in 2010, we decided to have a slow day just hanging out in Corfu Town. 

After the short shuttle bus ride from the ship into the old part of Corfu Town the first impression is one of dilapidation and decay, but in a somewhat quaint way - with a touch of gratuitous graffiti. We knew immediately we were in Greece - the two orthodox priests in full garb doing their tourist trinket shopping was a dead give away.

We followed a group of local women into a beautiful old church where they were going to take part in some kind of orthodox ritual that involved kneeling in front of what looked like a wrapped up corpse in a very old glass case, then kissing a succession of icons that were attached to the alter. When visiting places of worship, it's always a fine line between feeling like you are intruding into a deeply personal space, but wanting to learn from their experience - we tried to be as discreet as possible as it looked like we were the only tourists in the place.

Sandra feels very strongly about following the local customs when visiting places of worship so she insisted on buying and donning a  headscarf prior to entering the church. The convenient headscarf shop right at the entrance to the church was, well, very convenient.

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Corfu, like most of the islands in the Aegean, went through a succession of owners; Romans, Ottomans, Venetians, French, British and finally Greek. The architecture of the island reflects it's historical background, particularly the French and British influence; it's the only place in Greece where cricket is played each week on a nice pitch at the edge of the old town. There is also a nice wide pedestrian French-style boulevard called The Liston which is lined with shops and cafes whose setting areas extend out to the edge of the cricket pitch. 

  

We wandered the obligatory narrow alleys lined with trinket shops, bars and cafes - stopping along the way to buy a pen and a fridge magnet, our contribution to the local economy.

The wi-fi service on board the ship is simply atrocious; weak and intermittent signals, dropped service etc. Salt is further rubbed into the wounds by the continuously running infomercial playing on the TV in the cabin which touts the brilliance of the internet service aboard ship. Really, these days, there is no excuse for this pathetic service and I shall be expressing this opinion to Cunard upon my return. 

Anyway, this situation led us to hunt for an internet cafe in Corfu - so as we trawled through the alleys we tried to find the perfect spot; smallest number of smokers, wi-fi, clean-looking, busy with locals eating real Greek food - oh and an assortment of baklava for dessert. Needless to say we did not find one place that checked all of these boxes - so we had to split our requirements in two; one for lunch and one for baklava and wi-fi.


At the "Cafe Restaurant Central" the little waiter talked us into a shared plate of Meze - basically an assortment of Greek food, this was accompanied by a fresh tomato and cucumber salad and cold drinks. 

The salad was simple, fresh and excellent. The Meze plate could have fed the Trojan Army - it was huge and consisted of authentic moussaka, tzatziki  lamb kebabs, roast pork, roast chicken, fried cheese and baked cheese (so far all authentic) - topped off with a pile of french fries!

The lamb kebabs were juicy and delicately flavored, charred on the outside and soft in the middle - Sandra even ate one, and she does not generally like lamb. The roasted meats were a bit fatty but very authentic and the fried cheese (I know this sounds strange) was chewy and tangy. Moussaka is one of my favorites and it did not disappoint. That's the food review done.

We did our best but left more on the plate than we ate - it was very tasty.

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There was no wi-fi service at the "Central Restaurant", and we needed to upload the blog, so we picked one of the many cafes that offered internet service; The Black Cat Cafe, down by the Old Port and near to the shuttle bus stop. The cappuccino was once again excellent - this is something they just seem to know how to get right in this part of the world; a thick and creamy head that can be gently stirred into the rich strong espresso at the bottom of the cup - outstanding. Baklava is one of Sandra's personal favorites - thin layers of philo pastry interspersed with honey and pistachios makes for a sweet, sticky and messy dessert. We had no idea the servings were going to be so big, one piece would easily have fed us both - and we said as much, but as we were leaving I noticed that we'd both managed to demolish most of our pieces. I plan on ordering from the Spa menu tonight.

  

Leaving Corfu


Tuesday September 24rd, 2013

Another stop in Croatia, this time at the port of Dubrovnik - about 200 miles south, down the coast from Split. Although the overall city is quite a bit smaller than Split - the historic center of Dubrovnik is about twice as big and the ship actually docked about 2 miles north, so a short shuttle bus was required to get to town.

