Saturday, May 29, 2010

Spetses in May - Hedgehogs, Mad Dogs and Englishmen

We're having a lovely few days enjoying the sun and the laidback atmosphere of island life in Spetses with Tracy's Dad and his Mad Dog, Loppy. Loppy is a schitzophrenic - on the one hand, he is the most affectionate and characterful dog in the world, and then, every now and then, Mr Hyde emerges, and he barks madly at nothing, or chases someone on a moped, or faces off a dog three times his size (plus indulging in some other unspeakable acts).

We've been going for long walks in the hills behind town (guarded by Loppy of course), encountered a surprising number of hedgehogs waddling obliviously down the middle of the road, watched a lot of football, eaten a lot of Greek Salads, and drunk a reasonable amount of Amstel.

Now off to the island of Poros, to stay with Lisi, our friend from the Azamara Quest.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Next cruise.....

On June 10th, we'll be joining the Azamara Quest in Piraeus for 7 weeks of cruising round the Aegean and the Black Sea. See you then.....

21st May - Back On Dry Land (for now)

So, we have exchanged our life of luxury onboard, for 3 weeks in the idyllic Greek Islands, staying with Tracy's Dad in Spetses.

We dragged our huge cases around the port at Piraeus to the Ferry out to the Saronic Islands, relieved to see that they weren't still on strike, and caught the Dolphin for the 3 hour trip to Spetses.

Rather than the usual bright sunshine that normally greets us, we were met with threatening looking grey skies, that duly delivered a huge downpour and electrical storm later in the afternoon.

However, it cleared up enough in the evening for us to stroll into Spetses Town, to visit an untouristy taverna where a bunch of locals sprung into an impromptu jam session of bazouki, guitar and folk singing. You couldn't have an evening that felt more "Greek" than that.

We'll be here for 3 weeks until we get the ferry back to Piraeus where we'll pick up another ship for 7 weeks venturing around the Aegean and the Black Sea.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

May 18th – Corfu

Corfu is the one of the greenest and wettest of all the Greek islands, so I suppose we shouldn't have been too surprised when the heavens opened in the middle of our tour of the island, sending us scurrying back to the coach.

Before the rain came, we went to the Achilleon Palace, just outside Corfu Town – a neo-classical palace built by the tragic Austrian Empress Sisi. Depending on your viewpoint, she was either a high maintenance, self-obsessed neurotic depressive with an eating disorder; or she was one of the most beautiful women in the world (she had a 16 inch waist – not that that made her beautiful of course), who lived a tragic life in a loveless marriage, shunned by the establishment figures of the Royal Family. The similarities with Princess Diana are almost too obvious to point out.

Anyway, the Palace she built here in Corfu is certainly very impressive. The attempts at recreating ancient architecture and sculpture are a little too heavy handed for some, but I quite liked it – the only downside was that about 5 coach parties all descended on the palace at once, and the place got overrun.

So, we escaped the tourist hordes, and went into the hills to visit the monastery at Paleokastitsa, which is when the torrential rain hit, and I began to regret my decision not to bring a coat or umbrella.

Fortunately, our next stop was at a hilltop restaurant, where we had some delicious typical Greek food and wine, and once the sun had come out again, we could enjoy the beautiful views over the turquoise coast below us.

Our final stop was in Corfu Town, where we had a chance to see all the different architectural styles of the various occupiers of the island. The people who had the biggest influence on Corfu were the Venetians, who occupied the island for over 400 years, and their imprint is all over town – from imposing grey stone castles, to streets and piazzas that wouldn't look out of place in Italy. This "un-Greek" atmosphere was added to by the French who followed them, who built the arcaded set piece of the Liston – clearly inspired by the architecture of Paris.

The British were the next to arrive, and they left behind Regency neo-classical palaces, and of course, Britain's greatest contribution to civilisation, the game of cricket – Corfu Town's cricket pitch was looking a bit moth-eaten, but they do still play cricket here during the summer.

Another lovely day.

May 17th – The World’s Your Oyster in Dubrovnik

Today I took a tour out of Dubrovnik, and into the Croatian countryside, to visit an olive farm, and then an oyster farm for a delicious seafood lunch.

