Archive for Jewels of the Aegean 2011

Yep, it’s another travel day

I’m writing this from the Goose Island Brewery bar on the C concourse at my “favorite” airport, Chicago O’Hare. We spent the night last night at the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport, which is a place we’re getting way too familiar with. We even have our own room there — yes, with more than 1,000 rooms, this hotel only has ONE handicap-accessible room. So much for the “enlightened” Europeans, who we were getting pretty irritated with by the end of this trip. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s no wonder that you don’t see many disabled people in the country. Frankly, if how visitors are treated is any indication, the locals who need help with accessibility are out of luck.

The flight from Frankfurt to Chicago was delayed by an hour due to fog. Once we took off from Frankfurt, we saw that the fog bank was very localized to just the vicinity of the airport. The flight was wonderful. We were in one of the new United First Suites, which had a 17″ screen personal monitor, noise-reducing headphones, and a full lie-down bed. Barb and I both watched “Super 8” and “127 Hours” (two really good films, by the way), and then Barb watched some additional TV shows while I read. The food was excellent on the flight — much better than what we experienced on our Denver to London flight last year.

Thanks to that one-hour delay, we were unable to make our connection in Chicago and had to get a flight that left five hours later. Sigh. As usual, we were also irritated by the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement staff. When we went from country to country in Europe — which, granted, is like going from state to state in the U.S., we were basically waved through, even though we are U.S. citizens. Coming back to our own country, we a) had to fill out a form, b) go through passport control, c) collect our bags, d) go through customs and declare anything we’d purchased, e) re-check our bags so they could continue on their merry way back to Denver.

The customs area at O’Hare is huge, and I rolled Barb in her travel wheelchair into the area. There were two major signs: one for U.S. citizens and registered foreign nationals, and the other for those carrying passports of other nations. Seeing no special accessible line, we got into the “regular” line. Once we had spent a few minutes in the line, a uniformed young lady in the employ of I.C.E. informed us that we “could have gone to the wheelchair line” and took down the temporary barrier. I happened to mention that it would be nice if they actually had a sign pointing out where the wheelchair line was, and the young lady responded by telling me that “I’m retracting my offer” and putting the barrier back up with an evil grin. I swear, the I.C.E. must hire some real jerks.

Anyway, we made it back to Denver a bit later than expected after an uneventful flight. I honestly despise travel days like this — they seem to last forever, and if there are delays it’s even worse. Although this was a wonderful trip, we could both do without the travel days. If someone can invent a painless, bureaucracy-free way of traveling, they’ll have my undying gratitude.

This will be our last trip until at least May of next year. Barb’s undergoing knee replacement surgery on October 19th, which will hopefully make traveling a bit easier for the two of us.

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Istanbul … and a travel day

We arrived in Istanbul, Turkey at about 10 AM local time on Sunday. As the Marina neared the port, it was obvious that we weren’t in Kansas anymore… The minarets at the many (well over 3200) mosques in the city dotted the skyline, and as we neared the port area, the famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia dominated our view.

The Marina docked quickly near the Crystal Serenity, a ship we had last seen in Venice (they did a Black Sea cruise that started in Venice and ended in Istanbul). While we were docked, the Celebrity Millennium also came into port.

We had booked a ship’s tour of some of the highlights of Istanbul for our half-day, and it was a typical quick overview. About 11 of us piled onto a minibus and went on a four hour tour that included driving over the Bosporus Bridge (allegedly the only bridge over which you can drive from Europe to Asia), visiting the Blue Mosque, walking through the Spice Market, and getting an overview of this huge city of 15 million.

The Blue Mosque was interesting — we had to remove our shoes to enter the building, but were allowed to use a wheelchair to get Barb around. The interior is a vast expanse with blue patterned tiles (hence the name), but marred by cables and lighting fixtures that really ruined the view. Our tour guide talked about the call to prayer five times a day, the need for devout Muslims to wash themselves prior to prayer, and gave us a good high-level look at the religion.

After we were dropped off at the pier, we experienced the call to prayer. All of the minarets are equipped with loudspeaker systems and you can hear the call wherever you are in the city. It’s an odd, slightly disturbing (to Western ears) song that varies by the time of day and the sect of Islam. We headed back to our stateroom to watch the afternoon disappear from our verandah, and I was able to catch the sunset call to prayer on video.

