Cruising the Eastern Med
June 7th, 2013
As we set off from home towards Venice, I look thankfully up at the skies. May had been cold and depressingly wet and I had worried that our cruise would be a wash-out. Thankfully the weather has seen a turn for the better this week. We are driving up to a small resort called Desanzano on the shore of Lake Garda today where we shall stay the night.
Our hotel is an old-fashioned little place right on the lakeside. I walk out to the balcony to see the sun shine brilliantly on the water, throwing diamonds of reflection all around. Interesting paint work on the boats!
We set out for a wander around town. It is alive with the sound of local youngsters; summer has arrived. It is not yet too crowded but we see a number of fellow tourists. At dinner our waiter tells us that the rains have kept the tourists away.
We stumble upon an archaeological site, the remains of a Roman Villa (entrance fee: Euro 2). There is a short film in English which tells the story, otherwise all the explanatory boards are in Italian only. What a grand villa it must have been! The centuries have reduced it all to a rubble but the wonderfully colourful and artistic mosaic floors which have survived let us imagine it all.
We eat pizzas for dinner. Delicious! Afterwards we are happy to go back to the hotel and call it a day.
June 8th, 2013
We don’t hurry this morning. After a leisurely breakfast, we check out Sirmione which is close by. This is in a little needle of a land, sticking out into Lake Garda. There is a castle and narrow atmospheric lanes which are teeming with tourists. We don’t stay long as we are both keen to get to the ship.
We reach the port by 1:30 pm, unload our luggage and park in our pre-booked spot. For those interested in practical details of booking the cruise, the parking spot and other such information, see here.
Embarkation is quick and easy. It is about 2:30 by the time we are aboard. We find our stateroom, leave the carry on bag and head towards the buffet to find something to eat as we were very hungry indeed. The buffet is enormous with many choices. As a vegetarian, I had wondered if I would have to survive on salads but that is not the case, not at all. I fear now that I shall gain weight by overeating! Still..neither of us can resist the desserts. Sigh! What hard lives we lead!
We check out the ship all the way to the top. It is simply enormous! We then park ourselves for a grand-view of Venice as we depart. The cruise director gives an informative and interesting talk as we sail majestically out of port. I have been to Venice many times but this view from the top of the Cruise ship is quite unique. We are told that this will soon stop as they are building a port outside the canal which will be operational within 2 years. If you have a yen for seeing Venice from a deck, do it soon.
We head to dinner at 8pm. There are two big dining rooms and the lines are long in both. We are given a beeper and told that the wait is about 30 mins. We are called in sooner than that. We share a large table with two other couples, strangers to us. The conversation is lively, the food delicious and we spend a very congenial evening.
June 9th, 2013
We wake up fresh after a good night’s sleep. I had ordered room service for breakfast, this is a pleasure for a slow starter like me. Every evening they deliver a newsletter with all the activities for the day. Each evening, I religiously highlight everything which interests us. Highlighted newsletter in hand, we set out to listen all about shore excursions and then go to the desk to book ourselves in for a couple. Afterwards, remembering the evils of gluttony, we use the stairs for exercise and explore the ship.
At 2 pm, the ship glides majestically into the harbour at Dubrovnik. I can see how arriving like this can become addictive. So much nicer than airports!!
We have booked a shuttle-bus (Eu 12 each) to take us to town, as have many others. There are taxis which cost about Eu 10 each way; this is more economical for a larger group. Walking to town would have taken between 40-50 mins. In this heat, I do not recommend this option.
The shuttle bus leaves us at Pile. This is a busy transport hub with people milling everywhere. The square is quite nice with lots of restaurants and a view of the city walls.
We enter through the Pile gates. Having visited many European walled cities, I am expecting something dark. Instead the city glints almost white under the hot sun. The large polygonal fountain in the picture above is the Onofrios fountain built in 1438. In front, you see the Placa or Stradun, the main street with beautiful houses on either side. The bell tower is visible in the far distance.
At the other end of the Placa is an impressive square in the middle of which stands Orlando’s column put up in 1418. It represents the knight Roland from the 8th century who became famous due to the medieval epic Chanson de Roland. On the left you see the Church of St Blaise constructed in 1715.
Seeing the square from another angle, you can see the 16th century customs palace called Sponza on the left. It is a museum now. Next to it, you can see the base of the 15th century bell tower Luža which was restored in 1952. I don’t feel like visiting a museum in the short time we have; I would rather wander around absorbing the spirit of the place.
Continuing on, we pass the magnificent Rector’s palace, the colonnaded building in the centre of the picture above.
We visit the Cathedral (above) which was built from 1672 to 1713. Interestingly, there used to be a 12th-14th century Cathedral in the same place which was built with funds donated by the English king Richard the Lion Hearted when he survived a shipwreck close by. Unfortunately that Cathedral was destroyed in an earthquake in 1667.
