Eastern Mediterranean Cruise 2010

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 18

Sunday November 14th, 2010.
Our last day of vacation; sigh, sigh again. Today was spent taking in more of the sights of Rome; we explored the ancient Forum, Coliseum and Circus Massimo. The weather was absolutely brilliant – I should have put on shorts and a t-shirt, but unfortunately I had mostly brought winter clothes; it must be that global warming thing. The crowds were not too big and the vendors and hawkers were out in force – including the guys dressed in full Roman soldier outfits looking to make a buck by posing for pictures with the tourists; I suppose everyone has to make a living somehow.

In the afternoon we walked around the Trastavere area of Rome which has lots of winding backstreets and seems to be a very “working class” area. The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastavere was well worth seeing; although smaller than many of the other churches it was very ornately decorated inside. From Trastavere we made our away across the river to the Palazzo Spada which houses a small art collection – however when we got there we were a bit knackered and so we did not go in.

We headed back to the hotel in the late afternoon and on the way back we noticed several city employees walking along the banks of the river whilst broadcasting very loud hawk calls through bullhorns – this in an attempt to stop the flocks of sparrows from roosting in the trees, and crapping all over the paths and cars. This bird scaring approach should definitely be reviewed as we saw several cars absolutely plastered in shite, and the smell along the footpath, in places, initiated spontaneous retching.

Just a comment about the taxi drivers in Rome… almost all of them are retired formula one racing car drivers. My best advice is to just shut your eyes and prey – rosaries can be purchased in the vicinity of the Vatican to support his activity, I highly recommend them (and I’m not even a catholic).

On the recommendation of the hotel concierge we made our final dining destination a small restaurant in a tiny square about a block from the Pantheon. The food was great and we sat outside even though the patio area had no heat lamps. From my seat I could actually see the Pantheon – awesome. I finished off the meal with a glass of ice cold Lemoncello – it’s a bit like drinking a very alcoholic, sweetened purée of lemon rinds – no actually it’s a lot like that!

We’ve had 18 fantastic days of vacation – but tomorrow we have to head home, and for me at least – head back to work. Oh well, there’s always next year.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 17

Saturday November 13th, 2010.
Vatican day; we had pre-purchased tickets for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum and the Basilica. Out tickets were for 1PM and so after breakfast we walked to St. Peter’s Square; our plan was to poke around in the basilica for a bit, maybe even attempt and assent of the dome, and then head round to the museum in the afternoon for the tour. As soon as we arrived in the square I realized our plans were shot – the line to enter the basilica was enormous; by the time we got in it would be time to go for our tour! So we took pictures, found a coffee shop to hang out in, and then entered the museum.

Our tour group of about 20 people were issued the same type of radio receivers we had in Ephesus – which we had found very effective. But then the tour guide (a lady whose name I can’t remember) announced that this would be the 3 hour tour, I could not remember what the quoted time was – but I thought it was 2 hours, this should have been a warning. At the very start of the tour we were sat on a bench in front of a small revolving billboard type for display for 45 minutes while the guide explained every single square inch of the Sistine chapel ceiling and walls – I’m not kidding, really I’m NOT kidding. 

Finally we moved off for what would be close to 4 hours of excruciatingly detailed explanations of statues, frescoes, tapestries and paintings. What’s more, the guide had a very extrovert and emotive style that verged at times on being evangelistic – I got the feeling that at the end of the tour if I did not instantly convert to Catholicism it would be the catacombs for me! What this lady did not know about the Vatican could be written in 50pt font on the testicle of a gnat. The Vatican collection and the Sistine chapel are amazing – but we could have done with the 1 hour high-speed version of the tour. One cool part of the tour was getting from the Sistine chapel directly into the Basilica along a corridor leading from the papal apartments.

Back at the hotel we quickly changed and headed back to Berninetta for dinner; however we had misjudged Roman dinner times – we tried to get in a 6PM but it did not open until 7:30PM. So we found a convenient bar and drowned our sorrows until the restaurant opened.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 16

Friday November 12th, 2010.
Disembarkation day – always a bit stressful… when will we get off? Will the bags make it? Will our driver be there to meet us? Will he know where to go? The ship docked on time in Civitavecchia which is actually about 40 miles north of Rome and we had arranged, through our hotel, to have a minivan pick us up – the rates Cunard quoted us were outrageous. It turns out that we needed of worried about anything; in fact coming through the port was probably the smoothest transition we have ever made getting off a cruise ship. We easily found our bags and emerged from the terminal just as the driver was pulling up in a nice Mercedes minivan – he even had a sign with my name on it! The bags were loaded and we were whisked off and checking into the Hotel Dei Mellini about an hour later.

We quickly dropped off our bags and headed out for a walking tour and lunch. The Mellini is a nice little boutique hotel located in a quiet neighborhood north of the Vatican; we stayed here about 5 years and loved it. At the Piazza Navona we had lunch in an outdoor café right on the square; the weather was brilliant – a bright warm day and the lunch was great. Next we strolled to the Pantheon; no matter how many times I see it I still marvel at the construction of this incredible place – over 2000 years ago! On to the Trevi Fountain, it was quite busy for this time of year; nevertheless Sandra and I managed to push our way to the front so we could make our deposit (3 coins of course) – thus guaranteeing our return (hey it worked last time!). We stropped briefly for a cappuccino and then resumed our trek to the Spanish Steps. Again the area was busy, but we managed to get some good pictures – posing on the steps of course. 

We had pre-booked tickets for the Galleria Borghese for 5PM so we jumped in a cab and headed off. The Borghese is a small gallery that houses an eclectic collection of art that once belonged to a Pope – we visited the gallery last time and definitely thought it was worth a second look. The highlight of the collection for us was the marble statues by Bernini and Cosani – absolutely incredible. At the end of our allotted time we jumped in a cab and headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.

On our last visit to Rome, Sandra and I discovered a small restaurant very close to the hotel that we really liked; however we could not remember the name of the place or its exact location. Thank goodness Sandra had remembered the approximate spot and we were able to find after only a few minutes of looked – I should be honest here and say that we tried to find the place at lunch time following the directions from the hotel concierge and were not successful. We now know the restaurant is called Berninetta; and it was as good as we remembered. The thing we liked about Berninetta is that we were the only tourists in the place – in fact we were the only non-Italians. The restaurant is very much a place for locals; the food is basic but very good.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 15

Thursday November 11th, 2010.
Our final day on the ship, sigh, and today we docked in Naples – which is the only port stop where we don’t have plans to explore the city; I was here 30 years ago and it was rough, everything we’ve heard has not changed that opinion. Instead we have booked an all-day shore excursion to Sorrento and the ruins of Pompeii.

