Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nov 27 – Taormina Trek

Today we were intending to take it easy and just do a bit of a stroll around Giardini Naxos (the town below Taormina where the tender comes in) and then head back to the ship to do some homework.

But, as it was another lovely warm day (this could have been the height of summer in Britain), we decided to extend our walk a little. We finally made it all the way around the bay to the pretty Art Nouveau train station to see the setting of that scene from The Godfather III, where Michael Corleone meets his ex-wife, Kay, off the train on her way to Palermo.

At this point, we foolishly decided that we might as well walk all the way up to Taormina itself – in spite of it being 650 feet above us at the top of a steep cliff. So, again in the midday sun, we toiled our way up the precipitous pathway, which in a couple of places had disconcertingly actually fallen down the side of the hill, leaving us scrabbling over some very slippery shale.

Eventually we made it up to the top, arriving in stylish Taormina in a hot, sticky, unkempt mess, where we rewarded ourselves with those traditional mountaineers' favourites, cannoli and coffee. Fortunately, the trek down was not nearly as hard work, although Tracy had to resort to crabbing down the slope on her bottom, over the most hair-raisingly skiddy parts of the path.

Nov 26 – The Reign in Spain is Mainly in Valletta

As we were sailing into Valletta's magnificent harbour at 10.30am, I was out on deck with a roving microphone, giving a commentary of what we were passing by. Not only is this the largest natural deep water harbour in the world, but it's also surrounded by an amazing array of huge bastions, imposing forts and massive walls that enclose the grand palaces and baroque churches built by the Knights of St John in the 16th-18th centuries. Everything is made out of golden limestone, which was positively glowing in the hot sun - this has got to be one of the most impressive settings for a sail-in in the Mediterranean.

Being a former British colony and military base, Malta is has a lot of British shops, which meant that Tracy could stock up on a few British essentials, while I went on a search for wine gums.

By chance, it turned out that the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, was in town on a state visit, so we went to the square in front of the Presidential Palace, to await his arrival. From living in Spain, we know that it's considered bad manners to arrive anywhere on time, so of course, he was running 20 minutes late. It was by now, midday and absolutely boiling in the sun, as we slowly roasted, and the hundreds of Maltese schoolchildren began to wilt. Even the guard of honour were feeling the heat – 2 soldiers literally had to be carried out as their knees buckled in the heat.

Eventually Juan Carlos turned up, so we got to see him inspect what was left of the guard, and we listened to the military band play the Spanish and Maltese national anthems (the jaunty Spanish number seemed to win the competition for the best tune).

After all this excitement, we found a cool (trendy cool and most importantly temperature cool) café for lunch, and then went for a bit of culture in St John's Co-Cathedral, the main church of the Knights. The Cathedral has a fantastically ornate baroque interior, and its floor is lined with the marble tombstones of the Grand Masters, decorated with a bizarre mix of cheerfully chubby cherubs and menacingly macabre skeletons. The highlight for us, were two wonderful masterpieces by Caravaggio – the longer you looked at them, the more interesting they got, as you noticed the subtle messages Caravaggio intended with his carefully arranged composition and lighting.

Nov 25 - Tunis

We went to the wonderful Bardo Museum to see its world-beating collection of mosaics, from ancient Carthage and the country's many other excellent Roman sites.

After that, we went to the atmospheric Medina, a labyrinthine warren of alleyways lined with stalls selling carpets, gold jewellery, leather goods, souvenirs and all manner of things we didn't need. The place was quite crowded and noisy, which can make it seem quite an intimidating place if you've never experienced it before, so most of the passengers, who stuck to the tour guide like glue, even when he took them into his favourite carpet shop, and let the owners give them the hard sell.

To avoid the constant sales pitches, we went through the Medina and emerged out the other side, into a different world of wide boulevards, elegant colonial buildings, sophisticated pavement cafes and normal shops. This was the "nouvelle ville" laid out by the French in the early 20th century, and it's really the heart of modern Tunis, rather than the Medina, whose shops and stalls seem mainly to be aimed at the tourists.

Walking around here, no-one hassled you, and the atmosphere was actually fairly European – at the very least, it reminded us of the most westernised bits of Istanbul.

On the way back to the ship, there were lots of well-fed sheep being taken for a walk along the streets of Tunis – the poor sheep looked perfectly happy, and were unaware of their imminent fate. All those sheep were going to be for the chop in two days time, for the feast of Eid, when it's traditional that most families will slaughter a sheep and have a big feast.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nov 23 – Naples

As we have an overnight in Sorrento, we removed all valuables and jewellery from our persons, and decided to make the trip to the chaotic urban jungle that is Naples, just over an hour's train ride from Sorrento.

