Wednesday, September 12th, 2007
I am writing from somewhere off the coast of mainland Greece — I think. It’s hard to say, but I’d reckon that outside of the cruise ship staff, no one else knows, either. Pretty much everyone else on board is asleep, except for the septagenarians of course. It’s about 9:30 in the morning, but during the night we crossed into the next timezone, so it feels like it’s only 8:30. But I still get the impression that would make it an early morning for most people partying like it was 1979 last night at the disco before the Ice Sculptors got their craft on.
Read on for the recap and photos….
Monday, September 10th, 2007
Tammy graciously drove us down to the Munich airport and we caught a very smooth flight to Venice on TUIfly.com (yes — the .com is part of the airline name). It was listed in all our travel documents as a 1.25 or 1.5 hour flight (something a little over an hour, at any rate), but in reality, this was a 35 minute flight. We got it, sat down, snoozed, and got off the plane. We sat around in the Venice airport for almost an hour, caught the Costa shuttle to the harbor and thought we were on our way.
When we got to the harbor, we dropped off our checked luggage (just one suitcase) and sat down to wait…and wait…and wait…for our boarding group number to be called. Finally it got called and we marched up to be metal detected and all that again…but the ticket-taker-lady refused us. Our documents as provided by the Costa USA website weren’t good enough, so we had to go to the customer service desk. And guess what? We had to wait there, too. We definitely weren’t the only ones in that situation, but that really wasn’t much comfort, either.
Finally we got to board the ship. All non-European passport holders had to give up their passports (whoops, don’t remember reading that in any of the documentation) and together we marched through another set of metal detectors and into a floating Vegas.
We found our room relatively easily downstairs in the windowless peasantry deck. I shouldn’t complain; our room is bigger and nicer than we thought, and quite comfortable, but I hadn’t figured on the lack of windows messing with my head so much (for just one night, back in December 2005 in London, it didn’t bother me at all). I have discovered how important it is for me to gauge whether it’s night or day without opening my eyes (all the way). When your only light source is the peephole streaming in from the hallway twenty-four hours a day, it gets tricky.
We were so tired of traveling and getting on board that we decided not to leave the ship again to explore Venice on foot before departure. So, we acquainted ourselves with the ship and our room and the elevators and staircases and stuff instead. After a while we noticed we were moving, and we headed up to the top decks to wave goodbye to Venice. These pictures are from the less interesting side of the city as we departed; I was not in the mood to deal with all the people wedged in along the rails on the more famous side.
Tuesday, September 11th, 2007
By the next morning we were in good shape again though and ready to explore Bari when we got there. We opted for an excursion to the Castel del Monte and Basilica San Nicola — that’s right, kids: Santa’s Church. The Castel del Monte was very cool; I would have liked to go inside and check it out, but it was under renovation at the time. It was quite a bus ride out there, but on the top of the hill, with a light breeze and the sun shining, it was very refreshing to have a little peace and quiet, fresh air and views of the surrounding countryside. Then we got back on the bus and returned to Bari to visit the Basilica di San Nicola. Our tour guide told us several times how the old town of Bari used to be too dangerous for any non-locals to visit, but since UNESCO made the town (or just the Basilica? I’m unclear on that) a world heritage site, tourism has really brought positive change to the town.
And then we boarded the ship again for a snack before dinner. Eating dinner at 9:30 p.m. at night — or rather, sitting down to dinner then — takes some getting used to, so I’m on the “three small meals and a five-course dinner” plan until I’m fully adjusted. Probably by Monday I’ll be ready.
Wednesday September 12th, 2007
This morning we intentionally slept in, which was weird. I’m not used to being on vacation and not having a schedule. But we decided in advance we should just sleep until we no longer felt tired. Don’t get to do that very often. I got up and started writing all this stuff down, had some breakfast, and let Sarah continue to sleep. When I finally got cold out on the deck (it was overcast and breezy), I came back down to the cabin to find that Sarah had been up ever since I’d left. We took our time getting ready, booked an excursion for the day after next for Rhodos and Lindos had a little lunch and headed off the boat into the town of Katakolon.
There really wasn’t much to see there — the reason for stopping in this area at all is to be able to cart cruise tourists off to Olympia, the site of the Olympic games since time immemorial. But the weather was nice, and it was good to get off the boat for a bit. We strolled around, bought some water from a little store (9L for 3€ retail on the shore, or 1L for 2.30€ here on the boat) and came back to the Apollo pool — the kid-free pool on deck 9 — for some sun. Now we’re getting ready for our first Gala Night. I am comforted by the fact that one of our table mates last night proclaimed he was going to protest by wearing only a shirt and tie and not a full suit or tux or anything silly like that. That makes me feel better because I actually don’t own a suit (much less a tuxedo) and have tried to make do with clothing I haven’t worn since applying for the job I have now back in December 2003.
Thursday, September 13th, 2007
Today was an early morning arrival at Santorini at the base of the cliffs leading up to the town of Fira. Our former fellow Americans-in-Regensburg Kim and Oscar, who have since moved back to the U.S., told us about this place…and warned us about the donkey rides up the cliffs.