It's not possible to describe Dubrovnik without mentioning the war that broke apart the former Yugoslavia in 1991. Much of Dubrovnik was heavily damaged during the war - including the historic center which came under continuous shelling for a 12 hour period. It's a testament to the spirit of the Croatian people that the city was carefully reconstructed in a very short period of time - the result is very impressive, it's hard to find the "joins" between he old bits and the new bits.

We sat and had an excellent cappuccino after we got off the bus - having a good coffee in the morning after breakfast on the ship has become a bit of a ritual, as the coffee in the ship's dining room is really awful. The view from the coffee shop just outside the old city really wet our appetite for things to come…

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Much like Split, the old city of Dubrovnik sits at the apex of a small harbor and is completely contained within impressively fortified walls. 

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The weather was once again perfect for exploring on foot and we entered the city through the Pile Gate - along with about a million other tourists. The people density here seems extremely high and movement is further hindered by large tour groups whose guides seem to insist on stopping their followers at key attraction points - what's with that! 

The main shopping street is called the Placa and like most of the other streets is constructed of marble - it's wide and runs down the center of the old city from north at the Pile Gate, South to the harbor. Centuries ago the area where the Placa now sits used to be a sea channel that separated the city into two sections - over time the inhabitants filled in the channel, constructed the Placa and united the two halves - I'm sure there was some fighting along the way.


We wandered in and out of several churches and the main cathedral; construction in the city took place over a long period starting in the earliest part of the 10th century and with significant buildings being constructed all the way up to the 18th century. We bumped in to two of our table mates from the ship and decided to rest for a bit at, of all places, an Irish pub. I'm amazed at the number of people who smoke cigarettes in Croatia, non-smokers must be a tiny minority - the ill effects of this behavior have either not yet been discovered here or the people just don't care.

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After more wandering and a little shopping we stopped for lunch at one of the many alleyway cafes - it was basically impossible to choose which cafe, as the menus were pretty much the same, mostly pizza. We just walked until we were tired and hungry and then sat down. The pizza was great and the service was at the usual Mediterranean glacial pace - especially the presentation of the bill, further supporting my new economic theory about the wealth of nations (see earlier post).

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Before returning to the ship we forced ourselves to take a walk along the old city walls; it's actually possible to completely circumnavigate the city along the tops of the fortified walls, a hike of about 1 1/4 miles. There are two exit / entry point for the walk; one by the Pile Gate and the other, about half way around, by the harbor. There is a charge of 80 Kuna per person to enter the walkway and if you are going to do this you should know that there are a few steps to climb (no elevators this time) - in fact I counted 85 steps to get to the first part of the walkway and there were several ascents after this that were probably another 85 steps. Note also that the walkway is one-way, so once you get up there you are committed to walk at least half way around the city to get to the other entry / exit point, a distance of a little over half a mile. The rewards for this are some breathtaking views and outstanding photo opportunities - oh and I suppose a little exercise.

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l'll finish up this entry with a report on breakfast in the dining room this morning - and Sandra's encounter with the famous Cunard Dancing Eggs. While enjoying her usual one Egg Benedict breakfast, tucking in with gusto - the egg decided to take a dance right off the plate, down her brand-new shirt, hit the chair and then slide down the beautiful wood paneled wall and on to the floor. Unfortunately I was so focused on enjoying my Scottish Kipper that I did not witness this event - but we both burst out laughing. Of course the totally profession Cunard staff were instantly upon us, fussing and cleaning and making everything right while asking Sandra if she needed a replacement egg.

Monday September 23rd, 2013

Today we had an excellent port day in Split, Croatia; the ship was supposed to anchor offshore and use the tenders to transport guests to the dock - but there was a last minute change and the ship ended up docking in the small harbor. Big ship / small harbor made for some pretty skillful maneuvering by the captain - we stood on the back deck and watched as he slowly guided the ship to the dock. This was the maiden call for the Queen Elizabeth at Split and she is also the largest ship ever to dock in the port, which apparently garnered some media attention - but we didn't see any.

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Split is a small town with most of the buildings arranged around the harbor; there is an interesting mix of very old, and what looked like, soviet-era high rises - the town has been evolving for 17 centuries so you'd expect a hodgepodge. Immediately north of town is a wide mountain ridge, a bit reminiscent of Table Mountain in Cape Town - only a bit smaller. The overall impression of the town is actually quite pleasant. 

The location of the ship's birth was very convenient - literally a 5 minute walk along the dock to the center of town - along the way we stopped at a bank and extracted some local currency from a machine; approximately 5.5 Kuna to the US dollar.The weather was perfect; sunny but not too hot with a light sea breeze - ideal for exploring the port on foot.