After a fast dinner at the Terrace Cafe, we headed to bed. We had already packed prior to our shore excursion, so it was just a matter of placing our bags outside of the stateroom.

Waking up this morning (Monday) we ate a quick breakfast, then debarked. I swear that everyone in the travel business that we ran into today was acting like it was their first day on the job. The driver and guide for our tour bus acted like they had no idea what they were doing while loading. Sad… When we got to the airport, we went through a first security check, and then promptly stood in line for over an hour until the Lufthansa check-in counter opened. Fortunately I had printed our boarding passes the night before, so we were able to get in the head of a line for those who only had bags to check.

The idiot behind the counter promptly told me that I would not be able to take my carry-on luggage on board the aircraft. That made no sense at all — the bag was under the weight limit, and I had carried it onto the aircraft from Frankfurt to Venice with no comment. I got a little nasty with the guy, so he said I should just take it up with the gate staff. At least we were able to get a gate check tag for Barb’s wheelchair.

We had about three hours to waste in the airport, so we spent the time watching the parade of humanity going through the Istanbul airport. When we were finally called, we had to go through a second security check. Sure enough, the staff at the desk was confused about Barb’s wheelchair — nobody in the world except for Americans seem to understand the concept of a gate check… When we were finally allowed to pre board the crowded A-321, the gate rep told me I would not be able to take my carry-on bag on board. I told her the same thing I had told the earlier Lufthansa rep and ignored her, walking down the jetway cussing.

Once we got to the aircraft, I had to try to explain to a flight attendant and the purser that not only was the bag less weighty than their limit, but had been placed into overhead bins literally hundreds of times. They argued with me, I finally just grabbed the bag, went to my seat and put it into the overhead bin — where it fit perfectly. They gave me some crap about the overhead bins being full, but my bag was the only item in the bin. Chalk that one up for a cranky American traveler. Do NOT tell me when I cannot take my carry-on bag onboard.

Our next fun came when we landed at Frankfurt and got to park on the tarmac instead of at a jetway. Nobody seemed to be able to tell us where we’d get the wheelchair, which we needed to transport Barb throughout the airport. After asking everybody including the pilot of the aircraft, one guy actually took charge and told us he’d pick us up in a bus with a lift. Apparently, it confuses the hell out of them that a person can walk short distances unaided but needs a wheelchair for long distances. No wonder you almost never see disabled Europeans — the entire continent is clueless about accessibility.

We did get some wonderful help (although slow as hell) from the Lufthansa special care team at Frankfurt. They assigned a nice young woman to help us out throughout the process, and they have promised to pick us up here at the hotel tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM.

I’ll be glad to get home. Travel days are horrible, and today was long and annoying. Hopefully our journey on United from Frankfurt to Chicago, and then on to Denver, will be much less taxing.

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Lovely Chios, Greece and Amazing (but Challenging) Ephesus, Turkey

Greetings from Barb! We had no time yesterday to do an update so this blog entry will cover our day in Chios, Greece, on Friday and in Kusadasi, Turkey today.

Chios is one of the Greek Ionian islands in the Aegean sea, close to the coast of Turkey. We decided to rent a car for the day and two ladies from the cruise Roll Call (Janice and Lynda) joined us for our tour of the “hot spots” of this sparsely-populated island. Our car rental, from Sixt, was only $70 for the day.

Our first destination was the UNESCO World Heritage 11th century monastery Nea Moni, which is being restored. This monastery was reached on a road that climbed out of Chios town through dramatic hills that reminded us of New Mexico. The church at the monastery was an exquisite gem filled with beautiful mosaics in gold leaf.

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Our journey continued on roads that wound through pine and olive trees, occasionally seeing a small village or nice home but otherwise it was uninhabited. Our next stop was Mesta, one of the mastic villages on the south side of the island. Mastic gum comes from a plant of the same name and it has been harvested on this island of centuries. It is used as a thickener for food products and is even converted to a strong drink. The villages are built in a unique style, almost like fortresses with the center of town reached through tunnels; mastic gum was coveted by invaders and pirates, so these villages were built for protection. One fun thing at Mesta was a little ceramics shop with exquisite vases created by a local artist who triple-fires his glazes. Of course, we had to buy one of the unique pieces.