We opted for the cable car instead. We poked around the town of Fira a bit and then decided to try to hire a taxi driver. We enjoyed our excursion on Tuesday while docked at Bari, but we also wanted to have a little more freedom to explore at our own paces. So we thought we’d try our luck at exploring the island of Santorini on our own and not chained to anyone else’s whims or pace. Sarah’s sense of direction kicked in and we wandered to a taxi stand, inquired as to the price of an hour and a half of taxi service between Fira and Oia, and off we went.
Our driver knew exactly what we wanted (possible giveaway: the camera around my neck and protruding tripod from my backpack) and was only too happy to stop whenever we wanted to snap more pictures of the mountainsides, beaches, buildings, etc. He got a 30 minute paid break while we hoofed it around Oia and snapped great photos…and he was waiting for us right where he said he’d be when we got back after enjoying a nice iced coffee & Bailey’s and coffee & Kahlua. We were so pleased with ourselves that we strolled around Fira and found a nice, small watercolor to buy. And then it chimed 12 noon and we said to ourselves, “Selves – we better make sure we don’t miss the last tender boat back to the ship!” So we headed for the line for the cable car descent and found it to be several hundred meters long. After moving what appeared to be less than halfway through the line in about 30 minutes, we gave up and decided to bra(y)ve the path down with the donkeys. That was gruelingly slippery and smelly. We witnessed some young woman having a freak-out, presumably because the shuffly slip-clop sound and feeling of the donkeys losing their grip on the steep steps is more unnerving when you’re the donkey’s load. We caught a tender bound for our ship about 15 minutes before the last one was scheduled to depart. The donkey poop smells were bad and the route was pretty steep and slippery, but that would have been insignificant had we not been pressed for time. It was such a relief to get back on the big boat that we just needed to layout on the deck and write a few postcards as we headed north from Santorini towards Mykonos.
We got off the big boat at Mykonos onto a little boat, and then onto a dock, and then onto a bus, and then out of the bus onto some kind of loading zone, and the whole situation felt kind of undefined to me, but worked out. We inferred that we were supposed to meet up with another bus (the same bus?) sometime before the last tender boat ride back to the ship. Not wanting to recreate the stressful situation of the afternoon at Santorini, we opted for a bus/boat ride back to the ship well before the deadline. We spent the whole time tromping around the coastal area of Mykonos looking for a restaurant our Frommer’s book recommended. No such luck, but we did managed to find a restaurant pretty much right on the beach that had decent Moussaka and roast lamb…nothing outstanding, but edible. I think it was “Alefkandra’s” or something like that. The best part of the evening was, despite the crowds delivered by the other three (at least – including the Costa Victoria) cruise ships in port at the same time as ours, discovering the backstreets and alleyways of this tourist town and using its Greek/English combo signs to decipher the Greek alphabet.
We hoofed it back to the bus, caught the tender and crashed out in bed, knowing that the next day was going to be a great big one.
Friday, September 14th, 2007
Departed the boat at 08:00 sharp this morning, because overnight we’d gotten all way from Mykonos to 8 nautical miles away from another continent — namely Asia (and Turkey with it). We’d arrived at Rhodes. It didn’t have the visual charm of Santorini or Mykonos, and we didn’t know hardly anything about its history — barring a couple of art history and/or mythology mentions of the Colossus of Rhodes. We got onto a waiting bus and headed out to the town of Lindos on the other end of the island. We got off the bus, and onto a city bus taking us down from a hill above the harbor to the city center. From there we started the hike up another mountain side to the Acropolis at Lindos. Again this time there were burros available, and even though they smelled positively flowery compared to the burros at Skala/Fira on Santorini, we still opted to shuffle up and down the slippery cobblestoned steps ourselves. We figure it helps to make up for not having visting the shipboard gym once so far on this trip (to be fair, we’ve thought about it a couple times, but our timing has been bad). The path up to the Acropolis wove through some touristy stores up the side of the mountain overlooking the harbor. When we got to the base of the Acropolis, our tour guide Maria — who provided so many details and anecdotes and
popular culture tie-ins that Sarah and I got the impression everyone else was positively bored or bewildered; we however, were eating it up — pulled the group aside to give us the 10 minute version of the history of Lindos the city-state, with its colonies (Winged Victory of Samothrace, anyone?) and position of strategic importance between Turkey and Egypt and Greece. And then we headed further up the sevenish flights of steps further up. Sarah opted to hang out there while I hiked up the piles of rocky debris to get some shots of Lindos and the bay and the sea from the highest point in the town.
We headed back on the bus and drove a bit more to a pottery shop where, to prove the point that all the goods featured were hand-made we entered through the workshop and watch a potter turn a lump of clay into a vase ready for kiln firing and his family members hand-painting other ones. The stuff was beautiful, but the objects we really liked (mostly platters and vases) were out of our price range. The smaller, cheaper items (votive candle holders, coffee mugs, and the like) were nice too, but didn’t especially call out to us to buy them.
