DESTINATIONS

Mediterranean cruise

WHERE: Cruising from Athens to Istanbul with overnight in Alexandria

WHEN: Sept. 26-Oct. 8, 2007

HIGHLIGHTS: Aside from a few Greek islands, every stop was superb and memorable. 

Accommodations:

  • Norwegian Jewel

  • Nile Blue tours for Egypt and Ekol for Turkey

"Of course I had to take a camel ride. Negotiations started at $40 U.S. for 20 minutes." 

Santorini "is a visual feast, perched on the caldera with the sparkling Mediterreanan below and glistening whites and blues above."

"I succumbed to carpet-sellers in Ephesus, buying a 4x6 ruglet." 

"I'm a Gene Juarez gal and I should have passed on the hammam." 

Astonishing, breathtaking living history

 

Sept. 26-Oct. 8, 2007: Athens for three days, cruise for 12 days on the Norwegian Jewel to Olympia, Corfu, Mykonos, Crete, Santorini, Alexandria, Izmir, Istanbul for two nights.

This was fun to relive eight years later. How much has changed?

 

EGYPT

  • Driving. HOLY COW. It's a terrifying 2.5 hour ride from Alexandria to Cairo hurtling at 80 mph crowded by swarms of beat-up cars, vans, buses, pickups, wagons, donkeys, bikes and people, creating lanes as they go, often loaded to the brim--there are no rules or signals apparently. An ambulance with siren on was completely ignored as it inched along. Iconic image: a teenage with one hand on his bike, the other holding a 4-5 foot batch of pita breads on his head.  (We used an independent tour company but wondered if should have used the ship's tour, just in case.)

  • The texture. It's ugly, dirty, gritty, smoggy, noisy. Walls with barbed wire and guard towers; soldiers everywhere in every variety of uniform carrying every model of firearm; bribes/tips or "baksheesh" exchanged at every turn, sometimes threateningly; we saw a young man hustled along getting punched by four or five others at a toll booth; vast amounts of garbage being dumped into a main canal--in which children are swimming; tenement-like housing.

  • The people. Most women scarfed around their faces; some in full black covering; men in robes; beautiful children in school uniforms--love to be photographed.

  • The pyramids and sphinx of Giza. Wow. At 2000 years old, the great pyramid (Khufu or Cheops) was the largest structure in the world for 3,800 years; the oldest and most preserved of the seven wonders of the world. Three rulers have their pyramids here, surrounded by many tombs and the queens' pyramids. The Sphinx' origins are not clear. 

    • Of course I had to take a camel ride. Negotiations started at $40 US for 20 minutes and finished at $30. Two young boys walk the camels out into the desert so you see nine pyramids together. It's a bouncing, uncomfortable experience, especially when the camel gets up and down! Natives ride wtih their feet out front but tourists ride straddled, legs sprawled widely over the camel.

  • The Egyptian museum is packed with amazing history amid poor signage. King Tut's findings are here when not traveling; including the golden near perfect death mask (the mummy is still in Luxor because it was too fragile to be moved). 

 

GREECE

  • Athens. Amazing history all about: Hadrian's Arch, the Temple of Zeus (very impressive, especially for views/pixes of Zeus columns bracketing Parthenon); Parthenon (going 360 degrees around it we had views from Mount Lycabettus and the funicular; the best was from corner of Filippapos hill.) They were constructing the new museum so we didn't get to see the ancient treasures.

    • Bravely and easily took a local bus to Sounion to see the Poseidon Temple. It runs along the coast to the southernmost tip and takes nearly two hours each way. The hardest part was finding the right bus stop.

  • Olympia. The site of the original Olympics is large and open; you're allowed to roam and touch, unlike nearly everything in Athens. Coolest part was walking through the arch and into the stadium where games were held starting in 772 BC. You can still see the marble starting and finishing lines and take off if the spirit moves you.

  • Corfu. Rented a car and drove around, but the best part was just visiting the old fortress and beautiful old town, with its British influences.

  • Santorini. What a visual feast, perched on the caldera with the sparkling Mediterreanan below and glistening whites and blues above. You can take a cable car, donkeys or the 588 steps to get to lovely Fira.

    • Going from Fira to Ia is really a two-part hike of six miles or so. The first is gorgeous with churches, hotels, villas, swimming pools. The second and steepest part, is more geologically interesting, with pumice, ash, layers of volcano.