We walk on to the Ploce gate from where we climb the ramparts (Euro 12). These fortifications were built from the 8th century but most of the construction happened later between 15th and 16th centuries. This is the star attraction of Dubrovnik and what an attraction! I find the climb tiring in the heat (33C/91F) and soon my clothes are plastered to me, But I still enjoy every moment of our walk. The views over the rooftops and the harbour are just magnificent.
Afterwards we wander in the relatively cooler small side streets and alleyways. Finding a little cafe, we sit to have a drink and people-watch. The waiter speaks perfect English. Amused by the communication struggles of the French group at the next table, I strike a conversation with them. Indeed it is difficult to travel with little English.
We take the shuttle back to the ship. I ask my husband to take a picture of me against the whole ship. I am the little black dot in the middle distance in the pic above!
Today we choose the second of the grand dining rooms for dinner. The menu is the same in both dining rooms, it is only the setting which differs. We are early and get a window seat. Dining on excellent fare, watching the ship slowly set off towards further shores, I feel in the lap of luxury. After dinner there is a very good magic show which I enjoy except for the presence of a truly enormous snake which I really object to (phobia). I try to block out thoughts of the snake escaping and wandering free through the corridors of the ship, but until the end of the cruise, I am always aware at the back of my mind that my enclosed surroundings house a snake as well. Shudder!
June 10, 2013
This is a rest day on the ship. I sleep in late while my husband makes use of the gym. I spend the morning reading on the deck and chatting with strangers. There are other readers like me, but only a few. Most head out for the pool where there is live music and a party atmosphere. The fitness room is full of the work-out addicts. The constantly open buffets and cafes are well used. There are people perusing the library, the card room looks empty, the casino is always ringing, the bars are well populated. There are a number of organised events as well. We attend a ‘meet the Officers’ event and a lecture on Greek Gods.In the evening there is a leisurely dinner, followed by a shipboard version of Deal-or-No-Deal , very nice music by a group from Spain called Forever, then a rather funny dance competition. It is not difficult to pass time on board.
June 11, 2013
We dock today at Piraeus, the port of Athens. We have signed up for a conducted tour to see the Acropolis. Originally we had signed up for a longer version of 6.5 hrs but we change it after our day at Dubrovnik. I have become a wimp, a shame on my Indian heritage, thanks to too many years in the mild heat of Switzerland. I seem to get very tired even under what some others were calling ‘only mild heat’.
It is all very well organised. Hundreds of fellow cruisers gather in a large auditorium and as our tours are called, we are ushered out, given stickers with bus numbers, shepherded into buses and off we go. I have not done this kind of touring since our first ever European travel in 1983. In one way it is so much easier, no thinking, no planning, no worries. But also no excitement, no knowledge gathering, no seeking, no finding, no knowing.
We are driven first to the ancient stadium which seems to have been much maintained. The sun burns down on us as we take pictures.
Other sights are pointed out to us from the bus but there are no photo opportunities. We finally park at the Acropolis and gather to climb to the top. This is only about 150 metres, less than my climb on my daily walk. But it is hot and very very crowded. I am glad I am wearing comfortable shoes.
As we climb up the steps, we peep over the balustrade for a stunning view of the Odeum of Herodis Atticus which is at the foot of the hill. This theatre was built by the Romans in 161 AD. Our guide tells us that it is still used as a concert venue.
At the top of the steps we come to the Propylaea, the entrance gateway built in 432 AD. We also see the temple of Nike Athena to the right but I miss taking a picture.
Inside the gates there is a great clearing with the important buildings including the Parthenon. These were built in the 5th century BC. I am stunned by what they achieved 2500 years ago! Simply astounding! In the picture above, you see the Parthenon on the right and the Erechtheion on the left. See close ups of both monuments below.
The Parthenon (above left) is the temple dedicated to the Goddess Athena for whom Athens is named. It was built between 447 to 432 BC. The Erechtheion (above right) was built between 421 and 406 BC. The close up is of the Porch of Caryatids, with six draped female figures used as columns. What we see are replicas; of the originals, one was taken to Britain by Lord Elgin and the others are housed in the Acropolis Museum.
The Acropolis is also a good vantage point for seeing other monuments of Greece. Above right, we have the Temple of Zeus. Above left is the temple of Thission built in 449 BC .
The rock on the left above is the Areopagus which served as a Court of Appeal in ancient times. The Apostle Paul is said to have delivered a speech from here. On the right, you see the Mount Lycabettus, the highest point in the city.
Our guided tour includes only the Acropolis. Once that is done, we are bundled back into the bus and taken back to the ship. I am regretting not having the time to explore the city at leisure. But then the heat zaps my energy…so perhaps, one late autumn, we shall come back again.
After a delicious dinner, this evening’s entertainment is a singing competition. There are some dancers as well. Not bad.
June 12, 2013
We dock at Izmir nice and early. We are off today to visit the ancient ruins at Ephesus. As before we are shepherded efficiently onto buses. The trip from Izmir to Ephesus takes almost an hour. Our guide is very knowledgeable and tells us lots of interesting information about Turkey and its history.