Our first stop was at the olive farm, which has a fully functioning 200 year old olive oil press, where they showed us the laborious processes that they used to go through to produce the oil. They harnessed a pony to the stone mill, who reluctantly (after a lot of coaxing) demonstrated how to walk around in circles to turn the stones and crush the olives. The mush was then put into a wooden press which was turned by hand (this time he got me to walk around in circles rather than the horse), and the oil trickled out into a stone reservoir in the floor, where the oil would separate from the water in the tank. Next, the oil at the top was scooped off and decanted into jars.

Just as we were feeling sorry for him, the owner explained that rather than going through this time-consuming process anymore, he actually sends all his olives off to a local co-operative, where they are pressed and processed by machine in a fraction of the labour that they went to in times past.

From here, we drove to the tiny medieval village of Ston, further along the coast. Back in the glory days of Dubrovnik, this was the second most important town in the Republic, when it was a centre of salt production. It was so important that they constructed a massive set of city walls, that pass over the incredibly steep hills behind the town, up to the fortress – I'm not sure whether I believe her, but our guide said that this is the second longest defensive wall in the world, after the Great Wall of China. Whatever you believe, it's an impressive wall.

Next we moved onto the main event – our visit to the oyster farm. As soon as we got on the boat, they got us tanked up on the local firewater and wine, before we chugged over to the olive beds, where they'd sent a wizened old 86 year-old man to row out to pick us some fresh oysters and mussels. You really can't get any fresher than this, so even though I'm someone who'd avoid raw shellfish like the plague, I thought I'd give it a go, and risk being poisoned.

As it turned out, they were lovely – if anything, the raw mussel was tastier than the raw oyster, although it did also feel a bit like I'd had a mouthful of seawater. If this wasn't enough food, we moved onto a local restaurant for yet more oysters (cooked this time), and platefuls of seafood pasta and squid ink risotto, washed down by more wine. At the end of a lovely day, it was a very quiet coachride back, as everyone slept off their food and drink.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

May 16th - Hvar

The stunning Croatian island of Hvar, sitting on the beautiful Dalmatian Coast, has become one of the most hip destinations in Europe these days, as the travel writers have struggled for new clichés in dubbing it the "new Madeira", the "new St Tropez", and the "next Ibiza". In fact, none of these titles really does the place justice, because Hvar has a very individual atmosphere, combining attractive Venetian architecture, with unspoilt landscapes of fragrant lavender fields and scented pine forests, with the laid back atmosphere of an island of just 12,000 people.

We explored the old Venetian port of Hvar Town, with its harmonious ensemble of 17th century buildings of pale limestone, looking remarkably grand for such a small place – the legacy of a time when this was one of the most important stopping off points for Venice's merchant ships on their journey to and from the Orient. We then trekked up to the top of the hill above the town, where the Venetians had built a large castle to protect the town from Turkish attacks, before following the coastline round to the town's Franciscan Monastery on a vain attempt to find a Tintoretto (quite why we were so desperate to see a Tintoretto after seeing hundreds of them in Venice, I'm not sure why).

After experiencing the teeming crowds of tourists in Venice and Dubrovnik, and the boredom of tourists that it engenders amongst the locals there, we were pleased to find that Hvar, out of the main holiday season, is a really laid back and charming place.

This place is so nice that Hvar has achieved the distinction of being the first place on this trip that Tracy has declared that she could live there – whether it would be too quiet for most of the year, and then too ridiculously busy and overpriced in July and August, will remain to be seen, but Hvar in May is a magical place to be.

May 13th to 15th – 3 Days in Venice

After a week of excellent weather, I guess that we were due some rain, so down it fell in Venice. Fortunately, most of the time, the heavens opened just as soon as we had stepped inside a museum or restaurant, so we managed to avoid the worst of it.

We met my sister Nicola in Florian's on St Mark's Square – the most exclusive and most expensive café on one of the most exclusive and most expensive squares in the world, so we were glad she was paying! We then went to the Correr Museum, which was almost worth the admission fee for the building alone; but if anything, the enormous and incredibly varied collection of sculptures by Canova, paintings by the Venetian masters, and the array of Roman archaeology, was even more impressive, not to say overwhelming.