We left the port on a nice coach – it was actually the bus used by the Naples football team, complete with team colors and logo; apparently they rent out the bus when they don’t need it. Leaving Naples the sky became very ominous looking – dense black clouds and it started to rain. Naples is a bit of a dump – at least the bit we drove through, I may be doing it a bit of an injustice but I’m only describing what we saw.

The ride to Sorrento took about an hour and along the way our guide described various important points… “here the road is 2 lanes…here the road is 3 lanes” – it was gripping stuff! Mount Vesuvius dominates the landscape and was shrouded in heavy clouds for most of the trip to Sorrento. About half and hour in, the sky just exploded with extremely heavy rain as everyone on the bus rushed to check they had brought some form of protection. The commentary got better as we went along; we passed the birthplace of Al Capone and learned all about olive harvesting. 

Passing through a series of long tunnels we emerged to bright sunshine – a miracle – and a beautiful coastal landscape. The bus hugged the cliff-side road as it meandered (do you know there is actually a river called Meander in Turkey?) south through several small towns to Sorrento. Just before reaching the town the bus pulled over at a point where we could get some great pictures looking down at Sorrento – quite spectacular.

The bus made its way to the center of town and deposited us, conveniently, outside a shop specializing in in-layded wood furniture; this kind of unpublished stop is a feature of cruise line shore excursions and they just drive us crazy – really we did not come on this trip to listen to sales pitches for things we have no interest in. So Sandra and I went around the corner and found a great coffee shop. The deal in Sorrento was for us to have an hour of free time then meet back up with the guide who would take us for lunch.

We found Sorrento to be very pleasant; main streets with very high end shops and lots of narrow back streets with market stalls and other shops selling local goods. We strolled and created the obligatory digital records for future reference. We made our way back to the designated meeting point, rejoined the group and headed to lunch. The guide took us back to the narrow street area and we all trooped into a small restaurant and enjoyed a quite nice classic Italian lunch – wine included!

Back on the bus we headed for Pompeii – about an hour away, just enough time to recharge for the task ahead. On arrival we were yet again diverted into a sales pitch – this time on cameos – ahhh! At the ruins our guide purchased the tickets, gave everyone a map and led us to out first point of interest – the area where the gladiators trained. Based on my recollections from 30 years ago the ruins at Pompeii don’t look so ruined anymore. There has been extensive reconstruction; when I was here before I remember lots of piles of rocks lying around with the occasional partial structure. Now the whole layout of the city is very recognizable and some houses have been almost completely rebuilt. I have to say I have mixed feelings about this – some of the reconstruction obviously used almost all of the original material, but lots of recent concrete work was evident in many of the buildings.

We did see the classic streets with the original cart tracks and the stepping stones that allowed citizens to cross the street without stepping in the crap that flowed down the streets – Pompeii had no sewer system! We also saw the plaster casts of several of the original inhabitants, those last 10% who refused for some reason to flee the city. These poor folks were suffocated then covered in tons of volcanic ash. Eventually the bodies decomposed leaving only the bones in a hollow cavity. The excavators figured out that by tapping on the ground they could find these cavities and, by drilling holes and pouring in plaster, they could create a very accurate statue of the original person – complete with bones and teeth. The facial expressions on some of these “statues” were quite horrific.

Back on the bus we headed “home”. Along the way it became obvious that the area around Naples had suffered some very heavy rain during the day – amazingly we had escaped it all. However as we got closer to the city the roads became flooded and the traffic ground to a standstill. There were actually 3 bussed on our itinerary and we all arrived back at the ship 30 minutes after the published sailing time – thankfully the ship had waited for us! We rushed back to our cabins and I managed to throw on a jacket (god forbid I broke protocol) and made it to the dining room just in time for dinner.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 14

Wednesday November 10th, 2010.
Another great relaxing day at sea as we make our way up to Naples. We spent the day lounging around, eating, drinking cappuccinos and generally relaxing. I also went to a lecture given by a lady who was an Antarctic expedition leader – quite interesting. In the afternoon Mike and I went to a single malt scotch tasting, yes this cruising thing is really tough. The tasting was very good, with generous pours and an enthusiastic Romanian bar steward as the speaker – I think this is the first tasting we’ve attended given by a Romanian. What he lacked in knowledge (which was considerable) he made up for in enthusiasm and a genuine love of single malt.

We had arranged to go to a special Indian dinner and it turned out to be surprisingly good. During dinner we could see the coasts of Italy and Sicily approaching on both sides of the ship so when we finished we retired to the Commodore Club. From this nice bar right at the front of the ship we could see the lights on both sides of the straight – which at its narrowest point was very close indeed. We hung around just to make sure the Captain didn’t mess up, and then we turned in.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 13

Tuesday November 9th, 2010.
Today we visited the Greek island of Santorini – which is a fascinating place. The ship is anchored in a huge bay that is actually the crater of a gigantic sunken volcano – the biggest in the world. Several islands surround the crater and compose what is left of the rim of the volcano. Santorini is one of these islands and the town is perched on top of sheer cliffs that are 200 to 300 meters high. Almost all of the buildings in the town are painted white and so, from a distance, the island actually looks like a snow capped mountain ridge.

After breakfast in our room looking out on to the island, we headed ashore via one of several tender boats – there is no dock in Santorini big enough for a cruise ship. There are three options available for getting to the town at the top of the cliffs; a donkey ride up the narrow stepped switch back road, a walk up the same road or a cable car ride – the vote was unanimous, we headed for the queue at the cable car terminal. We waited about 20 minutes then got to glide to the top of the cliffs in an exhilarating 5 minute ride.

The town is very small, even smaller than the Old Town at Rhodes, but the white buildings – many with bright blue roofs perched on the edge of the cliffs – make for excellent photo opportunities. The streets are narrow and lined with the usual array of tourist shops and restaurants – although Santorini does have more original art on display than we’ve seen at other stops. It was crowded; thankfully the weather was very nice – not too warm, I can’t imagine what the place would be like at the peak of the tourist season with much larger crowds and blistering heat.

We wandered through the shops and all the way to one of town; taking about a million pictures. I often wonder how we managed before digital photography; worrying about running out of film, saving the shots for the absolute best views, wondering “if that one would come out ok?” Many of the best photo spots were so busy that you had to actually queue up and wait your turn to take the picture. We also had many occasions where a “damn rude tourist” would come and stand right in front of you while you were lining up a shot – I harbored thoughts of easing a few of these ignoramuses over the edge of the cliff, that would teach them! But then I remembered we actually live in a “civilized” society and let the moment pass.

