Aegean and Black Sea Cruise 15 to 29 August 2015
14-15 August 2015 - Vancouver to Montreal, Canada. Everything was going well as far as flights were concerned. I arrived in Montreal from Vancouver on time and, although the flight was slightly delayed, we sent off for Rome happily, and were about 2 hours in, when there came an announcement from the Captain, that since only two of the six toilets on the plane were working, we were obliged to turn around and go back to Montreal. The rule is that four toilets must be working for that size of plane in an 8-hour flight, so no meal either. Back in Montreal, we actually had to go through customs, then collect our bags and wait in a long line to get our complimentary hotel room sorted. I was lucky in that though I had somehow arrived at the back of the line, I was sent to the J.W. Marriott inside the airport and was given a twenty-dollar voucher to buy food at 1 a.m. Once I arrived in my hotel room, I phoned the cruise line to let them know I was delayed, and Air Canada to rebook my flight to Naples instead of Rome so as to catch the ship there on 16th. Despite the fact that we were automatically booked on the 7:00 a.m. flight to Rome from Montreal, we would now arrive too late on the 15th to meet the ship, because between Rome airport and the seaport where we were to meet the ship, Civitavecchia, there would be a 2- to 3-hour bus transfer and by the time we arrived at the seaport, the ship would have already departed.
It took a few phone calls to get the right person at Air Canada and get them to book me on the new flights that I had determined would work, but eventually, around 4 a.m., it was all done, and I was able to catch a few hours of sleep and not worry about having to get up at 5 a.m. to get the 7 a.m. flight to Rome.
15-16 August 2015 - Montreal to Naples, Italy. As my new flight wasn't until the afternoon, I spent the morning doing e-mails in my hotel room, and then I checked out and bought a sandwich at the airport with another voucher before boarding my flight to Frankfurt. No complications on this flight, and I arrived at Frankfurt with a few hours to wait until boarding my smaller plane to Naples. Having forgotten to bring a European adaptor, I bought one at a small shop inside the airport and was able to do my e-mails and recharge and do some texting on my android phone. The arrival at Naples was uneventful except that it was raining. I managed to find out where to get the bus to the port and where to buy the 3 Euro ticket and waited for it in the drizzle. The bus took us through not very exciting or picturesque areas of the city and I noted a massive amount of graffiti on the buildings, a great deal of garbage on the streets, and many of whom I supposed were newish immigrants from North Africa who had found a haven in Naples after their harrowing experiences getting across the sea via dangerous, too-crowded boats from their country in order to escape the atrocities there. Then it was a bit of a walk through the port in the rain to find the correct ship. There were two cruise ships in port that day and I was directed incorrectly twice by natives, although I do know how to speak Italian! So it was good to arrive on the ship at last, find my ocean-view cabin and get used to the Emerald Princess which was laid out exactly like the Ruby, which was the last Princess vessel on which I had travelled. A hot shower, a change of clothes and luggage unpacked, I could breathe at last and look forward to my cruise. A few days later, I was delighted to find that the cruise line had fully refunded the day I had missed (Rome to Naples)!
18 August 2015 - Heraklion, Crete, Greece. The 17th of August was a sea day and I usually don't report on sea days as they all tend to run into each other, so it was the following day that we arrived at our first port, Heraklion (Hercules City), in Crete, the largest and most populated (174,000 pop.) island in Greece, birthplace of Zeus and film set for Zorba the Greek. Heraklion was officially founded by the Saracens (Arab refugees) in 824 and conquered by the Byzantines about 150 years later. It is also full of Venetian monuments, fountains, squares and city walls. However, artifacts found here in 2009 date from 130,000 years ago! Once hailed as the home of the Minoan civilization, Europe's oldest civilization, the archaeological site to visit here is the Palace of Knossos, ancient capital of the Bronze Age. Located 15 miles from Heraklion, these are ruins of a 4,000-year-old palace, which, according to Greek mythology, were the home of King Minos. Stretched over six acres, the palace, which was once the largest of all Minoan residential structures, had 1,300 rooms, corridors of different sizes, walls adorned with colourful frescoes, and graceful columns. Originally constructed in 1900 B.C., it was destroyed and rebuilt over five centuries before its final destruction in 1400 B.C. The entire complex then lay undisturbed until 1878 when a merchant discovered the ruins. Twenty-five years later, the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans unearthed and restored much of what exists today.
