Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Oct 28 – Santorini Soaking

We weren't scheduled to arrive at Santorini till 2pm, so we had a chance to be on deck for one of the most spectacular sail-ins in the Europe, as we entered the huge crescent-shaped caldera that forms the island, passing by 200 meter high sheer cliffs, striped with different coloured volcanic rock.

As it had been warm and sunny all morning, we dressed appropriately in shorts and T-shirts, but literally as soon as we stepped foot on the tender, the wind got up, and ominous black clouds blew in. Our tour took us to the village Oia, one of the most beautiful villages in the Aegean, its white cubical houses clinging on to the edge of the cliff-face with fantastic views across the caldera. Unfortunately those views would have been more spectacular, if it hadn't started bucketing down, which forced us to find shelter, warmth and beer in a local taverna where the old man appeared to be speaking English, even though none of the sentences he said made any sense whatsoever – we understood the individual words but they didn't bear any relation to the ones that preceded or followed them. We foolishly nodded and smiled away politely like we understood what he was talking about, which only encouraged him to tell us more unintelligible nonsense.

We ran back through the rain to the coach, which then took us to a local winery for a tasting of Santorini's wine, where everyone tucked in heartily. As ever on these wine tasting tours, the level of conversation on the way back, was much louder than it had been on the way there.

Oct 27 – At Sea

A fairly rocky and rainy day at sea, meant that the passengers weren't able to soak up the sun, and instead had to soak up the history at my lecture on Santorini, Mykonos and Rhodes.

Oct 26 – Sampling in Sorrento

Today we signed up for a tour we've never done before, called "A Taste of Sorrento" – basically, a good excuse to sample some of the wonderful food and drink that the area's famous for.

Fortunately the weather was much better than a couple of days ago, and it was a gloriously sunny day. We went to a local farm, where they showed us how to make mozzarella (surprisingly easy), took us round their olive oil press (we were lucky enough to be there during the olive harvest), gave us some salami (then showed us the enormous pigs that were about to be the next batch of salami), and gave us some wine to taste (even at the indecent hour of 10 o'clock in the morning, it tasted pretty good).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Oct 25 – Civitavecchia

It was turnaround day in Civitavecchia, so we relaxed and enjoyed the beautiful, Italian, autumn sun.

Oct 24 – Sorrento

For the last day of the cruise, we were in the beautiful town of Sorrento. Our tour was meant to go to Pompeii, and then onto the Amalfi coast, but unfortunately the horrible weather had caused a mud slide on the coastal road to Amalfi, so that part of the trip was cancelled.

Nevertheless, the trip to Pompeii was excellent, as we saw a few bits we hadn't discovered on previous trips. Pictured, is one of the most memorable sights - a plaster cast of one of the victims of the famous eruption of AD79. The poor man must have curled up into a ball and tried to cover his face to protect himself from the choking ashes that killed him, and 2,000 other victims.

As we walked the incredibly preserved streets of Pompeii, we passed houses covered in 2,000 year-old graffiti, and looked around ancient brothels decorated with some graphic frescoes, intended to inspire the clientele.

Oct 23 – Taormina

Another windy day today, which meant getting on and off the ship's tender was a fairly alarming process, as it lurched up and down by quite a few feet as you tried to get onto it. In fact, the weather had turned so bad, that the decision was made to move the ship from being at anchor off Taormina, to dock in Messina, about an hour up the road.

So we had a dash around Taormina's medieval streets to try to see as much as possible, before getting the bus back to Messina, for my afternoon lecture. We visited Taormina's spectacular Greco-Roman theatre, and marvelled at its fantastic setting, with the sparkling sea and a snow-covered Etna, smoking in the distance, as a backdrop to the stage.

Having ticked off, Taormina's Number One sight, we just went for random wandering through the atmospheric backstreets of the town – it's not difficult to see why this place is rated as the most beautiful town in Sicily. Just to keep energy levels up, Tracy troughed her way through a delicious cannoli, while I went for the healthy option – a slice of greasy pizza.