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We continued onwards to another mastic village, Pyrgi. This was a larger village and the buildings are exquisite; the stone exteriors are painted white, then the paint is scraped away to make elaborate geometric designs with the darker stone color (a decor preferred by the Genoans who came to Chios, supposedly including Christopher Columbus). We found the center square in Pyrgi and even parked nearby. Our restaurant choice was fortuitous; the restaurant was run by a young man named “Gus” who had lived in the states for many years and he spoke almost perfect English. He now lives on Chios with his family (wife, daughter, parents). We had a spinach spanakopita and a roasted eggplant salad that was fantastic; the vegetables were all grown on the family farm. Of course Gus had to ask Steve about “jail breaking” an iPhone. We also enjoyed giving the feral cats a little bit of cheese from our spanakopita (poor kitty cats). We had a lovely day on Chios!

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Last night we ate at Polo Grill, the steakhouse on Marina. It was incredible! We shared a table with a delightful couple from Brisbane, Australia, who were on a seven-week vacation that included this cruise. I had the New England clam chowder (impeccable), a salad of tomato, romaine, bacon and cheddar and a perfectly cooked 7-oz filet Mignon with blue cheese. Killer bee!

Today we had a fantastic (if physically challenging) day today in Kusadasi, Turkey. I had booked a private tour months ago with Turkey Explorers (Kusadasi Tours), a local company that advertises disabled accessible tours to Ephesus. They greeted us at the pier; our tour guide was the lovely and knowledgable Gurgan (Rose). We had an accessible van to ourselves. We drove out to the valley east of Kusadasi and first visited the House of Mary, on Bulbul mountain. This simple stone house, surrounded by beautiful line trees, was built on the site of an earlier home that supposedly was the last home of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary was cared for by the apostle John (the only disciple who escaped martyrdom and died of old age: he also authored the Gospel of John, among other New Testament works). Every year on August 15, Catholics journey here for the feast of the Assumption.

The house was simple and remarkably moving. We walked through the small building and lit two candles for our parents and for safe passage down Bulbul mountain.

After visiting the house we came back down to the valley to go through Ephesus. There were actually four incarnations of this city, starting with the Hittites, then the Greeks, then the Romans and finally the Byzantines. The Romans created the second-largest city in their empire; at the time, the city was on the sea (the Aegean has retreated about 10 km downhill since that time; we’re paging Al Gore – no response yet- to explain how this happened without “AGW” or some other bogus science blaming humans for any changes in climate or sea level).

We started our journey through Ephesus at the upper gate; at first, Steve only had to push me on a flat gravel path. Soon, however, we were on a slick marble road going downhill that was really rough terrain, so I got out of the wheelchair and we slowly walked down the path. My knees began barking like a pack of wild dogs, so we stopped often to take a lot of photos. We finally got to an area that was a little bit better, so I got in the wheelchair and felt so sorry for Steve as we negotiated more uneven terrain (an Italian lady praised him for being such an amazing husband – I can’t begin to describe how much I agree with that assessment!).

Finally we got to a flat area again, near the imposing Library of Celsius. We did enjoy seeing the amazing ruins and took many photos, but it was definitely not easy for a wheelchair. We’re glad we went, however. It is something that should be on everyone’s travel plans.

After our tour at Ephesus, we saw the sole remaining column of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (with the ruins of the Basilica of St. John, a beautiful mosque and a Byzantine castle in the background).

After our tour, we were off to lunch at a nearby rug pavilion. We were skeptical about this part of the tour, but decided to have an open mind. Our light lunch was fantastic, with several fresh salads, followed by a small piece of grilled chicken and spicy meatballs. We took the rug tour and watched them make double knots on wool and cotton rugs and extract silk from silkworm eggs. We were shown several rugs and decided to ask about smaller area rugs. We looked at several rugs and ended up buying an exquisite small area rug and a beautiful silk pillow cover. Call us rubes, but they had me sign the rug label (it will be shipped) and it seemed like a unique work of art.

Now we’re on our way to Istanbul (we arrive at noon tomorrow – whoo, hoo, we can sleep in!). A political comment, if I may: Greece was wonderful, but its leadership as one of the PIIGS (it is not misspelled; look it up to understand the connotation) that is causing the downfall of the Euro and the EU is apparent. Kusadasi was very prosperous and the port area was one if the nicest we have seen. Our guide said that Turks are glad now that they are not part of the EU; I think it is the EU’s loss and will be to their detriment eventually (for many reasons).

