- Home > Archive: November, 2009
Leaving Istanbul, we had a short stop at the Greek island of Mykonos. We boarded one of the ship’s small boats, or tenders, and rode to shore.
I hadn’t heard much about the island before, but Mykonos was quite a pleasant surprise, featured on many postcards and calendars — tightly packed whitewashed houses, blue roofs, steep streets, and picturesque windmills. We stopped at a dockside café to have lunch…which turned out to be the best meal we’ve had on the entire cruise. Sitting outside, we ordered a wide range of local dishes and enjoyed every single one: olives, Greek salad, hummus, Greek spaghetti, chicken gyros, marinated anchovies, fried cheese, as well as grilled octopus and fried baby squid (so we could say we had many-tentacled things, many tentacled things, and mini tentacled things). Rebecca’s mom was reluctant to try the odd dishes, but she slipped pieces of octopus to the friendly feral cats rubbing around our ankles. After the feast, the waiter served me a glass of local ouzo (just to get more into the Greek island culture) and then with great ceremony gave us each a tiny thimble-sized glass of a Mykonos digestive concoction. We walked around the shops for a while, though many places were closed for the season. The streets were immaculately clean, swept daily.
It was the complete opposite of Port Said in Egypt, the following day (Thanksgiving). Port Said is the city at the Mediterranean mouth of the Suez Canal, and is dirty, ramshackle, the streets piled with garbage and rubble. Several other friends who’ve visited Egypt had described it as a dirty, dusty place, but even forewarned we were shocked at how filthy it all was. Canals piled high with rubbish, sewage, litter everywhere and not a garbage can to be found. Aboard the ship, we had received written warnings, warnings on the TV programming, and verbal warnings not to consume local food or water unless it came from a place that had been vetted. Much hand sanitizer was used that day.
Our tour buses had a police escort out of Port Said to Cairo, and an armed security guard sat on every bus. On the more than three-hour bus ride, we passed dozens of police checkpoints on the way to Giza and the pyramids. The first archaeological site was the stepped pyramid of Sakkara out in the Sahara — definitely imposing, rising out of the stony sand, surrounded by other ruins. It had been constructed out in the wastes, not far from the lush Nile valley. We saw camels and asses, and the ubiquitous hordes of locals trying to sell us the same pack of postcards, the same trinkets (many of which still bore “Made in China” stickers). All day long we heard the unrelenting “One dollar… One dollar… One dollar… One dollar… One dollar… One dollar…”
Then it was off to Giza and the main pyramids and the Sphinx. One of the biggest surprises to us was that the classic three pyramids, surrounded by sand in all the photographs, are right inside the Cairo/Giza city limits, surrounded by the urban skyline. The Great Sphinx looks across the street at a KFC and a Pizza Hut.
The pyramids took our breath away, the size and mass unlike anything we had seen before. Rebecca and I, along with her Dad, got our pictures taken on camels, then we went for a rather wild camel ride. We saw the Great Sphinx — which was smaller than we thought it would be — and learned that, even though Napoleon generally gets the blame for using a cannon to blow off its nose, the damage was done well before Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt, apparently by a fundamentalist who tried to blow up the image.
On the three-hour ride back to the ship, one of the other buses in the convoy ahead of us was damaged in an accident. Fortunately, a backup bus was only minutes behind; security swooped in, got all the passengers off the damaged bus and onto the other one, then the convoy moved off again. Reb and I played Farkle on her iPhone. Back at the ship in Port Said, 2500 people were trying to get aboard at the same time; Egyptian security soon gave up checking everyone’s passports and let us through with a cruise ship ID card. Even though it was a long and tiring day, and we were all sweaty and dust-encrusted, we marched up to the dining room — Thanksgiving turkey, after all. Afterward, it sure felt good to clean up and change clothes.
The following morning we arrived in Alexandria for a short stop. I woke up with a cough from all the dust we had breathed at Giza. Reb and I had booked a brief tour, even though it as a Muslim high holiday and most of the businesses were closed. We did, however, get to go into the new Library of Alexandria, then out to a massive fort built at the opening of the harbor, where once had stood the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. I drew lots of good ideas for the third Terra Incognita novel…in fact, this whole trip has been terrific research and inspiration. After stopping by the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, we returned to the port, where Rebecca wandered among the numerous vendors selling ridiculous trinkets, and I dutifully followed her, shaking my head as she bargained away to her heart’s content.
The next couple of days will be at sea, heading back to Rome. So far, I have managed to complete my D&D novelette and put together a lot of the pieces for the outline of the third Terra Incognita novel, while Reb and I are plotting the next Star Challengers book. But the schedule has been so hectic until now that we haven’t had much downtime to think about stories. We’re looking forward to a lighter schedule, then the hotel in Rome, and the flight back home.
Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul — I’ve wanted to see this place since I was a kid reading adventure stories…the epitomy of exotic lands. Photos of the jaw-dropping Blue Mosque on the harbor with its piles of domes and fairy-tale minarets inspired a lot of my fiction, particularly recent books like Crystal Doors: Sky Realm and the Terra Incognita novels.
And the city certainly didn’t disappoint. As the ship pulled in at sunrise, I went off to get coffee for us, and I saw the giant orange sun rising out of the mists on the eastern horizon. From our cabin balcony, we watched the arrival in port with looming domes and towers mixed in with modern buildings. With our breakfast Reb and I each ate one of the oranges that Kostas had picked for us in Greece, then we joined Mom & Dad for the tour.
The Blue Mosque was one of the most enormous and ornate buildings I have ever seen. We took our shoes off (on the wet marble steps because it had rained the night before), then carried them inside with thousands and thousands of tourists. Even so, the place dwarfed us.
From the Blue Mosque we walked to the underground cisterns, a huge subterranean grotto filled with water and fish and sculptured columns (apparently a scene in “From Russia with Love” was filmed here). Then we went to St Sofia, a large Eastern Orthodox cathedral that was converted to a mosque and then converted to a museum. (The biggest attraction there was the bathrooms, since we had been walking around for hours and the line stretched around the building.) Next stop was the Topkapi Palace, the sultan’s home with extensive grounds, harem, many state jewels on display, an old library, and a museum of “sacred relics.”
For lunch, our group gathered at an “Ottoman home” (really, a bed & breakfast), where we were served a traditional lunch of eggplant, beans, stewed lamb, salad, baked rice pudding, and incredibly strong tea. Afterward, we saw a demonstration on Turkish rug weaving, then were turned loose in the Grand Bazaar. Outside, the tourguide warned everyone about scams vendors run, how they pick pockets or steal credit card numbers. Forewarned, we wandered in the shops, which were very interesting.
It was an early morning — Rebecca and I left for our tour of Pompeii, Sorrento, and Capri at 7:15 AM (after a rushed breakfast in the buffet). We boarded one of eight buses and rode from Naples to Pompeii, where we wandered the astonishing ruins in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. The air was filled with a pall of smoke…nothing to do with volcanic eruptions, just agricultural fields being burned. Pompeii was as incredible as I had hoped it would be.
Next the bus drove along the rugged and beautiful coast to Sorrento where we had lunch, then climbed down a long series of rugged cliffside stairs to reach the boat dock and the jet boat for the isle of Capri. On Capri, the funicular — a very steep cog rail — carried us to the mountaintop (filled with ridiculously expensive shops). Rebecca and I sat down and ordered a dish of gelato — $22! We had wanted cones, but the proprietor told us to have a seat and eat it there…little did we know that sitting down cost an extra $10!
Reb and I got back to the ship less than half an hour before it sailed, taking a jetboat from Capri to Naples. GI JOE was playing on the open-air screen at 10 PM, but I didn’t bother staying up. We slept in for the at-sea day, and I did some writing and relaxing; I worked out in the gym — a challenging prospect on choppy seas, with the boat rocking back and forth. Then I attended a maddeningly dull lecture in the afternoon (supposedly about the history of the crusades, but the speaker spent only about five minutes on topic).
During the flight and snippets of downtime, I wrote the draft of a Dungeons & Dragons novelette — a bit more monsters and mayhem to go, and I’ll be finished. Rebecca is editing our first “Star Challengers” book.
ATHENS & EPHESUS
In Athens we arranged for a taxi to take us around to the sights for the day. Our cab driver Kostas was quite a character, and he showed us everything we could possibly have wanted to see. We drove out to Corinth to see the amazing canal cut across the Peloponnesian Peninsula in the 1860s, then saw some ruins and a place where the Apostle Paul lived (and where he wrote his letters to the Corinthians), then we went up to a gigantic Venetian castle on a mountaintop. Kostas even pulled off the side of the road, ran to some wild orange trees, and picked us a bag of oranges to eat.
Then he drove us back to Athens and took us one of his favorite local restaurants. We had tzatziki, octopus, stewed fava beans, baked fish, greek salad, greek vegetable soup, spanakopita, and saganaki. We went to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, the Temple of Nike, Mars Hill where Paul preached to the Romans. Next was the Olympic stadium, the Arch of Hadrian, the Temple of Zeus, and then up to another high point where the Church of St George overlooks the city. Lots of smog, lots of incredible white marble buildings.