At Ephesus the bus stops at the higher gates and our guide leads us into a large open area. The area in the middle with columns used to be the State Agora built in the 1st Century AD. Both political and religious meetings took place here.
We see some partially excavated baths and then walk to the area above. On the left, the arch is part of the Fountain of Pollio built in 97 AD. The water was brought here by aqueducts. In the centre of the picture are the remains of the Temple of Domitian.
The site is very crowded and as I pause for pictures, I lose the guide. Running to find him in the crowd, I miss seeing other monuments nearby like the Prhaneion and the Memmius monument. Or did I see them but not register what the guide was saying? I really don’t like this guided tour; give me a guide book and I can do a much better job myself! What you see above is the Curetes street, one of the main streets of Ephesus.
Above left is the Fountain of Trajan built in 104 AD. I believe the statues which stood there are housed in a museum. On the right is the arch of the Temple of Hadrian built in 138 AD. It is a very beautiful monument, with lovely carvings and beautiful columns.
After seeing very impressive public toilets and the bordello, we come out to this wonderful spot. On the left is the famous Celsus Library built between 117 AD to 132 AD. In fact, it was a built as a tomb for the governor Celsus Polemaeanus. The library could store 12,000 scrolls. All the books were destroyed in an earthquake and fire in 262 AD.The front facade as we see was reconstructed in the 1960s and 70s. On the right you see the great Marble road from the 1st century which leads from the library to the Great Theatre.
A closer view of the library. From here we go in through the arches on the right which leads us through the commercial Agora up to the magnificent Grand Theatre..
This huge structure with a capacity for 25,000 people was built in 3rd BC. It is at the end of the Harbour road which leads to the lower gates. There was a great riot against Apostle Paul right here! This was the last part of our tour of Ephesus. A note to fellow travellers : wear shoes with good tread, the marble and stone pathways were quite slippery in places.
From Ephesus we are carted to a carpet store(!) for a forced sales talk. Actually, it is not too bad as I watch the beautiful carpets rolled out in front of us. At the end there is a bit of pressure to buy but we withstand it bravely. I understand that the cruise company and the guides probably get a cut from the spend in these shops, so the price would have been appropriately raised. Then if you build in bargaining, the ‘real’ price would be hard to judge……buyers beware!
I read my book all afternoon. After a delicious dinner, we are entertained by an amazing aerialist duo. They are brilliant!
June 13, 2013
A rest day at sea. My husband decides to go to the gym in the morning while I wander around clicking pictures and then attend a couple of lectures by the very talented cruise director. Later in the day we go to see an Art auction, quite surprised by the number of people who buy art while on a cruise. Even for non-pool loungers like me, a day at sea is entertaining enough.
June 14, 2013
We dock in Split today. Tendering is a new experience for us. Instead of docking, the ship anchors a short way out at sea. The lifeboats are lowered and used to ferry the passengers to the port. They land us very close to the old town, it is just a few steps away, at the end of pier above right.
On the left is the facade of the Diocletian Palace built in 3 AD. The Roman Emperor spent the last years of his life here. The entrance to the old town is an underground passage at the right end of the picture. The passage is full of shops and tourists are milling around.
Climbing up the steps at the end of the passage, we arrive at this very beautiful and busy square. Called Peristyle, There is much to admire here, the brightness of limestone with accents of granite columns and even a sphinx! Facing us (on the right) of the picture above is the entry to the emperor’s apartments. In the middle of the picture you see the Cathedral of St Domnius, previously the Mausoleum of Diocletian.
The old Palace walls remain otherwise the palace is taken over by medieval buildings.
The main part of the Cathedral was Diocletian’s mausoleum which dates from the end of the 3rd century. The Bell Tower is from 12th century and the chorus from the 17th century. My guidebook says that it is possibly the oldest building in Christendom used as a Cathedral. I take quite a childish delight in facts like that!
Just under the Cathedral is the Crypt of Saint Lucy, the entrance to which is just next to the man standing under the umbrella. It feels blessedly cool. We then walk a short distance to the Baptistry of St John which was consecrated in the 6th century. It was originally built as a Temple to Jupiter. It is very small with a very nice roof.
We then stroll down to the Northern gate of the palace, called the Golden Gate. This used to be the main entrance to the Palace, and so is the most elaborate gate. Outside the gate is the striking statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin, whose toe I rub for good luck.
We then weave in and out of the small streets, enjoying the charm of these old streets where history has streamed past.
This evening there is a grand production by the entertainers on board including music, dance, magic and aerialists. At the end a representative group of officers, crew members, chefs and support staff come on stage; I clap their efforts sincerely.
June 15, 2013
We stand on our balcony as we sail back into Venice. This is a grand experience, great photo opportunities! The ship docks right on time. We have a hearty breakfast and then disembark. Our luggage awaits us at the terminal. We drag our cases to the car and set off home. Discussing the trip, we both decide that it has been a very nice experience. Will we cruise again? Yes!