Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cruising Over - Holiday Begins!

Today we leave all our friends on the Azamara Quest, and return from Athens to London. We'll be home for a couple of weeks, before we go off in our campervan to Northern Spain for two and a bit months. The plan is to drive down through France, then explore the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, before returning some time in October. We'll be keeping up with the blog on this Spanish Odyssey, so look out for it from August 5th onwards. See you soon......

Thursday, July 22, 2010

July 21st – Volos Villages

Volos is Greece's fifth largest city, but it was almost totally destroyed by a series of earthquakes in the 1950s, and so it had to be rebuilt quickly – hence, these days there's not really any history to discover here, and the city mainly consists of uniform concrete buildings.

Therefore, this isn't a place that will sustain a whole day's sightseeing, so the best thing to do here is probably take one of the tours out of the city. Having "done" Meteora last time, we took the trip into the Pelion Peninsula, the green mountains that surround the city. The mountain was strong enough to survive the earthquake, so its villages have retained their historic character, and seem a world away from the concrete jungle down below them.

We took the winding mountain road up to the village of Portaria – an atmospheric little place of fountains, babbling little streams and a distinctive mountainside architecture. On a blisteringly hot day like today, it's hard to believe that this place is covered in snow during the winter, and that there's a ski slope a bit higher up the mountain.

Then we went to the even more picturesque village of Makrynitsa, that clings onto the mountainside a little higher up. The village is known as "The Balcony of Pelion", because of the fantastic views it gives down to the sprawling city of Volos on the plain down below it. For some reason our guide gave people the choice of an alternative walk into the town, up a steep path that supposedly would take you up the top of the village and then down again. Seeing a few of the passengers take the path we decided to follow them – big mistake. The path didn't seem to lead anywhere other than up, and it just got steeper, rougher and more treacherous the higher we got. Seeing as some people were now really beginning to struggle, we volunteered to run on ahead to see if we could find a way down – we only had an hour before the coach left, and we'd already spend 20 minutes on the path to nowhere.

Finally we found a path that went downhill, although we had no idea if it would take us in the right direction – so, like a pair of clueless sherpas, we led our profusely perspiring party down an even rougher path which thankfully did eventually lead into the town. Once we were down there, it wasn't difficult to work out who'd taken the high road and who'd taken the low road – all of us had shirts that were soaked in sweat, while the rest of the group were looking fresh as daisies as they enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of this beautiful little village.

July 20th – Non-stop Talking At Sea

Another long day for the hardest working Destination Lecturer on the high seas.

6.30am – wake up, breakfast and prepare for narration through the Bosphorus
7.30 – 9.15 – on deck to narrate our passage through the Bosphorus and past Istanbul
9.15 – 10.30 – try to cool down and prepare for lecture
11.00 – 12.00 – Lecture on Volos and Kusadasi
12.00 – 3.00 – try to cool down, lunch and prepare for narration through the Dardanelles
3.30 – 6.15 – on deck to narrate our passage through the Dardanelles
6.30 – 9.30 - – try to cool down, dinner and sleep

July 19th – Thunderstruck in Varna

On another very hot and humid day in Varna, we walked from the ship, passing by the beautiful city beach with its fine white sands already fairly busy with holidaymakers by 10am. Last time we came here, one passenger complained to me that Varna was "a real disappointment – it felt very Third World". I think he must have visited a different Varna to me, or the bits of the Third World that he's been to are actually quite nice. Obviously, the 45 years of Soviet domination of Bulgaria, have left the country somewhat undeveloped by Western European standards, and the city centre is a mix of unimaginative Soviet-style concrete shops and a few run-down historic building; but it also has plenty of well-restored historic buildings and new modern retail developments too, that show that the country is definitely catching up fast with the West.

Thankfully, one thing that Varna hasn't caught up with the West on, is prices. We had a lovely low cost lunch in a decent restaurant – at these prices (and pretty cheap prices for property too, after the recent property bubble has burst), Bulgaria has now been officially added to the long list of places that Tracy wants us to move to.