We watched the highly stylized changing of the guard ceremony in front of the president’s palace, and it reminded us of the “silly walks” skit from Monty Python. Kostas drove us around the winding maze of streets in the old town market district, and we were trapped there for a while, with streets blocked, alleys so tight the cab fit through them with less than an inch to spare. It was very claustrophobic…and our time was getting as tight as the streets. On our way back to port, the driver stopped so we could get cash out of the ATM to pay him (nobody in Greece seems to take credit cards). We got back to the boarding ramp without much time to spare before the ship sailed. A long and exhausting day.
Next morning we docked in Kusadasi on the Turkish mainland and toured the ruins of Ephesus. The city of Ephesus seemed as extensive as the ruins of the Acropolis in Athens. Huge pillars, statues, stadiums, a library. Reb and I also visited another site, the Basilica of St John. On the way back to the ship, Reb and I stopped to have some fresh-made baclava.
I’ve been keeping a journal of the last week’s travels, but haven’t had a chance to post a blog until now. The cruise ship’s internet connection is much too slow to upload photos; I’ll post highlights when we’re back in the US.
Writing this initial report on our first evening aboard the cruise ship; Rebecca is sound asleep, and we have to get up very early tomorrow for a long day tour of Naples, Pompeii, and Capri.
Two days before leaving Colorado for Rome, nearly a foot of snow whomped the Denver area, bad enough that we were concerned about getting out to the airport, but we got the driveway clear and the plow came through, enough for us to go on Sunday afternoon to the Moestas’ for Rebecca’s birthday party (grilled salmon and lots of steamed vegetables with cheese).
At 5:15 Monday morning, we left for the Denver airport, flew to Washington DC for a 3-hour layover, and then boarded a larger plane for the 8-hour flight to Rome. Rebecca and I watched UP on the TV (very enjoyable), then napped for a few hours. We arrived at 7 AM in Rome, were waved through immigration and customs (virtually no security at all), gathered our bags, then arranged for a van to take the four of us and our luggage to downtown Rome and our hotel. Because the airport is so far from the city center, the trip took over an hour and cost 90 Euros. This was Rebecca’s birthday, and I gave her a card as we got off the plane.
The traffic was completely snarled because of an international Food and Agriculture summit, and diplomatic convoys trundled by every few minutes, causing all the other cars to grind to a halt. I’ve never seen traffic so bad — and never spotted so many daredevil mopeds or tiny Smart Cars. We checked into the hotel, and fortunately our rooms were ready early. We took a brief nap, then went out hunting for an early lunch so we could go sightseeing, but virtually every place was closed (Italians don’t even think about lunch until well after noon, apparently). We did find a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria where the proprietors spoke no English at all, but we pointed at some interesting combinations (mushrooms and onions, zucchini and oil, sliced hot dogs and shredded potatoes); it was very good.
Rebecca and I set up for a bus tour of several sights early in the afternoon, while Mom and Dad rested in the hotel room. The “bus tour” turned out to be taking a bus *to* the Colisseum and then three hours walking around it and the Forum. We were already drooping from jet lag, and Rebecca’s foot was really bothering her (she has her major surgery again within a week of when we come home). Though there were several elderly and handicapped people on the tour, the guide wasn’t terribly considerate, rushing us along at a swift pace, making everyone climb more than a hundred steps. At the end, the bus was supposed to drop us back at the hotel, instead the driver let us off five blocks away and told us to walk. With her damaged foot, Rebecca could barely move and was leaning heavily on me; the bus driver just waved and said “You can do it — not far.” By then, about 7 PM, we were quite hungry and wanted a nice dinner for Rebecca’s birthday. When we asked the hotel front desk manager to recommend a good restaurant, he just blinked at us. “No restaurant will be open for dinner — not for at least an hour and a half.” We were already asleep on our feet from jet lag, and certainly didn’t want to wait that long to eat. The manager took sympathy on us; even though the hotel didn’t have its own restaurant, he arranged for some ham-and-cheese sandwiches from the back, so we four ate a dinner at a table in the lobby, then went upstairs to catch up on sleep — 10-11 hours worth.
Next morning I had arranged for a van to take us to Civitavecchia, the port city where our cruise ship was docked. The hotel manager said, “Are you sure you want to do that? It’ll be expensive. It’s almost sixty kilometers.” With four of us and luggage, it cost 160 Euros just for the fare (we heard rates quoted as high as 400 for the same trip). We arrived at the ship terminal, checked in, and spent the day exploring the ship, relaxing a little. Tomorrow the first of our excursions start.