And then: back to our bus for a drive to lunch at a resort hotel whose grounds reminded us a lot of the Bay View Grand. We got a strong impression that Rhodes is the Northern Europe’s version of the Mexican coastal resorts — this is where the Scandinavians and British come to bake – at least those that make it all the way to the beach. If I could have discreetly snapped the magnificent bronze bellies and tiny speedos partially obscured by them, I would have. That would have been tricky to explain however, so you’ll have to take it on faith. The lunch we had at this hotel was the best lunch food we’ve had yet on this trip. That’s not to say we’re displeased with the food on our ship — but the pizza buffet and self-service pasta and salad bars, et cetera were already getting old at this point. The hotel offered us a buffet of wonderful Greek things to eat: pork grilled on skewers, cucumber and tomato salads, chunk tuna with capers and peppers, pastitsio, and naturally baklava for dessert. We found out later from our fellow tour bus travelers that we weren’t the only ones pleased to have a deviation from the shipboard lunch routine.
Another half-hour on the bus, and we were back in Rhodes where we started this morning. The driver let us off just outside the gate to the old city and Maria kicked back into curator mode. We got a crash course in the history of the Order of Saint John the Baptist, later known as the Order of Malta, and how the medieval history of Rhodes is intertwined with theirs. The tour of the Knights’ Castle was great — especially the mosaic tilework from antiquity (usually imported from other islands).
Saturday, September 15th, 2007
Just cruised. Sacked out. Recuped. Surprisingly didn’t graze the buffet the whole time. It was good. After all those excursions (some planned by us, some by the cruise company), we needed a break. We read, played with the camera, and did a lot of people-watching. It was the second of formal nights, and unfortunately the ship’s dry-cleaning service got my lone dress shirt done with a few minutes to spare. So, I suited up again, but Sarah opted for the business casual look. Also, the cruise line was just so darn proud of their Meijer ice cream cake that they paraded it in. Personally, I would have considered the s parklers a fire hazard on a ship, but that’s just my paranoia. Either way, the ice cream involved was fine, but the frosting was really not worthy, and the whole affair was overrated.
Sunday September 16th, 2007
Got up bright and early this morning for a self-guided excursion to Dubrovnik, Croatia starting at 08:30. It was a cute little town — hard to imagine it was a rival to Venice on the Adriatic city-state stage, but there it is. The water in the harbor was unbelievably clear and the main street of the town was reflecting back at us. I’m glad we got started early this Sunday morning, because by late morning, the place was absolutely crawling with tourists — very many of them British-sounding. I don’t think there was another ship in port with us like at Mykonos, so these must have been non-cruising tourists or vacationers. We were struck by how small the old town actually is. This is part of the reasoon we can say we’re happy to have visited this cute, clean, very friendly and well-spoken medieval walled harbor town, but are glad to be moving on after spending the morning there.
We found an internet cafe (no thanks to Costa and their crummy onboard internet cafe) and finally, after years of traveling abroad, managed to write, address, and send all of the postcards we bought on this trip while on the trip. This has pretty much never happened for us before. We always end up heading home with a sheaf of unstamped, unaddressed, or unwritten postcards in tow, which we may or may not end up sending from home anyway. But this time, we got them all out (save one…and it’s not our fault because the recipients moved without disclosing a new address).
We beat the rush back onto the boat and had our pick of deck chairs by the pool. We stretched out with iPods and books and sunscreen at the ready and baked for a few hours. Man, that felt good. Sarah’s freckles are out in full force and I am putting that melanin I keep in storage to good use.
Monday, September 17th, 2007
Well, we made it back to Venice. Then our frustration set it. Costa was unfortunately not very helpful with regard to connections out of the cruise ship terminal. They provided a free shuttle to Piazzale Roma, but that was it. No maps, flyers, pamphlets, or anything like that. But we figured, “how hard can it be?” — we were headed to the only part of the city of Venice where the train station is and cars are allowed to drive. We figured it would be a snap to find the train station. Not so. We wandered around schlepping our luggage for about 45 minutes, all the while thinking, “the big, obvious train station or unmissable signs pointing to it must be right around the corner.” We finally found it, but the closest bridge leading directly to it was under construction (actually, we wondered if it was a brand new one). That meant we had to cross three other bridges to circumvent the most direct route — kind of like 3 left turns to go right. In the end, we were so annoyed with the city of Venice (which might otherwise be lovely) and its ramshackle, beat down dirty train station, that we decided to sit there and suck for two hours before our train arrived…which worked out well, because after the first hour, a torrential downpour started which soaked everyone not under the shelters. Strolling from our train platform back into the main train station building to snag a piece of “Arrivederci Italia” pizza, we saw people wringing out their clothing.
Finally after sitting around for two hours, our train arrived and we had possibly the smoothest train trip ever. Everything went perfectly — one train (no transfers) from origin to destination, with no delays or even obnoxious compartment mates. Everyone seemed to be as sacked out as we were. We finally got home after 7+ hours on the road around 11:00 p.m. and sacked out.
It was indeed a great trip. That easy flight in sure made the train trip back seem painful, but it really wasn’t. Visiting the port cities and islands and historical monuments was outstanding and gave us a good idea of what we can expect from the region on future visits and also what different kinds of cruises we might like to try next. Our ship was pretty good, despite a lack of variety in the cuisine.
But we’re still glad to be home.