Naples is a remarkable city – at turns hugely impressive with its grand aristocratic buildings from the 18th and 19th century, and at other times, fairly depressing with its run-down, graffiti-ridden, rubbish-strewn, traffic-clogged streets.

As you walked around the frenetic and crumbling streets of central Naples, the atmosphere and environment weren't massively different to what we'd experienced in Alexandria a week or so before. Both are cities in an amazing natural setting (Naples in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius), with a glorious past, that are falling a long way short of their potential. Naples is being held back by organised crime in particular – the Camorra (the Neopolitan version of the Mafia) hamper any efforts to improve the dilapidated urban environment.

You wouldn't say that Naples is a pleasant city to explore on foot, the pavements are fairly uneven (you also have to dodge the motorbikes who decide that its quicker to drive on the pavement than the road), the rubbish collections are very irregular, and crossing the road is a life-threatening experience.

We eventually made it to the fabulous Archaeological Museum, an oasis of culture and calm, surrounded by continuously hooting traffic. The museum contains the treasures of the Farnese collection – a wonderful ensemble of Roman sculpture that's so high in quality that it has to be seen to be believed.

The museum also contains some of the wonderful finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum – the intricate mosaics are so good, they look like contemporary paintings, and some of the bronze statues are spooky in their lifelikeness. We visited the saucy Gabinetto Segretto, a room full of Roman porn so rude it would make Hugh Hefner blush. This collection of graphic ancient erotica used to be kept under lock and key, to protect the public from its corrupting ways, but you get a feeling that a city like Naples can't get any more corrupt, so it's open to all.

After the museum we needed to revive our weary feet with another Neopolitan institution, pizza. Naples is the home of pizza, and Tracy had probably the best pizza of her life, while my pizza disappointingly turned out to be a "bianco" (no tomato sauce), so I spent a whole meal suffering from pizza-envy.

Scarcely able to move after over-indulging, Tracy led us off on a shoe hunt. We got the metro to a high class district called Vanvitelli, which seemed like a world away from the chaos of central Naples. Here we entered a civilised upmarket area where order had been restored – if you lived up here, I'm not sure you'd venture into Central Naples very often.
Just when we were thinking that Naples might not be such a bad place to live after all, we made the mistake of catching the metro back to the train station in rush hour. After a frustrating, sweaty and slightly scary 40 minutes of train delays and extreme overcrowding, we eventually made it back to the station to catch the train back to Sorrento – it makes our memories of commuting in London seem not so bad after all.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nov 22 – When in Rome…..

When in Rome on a Sunday, do as the Romans do, and go to church.

Today is turnaround day, as a new set of passengers get on in Civitavecchia. Normally, being lazy, we decide that we don't have enough time to get the train to Rome and back, before we set sail again - but this time, we thought we'd give it a go.

As it turns out, when you factor in the time getting to Civitavecchia station, waiting for a train, and then the 75 minute ride into Rome, that only gives you a little over 3 hours of Rome time, which does mean that it's not the most relaxing "day" in Rome.

Inspired by our visit to the Holy Land, we decided to visit a couple of churches that we haven't been to. We first went to the enormous San Giovanni in Laterano – this is the second most important church in Rome, being first founded by Constantine the Great in the 4th century, and it's Rome's Cathedral. The huge bronze doors that I'm standing next to were originally from Ancient Rome's senate building.

Next we went to the La Scala church, which was full of devout pilgrims. The church reputedly features the original marble stairway taken from Pontius Pilate's palace in Jerusalem – the stairs that Jesus would have walked down, before he was crucified.

Being pretty holy, you're only allowed to climb the stairs on your knees, which means it's fairly slow progress for the pilgrims who inch their way up the steps, deep in prayer. Being pushed for time, we fancied a power walk/kneel up to the top, but unfortunately our progress was blocked by the slow-moving faithful.

After this, we went to the Santa Croce in Gerusalemm church (twinned with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that we visited in Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago), which is stuffed full of memorabilia fetched from Jerusalem in the 4th century by St Helena. It features among its many relics, a bit of the true Cross, some nails from the cross, some thorns from Christ's crown, the inscription of the word "Nazarene" from the Cross (written on Pilate's instructions in Latin, Greek and Hebrew), and most bizarrely, the very finger that St Thomas inserted into Christ's side when he was in his Doubting phase (they never explained if the finger was removed before or after Doubting Thomas's demise).