After eating way too much pasta for lunch, we went to see the Doge's Palace, passing through a succession of grand rooms all declaring the glory of the Venetian Republic, when this was then the most important maritime superpower in the Mediterranean. When you see the enormous wealth of medieval Venice, its fall from grace is even more remarkable. You wonder how a city that was once the richest and most sophisticated city in the world, that was the trading capital of the world, and that was the absolute centre of the art world, can then become so sidelined, that it would scarcely exist at all nowadays if it weren't for all the tourists.

In fact, Venice seems to be sinking under the weight of all the tourists – all its major sights were jam-packed, while prices for food, transport and accommodation have all been ratcheted up to the maximum; yet somehow still the place is just about clinging onto its traditional historical charm.

We took Nicola onto our ship for a couple of glasses of champagne, which was docked conveniently on the Giudecca Canal, rather than out of the way in Venice's inaccessible port, and then we caught the vaporetto up the Grand Canal to find an out of the way restaurant. No matter how many times you've travelled up the canal, and no matter how uncomfortably packed the vaporetto is, there's still something magical about the journey up the Canal.

The next day, we shook off our hangovers and went to soak up yet more art, by visiting the Modern Art Museum in Ca' Pesaro, a huge renaissance mansion on the Grand Canal. The collection of eclectic Kandinskys, Chagalls and Klimts made a nice contrast to the classical Titians, Tintorettos and Veroneses that you see everywhere else in town.

After a pizza lunch, we caught the ferry to Isola San Giorgio Maggiore, to have a look around a church that Tracy had been studying as part of her History of Art course. On getting to the island, it turned out that she had in fact been studying a totally different church on a different island further down the canal. Nevertheless, the trip was well worth it to get the fantastic views across the city and the lagoon from the 60 metre high campanile.

In the evening, we went for a visit to St Mark's Square, supposedly to see the place free of tourists, at a time when all the day-trippers should have gone home. Amazingly enough, even at 11pm, the place was still busy with tourists – a sensation not helped by the fact that the tourists were being squeezed into smaller and smaller sections of the square, by the growing puddles engulfing St Mark's. Disconcertingly, water was bubbling up from all the drains on the square, and every time you stepped on a flagstone, water would seep up from the ground around its edges. I've never been to Venice when it was flooded before, and it was worrying to see just how close it is to a watery disaster.

Speaking of watery disasters, the next day it poured down consistently, which made us glad that we'd saved our visit to the Galleria Accademia until today. This is a fantastic gallery, but the enormous collection of Venetian masters was pretty overwhelming – by the end of it, we'd seen so much art that we could scarcely remember a single individual piece of it – anyway, the overall impression was that Venice must have been a fantastically inspiring place to any aspiring artist.

Overall, Venice was as inspiring for us as it's ever been – there was just one spectacular vista after another – but I got a greater impression of just how delicately balanced it is these days. The balance between the need for the tourist Euros to keep the place afloat and to help restore its crumbling buildings, and between the need to limit the overwhelming number of tourists who are in danger of overrunning the place, is in danger of tipping over. It also seemed like the balance with nature is getting increasingly unstable these days, as rising sea levels are in danger of swamping this architectural and historical jewel. But, Venice has survived so many things over the centuries, and still retained its graceful serenity, I'm sure it will continue to at least survive, if not thrive.

May 12th – Pula and Rovinj

Today we visited Croatia's beautiful Istrian Peninsula, an area with lots of Roman, Venetian and Italian heritage – in fact, to many Italians whose families left (or were forced to leave) at the end of the Second World War when the area was turned over to Yugoslavia, this should still be part of Italy.

In the morning, we did a tour to the beautiful little Venetian town of Rovinj, my favourite town in Croatia - a kind of "mini Dubrovnik", sitting out on a peninsula in the Adriatic. As you explore its maze of medieval backstreets, its baroque churches, and its monuments bearing the Winged Lion of St Mark (the symbol of Venice), this place couldn't really seem any more Italian. However, these days it's firmly Croatian, and they at least seem to be doing a good job in preserving the historic atmosphere of the place.