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Our first stop was at the local open air market - always a favorite thing for us to do when we visit foreign towns; you can learn a lot about the people and the culture of a country by observing the workings of their local market. The market in Split was jammed with fruit and vegetable stalls displaying a large array of beautifully prepared produce. The density of tourists in the market was quite small, an indication that this was a place where the townsfolk did their real shopping and they could be seen and heard haggling over the prices and carefully examining their prospective purchases - we loved it.

The center of town is dominated by what used to be the emperor Diocletian's Palace; Diocetian was a 4th century roman emperor and the palace in Split was his summer home. Over the years, and through a succession of owners, the palace was eventually literally absorbed into the town. The effect is amazing; what were once the walls of the palace now contain shops and apartments built into the old structure. Within the walled city are some original structures and others that have been added over the centuries - this has created a warren of narrow cobble stone alleys, great for exploring. The whole palace is only about 100M by 200M, so it does not take long to explore.

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The central part of the palace is called the Peristyle - a small open square which was jammed with tourists and a couple of Roman soldiers who would gladly pose for pictures if you crossed their palms with silver - I must say the soldiers had aged very well. We sat on a marble wall which had been seconded by a local cafe into their outdoor section - complete with seat cushions and neat little trays, even though it was crowded we enjoyed it.

We wandered and wandered; here is a selection of what we saw...

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A trip to the sick bay: like many people, I've often wondered what the medical facilities are like on board a cruise ship - today I got to find out. On our last day in Venice I picked up some inspect bites on my left hand; four of them actually - pretty close to each of my knuckles, it was like something crawled across my hand stopping for a snack at each knuckle. Well by this afternoon my hand was swollen up like a small melon so I thought I better get it examined by a professional. 

The overall experience was not that different from visiting any doctor's office; I filled out some forms and was checked over by a nurse who was most apologetic about the cost - actually at 88 Euros it was cheaper than the rates we pay in the US, so I was feeling happy inside, though expressing deep concern externally. Back in the waiting room I eyed up my fellow complainants, all older couples with small fishing tackle sized boxes of medication in tow - is this what I have to look forward to? Out of boredom I started to try and guess who was here to see the doctor for each couple - I got it wrong every time. Invariably the person who looked the sickest; bent double, white as a sheet, carrying a big box of pills, pushing a strimmer - was there to help their otherwise spritely looking partner into the doctors office when they were called.

Finally it was my turn and I was ushered in to see the senior medical officer - an Irish guy. The doctor confirmed that something had bitten me and quickly prescribed some strong antihistamines and sent me on my way.

Overall not an unpleasant experience - but I was disappointed that the facility is no longer called a Sick Bay, Medical Center is so much more mundane.

Sunday September 22nd, 2013

Last day in Venice, sad - we've really enjoyed our stay, but today we have to get on the ship for our cruise.

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We spent the morning doing some last minute wandering and we also took a ride on a gondola - not the cheesy, tourist affair - but the short ride that the locals take directly across the grand canal at several points; it's called a Traghetto. This ride is also a great value at 2 Euros per person and the boat is a regular gondola, but no singing (sometimes this can be a good thing). The locals make a point to stand for the short trip across the canal, we weren't that brave.

We found ourselves in the vicinity of Osteria Al Squero - and this time we were not between meals, in fact it was almost noon. Al Squero is amazing, we'd put it on our "must visit" list for Venice. The ciccetti consist of thinly sliced bread with various, mostly fish-based, spread toppings - each piece cost 1 Euro. This kind of food, served in a place filled with locals, is right up our street - we just soaked up the culture while wolfing down plates full of ciccetti accompanied by several glasses of proscecco. Sitting in the window seat, directly across from the gondola boat repair yard, we agreed that this was a great discovery and fantastic value. By the way, the buildings in the gondola yard strangely reminded me of Fagin's lair in Oliver Twist. 

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The hotel Violino was kind enough to store our bags after checkout so we could have another couple of hours in Venice before heading to the ship. St. Mark's Square is only about 2 minutes from the Violino - the location of this hotel is amazing, so we set out for a final stroll around one of the best squares in the world (actually if you look closely you'll realize it's not actually square - move of a trapezoid really).