Hopefully we’ll post some photos tonight and will have our last port report tomorrow.

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One perfect day in Athens, thanks to George’s Taxi Tours

The misnamed, but still beautiful, Mask of Agamemnon.

As you well know if you’ve been reading this blog, Barb loves to plan our vacations in great detail. One of the things she did for our day in Athens was to make plans for a private tour to Corinth and Athens with “George’s Taxi Tours.” George is another Greek who went to America, then came back and started up a business. In this case, it’s a tour business.

We were a bit worried earlier in the week that this plan was going to explode, since the taxi drivers were on strike all over Greece. Fortunately, today was not a day for a strike, so we got off the ship and were greeted by “Tony” and his nice Mercedes taxi.

Tony took us out to Corinth to start — we were a bit taken aback when he was showing us maps and photos in a book while driving. However, Tony probably sensed our discomfort and kept his eyes on the road for the rest of the trip.

Corinth is about 75 km from Athens, and we started by taking a closeup look at the Corinth Canal. It’s a narrow canal that was carved directly out of rock and connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf. Allegedly, construction was started by the Emperor Nero, but ceased after concerns about offending the gods. The job was finished in the late 1800’s. The canal is only used by private boats and small cruise ships now, but is definitely impressive.

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We then visited a small Orthodox church — it had the text of the beginning of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in several languages on a marble stile. After that, we visited the Roman and Greek antiquities at Korinthos and then headed up a nearby mountain to view Acrocorinth, a medieval castle, and look at the nearby plains from above.

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Our drive back to Athens was uneventful, and our next stop was the wonderful National Archeological Museum. It features such amazing items as golden death masks (including the beautiful but mistakenly named “Mask of Agamemnon” and the Antikythera Mechanism (which is considered to be the first analog computer). By this pint we were starving, so Tony stopped near a nice little Greek taverna so we could have a late lunch of cheese croquettes, fried fish (small fish like sardines), and feta cheese with tomatoes. Yum.

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Then it was off to the area of the Acropolis, but since Barb is wheelchair-bound at this time, we went to the brand-new Acropolis Museum. This museum wouldn’t allow photography of the exhibits, but you could take pictures of the Parthenon from the top floor.

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Back to the ship, where Tony dropped us off right at the Crew Entrance (we can take the ramp up to the 4th level). We took a bunch of photos from our verandah and the deck of the ship as the sun set, and then had a lovely dinner in the Terrace Cafe with a British couple.

It was really a pretty well perfect day!

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Nice and easy in Zakynthos

Today we stopped at the island of Zakynthos, the third-largest Ionian island in the vast chain of Greek islands (the Ionian island group is off the west coast of the Pelopennese peninsula, for those following along on Google maps at home). We had nothing planned today, so we slept in, had room service breakfast, and finally took a tender ashore around 10:30 am.

The main town, known by the locals as Zante town, was quite scenic, but difficult for a wheelchair. We decided to settle in at a taverna to watch the crowds, then headed back to the ship on a tender around 1:30 pm.

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We sailed at an earlier time (3:00 pm) due to the distance to Piraeus, the port for Athens. We have a taxi tour booked tomorrow to see the highlights of Athens and Corinth, so we’re hopeful that George and his staff (of the famous “George the Taxi Driver” service) will not be on strike.

The seas have been like glass on this cruise and the weather is hot and clear. In 20 minutes we go to dinner at Toscana, the specialty restaurant with Italian cuisine. We came up a little while ago to the Horizons lounge on the 15th deck forward at 5:45 pm for a repeat passenger cocktail party (very nice).

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A Beautiful Day in a Dying Land

One of the worst things to experience on a vacation is a death. Whether it’s the death of a fellow traveler or watching the death of a nation, it’s still an unwelcome intrusion into the mock reality of a holiday.

Today we stopped in Patras, Greece. This country is in the process of defaulting on its obligations to the world, and has an economy that is horribly diseased. Patras is not on the normal Eastern Mediterranean cruise itinerary — in fact, we were originally scheduled to go to Itea, up the Gulf of Corinth. On this new, large ship, we’re now blocked from Itea thanks to the Rion – Anterion Bridge North of Patras, so the itinerary was changed to stay in this city of 250,000.