Convinced we had now catalogued the entire town in multi-megapixel digital glory we headed back to the cable car terminal and joined the short queue feeling tired but glad we would soon be back on board enjoying a pub lunch; if only we knew what was about to unfold. As each cable car arrived at the top our line moved ahead and we soon found ourselves in a long narrow stone tunnel leading up to the exit door that led to the cable car. In took a while to realize that the line had actually stopped moving – something was wrong but there was no information explaining what was going on. We waited, and waited, and waited. The air became very stuffy and to top it off we were surrounded by groups of Italians and Greeks who were deep in conversation – apparently both of these nations only know how to converse by shouting at extremely high volume. We waited and waited – folks began to sit on the ground, still no information. After close to an hour the exit door opened and the line started to move again – which was just as well because my head was extremely close to exploding, which would have made a mess. With images of the Black Hole of Calcutta flashing before my eyes we shuffled out and onto a waiting cable car – God be praised, I will make the buffet tonight! 

On the way down we realized that it was very windy and Sandra had correctly speculated that the cable car may have been shut down due to excessive wind. Never mind, we’d soon be scooting back to the ship – not! We discovered that, because of the wind, the tender boats had temporarily been halted while the ship was repositioned to allow safer tender access. We wandered along the dock looking in the couple of shops and came upon a tiny restaurant right at the far end; since we had time to kill we sat down at one of the tables out in front of the restaurant. 

This serendipitous discovery saved the day; the restaurant was run by a husband and wife – she waited on the small number tables and he cooked on an outdoor rotisserie and in a kitchen at the back. We order a few appetizers to share; tzatziki, baked feta cheese and chips - thinking these would be pita chips or something of that sort, but of course they were french fries. Everything was excellent – even the chips were hand cut and came doused with Greek herbs. By now the tenders were running again, so we lined up and hopped on and were back at the ship by noon again.

Spent the afternoon on the balcony reading and writing – glorious. I have also just learned that our experience waiting for the cable car may not have been so bad after all. Apparently when the cable car was closed down due to the high winds, those further back in line (including our friends Kat and Mike) were told that they should walk down the donkey road – a particularly strenuous task, especially avoiding the donkeys and their droppings!

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 12

Monday November 8th, 2010.
Today we visited the beautiful Greek island of Rhodes. I was out on the balcony as the ship made a smooth stop and tied up at the dock very close to the small Old Town. From my vantage point, as well as the large ruined stone turret right in front of me on the dock, I could see the whole town which still has an intact 15th century defensive wall that was constructed by the Knights of St. John during the crusades. I could also see the large castle which is actually called the Palace of the Grand Master. There are also two small mosques within the walled old town – the whole place has a medieval England feel to it, with a slight eastern influence.

We left the ship at around 9:30AM and walked about 5 minutes to the Virgin Gate entry to the walled town. The weather was very nice, the warmest day we’ve had so far on our trip. Inside the town, which is mostly pedestrian – with lots of narrow cobbled streets, you immediately can see how the old structures have been adapted for modern use. Many of the ancient buildings are still intact, the vast majority has been put to use as shops or restaurants. Periodically the narrow alley would open up into a small square – typically with a central fountain – very picturesque and quaint.

We made our way in the general direction of the Palace, stopping to shop of visit a ruined church along the way. All of the shops are aimed at tourists, mostly jewelry and the usual dross – shop after shop of much the same thing. It was about at this point that we began to notice the flies – the island seems to have a higher than normal share of common house flies, not sure if this is normal for Rhodes or peculiar to this particular time of year.

The street leading up to the Palace is called the Avenue of the Knights once again narrow and cobbled, about the length of a football field. Historically the safekeeping of the town was divided among the various groups of knights and each group had a kind of “headquarters office”; these places were called Inns and they were all located along the Avenue of the Knights. Many of the old heraldic shields can still be seen above the doorways along the avenue. Most of the Inns have now been put to use as government offices or foreign consulates.

By the time we reached the top of the avenue, which is actually a small hill, we were looking forward to getting into the Palace – so we marched over to the entrance only to find that the place was closed on Mondays, and this is Monday! In fact all of the museums and historical sites on the island are closed on Mondays. We made a bee line (or maybe that should be fly line) for the nearest cafe and ordered a consolation beer – even though it was only about 10:15 in the morning!

Suitably refreshed and consoled we set off back through the town for more combing through the tourist tat – in search of that one nugget that just might be worth haggling over. After a while it was becoming monotonous so we made our way back to the Virgin Gate and the short stroll to the ship. We were back on board by noon – just in time for a pub lunch and another glorious afternoon on the balcony with my book!

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 11

Sunday November 7th, 2010.
Ah a day at sea – it’s hard to imagine we would look forward to a day like this, but the four of us are really in need of some rest. During the night as we made our way up the Sea of Marmara the fog was so heavy that the ship actually had to anchor for 2 hours, as further progress would not have been safe. At around 7AM we exited the Dardanelles and the captain made a slight detour so that the ship came within half a mile of the coast at Gallipoli. As we cruised slowly passed the sight of the horrific world war one battle, and the gigantic Turkish monument on the tip of the peninsula, a lone trumpeter on board our ship played Taps – it was quite moving.

So here is how the day went…

Got up, had breakfast, read my book, lunch in the pub, relaxed and read on the balcony while eating chocolates and sipping champagne, had dinner, went to bed.

What a day!!

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 10

Saturday November 6th, 2010.
Our second day in Istanbul; today we visited the Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar. 

The Topkapi Palace is absolutely massive – it sprawls over a very large area and includes many buildings, courtyards and gardens. We arrived around mid morning in an effort to beat the crowds which only partially worked out. Topkapi was the home of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire; the palace is now a museum and most of the main rooms have been converted into display areas for the hundreds of artifacts in the collection.

We saw the elaborate clothes of the Sultan; some with curiously long arms. There was also a display of weapons, but the main event was the collection of jewels and jewel encrusted items. The most famous of the jewels is the spoonmakers diamond – a huge 86 caret diamond that has been beautifully cut and polished and placed in a setting surrounded by many other large diamonds. The story goes that this diamond was actually discovered in a rubbish dump and that person who found it thought is was just a worthless rock – in fact he was happy to sell it to a spoonmaker for 3 spoons. A huge dispute erupted when the true value of the stone became known; the sultan had to step in and offer to buy the stone in order to settle the dispute.

We progressed to the Harem area of the palace – definitely the highlight. The Harem was not only the place where the Sultan kept his female entourage but also where his personal apartments are located, along with those of his mother, the rest of the family and a large contingent of Eunuchs. The whole set up was just fascinating and weird. 

One could easily spend days on the Topkapi Palace, but we were getting hungry and in need of a little recharge – so we stopped for lunch before heading to the Grand Bazaar. 

The Grand Bazaar is, well, both grand and bazaar – it is a huge indoor market with dozens of alleyways arranged roughly on an orthogonal grid, though the further you get into the bazaar the narrower the alleys appear to become. Entry to the bazaar was a bit daunting as we were approached by several persistent “carpet sellers” some who would just not take “no” for an answer and insisted on following us around for a while. Inside the bazaar is a constant loud, chaotic flurry of energy – boys rushing from shop to shop delivering tea in tiny little glass cups, merchants shouting to attract attention and every now and again a customer can been seen actually performing the art of negotiation. After some time of wandering the alleys it all begins to look the same, so we made a few quick purchases and headed out.