The West Court is believed to have been a ceremonial centre and the nearby circular pits, called kouloures, once stored grain. The highlights (seen in the photos) are the Charging-Bull Fresco and the Throne Room, inside of which an alabaster seat is built into the wall. Opposite the throne is a fresco of griffins, mythical beasts with an eagle's head and a lion's body, which symbolized royal and divine power. Knossos is not, in fact, the mysterious labyrinth of Greek legend where the half-man, half-bull Minotaur lies in wait for its victims. A sunny, hot day, the crowds were numerous and we had to wait in line to see the thrown room.
We then continued along the coast to the seaside resort (or fishing village) of Elounda (pop. 2,000) from which deserted Spinalonga Island can be seen. Built by the Venetians in 1579, the island, like the rest of Crete, fell to the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century. Later, it served as a leper colony until 1957.
Next on the agenda was Aghios Nikolaos, said to be the most picturesque harbour town in Crete. We were given time to walk around and take photos and shop before a short bus ride to our lunch at a restaurant where we were served lots of little but excellent dishes that we shared in groups of about six people. I tried to connect to the restaurant's wifi here, but it kept going off so I gave up.
19 August 2015 - Rhodes, Greece. Another new island for me, Rhodes is the most important island in the Dodecanese group and the most eastern island of the Aegean Sea. In Greek mythology, Rhodes was created by the sun god and a sea nymph. According to Homer, the first colonists were Dorian Greeks. The City of Rhodes, built at the northernmost tip of the island, no doubt due to its protected harbour, became an important commercial and military power. Perhaps its most famous spot is historic Mandraki Harbour where the 110-foot high Colossus of Rhodes once stood. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, this large statue was created to honour the sun god Helios. Unfortunately, it stood for only 56 years before it was toppled by an earthquake in 224 B.C., though its fragments remained half-submerged for another 900 years. When a scrap dealer finally hauled the remains away, he required 900 camels for the job. Rhodes' Medieval Old Town, as well as picturesque little villages, citrus orchards, vineyards and olive groves are worth seeing.
Our first stop (after an obligatory visit to a gold shop and museum) was Lindos Village from where we walked uphill about 270 steps to the Acropolis (middle photo below), a 4th-century, B.C. Temple of Athena Lindia with Doric architecture, which offered panoramic views over the Aegean and St. Paul's Bay, where this Saint is said to have sought shelter during a storm, as well as clusters of whitewashed houses, as seen in the below photo left.
After a memorable and sumptuous buffet lunch at a hotel, we drove to the Palace of the Grand Masters (in the photo above right) built by the Knights of St. John - full name Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem - founded during the Crusades as a nursing brotherhood who cared for sick and infirm pilgrims to the Holy Land. They took control of Rhodes in 1309. The Palace, which was built in the early 14th century, was destroyed in 1856 and rebuilt in 1939. There is an interesting history involving troops of Suleiman the Magnificent fighting against the Knights. The Turks finally won and Rhodes became the property of Turkey. The remaining Knights who had survived the onslaught left for Malta and were subsequently able to protect Malta from an attack by Suleiman and Malta remained under the Knights' control until Napoleon's time. After a long Turkish rule, Rhodes was seized by Italy in 1912, and many of the medieval buildings and fortresses were restored by Mussolini's architects in the 1930. After WWII, Rhodes was turned over to Greece in 1948. We walked through this dramatic stone castle-like structure featuring ancient mosaic floors (photo below left) from the island of Kos, as well as a marble statues (middle photo) and a staircase. We then walked along an ancient road, extant since 408 B.C., leading to the medieval town, and the Street of Knights, one of the oldest of this ancient town, consisting of a chain of inns where the Knights lived in communities based on the languages they spoke: French, Auvergnat, Provençal, Aragonese, Castilian, Italian, English or German. I then walked along the interesting harbour, where vendors were selling boat trips and scuba diving opportunities, to get some closer-up photos of the harbour entrance where the Colossus once stood, supposedly with a foot on each pillar where now stand statues of a buck and a doe as shown in the photo below far right.
20 August 2015 - Kusadasi, Turkey. I had been here before and had no interest in visiting Ephesus again, so I found the Starbucks in the port that I had used before, enjoyed a large coffee and got caught up on my e-mails.
21 August 2015 - Santorini, Greece. I had taken an extensive tour on Santorini three summers ago, so today I took the tender in and walked up the smelly and somewhat slippery mule path to a coffee shop, where once again I worked on e-mails and walked back down the same path in time for lunch on the ship.
22 August 2015 - Piraeus, Greece. Some people were getting off the cruise ship here and others were joining. As I had no interest of going into Athens - a long bus ride away - again, having been here several times, the last one in 2011, I set up my laptop in the port building with free wifi and replied to e-mails.