Having done this whistle-stop tour of all things holy, we embarked on another Roman institution – pizza! We're going to venture into the home of pizza, Naples, tomorrow, so our pizza consumption was purely in the interests of research, so we can compare and contrast. Naples is going to have its work cut out to beat today's offering though!

Nov 21 – Capri

From Sorrento we took the hydrofoil for a visit to the exclusive island of Capri. Capri isn't usually my favourite place, because when I've been in the past in the height of summer, I've found it a little overcrowded, totally overpriced, and fairly over-hyped. But at this time of year, there are hardly any day-trippers, and most of the luxury boutiques have shut up shop until April, so it's a much more relaxed and less superficial place to be, and you can enjoy its natural beauty without too many other distractions.

We went up to Anacapri (the town above Capri Town), and then went even further up, by taking the slightly hair-raising chairlift up to the top of the island's highest mountain. The views from the top were unbelievably breathtaking, as you looked down a sheer cliff to the deep blue seas hundreds of feet below, with flocks of circling, squawking seagulls noisily riding the thermals up the side of the cliff. On the other side of the mountaintop, there were even more fantastic views of the rest of the island, seemingly floating above the haze of the sea – wonderful.

At the bottom, we challenged ourselves to find the cheapest lunch ever purchased in this millionaire's playground – we found a supermarket where we bought some delicious foccacia for a couple of Euros. I don't think the managers of the Gucci or Armani shops were regretting their decision to close up, with a couple of high rollers like us in town.

Nov 20 – Exploring Etna

Today we took an excursion up Europe's largest volcano (and one of its most active), Mount Etna. This dangerous beast dominates all views in South-eastern Sicily, and its frequent eruptions have repeatedly had devastating effects on the surrounding towns throughout history – we had our fingers crossed that today wouldn't be the day for its next display of power.

As we left Giardini Naxos (where the tender comes into for Taormina), Etna was covered in cloud like it didn't want to reveal its awesome size to us too quickly, but as we climbed up the winding roads, we emerged above the layer of mist, and we could see its summit smoking away malevolently in the distance.

Halfway up the slope, we reached the little town of Zafferana – this place was almost swallowed up by a lava flow in the 1990s, but was saved from destruction by some clever use of concrete blocks and explosives, to channel the flow away from the town. Just above town, you could see where the lava flow eventually stopped, in the back garden of someone's house, just yards away from devouring the entire property.

The pretty autumnal colours of the vineyards, citrus groves and forests, then gave way to a bleak lunar landscape of black, grey and red lava flows as the coach carried on up to the highest point you can drive to, the Crater Silvestri, 6,000 feet up. Silvestri, is a mini-cone at the bottom of the cable car, that takes intrepid skiers even further up the volcano, nearer its 11,000 feet summit.

It was an odd feeling to walk around the crater like it was just another tourist attraction, rather than a life-threatening experience, but the fresh alpine air, and the inspiring views above the clouds and across the island, banished all thoughts of impending doom.

In fact, our guide tried to reassure us by telling us that no-one had ever been killed by Etna's lava flow, because it always moves very slowly, so you should have time to get away – but she did also tell us later that people have been killed by "lava bombs", huge rocks blown out of the volcano in its periodic explosions.

At the end of our trip, we did a walk along the coast in Giardini Naxos – this is a fairly pretty beach resort which gets busy in the summer, but turns into a ghost town at this time of year. Our goal was to get to the train station, which features in The Godfather III, (we watched The Godfather I last night), but our hunger pangs meant we gave up before we got there – maybe next time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nov 18 – Mykonos

Our run of good luck with the weather continued, so we went on a shorter walk this time, to a beach close to the ship. Again, the gorgeous sandy beach was deserted, although fortunately one of the beachside tavernas was still open, so we just sat and had a beer as we enjoyed the winter sun.

The barman reckoned that the sea temperature only drops by one or two degrees over winter, but that seemed fairly unlikely when we dipped our toes into the water – no chance of a repeat of yesterday's swimathon today.

Nov 17 – Down to the Beach in Chios

As this was another unusually warm day, we decided to walk along the coast to the nearest sandy beach, at Karfas, which is about 5 miles away. 5 miles is obviously longer than we expected, and in a state of near-exhaustion after almost 2 hours, we nearly gave up on our trek, when all we could see was the island's ugly power station smoking away ahead of us.

Just as we were about to turn around, we flagged down a car to ask where this beach was, and it turned out that Karfas was just over the hill, about another 10 minutes further. On turning the corner, we found a beautiful deserted beach (apart from two moth-eaten dogs who befriended us), fronted by a small resort which looked like it had packed up for the winter a long time ago. As we sat on the beach, it dawned on us that this could be the last time we might go for a swim in the sea for a while, so I decided to brave the inviting waters.

