Greek Isles cruise
My visit to the Greek Isles and Turkey last week started off badly.
Just as I was leaving the office on Tuesday to head home, grab my bags, and drive to the Des Moines airport, I learned that Chicago O’Hare had been shut down for several hours, effectively causing a cascading domino effect on flights nationwide.
Still, the DSM website insisted that my flight was still on time, and, indeed, it was still listed as on time when I arrived at the airport an hour later. Sadly, within a half hour of standing in the long and frustratingly slow line, my flight was cancelled. Two hours later, after no luck with the United gate agent finding me a flight – on any airline, through any combination of domestic and European cities – that would get me to Athens in time to board my cruise ship, my resourceful husband found a flight through Orbitz that would get me there on time.
All we had to do was drive to Kansas City.
So that’s what we did (thanks, Dave). I flew out the next day, not to Chicago and Munich as planned, but to Philadelphia and Zurich instead. I nearly missed my Zurich connection, which threw me into a full-blown panic, but I DID make it. They closed the door behind me. (I always hear stories about this, but it never happens to me.)
I made it to Athens on Thursday afternoon after having started out in Des Moines on Tuesday, and I was a wee bit tired and stressed out. So when I boarded my Oceania cruise ship Riveria, I cannot tell you how good my stateroom looked to me. I am not a cruise person at ALL, but this room had the comfiest bed ever, a seating area with a couch and chair, work area, lighted makeup mirror, a tub AND a shower, full balcony with lounge chairs, small dining area, and a walk-in closet. Plus, awaiting my arrival was a bottle of champagne chilling in an ice bucket, fresh flowers, a fruit plate, some small sweets, and a bottle of pinot noir. (How’d they know?)
Oh, and I had my own butler, which was nice but sort of creepy at the same time. I am not used to being pampered, and I’m uncomfortable with the whole idea of luxury.
As we cruised slowly out of Athens (goodbye, sorry I didn’t get to see you!) I went to a cocktail party hosted by our travel company. I thought the wine would taste great after such a long two days of travel, but instead it really just made me sleepy.
I’ve been looking at pictures of Santorini for years. They always look the same: the blue-domed, whitewashed buildings on the side of a hill, surrounded by more adorable whitewashed buildings, a blue sky, and maybe a hint of blue water. It’s always picture-postcard perfect.
The reality is that the island of Santorini is super crowded when giant cruise ships anchor in its harbor. But it really is picturesque, and there are literally hundreds of outdoor cafes within walking distance of the dock (once you figure out how to get up the giant hill – your choice of 500 steps straight up, cable car, or donkey).
What I took away from my Santorini tour is that the island was created by a volcanic eruption, so it’s not a green island but rather dark and rocky, which makes those white buildings look even prettier. Also that a lot of wine is produced on the island as well as cherry tomatoes.
After the tour, I found a café with the to-die-for view above and availed myself of the local cuisine and a glass of Greek wine. And then took a ton of pictures, many of which, upon review, don’t even look real. Santorini is a real-life Fantasy Island.
Another day, another Greek isle. This one offered an excursion to the Acropolis of Lindos, with its panoramic views and fabulous-looking ancient ruins dating to the 4th century BC. After walking the 297 steps to the top (this was according to the guide – I didn’t count them), I took a donkey back down part way. I did not have “ride donkey” on my bucket list, but I thought it would be fun, and it was. I laughed the whole time. I’m sure the donkey (“Maria”) didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. It did occur to me, afterwards, that when I got dressed that morning I probably wouldn’t have worn white pants if I knew I was going to spend time on a pack animal.
Our group ate lunch at a swanky resort en route to Rhodes Town, where we toured the Palace of the Knights, the Streets of the Knights, and walked through a lot of tourist shops and outdoor cafes.
It was a hot, sunny day, and I got back to the ship in the late afternoon smelling of sweat and donkey. All the Febreze in the world would not make my clothes fresh and ready to wear another day.
I ate breakfast in my room this morning, thinking it would be a luxury to eat out on my balcony, but the eggs were cold and the coffee was not as good as the yummy cappuccino in the dining room.
Today we docked in Kusadasi, and I took a tour of the nearby ancient ruins of Ephesus, known as one of the best-preserved ancient cities in the world. It rivals Pompeii, in my opinion. We toured the site, including the archaeological excavation of the Terrace Houses (above), decorated with ancient frescoes and mosaics. This was a cool place. Also, there were a lot of stray cats, which I enjoyed.
After the tour, I was forced to walk through a gauntlet of souvenir shops staffed by aggressive salespersons to get back to the ship in order to grab my iPad so I could check my email at a free wi-fi place near the dock. Turns out there were several, including a Starbucks with a rather spectacular view. I hung out there awhile, sending and reading messages, drinking great coffee, and enjoying the ambience.
After catching up on news from America, I wandered back through the shops and stopped for a local beer and some cheesy bread (Turkish pizza, left) at a smoky outdoor café called the Rainbow Restaurant.
Tonight I had a delightful meal on the ship in the Polo Grill, one of four or five high-end theme restaurants (and the only one in which I ever ate). I shared a table with two couples and also shared the bottle of wine from my room with them. Every course was tasty (the menu was meaty, so I doubled up on salads and veggies), especially the beet-and-goat-cheese appetizer and sautéed mushrooms.