The Rion - Anterion Bridge near Patras, Greece

Patras is not the most attractive city in the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s located in front of some nice tree-covered hills, but the city reached its peak many years ago. Looking at it from the port, you see an attractive and relatively new port facility with the typical tourist amenities, followed by rows of rather dreary apartment blocks. On the hills to the east are the omnipresent Euro wind turbines, which seem to be the hallmark of any nation that’s trying to show that it is “green” and “forward thinking.”

Barb had done quite a bit of work trying to find what we could do in Patras. The main things we heard about were the New Church of St. Andrew (Greek Orthodox), the Clauss Winery, and the Archeological Museum in the city. Barb had found a pair of friends who were both well-educated ladies near retirement who were now in the travel business … or so we thought.

Melina (not her real name for reasons that will become obvious) is a middle-aged woman who is a physicist by training. She’s nearing retirement, and formed a “club” with a number of colleagues to create a tour company. They’re not yet licensed and could probably get into deep trouble if they got caught, but they are looking towards a future where their government pensions may not necessarily be available. She teaches at a local university with her husband.

When she picked us up in her old Fiat Punto, she was immediately apologetic. She had let us know that we were going to be in this older 4-door car, so we had no issues. Then she told us that she was not officially licensed as a tour guide, which was also fine with us. Once we agreed to say that she was our “friend” and not our tour guide, we headed off to our first stop — the New Church of St. Andrew.

The New Church of St. Andrew, Patras, Greece

We briefly wandered through the “old church” right next door, but the highlight was the new church. It is literally a work in progress — one section is still unpainted with frescoes, awaiting funding for the work. Some of the dazzling sacred mosaics are only 7 to 12 years old! The floor of the church is made of beautiful inlaid marble showing animals of the land and sea, as well as the Byzantine double-headed eagle.

New Church of St. Andrew, Patras, Greece (exterior)

Melina, being a devout member of the Orthodox Church, pointed out many things that we were not aware of — paintings of Christ and the various saints are in a particular hierarchy at the front of the church, and the Madonna always dominates the background. As with some of the other churches we’ve visited so far on this trip, we took a little time to light a candle. The other day, it was for the victims of 9/11. Today, it was for the people of Greece.

An Octopus in the Marble Floor at the Church of St. Andrew

After leaving the Church, we went to the Achaia Clauss Winery, which was founded quite a few years ago by a German expatriate and has won a number of awards over the years. The winery is up on the hillside overlooking Patras, and we had a wonderful view of the city. We tried a glass of a sweet wine (tasted quite a bit like a port) and ended up buying a bottle — for €5! What a deal.

A street market in Patras

Melina took us to a local market, which was wonderful — all sorts of fresh fish, fruit, and vegetables by the block. We ran into an Australian who is about to move back to his native land. As he said, “There is no hope here.” That’s sad to hear, but it is incredibly true. The unemployment in this city is rampant, and the people are more likely to strike and protest than to work for better conditions. Throughout the city we saw ominous signs of a rally tomorrow being held by the Communists. Delightful – they’re thinking that communism is the answer? If that’s their idea, these people are sadly mistaken.

Greece - This is not a good path to be taking!

After leaving the winery, we went to a restaurant that overlooks the city as well. The sad thing was that it was almost empty — none of the locals can really afford to eat there, and Patras is off the beaten path when it comes to tourists.

After the visit to the market, we went to the Archeological Museum in Patras, a new facility that was empty — not of treasures, but of visitors. Most of the time we were there, the three of us (Barb, myself, and Melina) were the only visitors. This museum is filled with treasures dating back to the 18th Century B.C., and has the best Roman mosaics we’ve ever seen. We spent about an hour and a half in the museum, and were in awe of some of the items we saw on display. Two sad things — first, as visitors we got to see the exhibits for free, and second, there were more museum staff present than there were visitors.

A Roman Mosaic at the Archeological Museum in Patras

In the States, they’d be looking to make money off of this museum. Cut the staff, charge visitors a reasonable (€20 would not be out of the question for what we saw) entrance fee, and heavily market the museum to cruise ships or any other visitors to the city. Here, it’s obvious that they’re losing money. The lights in the bathrooms were turned off to conserve money, the outside reflecting pool was empty, and the staff seemed anxious.