As hot as I felt after the long walk, I wasn't quite prepared for the shock of how chilly the water was, but having called Tracy a chicken for not going in, I had to carry on. So, I inched in, trying to stifle the high-pitched yelps that were issuing involuntarily and trying hard not to hyperventilate. Somehow I managed a few minutes of frantic swimming, trying to look like it was great fun rather than a near death experience, while I unsuccessfully tried to coax Tracy into the ice bath.

When I emerged, I was so cold, but was glad to be able to boast to people back on the ship that I'd had a swim. This exhilaration quickly wore off when I realised that we had to negotiate the long 2 hour walk back, although at least it gave me a chance to warm up.

Nov 16 – Rhodes Acropolis

We discovered today that Rhodes on a Monday in November can be a very quiet place indeed. Unlike 2 weeks ago, there weren't any other cruise ships in port, and many of the museums shut on Mondays for the winter season. Fortunately no-one had told the weather that it was winter, and it was a beautifully clear, sunny day.

We trekked up Monte Smith, the hill behind Rhodes Town to visit the ancient Acropolis. This is pretty much all that remains of the classical city, which once would have been home to an Ancient Wonder of the World, the long-disappeared Colossus of Rhodes, and 100,000 people (only 60,000 live there now).

We visited the old hippodrome, a heavily reconstructed Odeon, and the remains of the Temple of Apollo, then we enjoyed the spectacular views along the coast from the top of the hill, before stopping for a delicious lunch in locals-only (apart from us) cafe.

If only the place could be as quiet and tourist-free as this for the rest of the year.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Nov 14th – Crossing the Green Line in Nicosia

From Limassol, we travelled to the centre of Cyprus, to visit the island's divided capital, Nicosia (or Lefkosia as it's known to the Greek Cypriots). In 1974, the Turks invaded Cyprus and occupied the Northern half (37% actually) of the island, ostensibly to protect the interests of the Cyprus's Turkish population who made up 18% of the population.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, Nicosia has been left as the only divided capital city in the world, with a depressing dividing line of army posts, barbed wire, blocked up roads, and a buffer zone of decaying and abandoned houses, running through the centre of the city, separating the Greek and Turkish Republics (actually, no country in the world, apart from Turkey, recognises the Turkish Republic of Cyprus).

Our Greek Cypriot guide gave us a fairly partisan account of the Turkish invasion and occupation – lots of talk of "illegal occupation", "stolen property" and "Turkish atrocities", so it was pretty difficult to come away not feeling sympathy for the Greek side.

We passed through the checkpoint at the Green Line, to pass into the Turkish side, and it was an odd feeling to think that you were in the same city, with pretty much the same architecture, food and look of the people, yet you had now passed into a different country and hotly disputed territory.

Things definitely didn't seem as well off as in the South, but really there was little difference, apart from the prayer calls from the mosques, competing with the bells from the churches in the South. The most interesting building was the Gothic former cathedral of Saint Sofia, which is now a large mosque – an odd experience visiting what was obviously a medieval cathedral, now whitewashed, carpeted and empty of furniture.

Nov 13th – Caesarea

From Tel Aviv, we drove up to Haifa, stopping at the ruins of ancient Caesarea on the way. After the Jewish Revolt and the demolition of Jewish Jerusalem, Caesarea became the most important city in Palestine, and one of the most important ports in the Roman Empire. In a huge logistical exercise, King Herod built an enormous Roman city and man-made harbour in amongst the sand dunes, with a 15 mile long aqueduct, a large theatre, a fantastic sea-side hippodrome and baths complex.

These are really interesting ruins to visit, with a fascinating story that incorporated Herod, Pontius Pilate, St Paul, the Byzantines, the Crusaders and the Ottomans, and the best thing was, that there were hardly any other tourists there.

After Caesarea, we drove up to Haifa where the ship was docked. Haifa is built on more hills (and steeper ones) than San Francisco, so we were glad we weren't doing this on foot. At the top of the hill, we looked down the beautiful Bahai Gardens, a series of hanging gardens that cascade down the hill towards the port. Bahaism is an obscure religion which has 5 million devotees around the world – they believe that all the prophets – from Buddha, to Moses, to Jesus, to Mohammed, were all linked and were followed by the founder of their faith Bahualla, who lived up the road in Akko. I don't really know much more about them, other than that they must have been very keen on gardening, because these are some of the most perfectly manicured gardens I've ever seen.