I’m a party animal, so I was back in my stateroom by 8:30, ready for my jammies.
Even with a gazillion tourists, this place is awesome. There’s a charming scene literally around every corner. You could eat and drink and people-watch for days here and never sit in the same place twice.
The day began with a walking tour (including a stop at a café for a sampling of mezedes or Greek appetizers and a glass of ouzo), followed by, well, more walking. It’s a very walkable place. Every building is painted white, and the doorways, gates, and doors are all painted in different colors: bright blue, red, green, etc. It’s very pretty. You can walk the narrow streets, sidewalks, and alleyways and try to dodge the vehicles using the same spaces. Everywhere you look, there’s a sidewalk café (but different from Santorini in that this town is more or less flat) with cute little chairs and tables, and there’s a nice variety of legitimate, low-pressure, good-quality shopping.
I walked until I found myself walking in circles and seeing the same places over and over again (didn’t I just take a picture of that orange cat sitting on the blue chair cushion?), at which point I plopped down at a busy outdoor café overlooking the water and ordered myself a cappuccino and a piece of baklava.
The dessert was delicious and about the size of a paperback book. It was so large and yummy-looking that the woman sitting at the table next to me asked if she could take a picture of it. I ended up sharing it with the four people at her table, eating a huge amount myself, and STILL taking leftovers back to the ship.
On this, the next-to-last day on the cruise, I took an excursion to the Old Town area of historic Xanthi (above) on the Greek mainland. It’s basically a non-tourist town, which was something of a relief, but when several tour buses rolled in, that sort of ruined everything.
We took a walking tour of the city’s architecture, which was pretty cool, and bought pastries at a local bakery.
Afterwards, I took a nap.
Today was the day I was really looking forward to. I’ve wanted to visit Istanbul for a really long time.
Our ship had been docking (or anchoring, depending on the location) by 8 a.m. every morning of the cruise. In Istanbul, we didn’t arrive until noon. I was chomping at the bit to get there.
But as we finally sailed slowly into the harbor, we had the most spectacular view of the city! I think Istanbul must have the most beautiful skyline of any city in the world, with its mosques and other historic architecture contrasted by more modern buildings in the “new” part of the city. I took dozens of pictures from the deck and from my private balcony of the famous Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and other wonderful buildings – it was a perfect view (above).
My first excursion promised to show our group “Ottoman essentials” and a peek at the Grand Bazaar. Unlike the other tours, this one was slammed with traffic not unlike New York City or Chicago. But the street scenes were very different, and even the sounds – like the calling to prayer – and the smells were unique. We were really in Turkey!
We visited a museum called the Topkapi Palace, located where the Acropolis of Byzantium once stood. I found it very crowded and spent my time wandering through the series of courtyards – but our guide said it really wasn’t busy, if you compared it to the real tourist season in the summertime. (He also said the traffic wasn’t so bad.)
We walked from the palace, past the Hagia Sophia, to the Blue Mosque, built in the early 1600s. As I sort of expected, the mosque looks more beautiful from a distance, when you can see the whole thing. Up close, it’s still pretty impressive. We were able to go inside (shoes off, heads covered with scarves) and see the gorgeous tiles in place over every surface of the walls and the many domes of the ceiling (above).
Last stop on this tour was the Grand Bazaar. I had not done any shopping on the trip, thinking that I’d find great stuff at great prices at this enormous district filled with more than 4,000 shops. As it turns out, I didn’t really have enough time to spend there, and I don’t shop well under pressure. The shops are repetitive: carpets, gold jewelry, scarves, leather goods, sweets, souvenirs. The jewelry was either very expensive or very cheap. I liked the look of the place, but wished like hell I’d shopped in sweet little Mykonos a few days earlier when I had time and the shops were friendly and varied.
Our tour lasted about four and a half hours, at which point the bus dumped us off at the cruise terminal. I hustled back to the ship for a quick bite to eat, then it was back to the terminal to hop on another bus for my “Istanbul by Night” tour.
This was an interesting three hours (7:30 to 10:30 p.m.).] I think I would have enjoyed it more if I weren’t already worried about having to get up at 2:45 the next morning and traveling 24 hours to get home.
This mostly-walking tour took us to three sections of Istanbul. The first was a walk across a fishing bridge with great views and lots of lower-end restaurants, followed by a visit to a mosque. Back on the bus, we drove to an area called Kumkapi (above). Wow – it seemed like so much fun. It was an outdoor-dining area just filled with one fish restaurant after another. People were eating, drinking, laughing, talking…the place was filled with music and a generally celebratory mood. It pretty much killed me to just WALK THROUGH this place and not stop for food and drink. Our next stop, in the newer part of the city, was similar in the sense that one restaurant was jammed up against the next, and everyone was enjoying their food and drink. They stared us as we walked through, led by our guide carrying the ever-present sign on a stick.
SO THAT WAS MY TRIP to the Greek Isles and a teeny bit of Turkey. It was too short, too superficial, and didn’t allow for drinking, dining, and strolling in the evening (the ship departed by 6 p.m. each evening except for the night in Istanbul). However, it gave me a nice taste of what there is to see in each of these locations, and a cruise is probably the best way to see the islands anyway. I’d now like to go back to Istanbul on my own.