23 August 2015 - Volos, Greece. I had in mind that this area of Greece might be the most interesting of the cruise and I was not disappointed. Volos is a port town of the region of Thessalonica on the Greece's mainland. Archaeological studies in this region have unearthed artifacts of Neolithic inhabitants from 7000 B.C. Volos is said to be the place from which Jason and the Argonauts sailed when they began their quest for the Golden Fleece.
Our tour drove through Volos to the fertile, north-westerly plains of Thessaly on our way to Larissa, the capital of the region, where we had a stop for coffee. We then headed west to Trikala, the very centre of Greece, through lush landscape. The highlight of our drive was the portion of the road that winds through steep-sided pinnacles of rock at Meteora (meaning “mid-air”), one of the world's most intriguing landscapes, where towering pillars of stone provide an ideal location for medieval monasteries. The natural isolation helped the monks encounter solitude while at the same time provided safety from plundering bandits. Originally, the only access to the monasteries was via net baskets, which would transport one monk at a time up the straight rock via a rope & pulley system. Today, however, a road leads close to the base of the pinnacle and a rock staircase provides access to visitors.
We visited two Meteora monasteries, St. Stephen's, which is one of the six that are still inhabited, and Varlaam, and listened to our guide telling us the rich history of each. As we continued along the path in our bus we were able to photograph neighbouring monasteries teetering on top of their own natural stone pillars. We then had a marvellous buffet lunch at yet another resort-type hotel, in the Meteora area, before returning to the ship.
24 August 2015 - Khios, Greece. In Khios, the birthplace of Homer, the fifth largest Greek island lying just five miles off the Turkish coast, there was enough time to take two tours to two different parts of this island, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The only snag was that there was no time to grab any lunch in between tours as I literally jumped off one tour bus and into the next at the change-over area. The morning tour took us south to two mastic villages, of a total of six in the Masticochoria district. These were originally built to protect the mastic merchants and the local economy still survives today. In mastic production, farmers use the bark of the Lentisk tree, related to the Pistachio, to collect aromatic gum and make it into primarily chewing gum, but also cakes, syrups, preserves, alcoholic beverages and a sticky candy that was popular in the Sultan's harems in Constantinople. Ancient Greeks used mastic gum to whiten their teeth!
Our first stop was at Pyrgi, which dates back to the 13th century and features a central tower, winding streets and walled gates. Many of the town's buildings are decorated in 'Xysta', a system of geometric designs in black and white plaster. Columbus reportedly stayed at a house in this village during his visit to Khios in search of ancient maps. We were first taken to visit Pyrgi's 16th century St Apostle's Church, a mini replica of Khios' Nea Moni Monastery, which we saw in the afternoon, then had time on our own to explore. It was the morning after a night of celebrating, so the town square, which offered free wifi, though I never managed to get it, was still covered in bunting, broken beer bottles, tables, upturned chairs, etc. We even believed that some of the people in the square were still there from the night before and had never gone home to bed in the meantime!
We then headed out to Mesta, another Masticochorian village, which dates back to the 14th century. An example of a Byzantine castle-town fortified to protect merchants and the huge profits generated by the mastic trade and quieter than Pyrgi, there was frankly not much to see after I'd walking round the stone streets once, so I was a bit disappointed.
Our afternoon tour drove via the island's central mountain road toward the Nea Moni Monastery (photo bottom left). Built in the 11th century by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and his wife, the Empress Zoe, it is a living Monastery complex, consisting of a monastic temple, two smaller churches, a dining hall, monks' cells, a reception hall and a defensive tower. A small museum, opened in 1992, is housed in the Monastery in a renovated cell and displays artifacts from the late 19th century. A large number of skulls are contained therein. According to tradition, the monastery, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is built on the location where three monks, Nikitas, Ioannes and Iosif, miraculously found an icon of the Virgin Mary.
Our second stop was in the town of Anavatos (photo bottom middle), a Medieval village hidden high in the mountains and built entirely of local stone. Accessible by only one road, it was apparently once used as a location in the James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only. Various people have unsuccessfully tried to revive it as a town. Today it is deserted and in ruins.
Down at the bottom of the hill, we then visited Avgonima, a semi-fortified Medieval hillside village with views of the Aegean Sea. Again we had time to wander and, although pretty in some bits, I was fairly bored and realised that in general Khios had not been all that interesting to me. No need for me to visit this island again.