It was just a short walk to the tram car and before long we were heading back to the ship. We headed straight for the Golden Lion Pub where we debriefed over a few drinks before dressing for dinner.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 9

Friday November 5th, 2010.
During the night the ship sailed through the Dardanelles straits, into the Sea of Marmara and down to Istanbul. There was heavy fog throughout this period and our captain announced that we were the last ship through before the straits were closed to traffic – phew! Arrival time in Istanbul was 1PM, contrary to the published schedule which stated we would have a full day – needless to say this caused some consternation among the passengers; but, since the ship was actually staying overnight and all of the next day, it did not quite rise to mutiny level.
We had planned to explore Istanbul without the benefit of an organized shore excursion; Sandra had been here before and felt the Cunard excursions were a bit overpriced. Most of the main tourists sights in Istanbul and concentrated on a small peninsula on the European side and our ship was docked across an inlet called the Golden Horn; the recommended transportation from the ship to the tourist area was the streetcar (tram). The tram line runs right outside the dock and it was just a short walk to a station. It took us a little while to figure out the system; you have to buy a token to get on the tram and all rides are the same price – 1.5 Turkish Lire. About six stops later and we were at the Blue Mosque.

Along the way I was able to pick up my first impressions of Istanbul; it is mix of very old and very new, clean and well organized, Islamic but not extreme. There are many mosques with the characteristic large domes and tall towers called minarets. Five times per day the call to prayer is blasted out across the city from speakers at the top of the minarets. A couple of very strange things caught my eye on the way into town; a man standing by the side of the road with a large wooden cage on top of a table – on top of the cage was a very large live white rabbit and it appeared that passers by would approach the man and give him money that he would then place in a drawer built into the top of the cage. A little further along the road I saw a man squatting by a bathroom scale holding a long stick. Hey – I’m just telling you what I saw!

We got off the tram at Sultanahmet station and set off in the direction of the Blue Mosque which, along with the Hager Sophia Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, is all located in this area. On the way to the Blue Mosque we picked up a tail and we could not shake him off; his name was Mahmet and he claimed to NOT be a tour guide, but rather a carpet salesman. The unspoken deal was that if he guided us through the mosque we would visit his carpet shop. Mahmet was very well spoken, not aggressive and for someone who was not a tour guide he sure did a great impression of one. He seemed harmless enough so we let him tag along.

Mahmet ushered us to the tourist’s entrance to the mosque – this is a working mosque so you have to be very respectful of the customs and traditions. In fact we just made it into the place before they stopped the intake in preparation for the 3PM prayers. Mahmet showed us where to remove our shoes and how to carry them in the provided plastic bags. Sandra and Kat had also brought along headscarves to cover their hair. 

The interior of the mosque is nothing short of breath-taking; thousands (Mahmet knew the exact number) of blue tiles line the interior walls and the gigantic dome. Mahmet was full of interesting little tidbits of information, including how the pattern on the carpet is used to facilitate the prayer process; “first foot here, second foot here, first knee here, second knee here, left hand here, right hand here and finally bend and touch nose here”. All very practical – I’m glad he did not ask us to follow along. 

As we walked through the mosque the data just kept on coming; “hanging down from the center of the dome are three Ostrich eggs and inside is chemicals that keep away spiders – see no spider webs anywhere in Mosque”. I made mental note to get try this method when I got back home. We came out of the mosque and then delivered the bad news to Mahmet that we would not be visiting his carpet shop; he tried only very weakly to convince us to come, but we politely declined and he did not push the issue. We did, however, insist on paying Mahmet a small fee for his services – even though he did not ask for one.

We made a short stop for coffee and baklava and then headed for the Haghia Sophia Mosque which is just a very short walk from the Blue Mosque. Haghia Sophia is distinct from the Blue Mosque in that over the centuries it has been at times a Christian Church and also a Muslim Mosque. Sophia does not appear to be a working mosque; an entrance fee is charged and there is much restoration in progress. Inside the massive domed structure you can see both Christian images and Muslim texts on the walls; apparently the Christian images were uncovered during the restoration work. Compared to the Blue Mosque, Sophia feels distinctly older, decrepit and less functional – however the architecture is very impressive and the place is well worth a visit.

From Sophia we crossed the street and entered the Basilica Cistern – no it’s not a gigantic toilet! The cistern is a very large underground Byzantine water storage facility; we first spotted this place in the James Bond movie “From Russia With Love” when Bond takes a boat through the caverns to spy on the Russian embassy. The cistern consists of a very large tiled basin with a stone roof that is supported by dozens of stone columns – it looked to be about the size of a football field and the water is a couple of feet deep. To facilitate tourism, walkways have been constructed that let you stroll around and soak up the atmosphere. Many of the columns have also been illuminated from the base with yellow lights creating a beautiful sight.

By this time we were hungry and thirsty so we headed for a convenient restaurant and had shish kebabs and beer (or soda for Sandra). Then we headed back to the tram station where we boarded a very crowded tram (like Tokyo at rush hour) for the journey back to the ship. A fantastic first day in Istanbul.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 8

Thursday November 4th, 2010.
Today we docked on a new continent; Asia! The small Turkish town of Kusadasi may have been where the ship parked, but it was not our destination for the day. The real reason for stopping in these parts is to visit the ancient ruined city of Ephesus, about 20 minutes north of town. We had arranged for a proper shore excursion so off we went on the bus, complete with local guide K (he had a weird first name so he asked to just be called K).

This area of Turkey is really quite beautiful; nice beaches and rolling hills planted with fruit and conifer trees. There has been a lot of development over the past 10 years as the area has become a bit of a destination for tourists. Sandra was in this area 10 years ago and she commented on all of the changes, quite a few big resorts now line the coast.

On our way up to Ephesus, K gave us a run down on the history of the city – after a few minutes I could already tell that he was going to be an excellent guide; superb English and his passion for the history of the region was very evident. Basically Ephesus was founded in about 2500BC by the Greeks as an export point for the local agricultural crops. However, over time the port gradually became filled with silt until it eventually dried up altogether. In fact the current coast line is about 5 miles from where it was when Ephesus was founded.

After arrival, K picked up out tickets and we entered through the upper gates of the city; right past the “Genuine Fake Watch” stall. To help with the tour we were all issued miniature radio receivers with an earpiece; K had a transmitter and this arrangement meant that the whole group could hear what he had to say without standing right beside him. Even though this was at the end of the tourist season there were still a lot of tour groups making their way through the city – I would no recommend trying to visit Ephesus without an official guide.