      • It wasn’t intuitive to find the trail. Basically, you want the water on your left; if you pass the Nomikos Conference Center, which looks like an important building, you’re in good shape.  It took us about 2 1/2 hours with many stops for pictures and a snack break. 

      • There was really not a good place to eat after Imerovigli (which is spectacular) so stop here or wait until the town of Ia.

      • The bus back was packed and bouncy; we wished we had grabbed a cab.

 

TURKEY

  • Ephesus. About 45 minutes drive from the boat, this impressive ancient city features the Temple of Artemis (completed around 550 BC), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; the well preserved Library of Celsus; and the house where Mary may have spent her last days.

    • Mary's House is a modest stone home high on a mountain top with people sobbing around her picture and altar. Down the hill are spigots drawing from a "miracle" spring and wall of little fabrics and notes of requests to Mary.

    • Note: I succumbed to carpet-sellers in Ephesus, buying a 4x6  "ruglet" for $1550. It's in my bedroom and I still love it.   

  • Istanbul. (Running out of adjectives here.) Wonderful first views of the skyline featuring the Aladdin style Blue Mosque, the magnificent Agia Sophia (once the largest Christian church around, prior to the Vatican, and prior to it being converted to a mosque) and the Topkapi palace with its harem and treasury.

    • The Blue Mosque is the center of religious life. Before entering, the men wash their feet at one of many spigots; the women have to share just one or two. Visitors simply put their shoes into plastic bags you carry about; no head covering needed for women although many brought their own. The fervor is palatable in the Mosque as men bow and pray in the front; women in the back and upstairs. 

    • Turkish bath. I’m a Gene Juarez gal and I should have passed on the hammam, or traditional Turkish bath. It was coarse and sloppy, with well-intentioned, weathered, saggy women slathering and mopping and tossing scoops of water on you. For $40E.

    • Also of note: the people are gorgeous--if they aren't reserved, they're trying to sell you something; the cistern is very cool; the grand bazaar is quickly claustrophobic.

 

USEFUL TO CONSIDER

 

DRESS: Basically you need your shoulders and knees covered in the religious buildings. Some provide cover-ups or boxes of scarves for those who need it. At Istanbul’s blue mosque, many women came prepared with scarves to cover their heads, but they waved me in without any covering. In Egypt and Turkey, natives do not wear shorts.

 

MONEY: Greece is all Euros. Egypt was Egyptian pounds, with many bills worth nearly nothing, plus US dollars. Turkey is mostly Turkish Liras with some Euros. Beware: the word Lira and Euro can sound slurred and similar. We had a taxi driver claim he quoted us Euros when we heard Liras. You’ll need small change in Egypt and Turkey for restrooms; you can use Euros also.

 

Hotels we liked:

  • The Hotel Ava in Athens was superb; we got upgraded to an executive apartment with a balcony bookended by the Acropolis and Hadrian's Arch.

  • The Meridian Pyramids in Cairo likely had the best view of any in our travels: two huge pyramids out the window. 

 

PORTS TO TOWNS: 

  • Katakolon has about 4 blocks of tourist shops within easy walking.

  • Corfu is a good 20-30 minute hike and confusing to find unless you walk all the way around the port by the water.

  • Alexandria: you’re just outside the very busy city streets.

  • Iraklion: 20 minutes or so to town. Ship offers a shuttle bus.

  • Santorini: you have to tender, then take the cable car, donkeys or 588 steps. 

  • Mykonos: Ship offers a shuttle bus, which goes right into the town.

  • Izmir: Easy 10 minutes to major parts of Ephesus.

  • Istanbul: Where we were supposed to dock would have been a nice 20-minute stroll into the city. Another ship was there so we “parked” further away and took the tram ($1.40 lira each).

 

SECURITY BETWEEN FLIGHTS: Changing flights/countries (i.e. US to Paris to Athens) requires you to go through security again. So don’t waste money buying water in-between as you can't take it with you. The customs lines in Amsterdam and Paris were disorganized while there were none arriving in Athens. Don’t forget at CDG in Paris you have to take connecting buses to get to your planes, and buses to get to terminals as well. It’s more time consuming than you expect. 

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© 2015 by Mei-Mei Chan Kirk