We wandered the busy shopping streets, and then went to Varna's Number One cultural attraction – the Archaeological Museum. Varna has a long history – it was an important city for the Thracians, who lived here 4,000 years ago, then for the Greeks, then the Romans and Byzantines, before it fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, only finally gaining independence in the 1880s. The Museum had good displays on all these periods, curiously apart from any remains of the 400 years of Ottoman rule, which was even scarcely mentioned – maybe an unsurprising view of history given that the Ottoman rule here was fairly cruel and independence was very hard fought for. The highlights were from the so-called "Varna Necropolis", a find of gold jewellery in a burial plot outside the city which dates from Thracian times – amazing to think how beautifully crafted this gold jewellery was, and to think that it was created by a stone age civilisation at least 4,000 years ago.

By the time we finished here, we were ready for our cheap lunch, and unusually for us, we timed things absolutely perfectly with the weather. It had been getting steadily more humid during the day, and as soon as we had sat down, the heavens opened with some of the biggest drops of rain hammering down that I've ever seen – it was a downpour of biblical proportions. We smugly looked out of the restaurant windows as people sprinted to find shelter and got soaked to the skin in a matter of seconds.

In between showers we did a bit more shopping, but finally the rain looked like it had settled in for good, so we got the bus back to the port.

July 18th – Odessa’s Jewish Heritage

After a relatively late night last night, we were struggling to get up for our early tour today – a tour of Odessa's rich Jewish Heritage. Back in the 19th century, the Jewish Community here in Odessa was massively influential, they made up nearly 40% of the city's population, and Odessa was the third largest Jewish city in the world (after New York and Warsaw).

In this time, Odessa grew into a hugely wealthy city, and many of the town's leading businessmen and tradesmen were Jewish – 78 synagogues were built to service this thriving community. By the end of the 19th century the numbers of Odessan Jews began to decline because of persistent persecution and better opportunities elsewhere, and so large numbers of Jews emigrated to the US, Canada and Palestine. This was then followed by the Soviet Union, which banned religious worship, and then the holocaust of the Nazi occupation which murdered a large proportion of the population.

As a result, there are just 30,000 Jews left in the city, and just two fully functioning synagogue – many of Odessa's Jews are only just coming back to the faith (after Ukrainian independence in 1991) after so many years when they weren't allowed to freely worship. Having passed a few of the grand old synagogues which are still closed and in a pretty bad state of repair, we visited the small Shamrei Shabbos synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue which is once again becoming an integral part of the community. We spoke to one of the community leaders who was quite optimistic about the future here in Odessa (no plans to move to Israel – he thought most Jews who would go have gone), although he did feel that there was a small amount of latent anti-Semitic feeling amongst a minority of the population (although there hadn't been any bad incidents).

Next we went to Odessa's large main synagogue, which has recently been refurbished – a lot of money has been sent back to Odessa's Jewish community by émigrés who had made their money abroad; and then our final stop was at the tiny Jewish Museum, in a dilapidated old apartment block across from the sparkling new Jewish Community Centre that was opened about a month ago. The museum was in an old family apartment, and had an odd collection of Jewish memorabilia and everyday household objects from the 19th and early 20th century. Bizarrely enough, it had a cardboard cut-out of a friendly Cossack on a horse, with the face cut out so you could have your picture taken as the Cossack – considering that the Cossacks had been behind many of the pogroms against the Jews, it seemed totally out of place.

Many of the passengers on the tour were children or grandchildren of Odessan or Ukrainian Jews who had left for the US – it was fascinating to hear their tales of what they'd been told about the old country, and the experiences of their parents, carving out a new life in the US.

July 17 – Going Underground in Odessa

One of the most remarkable facts about Odessa is that running underneath the city, there are about 2,500kms of tunnels cutting though the limestone rock that the city is built on – an enormous network of tunnels that would stretch as far as St Petersburg if they were placed end-to-end.

Tracy was relieved to hear that, unlike Rome or Paris, Odessa's Catacombs weren't tunnelled out to house the dead – instead they were the underground quarries for the limestone rock that the city has been built out of. Aside from being a fascinating site to explore, the added bonus of visiting the Catacombs is that they are cool – the temperature at the surface was a hot and humid 35 degrees, but once you'd descended into this underground labyrinth, it was a distinctly chilly 8 degrees down there.