Ephesus is just magnificent; there is an ongoing government restoration program that has brought many of the most significant buildings back to life. As we wandered down the main street K pointed out lots of interesting facts; St. John preached there, this was the brothel, this was the library, look you can tell this was a Christian shop because of the symbol carved on the ground. There is also a 60,000 seat theater built into a hillside. The tour finished and we exited through the upper gates of the city, right by the clean toilet facility trailer provided by Cunard for the exclusive use of their guests.

Our guide K further endeared himself to us by showing love for cats. The ruined city has a large population of feral cats and most of them seemed to know that K would be carrying a tin of cat food; at every turn a cat would appear and K would drop a few pellets – to the great delight of the cat and the tour group!

Back on the bus we headed for our next stop; the church of St. John – a short ride from Ephesus. This church, high up on a hill, is built on the top of the spot where St. John was originally buried. The church is much ruined though we did see the official burial spot and also a strange sunken bathtub in the shape of a cross; the idea being that pagans enter one side of the bath, were completely submerged and emerged from the other side as Christians.

We made one final and brief stop at the (really) ruined temple of Diana; all that remains is a single column in a field. Nevertheless we battled our way through the obligatory throng of souvenir sellers to take the obligatory photo.

We returned to Kusadasi and were deposited at a large shop that sold Turkish carpets for a “weaving demonstration” – that of course turned out to be a major sales pitch. The carpets were beautiful, but we explained to the nice man that we had spent all of our money on a big chandelier in Murano.

Leaving the carpet shop we headed into the pedestrian bazaar section of town – with Sandra as out trusty guide. This area is full of trinket shops and cafes; we sat ourselves down in a street café and ordered beer and kabobs. After a bit more aimless wandering we returned to the ship.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 7

Wednesday November 3rd, 2010.
Today we really get to “check one off the list” with a visit to Athens. Due to poor weather during the night the ship was running late and did not dock until ~9:30AM; this meant that all of the official shore excursions ran about half an hour late. We had bought tickets for a bus ride into Athens and a tour of the city including; a stop at the Acropolis, National Museum, lunch and the Plaka (the old part of town).

We boarded the nice big coach with our friends Kat and Mike (and about 30 other people) and set off for town. The ship actually was docked in the port of Peraeus – it took about 40 minutes to get to Athens. First impressions; chaotic, big, densely populated, a million tv aerials, traffic jams and graffiti. Oh the graffiti – Athens must be the graffiti capital of the world; they have graffiti on graffiti on graffiti, not a single wall is left untouched (really).

Our tour guide Maria, a very proud Greek, was keen to point out all of the sites as we went along. We made a quick unplanned stop at the site of the original Olympic stadium; this stadium was actually renovated for the first modern games in 1896 and also featured in the recent 2004 games. The stadium is a gigantic U shape and completely open on one side; all 62,000 seats are marble. We were not able to enter the stadium but could still get a good view and pictures from the open side. 

Maria announced a change in the itinerary; we would see all of the sites and then get lunch, followed by a quick stop at the Plaka before returning to the ship – this meant lunch would not occur until 2PM. I could not help thinking that most of the folks on the bus would be starting to show food withdrawal symptoms we if we went this long without eating (remember on a cruise you eat about every hour) – but on we ploughed.

Back on the bus we headed for the main event; the Acropolis – a big hill in the center of town. It’s amazing how the big bus was able to negotiate the narrow car-lined streets; our skillful driver managed to deposit us fairly close to the entrance of the Acropolis. Maria informed us that the timing of our visit was very good since almost all of the scaffolding from the renovations had recently been removed; some of it had been up for 25 years! It’s a bit of a hike from the car park up to the top of the hill – though most of it is on marble walkways and steps. The weather was also really great for a visit like this; overcast and slightly cool – doing this hike at the height of summer would be painful.

Curiously, the Acropolis has a resident population of “stray” dogs who seem to spend most of the time lying asleep, completely unperturbed by the throngs of people walking by. We learned from Maria that the dogs are actually all well looked after and have regular vet visits – all had collars.

Progressing up the hill reveals an ever improving view of the city below. Eventually we reached the top passing the temple of Athena Nike and through the gateway to see the famous Parthenon. Absolutely spectacular! I had to keep pinching myself; no this is not a movie, or Disney or Las Vegas – this is the real deal! Maria gave us the abridged history of the site and all of the buildings – including a plea to get the Elgin Marbles back from Britain. 

Sandra and I set off and walked all the way around the Parthenon, taking about a million pictures. Though there were lots of people around we were assured that it was nothing compared to the peak season, and we were able to get most of the good picture without any damn tourists getting in the way. We headed back down the hill to meet up with the bus; all told we spent about one and a half hours at this site which seemed about right for a one day visit to Athens.

Next we headed for the National Museum; ah the traffic – what should have been about a 10 minute drive took about half an hour. But along the way Maria pointed out the Parliament building and many of the cities famous squares. The museum turned out to be a real treat, and even though we only had about an hour – Maria guided us to the most significant items. There is an outstanding collection of Mycenae gold burial face masks and the display of Greek marble and bronze statues is second to none (at least that I have seen). I especially liked the fantastically restored bronze Zeus and the jokey on a horse; these items were actually recovered from a sunken ancient Roman ship in the 1970s – apparently the Romans liked to go to Greece and pick up statues to put on their front lawns back in Rome.

Finally it was time for lunch; between the traffic and other delays we were running about an hour behind schedule – so yes, it was almost 3PM by the time we got to the lunch destination. The Ancient Tastes restaurant is a quirky place in Athens that purports to use only ancient recipes and serves the food the old fashioned way (no forks) – to be honest it was all a bit too touristy for me. The food was OK, though nothing was described – so the platter of cooked meat became “mystery meat” instantly putting it beyond Sandra’s comfort zone. Periodically a young lady, dressed in period costume, would appear and do a little dance – it was like the gypsy scene in “From Russia With Love” – only the SPECTRE baddies did not appear at the end and try to shoot everyone. Jugs of Greek wine were included so this helped to smooth out the rough edges.

Back on the bus we nosed through the traffic again and made it to our final stop; the Plaka. The old “quaint” part of Athens has been turned into a pedestrian area with lots of tourist shops, restaurants and bars. When I say “pedestrian” I mean it in a Greek kind of way; as Maria was introducing us to the area a car proceeded to pull off the road, onto the sidewalk and through the middle of our group – even Maria was surprised. We later saw other cars and lots of motorcycles riding merrily through the “pedestrian” area. We were only allotted 50 minutes for this stop, the tour being now hopelessly behind schedule. None of us felt like shopping, so we headed for the first available outdoor café and ordered Baklava and coffee; 3 of us were even brave enough to try the Greek coffee – this is very strong and comes in a tiny cup that includes a good deal of silt, apparently by design. Not an experience I’m likely to repeat.

We made it back to the ship and had not even returned to our cabin before the captain announced that he was now ready to sail – umm wonder if they were waiting for us.