25 August 2015 - Transit of Dardanelles and Bosphorus Strait, Turkey. A sea day, it was spent transiting the Dardanelles Strait, followed by the Marmara Sea and then the Bosphorus passing by Istanbul around 5 p.m. which caused some excitement for a while. On exiting the Bosphorus we entered the Black Sea, though there was no noticeable change of colour in the water! Interesting I suppose, but not as exciting as travelling along the Kiel Canal by cruise ship last summer, underlined by the fact that I took no photos to mark this day.
26 August 2015 - Constanta to Bucharest and back, Romania. From Constanta, the largest port on the Black sea, we travelled by tour bus to Bucharest, “Paris of the Balkans,” the capital of Romania, not to be confused with Budapest, the capital of Hungary, as did Michael Jackson at a concert or so we were told by our bubbly guide at the Palace of the Parliament. This behemoth of the Communist Era is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, at 3.9 million square feet, the world's largest civilian administrative building, the world's heaviest building, the most expensive administrative building, Europe's biggest building and the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon in the U.S.A.
Estimates of the materials used to create this imposing mega-structure include one million cubic meters of marble from Transylvania, 3,500 tons of crystal for 480 chandeliers, 1,409 ceiling lights and mirrors, 700,000 tons of steel and bronze for monumental doors and windows, almost 10 million square feet of domestic wood for parquet and wainscoting and over 2 million square feet of woollen carpets woven on site. We were also told many interesting stories about Nicolas Ceausescu, the Romanian politician and dictator who was the Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party from 1965 to 1989 and President of Romania from 1974 to 1989.
After a brief visit to the 17th-century Patriarch Church (photo at right above and at left below), we enjoyed a typical Romanian lunch at a restaurant in a riverside tourist complex and I sat at a table on my own with my guide and one other guide and learned about the Romanian language. After lunch, we toured the open-air Village Museum, which displays 300 wood and stone houses that reflect the country's architectural diversity, though of course there was no time to visit all 300 of them! On our three-and-a-half-hour drive back to the port of Constanta, we had a brief stop at the centre of the city at Revolutionary Square with its iconic statue of King Carol I on a horse in front of the Central University Library (middle photo below).
27 August 2015 - Burgas to Varna and back, Bulgaria. The choice of tours at this port, the fourth largest city in Bulgaria with a population of 230,000 was slim. It was either a bunch of churches, museums or a trip to Varna, city of prehistoric baths and a famous archaeological museum. I chose the latter in order to get out of town and our first visit after another long drive, was to the Cathedral of Mary's Assumption (photo to the left below). Opened in 1886 it apparently features incredible stained glass, icons, frescos and a bell-tower topped with one of the churches 5 domes. Unfortunately, when we entered, a funeral was in progress so we all felt it would not be right to wander round the church during a private ceremony so we opted to leave so as not to interrupt the family in their grief.
The next stop then was the Roman baths (middle photo below), in ruins and rather boring although they had tried hard with pictures displaying what they believed it had looked like during its heyday. Covering an area of 7,500 square meters, the baths were constructed for the wealthy of the city during the 2nd century AD and are currently located in the central part of the city. It is said that Varna's Roman Baths are Europe's largest baths after those in Rome and Trier, Germany. When the baths were built, Varna was known as Odessos and people would congregate at the complex not only to bathe, but also to socialize.
The best thing about our tour in Bulgaria was the lunch, held in a supposedly famous restaurant: an excellent meal and an even more special dessert, the recipe for which I tried to obtain from the waitress but was told it was a secret.
Our final stop was to the Archaeological Museum, famous for its collection of icons which include 900 from the Medieval and Revival eras. The most celebrated collection in the museum is of gold artifacts that were found in a Thracian necropolis from the mid-5th millennium BC. It is supposedly the largest museum collection of gold in the world, but in my opinion, the Hermitage Museum collection in St. Petersburg is far more impressive.
28 August 2015
- Istanbul, Turkey
. Once again Istanbul is a place I have visited a few times, so I had no urge to re-visit any of its monuments as I had had a very complete tour in the summer of 2011. Instead, I found out where the nearest Starbucks was, ordered a very inexpensive yet huge size coffee and, with the change they gave me in local currency, bought a souvenir coffee cup too. I then worked peacefully and uninterrupted on my e-mails, after I managed to gently get rid of a local young man who wanted to practice his English with me via Skype and Facebook!
29 August 2015
- Return to Vancouver
. The return flight from Istanbul via Toronto was uneventful, although we were obliged to get off the cruise ship at a very early hour and then forced to wait for hours in the waiting room at Istanbul airport. Despite being an Air Canada flight, the staff at the gate were not very organized.
All the above photos are copyright Angela Fairbank. Please contact the photographer for usage rights and/or copies