We had driven about 10kms out of town to visit a section of the Catacombs that had been used by the Russian Partisans after the city had been captured by the Nazis in 1941. The Partisans would shelter in this dank and dark refuge, safe in the knowledge that the Nazis would never be able to find their way through the maze of tunnels, and then they'd emerge at night on sabotage missions to hamper the Nazi occupation force. Life must have been incredibly hard for the Partisans living underground in virtually complete darkness, knowing that the Germans were constantly trying to gas them out of their subterranean refuges, or to torture or bribe people to betray their whereabouts.

Even though the underground route for tourists is fairly well lit and marked, you could still feel that you were only one wrong turn away from spending the rest of your life groping around in the darkness trying to find your way out of the labyrinth – supposedly there are still the ghosts of lost Nazi soldiers wandering around the network of tunnels.

Our local guide for this tour was a tiny old lady, well under 5 foot (one of the guests rather unkindly said she was trying to work out which of the Seven Dwarves she reminded her of), but once we got down into the tunnels we could see why she'd been picked to lead our group. While most of us had to stoop our way around, she was able to breeze along without worrying that she was going to knock herself out at any point like the rest of us.

As we returned to the surface at the end of the tour, the heat and humidity began to rise again, and we stripped off the layers of clothing and emerged blinking into the bright sunlight. On the way back to Central Odessa, we stopped at the haunting Holocaust Memorial, erected in the square where 60,000 Jews had been gathered by the Nazis, stripped of their clothes and valuables, and loaded into trucks to be transported to some villages outside the city. There, they were crammed into large barns which were then set alight and they were all burned to death – when you're told such horrifying stories like this, then you began to understand why the Partisans were willing to put up with such hardships in the Catacombs to fight the brutal Nazi occupation.

That evening, we went out on the town in Odessa – Saturday nights here are incredibly busy and lively, so it was nice to be able to have an overnight stay here. Even better, this is a very cheap place to go out – beers don't cost much more than a pound, and you can go for a good meal out in a central restaurant for about £10 a head. As we headed back to the ship at around midnight, we were passed by quite a lot of the crew going the other way – they don't get much of a chance to let their hair down away from the ship, so they appreciated the overnight stay as much as we did. The reports back from their nightclubbing experiences are that the local girls are amazingly beautiful, and the beer is amazingly expensive – rather than $1.50 a pint in the bars we went to, it was $10.00 – sometimes it's good to be too old to go to nightclubs.

July 16th – Crimea’s Forgotten Islamic Heritage

From Sevastopol, we took a trip into the heartland of Crimea to visit a side of the peninsula's history that's little known about – its Islamic Heritage. When people think of the Crimea, most people think of the Crimean War, the battles of World War Two, or of its position as the home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. The forgotten side of the Crimea, is that it has a rich Islamic heritage from more than 300 years of rule under the Muslim Tatars (from the 14th to the 18th centuries) – longer than either the Russians or the Ukrainians have ruled the peninsula.

That the Tatars were largely air-brushed out of history, is down to the attempts of two of Russia's most ruthless leaders to wipe them out. First, Catherine the Great destroyed most of their mosques and palaces after the Russian conquest of Crimea in the 1780s, forcing 90% of the Tatars to leave; then, about 150 years later, Stalin forced almost the entire remaining Tatar population into exile in Uzbekistan straight after World War Two, where most of them were worked to death. After Ukrainian independence in 1991, about 250,000 Tatars have been allowed to return to their traditional homeland.

Therefore, it's amazing that there's anything left to see at all, of this once powerful people, but we took a trip inland to the town of Bachisaray to see the beautifully restored Khan's Palace, the home of the ruler of the Tatars. Much of the palace complex had been destroyed, but what remained was like a slightly less grand version of the Topkapi Palace – bubbling fountains, ornate latticework screens , and the tall minarets of the Khan's mosques. It's sad to think that this is all that remains of a sophisticated dynasty, but its reassuring to see that the Ukrainians and Russians are now appreciating the diversity in their heritage.

After the Palace, we went up into the rocky hills behind it, to visit the historic Uspensky Monastery cut into the steep rock face. The Orthodox monastery was allowed to function under Tatars, and it's now a place of much reverence to the Russian population of the Crimea, who flock hear to venerate its icons. Having toiled our way up the steep pathway up to monastery, it was amazing to see how groups of giggling local girls in their revealing vest tops and hot pants would transform themselves into devout worshippers in a matter of seconds, with a just a couple of scarves and sarongs – just as well, because there were five stern-looking Babooshkas revelling in their jobs as clothes police, delighting in telling off anyone who stepped out of line.