Seriously, the items in the museum are some of the best I’ve ever seen, so it’s doubly sad to know that the Greeks — who are going broke as we visit — are so incredibly short-sighted as to let these treasures go to waste. Instead, they move busloads of visitors to old ruins. Sigh.

Once we were done with our museum visit, Melina had a couple of places she wanted to take us to. We first drove by the university where she and her husband work. She told us that the students are currently “on strike” protesting some change in the laws. Basically, they’re not attending classes or letting the professors into the facilities. Brilliant, kids — throw your future away protesting instead of learning something that can make you a living in the future.

Our final visit was to a tiny restaurant on the waterfront that was near the Rion – Anterion Bridge. It’s owned by a friend of Melina’s and has a beautiful view of the clear waters of the bay as well as the bridge and the hills off in the distance. Melina wanted us to try the lovely Greek liqueur — Ouzo! Sure enough, she had her friend bring over some ice cubes, some bottles of water, a couple of glasses, and some bottles of ouzo.

The liqueur has the taste of anise, and turns from a clear liquid to a milky white when you add ice or water. The first few gulps were a bit nasty, but we quickly got the hang of drinking this Greek favorite. Note to self — get a bottle of ouzo for the freezer at home. We had some nicely fried cheese balls, some tasty meatballs, and a lovely salad of cucumber, tomato, onion, green pepper, and feta cheese. Not long before we left, the proprietress brought another delicacy — a small octopus that had just been caught and grilled. It was awesome – a delicate smoky taste and not chewy at all.

With that, Melina took us back to the port. She gave us several bags full of local products — figs, olives, and similar things — and wouldn’t accept a tip that we wanted to give to her. When her business goes legit, we’ll gladly give her an endorsement. Heck, we’d even endorse her without the benefit of proper licensure.

It was a memorable day with a lovely person in a town that appears to be dying. Let’s pray for hope for the city of Patras.

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Corfu, Greece is Hot, Hot, Hot

Figs on Corfu

Tonight we’re on the pool deck for a party as we sail to Patras, Greece. Today we had a great tour of Corfu with Corfu Taxi Tours. I had booked this tour several months ago based on the recommendations of folks on the Cruise Critic boards. Annette from Vancouver (from our Roll Call) came with us to see the highlights of this large and very green island. Corfu’s two main industries are tourism in the summer and olive harvesting in the winter.

Our driver (Miklos?) was just terrific. We journeyed first on some back roads to the higher parts of the island on the north end. We stopped at a viewpoint that overlooked one of the better beach areas on the island, known as Paleokastritsa. We then stopped at a roadside store and tasted olive oils and homemade wines; they had great prices on embroidered goods and other handicrafts. We saw other sights across the island, then had about an hour of free time in Corfu Town. We returned to the ship in the late afternoon.

Our weather has been great on this trip so far, other than the torrential downpour in Frankfurt. However, the temperatures in each location have been steadily increasing. Today in Corfu it was brutal, probably nearing 90 degrees with high humidity. We were dragging when we got back on board and we downed gallons of water. Steve and I promptly fell asleep on the verandah after sailing out (once we caught a glimpse of Albania across a narrow strait near northern Corfu); we decided to cancel our dinner reservation at Polo Grill (steakhouse), opting instead for a light dinner at the Terrace buffet.

We have no idea what is in store for our next four stops in Greece with the news that economic default is imminent. Our driver today said that there was a national strike today, but his company decided to work because their season is short. Our day in Athens on Thursday may turn into a bonus day at sea. It should be interesting. We sure hope it cools off a little bit (temperature and bad economic news).

Steve is trying to add a couple of pictures of Kotor to the blog. We’ll have more soon.

Village Street Scene on Corfu

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Gorgeous Kotor, Montenegro

The Marina in Kotor, Montenegro

Greetings! We’re cruising towards Corfu, Greece tonight. We had a marvelous and relaxing day in Kotor, Montenegro. This small breakaway republic was formed in 2006, but the area has an active history dating back to the Greeks and Romans. To reach Kotor, our ship sailed through the spectacular Gulf of Kotor, usually described as a Mediterranean fjord (it’s really a canyon carved by a submerged river). This 30-km journey was awe-inspiring; we got up very early to see the sailing into the narrow channels surrounded by spectacular granite and limestone peaks.