St. Mark's is famous for the three grand old cafe's that open out into the square, offering al fresco dining and delightful music. These cafe's are also famous for stratospheric pricing; we decided to splurge. White jacketed waiters swirled around the tables, the music set the mood, the sun was out, it was warm - we sat and watched the people go by while enjoying cappuccinos, biscotti and fruit tarts. Could there be a better way to end a short stay in Venice?

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Back at the hotel we collected our bags and met the pre-arranged water taxi who arrived right on time just over the little bridge outside the Violino. Again we feel that, though there are less expensive ways to get from your hotel to the ship, the private water taxi is so convenient - and there is nothing cooler than standing in the open stern zooming along the canal.

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Embarkation was ultra-smooth; the bags were picked up by a porter from the water taxi and we sauntered to the terminal where we sailed through the registration and security processes - thanks to Sandra's Platinum status with Cunard. After locating our room we headed straight to the Golden Lion Pub for celebratory drink. We sailed on the Queen Elizabeth last year so we did not feel the need to take the grand tour, so we just kicked back and waited for the tedious, but necessary safety drill.

Cunard has changed the dress code requirements on their ships; basically the semi-formal level has been eliminated leaving only the formal (tux, bow tie etc.) and informal (jacket, no tie). While this does make things simpler, and cuts down on the number of suits I have to bring, we feel it also takes a little bit of the formalness off the whole experience. As someone who basically never wears a tie all year, it's the formalness that has a certain attraction to a cruse on Cunard. As a personal protest I decided to bring a new grey suit for the semi-formal nights - I may even wear a tie…

Sailing out of Venice on a massive ship is a fantastic experience, we did it back in 2010 on the Queen Victoria and were really looking forward to repeating the event. Sailing time was 8:30PM, and as were have opted for late dinner on this trip which starts at 8:30PM, we decided to skip the dining room tonight so we could sit in the Commodore club and watch the ship depart. The commodore club is on deck 10 at the very front of the ship and the forward facing wall is constructed entirely of glass - making it an ideal spot from which to observe the huge ship snake its way through the outer canals, past the Lido and out into the Adriatic Sea.

Many of the major buildings in venice are illuminated and the ship's cruise directory provided a live commentary from the bridge - pointing out the significant sites and providing historical background as we passed by. This must be a new feature as it was not provided the last time we sailed from Venice - we found it to be excellent. 

We breezed through the buffet and headed off to bed; tomorrow we'll be in Split, Croatia.


Saturday September 21st, 2013

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This morning we made an ascent of the Campanile (Bell Tower) in St. Mark's Square; no ropes, pitons or grappling hooks were required - we just paid the 8 Euros each and rode up in the elevator. Long lines (queues for our British friends) were noted the day before, so we arrived early at 9:30 this morning and there were only about 10 people waiting - we got straight into the elevator.

The original tower was built in 1514 but collapsed in 1902 and reconstruction was complete by 1912. Views from the top of the tower are spectacular and, although there is wire mesh covering the openings on all four sides, the spacing in the mesh is very wide - making it easy to take photographs with the camera outside the wire.

Although there was a brisk wind blowing it was a bright warm morning making for some great photo opportunities. I've been playing with some new photo stitching software, I'm still learning - but so far the results look OK.

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Next up: an excursion to the island of Murano which is located just east of Venice and it is world famous for glass making. Rather than take the free water taxi that was offered by the hotel we opted to pay 24 Euros for two round trip tickets on the water bus. While this may sound odd we knew from prior experience that there is no such thing as a "free" water taxi ride; in fact the taxis are funded by several of the glass factories on the island as a way to lure in gullible tourists for a high pressure sales pitch.

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If you plan to take the water bus to Murano take care to select the right bus; they all leave from a dock near St. Mark's Square - exit the square and turn left, fight your way through the mass of people, cross two bridges and the dock is on your right. Be sure to select the number 7 bus, unless you prefer the Venetian equivalent of a slow boat to China - this is what you get if you select the number 4.1 bus. On the advice of the guy in the ticket booth we got on the 4.1 bus; eleven stops and about 50 minutes later we chugged into Murano.

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Our advice on Murano; unless you are a fan of this particular style of glass, don't go! We don't care for the Murano style but held the faint hope that there may be other things to see on the island - but there is not, it's just shop after shop after shop after…. selling the same damn stuff - a bit like cell phone stores in an Asian shopping mall! On our previous trip we took the "free" taxi and suffered through the sales pitch and gallery tour - at the end of which we were so exasperated we headed straight back to Venice.

