Saturday, November 15, 2014

November 16th - Flying Home

So, our voyage from the Mediterranean to Arabia is over. We've seen so many wonders from the ancient world, and visited some wonderful cities too.

We now have 6 weeks back in the UK, before flying to LA to join the Silver Whisper and the 2015 World Cruise.

November 15th - Looking Down On Dubai

Dubai is a crazy place whose existence seems to have no relation to logic. That they've been able to create the most modern city in the world in the deset sands - from nothing - just has to be admired.

Our first glimpse of that Toytown skyline from the sea is always an inspiring one, with the impossibly tall Burj Khalifa looking down on everything - it's so ridiculously tall that it doesn't seem real.

Our mission today was to get to the top of the World's Tallest Building (or at least to its Observation Deck which is "only" on the 124th floor of this 160-storey building). To get there, you need to pass by the World's Largest Aquarium in the World's Largest Shopping Mall, and then catch the World's Fastest Lift up to the top (shooting up at 10-metres per second). Visiting here is like browsing the Guinness Book of Records.

Once you're at the top, the views are breathtaking - lines of exotically-shaped skyscrapers (looking tiny from this lofty vantage point), ridiculously-shaped man-made islands sitting out to sea, and sand everywhere.

Last time we were here (in 2012), everyone was saying that Dubai was on its way out - the bubble had burst, the skyscrapers were empty and people were leaving. Yet, somehow the city's turned it around and it's back on the up again.

Whenever I come here, there's a slight feeling that it's all good to be true, that there's not much to back all these flashy buliding projects up. But, despite my cynicism, Dubai keeps growing and keeps building. What an amazing city!

November 13th – Muscat By Dhow

Oman's squeaky clean capital, Muscat, is a great place for a day trip – friendly locals, spotless streets, and an impressive blend of traditional and contemporary Arab architecture. But, seeing as I've seen most of the sights in town, today I chose to get a different persepective on the city – by boat.

Throughout its history, Oman has always been a great seafaring and trading nation (Sinbad was from here after all); and we were able to explore some of its coastline on a traditional wooden dhow – the type that Sinbad himself would probably have sailed in.

It was a relaxing, slow drift around, as the sun got hotter and hotter; but as we sailed, we saw so many fortifications and castles along that rocky coast – a formidable system of defences that allowed the Sultanate to have an empire as widespread as East Africa and India in the 19th century. We sailed past the impressive Al-Alam palace, framed between two historic fortresses built by the Portuguese when they briefly conquered Oman in the 16th century.

On our way back to the ship, we popped in at Muscat's well ordered souk (one of my favourites in Arabia), although again as I wasn't in the market for Frankincense (or Gold, or Myrrh for that matter), I didn't pick up any Christmas presents along the way.

November 12th – On The Frankincense Trail in Salalah

Perhaps I chose the wrong time to watch the film "Captain Phillips"; but, after four long days at sea past the pirate-infested waters of Somalia, the sight of any dry land was a pretty good sight. That was just as well, because it has to be admitted that Salalah is not the most exciting place in the world.

There's nothing wrong with Salalah, it's safe, clean and well-organised, but as a largely modern city, there aren't a great deal of sights to see in town, aside from its souk. So, I joined a tour which took us away from the city along the coast and into the mountains to see Job's Tomb.

Our first stop was to see the blow holes at the beautiful Mughsail Beach. At the end of the gorgeous stretch of white sand, the blow holes weren't blowing too hard (the sea was too calm), but they made an intermittent growling sound like the breathing of a distant dragon.

Next we ventured into the rugged hills behind the coast – on a hot and bone-dry day it was hard to believe that 2 months ago, these brown hills would have been a bright emerald green, as the scrubby vegetation would have burst to life in the 8-week long monsoon that waters this part of Oman. It's this unique microclimate that enables the Dhofar region to grow the rare Frankincense tree – a precious commodity in ancient times, that would have brought great wealth to Oman. Sadly, for the country, frankincense isn't worth its weight in gold any more, so our only glimpse of the fabled tree was in the far distance.