Despite all the hiccups and quirks this was a great day; the sites of Athens are not to be missed.

tEastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 6

Tuesday November 2nd, 2010.
Today we visited the island of Corfu, about 500 miles south from Venice. This being a quick half-day stop and a small island, we had decided not to book a shore excursion through Cunard. Instead, after breakfast, we made our way off the ship and took the free shuttle bus (put on by Cunard) into Corfu Town. The weather is great, a little cool – but no sweater. We hear that just a few days earlier the island had been battered by a strong storm – so we feel very lucky.

Corfu Town consists of a large open green area, an old citadel / fort out on a peninsula and an old town with lots of narrow winding streets. We started our visit with a look at the Citadel. At one time or another Corfu has been ruled by just about every major empire-building nation in history. This mixed heritage shows itself in the architecture of the town and also in the Citadel. Many of the structures on the site of the Citadel are still in use as government offices; the former British barracks are now used as the archives, there is also a university and several churches. Conveniently, we also found a café / bar and even though it was barley after 10AM Mike and I could not resist trying the locally brewed Corfu Beer – which was excellent. Suitably refreshed we headed for the old town.

The old town is a warren of very narrow winding streets with shops, cafes and restaurants. The area does not only cater to tourists as many locals could be seen going about their daily routine. We had a hankering for Baklava, that filo dough-based sweet treat – and so the hunt was on. Sitting at a quaint little outdoor café we each ordered baklava and cappuccino from a guy who was obviously the owner. The owner made a big fuss over us – claimed he had the best baklava on the island. So off he went, not into the restaurant – but down the street and around a corner; we had the distinct impression he was going to a local bakery to pick up some baklava!

The owner’s wife appeared with steaming cappuccinos followed shortly by the man himself – bearing plates of large baklava accompanied by ice cream, whipped cream and a drizzle of raspberry sauce. We all tucked in and the sounds of contentment could be heard echoing along the crooked streets. Periodically the owner kept appearing to fuss over us and at one point announced that he was going to “have a taste”; with a flourish he picked up a spoon from my plate and made a show of scooping up some of the food – but instead of feeding himself he decided to spoon-feed me instead, to the great amusement of my tablemates. 

A little while later the owner appeared again and insisted on tucking a napkin into the top of my shirt. In the act of trying to protect me from the food the owner inadvertently dragged the napkin through the cream and raspberry sauce on my plate – and onto my shirt! This had obviously happened before, because seconds later I was being spray with some kind of magic dry-cleaning fluid from an aerosol can; everyone was in hysterics by this time. I was instructed “not to touch for 20 minutes”, a command given in a stern enough voice to make me think I might risk instant expulsion from the island if I even as much as looked at the stained area.

After a few moments the sprayed area of the shirt began to foam; at this point I had visions of returning to the ship with a big hole in my shirt and a severe skin burn. However this was not to be as the foaming stopped and dried into a powder. We left the restaurant before any further clothing related mishaps could occur and headed off to explore more of the old town.

Everywhere you look in the old town of Corfu you see another photo opportunity; the buildings, the people and the colors are all fascinating. We did some trinket shopping, but mostly we were preoccupied with capturing the scenes with our cameras. Soon it was time to head back to catch the shuttle bus to return to the ship. We made it back to the ship in time to grab a drink and a small plate of fish n chips in the Golden Lion pub – excellent!

Another formal night; we had a great dinner in the Todd English specialty restaurant and then an early night.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 5

Monday November 1st, 2010.
Slept quite well, seas not too bad. Breakfasted in the buffet on deck 9, Full English! We took a quick tour of the ship then headed back to our cabin. 

Our initial impressions of the Queen Victoria; smaller than the QM2, spotlessly clean, very well laid out – even with close to 2000 passengers on board it never feels crowded. The design of this ship seems to have taken a step away from the grand period design we saw on the QM2 and more towards a traditional cruise ship; there are elements of both visible in the various rooms. The coffee lounge and the buffet seem to have been lifted right off a Princess ship but the grand foyer and the Britannia dining room are more QM2 – though scaled back. 

The exertions of Venice were still dragging on us so by late morning we decide to take a nap – we did not wake up until about 4:30PM. I can’t believe it; we missed lunch and afternoon tea, a first for us on a cruise! How will we ever get over the guilt!!

It was the first formal night; The Black and White Ball – so it was the old penguin suit and dickie bow tie for me and nice gown for Sandra. Sandra had insisted I buy only hand-tied bow ties, which I did; however neither of us could figure out how to tie the damn things. Thank goodness our friend Kat was staying in the cabin next door; she is an expert in the art of tying bow ties. Off we went to dinner looking like Lord and Lady Dripping-Wealth.

Dinner was excellent as usual; we ate in the Britannia restaurant where a string quartet played while the guests were seated – all very posh. Dinner was followed by a trip to the theater where we were entertained by a singer called Stuart Gilles, an older Scottish guy with a very good voice singing all the “oldies but goodies” I tried hard not to like him, but he won me over with his medley from Phantom.

After the show we went off to the Ball, which was very well attended – with lots of couples doing “proper” dancing to the sounds of a full orchestra. God help anyone going the wrong way round the floor or doing the wrong steps – it would be a good keel-hauling for them. We finished the night off with a drink in the Golden Lion pub and then stumbled into bed.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 4

Sunday October 31st 2010.
The weather finally broke today; it rained much of the night and was still drizzling when we headed out of the hotel for one final jaunt around Venice. The hotel was kind enough to store our luggage after we checked out – allowing us a last few hours of aimless wandering, which is definitely the thing to do in Venice.

We headed to St. Mark’s Square doing mostly window shopping and taking even more pictures. From here we slowly made our way back to the restaurant we had dined in the previous night – we even found it, despite its location down a tiny back alley. Lunch was superb; pasta cooked to perfection, amazing seafood – but we did not have time for dessert. We were afraid we were not going to make it back to the hotel in time to meet the water taxi that we had ordered; so we beat a pretty fast retreat. We made it with about 5 minutes to spare – then the taxi was 15 minutes late, typical!

During the night the Queen Victoria had moved from its location beside St. Mark’s Square to the regular cruise terminal on the other side of Venice. The bags were loaded and the taxi headed out for the 20 minute ride to the terminal. Once we cleared the Grand Canal and entered the channel between Venice and the Lido the water got quite choppy, and with the rain coming down it was quite an eventful ride.

When we reached the cruise terminal there were 6 ships docked – none as spectacular as the Queen Victoria. After a short wait our taxi was able to dock and, after handing over the 100 Euros (which seems to be the standard rate for anything over a short taxi ride), our bags were unloaded into the capable hands of the porters. We made our way to the check-in area and onto the ship without any problems. 