Having arrived in Messina, we were intending to explore the town a little, but the threateningly grey skies gave us the perfect excuse not to venture into the fairly non-descript town. At least Messina does have a good reason for looking so unprepossessing – in 1908, almost the entire town was destroyed in a massive earthquake that killed almost 100,000 people.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Oct 21 - Mykonos

Mykonos is one of the most popular Greek Islands for tourists, mainly because of its picture perfect whitewashed villages, and gorgeous sandy beaches. There aren't a lot of "sights" to discover here, but after 8 busy ports in a row, you get the feeling that most passengers were glad of the opportunity to visit a place where there weren't lots of ruins or history to discover, and where the most strenuous activity was shopping or eating.

On our exploration of Mykonos Town, we did come across one of the huge pelicans that Mykonos is famous for. I don't know for sure how slim pelicans are meant to look, but this one seemed clinically obese, and it looked like it took him all the energy he had, just to open up one eye and look at us disdainfully.

Oct 20 - Chios

Today we moved onto the laid back Greek Island of Chios in the Eastern Aegean – this is the fifth biggest Greek island, but most people have never heard of it, and it's scarcely touristy at all.

This place is principally famous for 3 things:
1. Chios is the only place in the world where Gum Mastic is grown. In the Middle Ages, gum mastic (which is the dried resin from the Mastic tree) was more valuable than gold – these days, it's used for fairly horrible chewing gum, and cosmetics.
2. In the 19th century, the Turks massacred 30,000 of the islanders and enslaved a further 45,000.
3. Christopher Columbus MAY have been born here. Quite unlikely, but the tourist people are fairly keen on the theory.

On our tour, we visited the sleepy villages of Pyrgi and Mesta, where the stray cats easily outnumbered the people, and the only life on the streets ancient local ladies were sorting through this year's crop of mastic, and we got lost in the maze of narrow streets which had been designed to confused marauding pirates (and now marauding tourists). The copious cat droppings may also have slowed down any pillaging the pirates may have managed too.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oct 19 - Rhodes

The first of three Greek Islands in a row today – we started with the amazing medieval set-piece that is Rhodes Town. This is the best preserved medieval city on the Mediterranean, and we docked right next to the massive walls and fortifications that enclose it.

Tracy and I visited Rhodes on our first ever holiday abroad together, when we were callow 19 year-olds, and I must say that Rhodes Town has survived the intervening years better than we have. Millions of EU Euros have gone into giving the medieval streets the building equivalent of botox and a tummy tuck, while in contrast we are now visibly sagging at the seams.

Many of the streets have been taken over by touristy restaurants and souvenir stalls, but even this can't take away from the medieval atmosphere and architectural uniformity of the place. While every street with restaurants selling English breakfasts, and shops selling Manchester United shirts, was full of tourists, those with the most history, like the wonderful Street of the Knights, were almost deserted.

A really lovely day of wandering, of history, and of reminiscing.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Oct 18 - Antalya

Today we moved from Europe into Asia, to the tourist resort of Antalya in Turkey. From Antalya, there's lots of ancient sites to discover, so we went on a tour to Perge and Aspendos (or Asbestos, as some people think it's pronounced).

We went first to the ruins at Perge, a provincial town of about 35,000 back in Roman times, and one of the best preserved ancient sites in the Mediterranean. Amongst its ruins, we explored impressive colonnaded streets, still bearing the rut marks from the wheels of the Roman chariots; a large forum; a huge baths complex; and Asia Minor's largest stadium, which would have seated 12,000 spectators on its tumbled-down rows of stone seats.

We then moved onto Aspendos to see what must be the best and most complete theatre to have survived from antiquity. It's so well preserved, it looks almost like the Roman builders have only just moved out -15,000 spectators can still fit into it's steep, vertigo-inducing banks of seats. Quite an amazing place to visit.

On the way back, we stopped for a cotton-picking-minute, at some cotton fields – the cotton was being "harvested" by the local ladies, bent over double all day long.

Oct 17 - Limassol

Today we took a tour from Limassol, Cyprus, to Kourion and Kolossi – it was absolutely boiling, so Tracy darted from shade to shadow, to avoid the burning sun.

Kourion is an ancient site, which boasts a large Roman mansion with lots of high quality mosaics, and a large Graeco-Roman theatre which seats 5,000, and has some amazing views across the coast and the sea, which forms its backdrop.

While we were exploring the site, I found an old Roman column, which, now that I've been going to the gym again, I was able to lift above my head with ease. OK – it was a stage prop, a plastic column that was left over from a performance, and even then, I struggled to get it off the ground.