Our next stop was to visit Job's Tomb – the final resting place of the super-patient prophet. Our guide told us that there were rival Tombs for Job in Turkey and Syria, but he assured us that this was the real deal. Outside the tomb, inside a 5-foot high protective wall was what purported to be Job's footprint – a huge imprint in the rock about the size of a yeti's foot. Unfortunately, as I strained to look down over this improbably large footprint, my sunglasses fell off my head and landed right on top of the holy relics. As I wondered if I would be deported for jumping down there to get my glasses back, fortunately my ingenious guide got a stick to fish them out.

So, crisis averted, I was able to visit the tomb of the patient one. It was a very simple affair; but, befitting for a man who must have worn size 50 shoes, the grave was about 4 metres long – our guide told us that Job was a giant who lived until he was over 200 (which gave him plenty of time to grow).

Finally, we stopped in Salalah's souk – basically one big smoky showpiece for aromatic frankincense. Seeing as I wasn't in the market for frankincense (when would you use it?), I didn't spend too many Rials.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

November 7th – The Red Sea Submarine

After the long coach rides to get to Cairo and Petra earlier in the week, a three-hour trip each way to see the Valley of the Kings from Safaga didn't appeal. So, instead I turned my back on culture and history, and went mass-market instead, taking the touristy Red Sea Submarine in Hurghada.

Compared to the scruffy town of Safaga, the Red Sea diving centre of Hurghada is a sophisticated tourist resort, but it still has that dusty, unfinished look of so many Egyptian towns. Our guide told us that the town used to be a preserve of the German holiday market, but they've mostly been put off by the ongoing political uncertainty here. However, Russian holidaymakers don't seem so put off by political troubles, and so they now make up 75% of the resorts customers – as can be seen by the omnipresent signs in Russian all around town.

Even with the influx of Russians, it appears that Hurghada is still suffering, and at least half of its hotel beds are unoccupied. This gave the whole town a bit of a sorry, end-of-season feel to it – with large numbers of half-built and abandoned hotels littering its dusty streets.

However, we weren't coming here for the town itself, we were coming to see what was below the surface of the Red Sea, on a submarine trip. The company running the trip proudly boast that this is the only submarine in the Middle East (I presume they weren't counting military ones), and we were to descend about 15 metres below the surface to see what was down there.

Overall, I'd say that the trip was perhaps more interesting for the experience of being in a sub, rather than for the quality of the sights down below. The reef we were visiting, was mostly grey, so it was difficult to see how healthy it was, while the fish we saw were mostly silvery, rather than the fantastical shapes and colours that you'd expect of these tropical seas. However, the company did their best to generate some interest amongst what sea life there was, as divers went past our viewing windows scattering fish food, generating fishy feeding frenzies right in front of us.

I guess that the lack of colour down there and the lack of tourists on the surface, both reflect the ongoing problems for the Egyptian tourist industry. The fragile underwater environment that attracts the fish (and the tourists) needs to be better cared for, while the fragile state of the political situation in Egypt needs plenty of care before the tourists will return in significant numbers.

November 6th – A New Perspective On Petra

The Lost City of Petra is a place that warrants at least a three-day visit to fully uncover its amazing riches, but even in the short time we have on a quick day trip from Aqaba, it has enough over-whelming sights to warrant its title as one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World".

For me, the thing that makes visiting Petra so special is that the approach to it on foot, down the narrow Siq with the red rocks towering over you on both sides, really does make you feel like you're following in the footsteps of the ancients, and that you almost feel like you're re-discovering this Lost City for yourself.

As you stumble down this atmospheric canyon, your eyes having to adjust to the changes from light into shade, you constantly have to keep your eyes out for the horse-drawn buggies that come hurtling down the Siq at breakneck speed. Then, to show that modernity has come to even this most ancient of sites, they've now introduced golf buggies to silently whizz the most wealthy visitors down the Siq. It doesn't seem quite right to be approaching the fabled Treasury in a golf buggy – it rather spoils the Indiana Jones feel of the place!

But, however you get there, that first view of the Treasury, glowing in the sunlight ahead of you, really is breathtaking. I've been here a number of times, but it's still enough to put a spring in your step.

Actually, it inspired me to attempt to see a remote part of the site that I haven't been to before – The High Place of Sacrifice – a place where the emphasis is on High, going up a steep and rough pass up to the top of the tall hills that overlook the main site. At the end of a fascinating tour, our guide had given us an hour and a half free time – time that needed to include the walk back up the Siq, which would take at least half an hour to get back to our meeting point.