The day was somewhat rescued by a very simple but delightful pizza lunch at an outdoor cafe off the main canal street.

The 20 minute return journey aboard the number 7 water bus was very much appreciated.


Friday September 20th, 2013

Having stayed up until midnight last night we both had an excellent nights sleep so hopefully we won't be jet lagged today.

Breakfast is included in the room rate at the Violino so we headed down and helped ourselves at the typical European buffet. Sandra was disappointed that the self-service espresso machine had been removed from the breakfast room since our last visit; but she perked up when we realized that the waiter was making latte's to order at the bar.  The quality and quantity of the breakfast was very good - with a wide variety of hot and cold items to satisfy the broad range of international guests. Primed for the days we set out to explore Venice.

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Pre-trip research indicated that the Gallerie Del'Accademia would be worth a visit - this is an art gallery and museum with a focus on Venetian and other italian renaissance painters. We had pre-booked our tickets (15 Euros) - this is highly advisable as the museum can get very busy, note also that the tickets are for a set time as they only permit a fixed number of customers into the gallery at one time. Unfortunately photography was not allowed in the gallery so I can't share any of the spectacular images. This disappointment was somewhat offset by the special Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit - including the fascinating and famous Vitruvian Man or Study of the Proportions of Man (I grabbed this image from their website). 

This ink on paper drawing is surprisingly small - only about 10 inches wide and about 15 inches tall. We also learned that although the museum owns this work it is rarely displayed. I was fascinated by the text on this, and other, Leonardo works; I had read that the artist recorded all of his notes in a code of his own making and that he wrote backwards - it's really true, you can see it on this drawing (there's nothing like a healthy dose of renaissance paranoia).

Many of the other works in the gallery are of a religious nature and after a while they begin to blur together - there's only so many Madonna Con Bambino's I can take in a day. 

Time for a cappuccino, one of our favorite things to do in Italy. We found a nice small cafe facing the canal, sat outside watching the people and boats go by, the weather was beautiful, the coffee was great so we just soaked it all in. While waiting for the bill to arrive I began to develop a new economic theory; I postulate that the wealth of a nation (as represented by say it's gross domestic product) is strongly correlated to the average waiter response time of that nation - I'm hoping this work will finally lead to that elusive Nobel Prize I've been hankering after.

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We'd heard about a place where you can still watch the Venetian gondola builders at work and it was only a short walk from our cafe in the Zattere area along the Rio d Trovaso canal. Also in this area is a small cafe / bar that serves the Italian equivalent of Tapas called Ciccetti - the place is called Osteria Al Squero and we had it on our list based on pre-trip research. Unfortunately we were between meals (unusual for us) but based on our observations, it is a definite - maybe for lunch tomorrow.

Wandered the length of the Fondamenta Zattere, the path along the Canale della Giudecca, we made our way to the point directly across the Grand Canal from St. Mark's Square. Along the way we experienced some great Venetian neighborhoods, complete with laundry hanging from the high balconies. An old man out walking his poodle caught Sandra's attention and they exchanged a few words, neither knowing what the other had said but both in agreement about the cuteness of the dog.

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The Church of Santa Maria della Salute is located in this area so we spent a little time exploring this spectacular building that was erected by the city fathers in 1651 in an effort to ward off the plague that had ravaged the area.

Lunch was a couple of slices of pizza procured at a walk-up window selected based on the size of the crowd waiting in line (this is always a good indicator). We sat on the steps of St. Georges church in a small piazza eating our pizza and soaking in the atmosphere - all this for 7 Euros! (can you believe I got piazza and pizza in the same sentence).

Next it was time to get lost. 

Getting lost in Venice is one of our favorite thing to do; we headed in the general direction of the Realto Bridge but somehow ended up at the train station (get a map and you'll see why this is seriously off course). Along the way we stopped for some cold refreshments at a cafe curiously called Las Ramblas (which is in Barcelona!). This detour worked out fine as we were able to get the vaporetto (water bus) down the entire length of the Grand Canal and back to St Mark's Square - something that was on our list of things to do anyway. The vaporatto ride is perhaps the best 7 Euros you can spend in Venice - think of it as a mini-cruise as opposed to a bus ride.