In the afternoon, we explored our port of call, Pula (Pola, back in Italian times). Here the most obvious Italian heritage was over 2,000 years old, dating from the times when this was an important outpost of the Roman Empire. The incredibly well-preserved amphitheatre here is the sixth largest in the world, and looks like a smaller version of Rome's coliseum with its three rows of arches and columns; while there's also an impressive triumphal arch, a stretch of solid Roman walls, and a Roman temple, all sitting in the middle of a busy modern town.

May 11th – Dubrovnik

The beautiful city Dubrovnik is one of those cities that's perfect for a day trip – there's so much history to discover, but it's only a small place, all enclosed within its imposing medieval city walls. The downside of this, is that throughout the summer, it's invariably packed with day trippers like ourselves.

Even though "only" 3 ships were in port (I've actually seen it totally overrun by 7 ships at once), the narrow historic streets were extremely busy with tourists, and the main street saw a constant procession of visitors – quite how the 50,000 people who live here cope with all this tourist mayhem is anyone's guess.

After some general exploring of Dubrovnik's gleaming limestone streets, lined with exquisite Gothic and Baroque palaces and churches, we visited the town's Customs House, the Sponza Palace. Inside the palace, there was an exhibition showing the damage that had been done during the siege of 1991, during the Yugoslavian civil war, in which over 2,000 Serbian artillery shells hit the city. When you see how spotlessly perfect Dubrovnik is today, it's amazing to think that all this damage hit the city less than 20 years ago. You can only hope that the pain and hurt suffered by all sides in the war has been put to one side by now, and that the bitterness isn't lurking below the surface – the constant references to Serbian "hostility" and "cruelty" suggest that the psychological damage of the conflict may take a lot longer to repair than the physical damage to the city.

Next we visited Dubrovnik's medieval synagogue – the oldest surviving Sephardic synagogue in Europe. Back in the Middle Ages, Dubrovnik was a relatively enlightened place by the (admittedly low) standards of the times, and they allowed Jews fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition to settle in the city, and to worship freely. Sadly, many of the Jewish families who'd lived here for centuries, were persecuted by the Fascist regime that ruled Croatia in the Second World War, and it was chilling to see a display of the yellow armbands they were forced to wear.

As we explored, it was plain to see that quite a few of the people in the tourist industry were suffering from a weariness of dealing with tourists (particularly the grumpy man in the synagogue) – as this is just the start of the main season, I dread to think how tetchy they'll be by September.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

May 9th – Windswept in Kefalonia

Today we visited Argostoli, the capital of the Greek Ionian island of Kefalonia.

Kefalonia has a long history of Ancient Greek and Roman heritage, in addition to being part of the Venetian empire for 400 years, and even being part of the British Empire for 50 years in the 19th century, but unfortunately, most of its history and heritage were destroyed in a massive earthquake in the 1950s. That means that the capital has a fairly modern look to it, but nonetheless, it's a pretty place, set in an enormous bay of turquoise and deep blue waters.

Argostoli's bay also seems to act as a wind tunnel, funnelling down the strong winds that blow in this part of the world; so even though it was beautifully sunny and warm, it was a day where you constantly had to hold onto your hat, as 40 mph winds howled across the waters.

We were blown down the picturesque waterfront to the Drapano Bridge, a low bridge built by the British in the days of Empire, and we attempted to make our way over the windswept crossing, to see the British Monument sitting in the water, commemorating the days when Britannia still ruled the waves. Then we ventured into town, to discover that Argostoli on a windy Sunday in May, is not the most lively of places – admittedly the pavement cafes did get steadily busier as the day wore on.

We visited the town's Archaeological Museum, which had an interesting collection of finds from around the island (reputedly, the best collection of Mycenaean pottery in Greece), and then went on a long walk to discover another relic from British times, the Lighthouse of St Theodore, housed in a striking neo-classical rotunda. At this point, the winds were making it difficult to stand up straight, never mind hear each other (even when next to each other), so we made our way back to the shelter of the ship.