He said that the climb up and down the High Place of Sacrifice would take an hour to complete, which meant that I needed to do the hike extremely quickly. So, I pretty much ran all the way up there, my lungs bursting and my thighs burning non-stop, as I struggled to keep my footing up the weathered steps to this viewpoint. As I passed people coming down, I kept asking them if I was close – the reply was never less than a disheartening, "you've got a long way to go", until someone finally said, an encouraging "less than 5 minutes".

By now, I was a panting, hyperventilating mess, covered in sweat and scarcely able to take in the wonderful views I was seeing along the way. But, amazingly, I had got to the top in just 15 minutes (I read later that Lonely Planet said it would take 45 minutes). At the top, the sacrificial altar wasn't much to shout about, but, the views were indeed absolutely spectacular – looking across this massive site carved out of the rose-red mountains, it looked so barren and dry, that it was hard to imagine that at its peak, Petra would have been home to up to 50,000 people. There was an eerie windswept solitude up there, away from the crowds hanging around the Treasury.

After a couple of minutes catching my breath and soaking up the magnificent panorama, it was time to get back down. With gravity on my side, it was certainly easier on the legs, although the main problem was picking up too much momentum as I sped back down, almost out of control at times.

Petra looks good from any angle, but it was great to get a different perspective on one of the most stunning ancient sites in the world.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

November 2nd & 3rd – An Overnight Visit To Cairo

Egypt has been struggling to attract tourists over the last few years. It might have some of the most amazing ancient monuments known to man; however, the popular revolution of 2011, followed by the fairly disastrous Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi, then his ejection and replacement by the military, have left this chaotic country unstable and rudderless.

Order does seem to have been restored by President (General) Sisi, and it's hoped that the country can follow a peaceful path back to democracy – even if the formerly ruling party of the Muslim Brotherhood has now been banned. On our 2-day trip to Cairo, the country does appear to be taking a few halting steps forwards, but it has a long, long way to go before it can combat the poverty, the overcrowding, and the all-round chaos that has seized its populace and cities.

But, in spite of all its problems, this is still a magnificent country to visit. Its frenetic streetlife makes any coach trip a window on some fascinating spectacles and people watching, while the ancient sites are simply the best in the world. We drove from Alexandria to Cairo, getting to experience the "anything goes" road rules of Egypt – overtake/undertake any way you like, stop anywhere you like, squeeze five lines of traffic into a road designed for 3 lanes, and above all, use your horn as often and as loudly as you possibly can.

From the stop-start white knuckle ride to Cairo, we paused to get our breaths in the sumptuous surroundings of the Mena House Hotel in the shadow of the Pyramids, built by the Khedive Ismail in the 19th century to house his VIP guests from the royal houses of Europe. After being treated like royalty and eating like Kings, it was time to move on to the Pyramids, where our bus and tickets were checked by 4 different people, one after the other. The country may suffer from massive unemployment , but the bureaucracy of the pyramids seem to be providing employment for a good number of people.

The thing about visiting the pyramids is that there's two sides to it. On the one hand, you're put in awe of man's achievements, as you feel small standing next to these enormous 5,000 year-old masterpieces of geometry and engineering; and, on the other hand, you wonder where it's all gone wrong, as you're constantly assailed by desperate hawkers and touts trying to sell you rubbish or get you to ride their camel. All the while, the chaos of modern Cairo appears to be getting closer and closer, its array of ugly brown, unfinished buildings cloaked in a haze of pollution and dust from the desert.

Nevertheless, there is a real magic to standing next to the pyramids, especially once you get beyond the line of hawkers and tourists, and you go to the other side of them without anyone else there. The battered features of the Sphinx in front of them – looking towards Cairo in a standoff between Ancient and Modern - is a good summary of the march of time, and the best and worst of Egypt.

It was now time for a rest, so we headed to the opulent Four Seasons Hotel overlooking the Nile in the centre of Cairo – a beautiful hotel that was a real haven in this teeming city. Seeing all the eye-watering prices in the luxury boutiques of its glittering shopping mall was a reminder that Cairo is not all about chaos and poverty – there's some big money here too (just not spread very widely).