July 15th - Imperial Yalta

On another boiling day, we went on a trip to see the Imperial Palaces that were built in the beautiful countryside around Yalta. Our first stop was at the Massandra Palace, an attractive palace of turrets and ornamental gardens (now charmingly overgrown) that wouldn't look out of place in the Loire Valley.

In spite of its beauty, the palace was hardly ever occupied over the years. It had originally been commissioned by Count Vorontsov who died before he could use it, then bought and finished by Tsar Alexander III who died before he could use it, and then taken over by his son Tsar Nicholas II who evidently didn't want to risk it. Nicholas just used the Palace as a picnicking spot on his trips up into the mountains for hunting, so the Royal Family never slept at Massandra – not a bad position to be able to turn your nose up at a residence as palatial as this.

Nicholas preferred to spend his time at our second stop, the gleaming white Livadia Palace that he'd built for himself overlooking the sea. As this was our second time here in two weeks, we just soaked up the opulent atmosphere of the place. Our guide reminded us that after the Revolution, Nicholas asked the Bolshevik government if he could just retire here to his little palace at Livadia to live out the rest of his life as an ordinary citizen. I would imagine that Lenin and his colleagues considered that offer for all of a tenth of a second, before they signed the death warrants of the Romanovs.

After lunch, we explored Yalta on our own, passing the statue of Lenin that faced the busy McDonalds directly across the square from it – Lenin now is as out of step with the spirit of the age, as the Tsar was back in Communist Russia. We then climbed up the hill behind town to visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, with its golden onion domes gleaming in the hot afternoon sun. Our next task was to buy a birthday card for our godson ,Will – more difficult than you'd think in Yalta. Extensive searching revealed that there appears not to be a single shop in town selling birthday cards – I don't know if birthdays aren't particularly celebrated in Yalta. The one good thing about our search is that we came across the busy, and slightly grungy produce market behind town – it was nice to see the "real" side of Yalta, rather than just the holiday resort side of things.

As the heat got ever stronger, we decided to retire to a bar overlooking the incredibly packed beach and to watch the parade of sunburnt holiday makers passing by us in their swimming costumes – either supermodel stick thin, or pot-bellied darts player physiques, there appears to be no in between in the Ukraine.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

July 13 – Going Underground in Istanbul

We caught the tram over to Sultanahmet, Istanbul's oldest and most interesting district. Having covered off all the main sights previously, we wanted to see something a little different today. Most tourists to Istanbul will end up in the Basilica Cistern at some point, but they probably don't know that there's lots of other Byzantine cisterns that can be visited underneath this historic city. We went to the 1,001 Cistern – Istanbul's oldest cistern (built in the 4th century by the Emperor Constantine), named after the number of marble columns that support the vaulted roof of the subterranean cistern – the fact that there are only 224 columns shows that whoever named it wasn't very good at maths.

After the fall of Constantinople, the cistern fell into disuse under the Ottomans, and it became a huge underground rubbish dump – thousands of tons of centuries-old garbage had to be removed in the 1970s, when they decided to see what was down there. There were hardly any other visitors in this dank and eerie underground cavern, and although there wasn't really much to see other than soaking up the historic subterranean atmosphere, we stayed down there for a while just to get out of the searing heat above ground.

Having cooled down nicely, we went on a walking tour of Sultanahmet, passing the huge dome of the magnificent Aya Sofya, past the soaring minarets of the Blue Mosque and through the crowded Grand Bazaar, before returning to the ship. We've loved our time in Istanbul – this is definitely one of the world's great cities.

July 12 – Continent Hopping in Istanbul

Today we crossed continents and caught the 20-minute ferry over to the Asian side of Istanbul – which is home to roughly a third of Istanbul's 15 million population. It's strange to say it, but Istanbul's Asian side probably has a more Western feel to it than the European side – you see a lot less women in headscarves. Because there's more space here, there's also a much more relaxed atmosphere and a less congested feel to the place too.

Nevertheless, there are still lots of historic mosques to explore, particularly near to the ferry terminal, because in years gone by this was the starting point for the cross-country pilgrimage to Mecca for Istanbul's population. We wandered around the street markets, popped into the shops, did the shoes-off shoes-on-again manoeuvres at the mosques and looked across to the historic Maiden's island (the island that guards the entrance to the Bosphorus).