Our cabin is very nicely fitted out and seems a tad larger than the cabins we’ve had on the Queen Mary 2 – we also have a spacious balcony, let’s hope we get some better weather so we can spend time on it. Before dinner we discovered that, because of forecasted rough weather, we will not be making our first port call – Split in Croatia. This news is a bit of a blow since we had really been looking forward to seeing the town and the Roman Palace. On the upside we are now getting an extra day at sea which we all agree will give us a chance to recharge our batteries – we are all feeling very tired from our Venetian excursions.

We had a bit of a hiccup at dinner when we were informed that Kat and Mike were going to be seated on a different table from us. Sandra was able to sort out the problem and Cunard soon saw the error of their ways. Dinner was good but we all agreed that the food in Venice was a hard act to follow. After dinner we made our way up to the Commodore Club right at the front of the ship on deck 10, and watched Venice slide past in the dark as we got under way. The captain has said that the seas may be rough over the next day – hopefully we can get a good nights sleep.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 3

Saturday October 30th, 2010
Another bright but cool day in Venice. We breakfasted in the hotel and then headed out, via a water taxi, to the nearby island of Murano; this trip was included in the price of our hotel and a nice little bonus. Murano is of course famous for glass making; they’ve been doing it on the island since the 1700’s so they’ve had lots of practice. 

Upon arrival we were escorted straight into a conveniently located glass factory and showroom where a young lady commenced the narration while the “master” demonstrated some basic glass blowing techniques, for tips. The master first made a basic vase and then a small horse – both quite expertly done; I think he’d done this before a few times. At the end of the demonstration, before the applause had died down, as if on queue the vase shattered into a thousand pieces. Amazing. At this point our host must have mistaken us for people of means because we shown into the “private” showroom – the rest of the masses (well about a dozen folks) were shuttled off to the “gift shop”.

The showroom was a series of rooms crammed with all kinds of glass art; including the famous Murano chandeliers many priced at $150,000 – we feigned interest and sauntered along muttering “it just won’t go with our décor”. We soon discovered that Murano is basically one showroom after another – and we only walked a short distance along the dock, so we jumped on a vaporetto and headed back to St. Mark’s square. On the way back we were treated to a magnificent sight; the Queen Victoria was docked just along from St. Mark’s square – we were able to get some great pictures and even pick out our cabin as we floated by. 

The people density in Venice must go up dramatically on the weekends – the square was absolutely packed today, literally shoulder to shoulder in places. Feeling a bit tired we headed back to the hotel for a short rest.

Suitably refreshed we headed out and took the vaporetto up to the Rialto Bridge area; we wandered a bit and found a place to have light lunch. Following lunch we headed up to the famous Rialto Bridge- the place was packed with bloody tourists jostling for the best photo opportunity – if they would all just get out of the way, things would be fine. Much of the bridge is covered in graffiti, sad really. We didn’t hang around and decided to walk back to the hotel rather than take the boat. Along the way I picked up a nice black silk tie for 8 Euros to replace the one I had left back home – now I feel complete!

Navigating the narrow winding streets of Venice can be a bit tricky; we had a very good map – but even it was not detailed enough to capture every little alley and bridge. After a while we figured out a navigation method that worked for us; we discovered that several of the major landmarks are signposted at almost every major intersection of alleys. As well as large official yellow signs, these signposts sometimes are in the form of spray painted graffiti-like scrawls or small text carefully hand written with an indelible marker. If you know what to look for you can see these signs – and they turned out to be quite reliable. 

We met up with Kat and Mike in the early evening and headed out for dinner on our last night in Venice. We tried to get into to a place quite close to the hotel that had been recommended in Kat’s guidebook – we even found the place, unlike the previous night. However we soon learned a hard lesson; when going out to dinner on a Saturday night in Venice, book a table! Following our disappointment at restaurant number one, we wondered aimlessly and were turned down at restaurants two and three – some of these were really quite small and unassuming places. In desperation we turned down a tiny back alley and stumbled across yet another small place, Da Mario Alla Fava – I stuck my head in the door and put on my biggest smile and to my amazement we were seated almost straight away. 

We had no idea what a great meal awaited us. We all ordered off the half-portion menu – an approach that leaves room for dessert. While we waited for the food we saw dozens of people turned away at the door because they did not have reservations – making us feel even more fortunate to have got seated. The food did not disappoint; superb Fennel soup with scallops then pasta and also sliced beef – it was excellent. We once again took advice for the wine selection and we were not disappointed. In addition we ordered a jug of the local Proseco sparkling wine which was also very good. The desserts were nothing short of spectacular; hand made chocolates with 10 year old tawny port, molten chocolate cake with gelato and a sort of chocolate soup. We immediately decided to delay our embarkation to the ship and made reservations for lunch the next day.

We sauntered back to the hotel for a quick pit stop and then headed out to find a bar for a nightcap. Amazingly we ended up back at the first place that had turned us down earlier in the night – proving that when it comes to the consumption of alcohol we bear no malice or ill will.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 2

Friday October 29th, our first full day in Venice.
We all met up for breakfast in the hotel where a small cold buffet is served in a nice room overlooking the canal – as advertised on the website you really can watch the gondoliers preparing for their day while eating your breakfast. We decided to visit St. Mark’s cathedral and the Doge’s Palace, a short 5 minute walk from the hotel. Before leaving we went out onto the hotel’s balcony overlooking the small canal. From this great vantage point we were able to watch the comings and goings as the city started to come to life; a boat transporting garbage (it was bin day), boats delivering goods and the gondoliers preparing their long skinny boats. 

It had been 30 years since my previous visit to Venice and St. Mark’s square was pretty much as I remembered it; it really is a beautiful open space surrounded on 3 sides by high baroque style buildings with arched columns along the front that create cloistered-like walkways. St. Mark’s cathedral makes up the forth side of the square; it’s a magnificent 5 domed baroque structure with a distinctively eastern feel to it. The bell tower is the other significant feature of St. Mark’s; it’s a square, brick-built, tower that was actually carefully reconstructed early in the 20th century after it fell down. On my previous visit my cousin and I actually climbed the tower and he left his sweater at the top – I wonder if it’s still there? 

After soaking up the atmosphere and taking about a million pictures, we joined the queue to get into the basilica. St, Mark’s is smaller than some of the other major European cathedrals, for example St. Peter’s in Rome, but it is still quite stunning inside. Almost the entire ceiling of the cathedral is covered in golden mosaic tiles, with scenes depicting various religious events. There were a lot of people inside and we were encouraged to move in a kind of biblical one-way system. Although the signs indicated that photography was not allowed, everyone seemed to ignore this and after much sole-searching we finally gave in and began snapping, tastefully with flash off of course, away. The guards did not seem to mind – so were able to narrowly avoid a life in purgatory – phew! 