Chapel of Our Lady of Salvation, Kotor Bay, Montenegro

Kotor is an exquisite walled city, listed on the UNESCO world heritage sites. We had a great time wandering the marble-paved alleys and major streets and visited several churches, including St. Tryphon’s, founded in 809 AD. It was very warm and sunny today again, so at lunchtime we found a cool cafe spot in the shadow of the peaks and had a great little pizza for lunch (with some excellent Montenegran wine and beer – of course!).

St. Tryphon's Cathedral, Kotor, Montenegro

Tonight we sat on our verandah for the sail out from Kotor, seeing the “other side”. We’ll try to upload photos soon – if you ever get the chance, do not miss taking a cruise that visits Kotor and Dubrovnik.

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A Beautiful Day in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik after sunset

Today’s port was Dubrovnik, Croatia. Barb had planned a private tour with a gentleman who was born in Croatia (when it was part of Yugoslavia), emigrated with his parents to New York in the late 1940s, and spent a good part of his life in America. Ivan’s now back in Dubrovnik doing tours for Americans, and he did a wonderful job.

We came into port and dropped anchor at about Noon local time, after which time we were able to grab a tender to the old town of Dubrovnik. Ivan was waiting for us, and we started with a walking tour of the old city. There are Roman Catholic, Franciscan, Eastern (Serbian) and Greek Orthodox, Benedictine, and Jesuit churches in the old town, and we visited several of them.

Before our tour, Ivan provided a history of the region, sprinkled with a good New Yorker’s sense of humor. Once we were done, we hit the road with our driver in a nice Mercedes to see the area.

We had an opportunity to see the new cable-stayed bridge that carries the highway to the north — it was apparently built by two European engineering firms over a four year period. Neither of the companies had previous experience in bridge building, so both went bankrupt within years of completion of the project.

At a stop to get a bottle of water, we had a small shot of what can best be described as homebrew Croatian Jagermeister. Yum! That steadied our nerves for the next part of the drive, which took us high on a ridge overlooking Dubrovnik and environs — we were only several hundred meters away from Montenegro at one point. The drive then continued into a large valley that used to be called the “Breadbasket of the Republic of Debrovnik”, but is mostly fallow land nowadays. Some farmers are turning to the cultivation of table and wine grapes, so there were plenty of beautiful grapes that were being harvested.

Our next stop was at a beautiful old mill that has been renovated. It was one of many mills set up along a small river to harness the power for milling flour and meal from grain and corn. On a dare from a fellow visitor, Steve took his shoes off and dangled them in the water, which was amazingly cold — 45°F. That was refreshing considering the heat of the day.

We had a drink and small snack, then continued on the road to Cavtat, a stunningly beautiful small port that is frequented by yachts from around the world. It was founded in the 6th Century B.C., and the well-protected port is a good reason why the ancients chose this location.

There’s a monastery here that we visited with a small church — Our Lady of the Snow — attached. The monastery is actually open for lodging.

After that point, we drove back to Dubrovnik and parted ways with both Ivan and our driver. We walked again through the old city, this time at sunset. There were a number of open-air restaurants, so we grabbed some chairs at one and had a plate of local cheeses (yum!) and olives. After a drink or two, we left for the tender and headed back to Marina for a “real dinner”.

Both of us loved Dubrovnik and would definitely come back some day to stay for a few days. It’s a gorgeous location, the people are friendly, and the history is still being made.

Franjo Tudjman Bridge in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Our wonderful tour guide in Dubrovnik, Ivan

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A day at “sea” in Venice; A long and strange day in Slovenia

Lake Bled, Slovenia

We hope everyone is doing well at home!

Our day spent exploring the ship on September 8 was very relaxing. First, we slept in very late, finally getting up after 10:00 am. We had a nice little continental breakfast at Baristas, the coffee bar on Marina. We spent more time on our verandah watching the crazy boat traffic, then had fantastic burgers at Waves grill on deck 12 (can you say Kobe beef? Of course you can!) Naturally, we’re eating too much! At 4:00 pm, we went to our culinary class (Indulging in Italy); I helped Steve prepare some fun and easy menu items, including a roasted beet and caramelized mushroom salad with goat cheese, four varieties of lettuce, and toasted walnuts. The main course (interrupted by the lifeboat drill) was penne pasta with Italian sausage and more mushrooms, combined with cream, garlic and parmesan. Dessert was an easy tiramisu. The class was a lot of fun and served nicely as our dinner.