Near the ferry terminal, we could see the huge construction site for the Marmaray Tunnel – a rail tunnel that will link East and West, passing underneath the Bosphorus. With a budget of $2.5 billion, the tunnel is taking longer to dig than they thought – not only does it have to pass under one of the busiest stretches of water in the world, but they also keep discovering Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman artefacts as they dig.

We stopped for lunch in a large and very busy restaurant – basic, but delicious food. Whilst this may be one of the more Westernised parts of Istanbul, the sight of a scantily clad tourist (not Tracy) entering the restaurant reduced the waiters to an open-mouthed standstill. The lady then almost got trampled in the rush of drooling waiters to serve her – it made it pretty difficult for us more modestly dressed diners to get their attention to pay the bill.

After this, we crossed back to Europe again, caught the funicular up to Taksim, and then the Metro to Levant, home to one of the city's newest and poshest shopping malls. Once inside the refined ambience of the mall, passing the Harvey Nicholls and the other upmarket designer stores, you felt a world away from the pushy hawkers and earthy atmosphere of the Grand Bazaar. I must admit I prefer the organised chaos of the Grand Bazaar to the rather soulless and sanitised mall – it will be interesting to see which the Turks prefer in the long run.

July 11th - Istanbul, Walking the Bosphorus

After a few days off from sightseeing (and a very quick trip back to the UK), we've maybe lost a little of our stamina. This wasn't helped by the fact that I had to get up before 6am to narrate our sail-in to Istanbul. At that time of the morning I can barely breathe, never mind talk, but fortunately the magnificent sight of Istanbul's exotic minarets and palaces coming into view out of the morning haze made up for my early morning ramblings.

Having lazily retired back to bed post-narration, we finally set off at the crack of 11.30am. We caught a bus to Kurucesme (one of the former villages on the Bosphorus), and started a walk up the glorious Bosphorus. As we were proceeding, the waterside promenades were a buzz of activity - loads of men fishing for sardines, loads of boys doing spectacular dives into the waters, and then being swept downstream by the strong currents, before climbing out, running back and diving in all over again. As a backdrop to this, there was a constant stream of huge oil tankers and cargo ships sailing by - it made you wonder how clean the waters were for swimming, but it didn't seem to worry the fearless adolescent divers.

We stopped for lunch in Arnavutkoy, a former village of historic wooden clapperboard houses that wouldn't look out of place in New England. We decided on a cafe for lunch with loads of locals in, and ordered the menus. When we saw that the menus were only in Turkish, we asked a guy on the next table if he could help us order. He was very nice and obliged, but what we had failed to notice was that he was the size of a house and clearly had a much larger capacity than us. So, our light snack had somehow turned into a major meal, as platefuls of sausage-based dishes were whisked out of the kitchens.

Our walk continued, and we made our way to the narrowest part of the Bosphorus, where Europe and Asia are only 700 metres apart. The spot is marked by two Ottoman castles that were built in the run up to the siege of Constantinople in 1453. We explored the rugged Rumeli Hisari, the Castle of Europe, that clung onto the steep hill that lines the European side of the Bosphorus. Incredibly enough, this enormous castle, with walls that are 6 metres thick, was built in the space of just 4 months, the year before that final attack on Constantinople. It must have been obvious to the Byzantines that their number was up, as they saw this castle shoot up, strangling their vital supply lines with the Black Sea. We nervously walked the walls of the castle, which alarmingly didn't have any safety rails down the side - so we clung to the walled side, rather than look over the 60 feet drop the other side of us.

Having got over our vertigo, we carried on for another couple of miles past some more villages, before stopping for a well earned drink - unfortunately none of the cafes served a much needed beer, so I had to settle for a coke.

For our bus ride back to the ship, we were lucky enough to get a seat, because the traffic was moving at a snail's pace and it got incredibly hot onboard. Unfortunately the bus was by now crammed with people, many of whom wouldn't have recognised a deodorant if we'd hit them over the head with it - the smell on the bus was ripe to say the least. Finally, after 45 minutes of being cooked alive onboard the B.O. Express, we staggered off and onto the ship, for an evening of watching the World Cup.