The following morning, we headed to the imposing Cairo Citadel to get some amazing views over the city below and to visit the beautiful Mohammed Ali Mosque, built in Turkish style to resemble Istanbul's Blue Mosque. A drive that would take 20 minutes in most other cities took well over an hour of inching through the traffic in a constant contest of wills and nerve between the drivers.

We then visited Old Cairo, the medieval part of the city that's home to many of the city's oldest churches, synagogues and mosques. We visited the Coptic Churches of St Sergius and the Hanging Church – both atmospheric churches that remind us that roughly 15% of Egypt's population is actually Christian (a population that was sidelined by the Morsi government).

After lunch overlooking the Nile, we inched towards Tahrir Square to visit the incomparable Egyptian Museum – home to many of the most treasured ancient Egyptian relics. In 2011 my heart had sunk when I read about the museum being ransacked during the revolution, but most of what was taken has since been recovered, and it appears that only 7 items are still missing.

So, the museum looks much the same as it ever did - slightly ramshackle with its treasures held in dusty cases. But, you don't need multi-media attractions or whizz-bang displays when your exhibits are as good as this. Staring into the eyes of the wizened old mummies of the pharaohs is unforgettable, while the riches of Tutankhamen's tomb are probably the most amazing and most impressive museum exhibits that I've ever seen. Unbelievable riches.

The only downside of a trip to Cairo, is that long journey back to Port Said, but when you've seen the amazing sights we've seen, you know it's all worth it. What a wonderful trip!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

October 31st – Benaki’d in Athens

Every time we come to Athens, someone tells us that we should visit the Benaki Museum. So, today we went to see what all the fuss was about.

The Museum was the private collection of a rich Athenian, and is housed in a huge neo-classical house not far from Syntagma Square. It houses quite an eclectic collection of ancient and modern Greek artefacts, cultural items and memorabilia, that quite clearly reflects Benaki's tastes – he clearly loved the Mycenaean culture (with some amazing pieces of gold jewellery), but can't have been interested in Greece's years as part of the Roman Empire (there's nothing from that period).

For me, it was the displays of ancient Greek artefacts where the museum was strongest, although its Byzantine displays, and collections of Greek icons would be great for the specialist, while the traditional Greek costumes would interest those who are more into cultural history.

I enjoyed the displays (and the rooftop cafe was great too), although I'd put this in Athens's second tier of attractions – to be visited once you've exhausted the riches of all the ancient sites and the splendid National Archaeological Museum.

October 30th – Discovering Santorini’s Past at Akrotiri

When you go to Santorini, you think of its gorgeous setting, of its stunning caldera, its white architecture and its black beaches. But, what most people don't tend to think of are its stunning archaeological ruins. However, today we saw some of the most interesting ancient ruins that I've seen in Europe – the 3,500 year old ruins of Akrotiri.

When Santorini's volcano blew in 1650 BC (the biggest explosion in recorded history), obviously there was no trace of the island's original inhabitants left – however, the remains of an ancient village were discovered in the 1960s, buried under deep layers of pumice stone, and what's been uncovered tells a remarkable story of a sophisticated civilisation out here in the Aegean.

I've been trying to visit Akrotiri for the last 10 years now, but every time I come here they've been shut – an accident at the site meant that it's needed a new roof for years now, and finally it's complete.

It was well worth the wait, because these ruins reveal a well-organised town of about 5,000 people living in multi-storey houses and enjoying an advanced sewage system. That might not sound very glamorous, but this was at the same time as most of the rest of Europe was living in caves or in rudimentary wooden huts.

The Greek government has clearly spent a lot of money on this, covering it all with a high-tech roof, and it's all very well done, so that you can walk around those ancient streets and get a good feel for the city they inhabited. What makes it even more amazing, is that they've only uncovered about 5% of the site, so that if more money becomes available there could be some amazing riches ready to be discovered.

Sadly, all the colourful frescoes that have been discovered here have either been taken away from the site or are undergoing restoration – so, we had to make do with the pictures that our excellent guide showed us of some amazingly skilful frescos that point to the population here living very sophisticated and harmonious lifestyles. The other thing that strikes you about the art is that there are no depictions of weapons or fighting – motifs which are recurrent throughout Greek or Roman art.

The whole site was way bigger and far more interesting than I'd been expecting – what a nice surprise. Santorini now has another wonderful attraction to add to its headline-grabbing sun, sea, sand and scenery.