So we've been chilling out for a few hours back in our hotel room with a bottle of Prosecco and a bag of crisps (chips for our American friends). Tonight we are heading to a restaurant we visited twice on our last trip - we hope it's as good as last time.

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Just back from a 2 1/2 hour dinner at Da Mario Alla Fava restaurant - it was a great night. We both opted for the traditional Venetian tasting menu which came with 4 courses, with several options to choose from for each course. Being Venice there is a heavy seafood influence which is not normally a problem for us - with perhaps the exception of squid. All the food was cooked and executed perfectly - and served by the same staff from back in 2010 when we last visited. 

The final course was a challenge for Sandra, and even me - and I eat anything (well not Durian - that nappy smelling fruit delicacy from Malaysia); the course was billed as fried fish with vegetables - what they really meat was fired seafood, and it was heavy on the squid and calamari. The staff had been so nice, and Sandra just did not want to offend them - so she carefully removed the calamari one piece at a time into a napkin in her purse. This operation of course had to be performed when the attentive staff had their backs turned. Somehow she got away with it, but I think she'll have a hard time bringing that purse back into our house without the cats mauling it.

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Thursday September 19th, 2013

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Nine and a half hours from San Francisco to Amsterdam followed by a two hour layover then one hour and twenty minutes got us into Marco Polo Airport at Venice around 1:15PM - ah the wonders of modern travel. Our bags came through in about ten minutes, which was great, and we set off for the water taxi stand - about a ten minute walk. Although expensive at 110 Euros, we feel that this low stress, door to door service is well worth it after such a long flight. The "water taxi" is actually a sizable motor launch with lots of wood, brass and power - and an open stern (that's me slipping in the nautical terms) that makes for great viewing as you approach the city.

We checked into our hotel, the Violino D'Oro (I think that means golden fiddle), without any problems and were unpacking by 3PM. The Violino is a small hotel, located about 2 minutes from St. Marks Square - right on a canal, this old hotel is a real gem with high ceilings, rich furnishings, crown molding, chandeliers and attentive service. This is the second time we've stayed at this hotel, and this time we have a room overlooking the canal - we'll see how this goes, as there is a gondola service point (the place where people get on and off), right below our window. We've only been here a few hour but we've already heard most of the classic Italian operas several times over.

Free WiFi - woo-hoo!

Here are some pictures of the hotel and it's vicinity:

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In order to fight the sleep deprivation we wandered the streets and finally found a typical cafe on one of the hundreds of piazzas. We sat for an hour snacking on mozzarella, prosciutto, melon and bread while quaffing a few cold beverages - this is starting to feel like a vacation. 

Jet lag can be a really bad experience while on vacation if you don't control it. At about 6PM we gave up and decided to take a nap - this is a risky venture and could lead to an upset body clock for days to come. However we forced (well Sandra did) ourselves out of bed at 8PM and headed out for dinner.

Pasta, wine, cheese, lemoncello at an out of the way little place (RISTORANTE ALLA BORSAfollowed by gelato in St. Mark's Square listening to the quartets playing under a full moon - this is hard to beat. We've made it to almost midnight, so hopefully we can get a good sleep and sync-up out body clocks in the morning.

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Wednesday September 18th, 2013

After all the planning, arranging, list making, booking - oh and saving, we are finally off on our next big adventure. We said goodbye to the house sitter and of course our two cats and then were whisked away to the airport by our son in his big SUV, if only he had a hat he could pass for a chauffeur. We are flying KLM for the first time, through Amsterdam and on to Venice where we will join Cunard Line's Queen Elizabeth cruise ship on Sunday for a jaunt down the Adriatic and into the Black Sea, with few nice stops along the way. 

We are really looking forward to this trip; we'll have a few days in Venice before embarkation - Venice is one of our favorite cities and we are staying at a little boutique hotel that put up with us back in 2010. While we have visited a few of the ports on this itinerary, most are new to us - and sailing thorough the Bosporus and into the Black Sea should be a real treat.

We find there is something mysterious and enticing about visiting Ukraine and Bulgaria, these are places that are just not on our normal beaten path. The ship will overnight in Istanbul on it's return from the Black Sea, so we'll get a little extra time in a city we both really love.

After the cruise we'll have one night in Athens and then two nights in Amsterdam before returning to San Francisco. Sandra has been to Amsterdam twice before, but I've never been,  so I'm looking forward to a top-notch guided tour of the city.

Boarding the flight in one hour - here we go!