Chef Steve displays a salad of caramelized mushroom, roasted beet, assorted greens, and a tasty vinaigrette

At 8:00 pm, we had our “meet and greet” with folks from our Cruise Critic roll call. I actually started the roll call for this cruise in July 2010 and we ended up with about 50 members who have shared travel trips and tour suggestions for many months. It was strange to finally associate a face with a name. Cruise Critic is a terrific travel resource (www.cruisecritic.com).

We stayed up for the sailing from Venice at 11:59 pm. The cruise ships go right past the heart of Venice, which was spectacular even at that late hour. We had a very short night and had to get up very early today.

We’re underway again tonight ( September 9) after stopping at our first port today, which was the off-the-beaten-path northeastern Adriatic sea port of Koper, Slovenia (near Trieste, Italy, for map aficionados). When planning this cruise, I have tried to steer clear of ship excursions as much as possible for three reasons: 1) They are incredibly overpriced, 2) The excursion is never what is advertised, and, 3) I need to control the tour situation with my knee problems and the ubiquitous travel wheelchair. Alas, we were unable to find a good private tour here and we wanted to go farther afield than just the sleepy town of Koper (Koper IS the car shipping and receiving hub of Europe, so I guess that’s something). I reluctantly booked a ship tour advertised as “wheelchair accessible” that went to Lake Bled, in the Alps near the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. Lake Bled is two hours from Koper and is a popular year-round resort (the rowing world championships were held here last week).

Well, apparently “wheelchair accessible” on this tour means that your wheelchair gets a nice ride in the luggage hold of the bus and its occupant (me) spends a lot of time sitting and waiting for everyone else. The two main features of the tour, a visit to the Baroque church on the island in Lake Bled and a stop at the Grad (castle) high on a hill overlooking the lake, were not at all “accessible”. The island is reached in unique and beautiful small wood vessels (known as Pletna) that are propelled by a standing oarsman and they have no space for a wheelchair; it wouldn’t matter anyway, as the beautiful church is reached by climbing “only” 99 steps. So I sat at the bottom of the steps and waited for everyone else (at least I got to ride on the boat).

The Grad (castle) was much worse; it was at the top of an extremely steep cobblestone path, so I sat on the bus for 45 minutes, stewing about how expensive this excursion was and how the brochure was so misleading. Oceania, just like every other cruise line, really falls down on the job creating interesting and realistically described shore excursions. We have one more ship excursion, in Istanbul, so we’ll see what happens. I do intend to visit the Destination Services desk tomorrow to let them know our thoughts on this experience.

Once everyone returned to the bus we went to a restaurant on a golf course and had lunch. This had to be the weirdest lunch I have ever had: It started with a flavorless vermicelli soup, followed by a salad that had corn, shredded cabbage and pinto beans (!), then the pièce de résistance, the entree. This was a rubbery piece of turkey breast that had been pounded flat, seared, then baked and finally covered with some bizarre zucchini sauce. I can say that the potatoes were good. I don’t think the Food Network will be optioning a show anytime soon highlighting this cuisine.

Steve enjoying that terrific (???) Slovenian cuisine

Our tour was late getting back to the ship because of traffic. One of the only positive things about a ship tour is that the ship will wait for you if you are delayed returning. We did like our guide, who had a wealth of knowledge of all things Slovenian; she talked about the break-up of Yugoslavia and other very interesting topics. The countryside was also spectacular, with beautiful scenery, dramatic mountains and lovely villages.

Well, that was a long report. We ate in Red Ginger tonight on the ship; this is another specialty restaurant and it was outstanding (so was Jacques, by the way). We both had the duck and watermelon salad and the miso sea bass. Yummo!!!! Incredible service, too!

The amazing Duck / Watermelon salad at Red Ginger

Tomorrow we visit Dubrovnik, Croatia, where we have a private tour set up. Look for a few pictures (hopefully) soon.

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