Next we moved onto the Crusader castle at Kolossi – Cyprus was the place the Crusaders moved onto after being thrown out of Acre and the Holy Land. Only the central tower of the castle survives, but it's still an impressive reminder of those turbulent times.

After this, we had a bit of spare time in Limassol itself – a glamorous combination of mainly touristy shops (selling Santa hats already!) and traffic-clogged streets.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

October 16 – Acre

Today we docked in Haifa, Israel, so we decided to take a train trip to the historic Crusader port of Acre (or Akko, as it's now known). The train station is right outside the port gates, so this was one of the easier trips we could make.

After a half an hour train ride, we ended up in Akko new town, and attempted to find our way into old Akko. Tracy asked the security guard at the station who seemed shocked that we'd want to walk there – "take a taxi, because it's a 15 minute walk". It was hot, but not that hot, so we ignored this advice and started to walk in the general direction. We asked another woman if we were going the right way, and she said, "take autobusi" over and over again.

Ignoring this advice, we met another girl who spoke English, and asked her whether we should go straight on or go left – "yes", was the confusing answer. "But which one?", I asked. "There are many ways to Akko", she replied mysteriously. "But which is the right way?", I tried again. Still she persisted in sounding like she wanted to be helpful, but in fact, being of no help at all, "you can go this way, or you can go that way, but you will end up in Akko".

As all roads appeared to lead to Akko, we eventually found our way to the enormous medieval walls that enclose the old town. The city's a really intriguing mix of Christian crusader churches, Arab markets and mosques, and Jewish synagogues, all set in a maze of atmospheric historic alleyways. We walked around the sea walls, and then through a secret tunnel dug out by the Knights Templar, that runs underneath much of the old town. As you crouch your way through the narrow tunnel, with channels of water running both sides, it wasn't too difficult to imagine the days of the Crusading Knights and their struggles to claim the Holy Land for Christendom.

We then visited the huge Citadel built a thousand years ago by the Knights of St John, with its enormous Gothic halls, refectory and hospital to care for sick pilgrims on their way down to Jerusalem.

As the Jewish Sabbath was due to start at sunset today (Friday), the last train back left at 2pm (to make sure that the train workers can be back home in time for Sabbath), so we caught the train with lots of gun-toting soldiers returning home for the weekend.

After lunch onboard, we attempted to explore Haifa, which was a fairly thankless task, given that pretty much everything was by now shut for Sabbath. It was boiling and humid, and as Haifa is built up the side of the very steep Mount Carmel, without buses or the Cable Car, it was virtually impossible to get to the interesting bits of town, so we gave up quickly, before we passed out from heat exhaustion.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Oct 15 - Tel Aviv

The biggest adventure of today was to negotiate the formidable Israeli Immigration Authorities. These people had definitely not been to charm school.....

We were docked in the industrial port of Ashdod which is nowhere near the town's train station, so if you're doing things on your own, you have to get a bus to the edge of the port, and then get a taxi to the station. Further complications to the journey are added by the fact that Israeli train timetables read from right to left, and the Hebrew script is indecipherable to Westerners. However, the train system is very modern and efficient, so we were whizzed in air-conditioned comfort to a hot and humid Tel Aviv in 45 minutes.

Getting the train, you feel like you could be in any European country, except that here in Israel, pretty much everyone is a reservist in the army, so there's loads of people in uniform walking around with machine guns slung disconcertingly over their shoulders.

In a country where most of the cities have thousands of years of history, TA is little more than 100 years old, and most of the city has been built pretty quickly, to accomodate the huge numbers of Jewish settlers arriving over the course of the 20th century. So, you see an array of 1920s bauhaus architecture, unnattractive 50s concrete blocks, and gleaming skyscrapers.

It's a very busy and bustling place in a beautiful location on the Med with clean white sandy beaches - put this city anywhere else in Europe and it would be a huge resort.

We met up with our friends who live in TA, so we had an insider's guide to the city. They took us to Jaffa (reputedly the oldest port in the world), where we had a lovely humous lunch in an Arab restaurant, and we explored the old town, which was full of brides in huge white dresses having their wedding photos done (apparantly Thursday is the day Israelis get married).

A lovely day of catching up, exploring and eating - the perfect combination.