On to the Doge’s Palace, conveniently right next door to St. Marks. The Doge was the head man back in the days of the Venetian republic – kind of like a king, but elected. The republic established a governmental system that was able to maintain relative peace and stability from the late 1200s up to the late 1700s. As far as I can tell the aristocracy kept re-electing themselves and creating an ever-increasing bureaucracy – and the people loved it; strange. Of course this was during the time of, for example, Casanova.

We waiting about 15 minutes to get the entry tickets and then proceeded on a self-guided tour – which worked out fine since there were arrows pointing the way and displays explaining each room. The palace consists of four large multi-story wings around a central open air courtyard. The building not only contains the apartments where the Doge lived, but also all of the various governmental departments. There are several large and magnificent meeting rooms; one that could seat over 2000 people. Although there was almost no furniture left in the entire palace, most of the rooms have incredible carved ceilings and are much adorned with significant paintings from the period.

The highlight of the palace, at least for us, was a trip through extensive prison – Sandra especially liked this bit and was keen to point out that cells like those used in the prison were just what today’s justice system needed. We crossed over the famous Bridge of Sighs – so named because it was said that prisoners crossing the bridge from the courts in the palace we unlikely ever to return.

Having worked up a healthy appetite from all that prison visiting, we headed out in search of lunch. With no particular plan we walked along the water front in the direction of the Grand Canal and stumbled across “Harry’s Bar”. Harry’s was actually on our list of places to visit; it being a favorite hangout for the rich and famous back in the early part of the 20th century – it is also the place where the Bellini drink was invented. The place was very small, but amazingly, we managed to get a table right in the middle of the room and tried to pick out where Hemingway might have sat. Waiters were buzzing around everywhere – there seemed to be more of them than customers, most of whom were not tourists. It being Harry’s we order 4 Bellinis which were promptly served with a small bowl of olives and 4 small chicken croquettes, curious. While the drinks and experience were good – it was not 80 Euros good!

We considered Harry’s an appetizer and so onward we pressed, still in search of lunch. Heading inland we immediately came upon a tiny no-frills restaurant serving pizza and pasta and jumped right in. We had a couple of large, excellent, thin-crust pizzas and two plates of pasta – washed down with a litre of red wine; all for less than we paid at Harry’s for 4 Belinis. 

We headed back to the hotel for a well-earned rest, getting hopelessly and delightfully lost along the way – that’s Venice.

In the evening we set out on a journey of discovery to find a restaurant we had read about on the internet. Armed with a GPS, 2 maps, written directions and some hints from the hotel desk clerk – we still never found the place. We ended up in a district near the train station that is not often frequented by tourists – we really enjoyed this, since Venice is generally full of them. It was nice to see a “local” area. 

Being unable to find the target location (the internet reports did warn that it was very hard to find); we opted for another spot – again a very simple no-frills place. I was feeling adventurous so I ordered a couple of the local specialties; cuttlefish with spaghetti (basically pasta in a sauce made from the ink of the cuttlefish – yes it was jet black) and dried cod (reconstituted with milk) served with polenta. Both dishes surprisingly good, I’m always looking for new flavors.

We took the vaporetto (water bus) back down almost the whole length of the Grand Canal to a stop only a few minutes from our hotel. All in all a great day.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day 1

Thursday October 28th, 2010

Wow, what happened to day zero, I went from -1 to 1; did you know the number zero did not always exits, it had to be invented – really, Google it.

We spent a fairly relaxed day at home since our flight was not until 7:25PM out of San Francisco. On instructions from Sandra, I made up a packed lunch for the journey – she does not like the airline food; who does? So its cheese and Branston pickle sandwiches for us – everyone on the plane will be jealous!

While we are gone our granddaughter, Alex, has kindly been volunteered to house sit and our good friend Karen is once again tending to the cats. We are fortunate to have such good support.

Our daughter, Laura, was kind enough to drive us to Kat and Mike’s house where we boarded their van for transfer to the airport. The San Francisco Giants are playing the opening game for the World Series tonight – so we were a little worried about the traffic, but it was fine. 

Checked in and through security without any problems – I even got scanned by the new full body scanner gadget, what fun! We found a nice spot to park our bums and settled down to have a nice cool beer. 15 minutes before we board our flight to Zurich where we have a 2 hour lay over before continuing on to Venice. What would Marco Polo think about having an airport named after him!

The flight to Zurich was uneventful; the usual 10 ½ hours in a cramped, confined space sitting on a hard seat and trying to get some sleep. We continued on to Venice without any problems – all flights were on time, we arrived around 6:45PM local time.

We had not pre-booked a water taxi, but this proved to be no problem – there is a big desk in the middle of the terminal where you can order a taxi. After coughing up the 100 Euros we were instructed to follow the marked path to pier 8 and ask for Paolo. It turned out to be a hike of about 10 minutes, with our entire luggage in tow. 

The water taxi was great; it had an open front area for the driver and a covered rear that could seat about 8. The ride from the airport into Venice took about 25 minutes – and even though it was dark, and we were very tired, it was still very exciting for us. As we approached the city the driver throttled back and we entered a canal at a nice leisurely pace. Our hotel was on the opposite side of the city from the airport, so we had to traverse several canals – including the Grand Canal to arrive at our destination. The back end of the boat had a glass roof which was great for leaning back and taking in the incredible architecture of Venice.

We finally arrived at the Hotel Violino D’Oro; the boat dropped us off and we had just a small walk over a small canal bridge to reach the hotel entrance. Violino D’Oro is a very small hotel, only 3 stories, built in a former 17th century baroque mansion. We were assigned room 304 which we found to be very nicely decorated and clean – though a little on the small side.

After a quick wash we joined Kat and Mike and headed out for dinner. On the advice of the desk clerk we went to a restaurant called Vinovino, about 5 minutes from the hotel. The meal was good; I especially enjoyed the sardine appetizer – and after the desserts and wine we were all ready for some much needed sleep. I think it is going to take us a little while to get used to the Italian restaurant culture – especially the speed of service. After waiting about 30 minutes, we had to launch a major manhunt to track down the waiter just to get the bill.

Eastern Mediterranean Vacation Day -1

Wednesday October 27, 2010

It's the eve of our next big trip; I'm sitting with a nice glass of wine, the cats are sleeping, Sandra is checking her mail and the bags are all packed and ready to go in the car. It's hard to be calm when you are mentally checking your to-do list every 5 seconds - have I forgotten anything? Oh well we'll have time tomorrow before we leave to panic a bit more.

The trip this time should be excellent; we are flying to Venice where we will spend 3 nights before boarding the Cunard Line Queen Victoria for a 12 night cruise of the eastern Mediterranean. Before flying home we will spend 3 nights in Rome. Our friends Kat and Mike will once again be our trusty travelling companions.

We've been planning and looking forward to this trip for nearly a year; to say we are excited would be a total understatement! Go to bed? Have another glass of wine? Go to bed? Ah this is the kind of decision I can handle while I'm on vacation.