Monday, October 19, 2009

Santorini, Greece

Santorini, the whole reason we decided to take another cruise through the Mediterranean. Our first trip to this most iconic of Greek islands was so enchanting and alluring that we wanted to re-live it all over again. I've never before seen such a breathtaking island paradise. I've been to many places in this world, but somehow Santorini has haunted me since I first visited 3 years ago.

I'm very fond of saying that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then being in Santorini is worth a million words. As gorgeous as pictures of this beautiful island are, nothing compares to being there in person.

The Captain had informed us the previous night that if we were up early on Santorini day that we wouldn't be disappointed as the island should be coming into view at around 6:00 am. As we had wanted to be one of the first ones off the ship that day, we were already up and at breakfast by 6:00 am and we weren't disappointed by the stunning view. Just before 6:00 am, the twinkling lights of the small village of Oia that sits high atop the caldera on the northern end of the island could be seen. It was still dark out, so all you could make out was the silhouette of the island itself and the glowing lights of the village. Oia, sleepy and quiet, waiting for daylight to come and the throngs of visitors that are sure to follow. As we came closer to the island, the first hints of light appeared out on the horizon, just behind the island. The island was starting to become awash in brilliant reds, and fiery oranges as the sun was starting to rise. We could now make out the pure white color of the whitewashed buildings set against the dark black of the volcano cliff face. It was a spectacular sight to say the least.

In the three years since I've been to Santorini, I had read about the headaches of going ashore and coming back to the ship, and I wanted to make sure that I didn't get stuck in the mess of it all. What makes Santorini a difficult place for cruise ship passengers to get to is the fact that the island does not have a deep harbor port. And as the ship enters the caldera of the volcano, dropping anchor is impossible too. So what the ship has to do is idle in place out in the ocean and transfer passengers to land via tender. The unique aspect of the tendering process here in Santorini is the fact that the local authorities require the use of local tender boats rather than the ship tenders, so that slows down the process quite a bit. However, as Santorini gets 2-3 ships a day during the busy summer months, the local tender operations are very familiar with the drill. But, you can imagine, on a very busy day, with tens of thousands of cruise ship passengers all wanting to get off the ship and on the island, the process can be rather time consuming.

We wanted to make sure that we weren't stuck in the hordes of passengers that we were ready bright and early. At the appointed time, we went and got our tender tickets, and were assigned to the first tender off the ship. Now, it was just a matter of waiting until the local tender operations set up. In the morning, as we were rounding Oia and the sun was rising, we had already seen the Splendour of the Seas making her way around Santorini and coming in right behind us. And from my research, I knew that there would be at least one other large cruise ship in town that day. So it really was imperative that we get on the island as soon as possible.

Once tendering operations began and we got on board the first tender, we were greeted by a sight I certainly didn't expect to see: fog. There was fog everywhere. It was so thick that we couldn't see to the top of the caldera and Fira, the town that rests up there. Another unexpected sensation, humidity. It wasn't a cold fog we were experiencing, it was more like a thick haze, and very high humidity. We later found out, that this was unseasonable humidity that the locals never really experience. And the haze was just weird because the locals say it's never like this either. In fact, the haze never really burned off all day long. The bad thing about having the haze around all day is that it was hard to see Santorini in all it's glory without the sun's rays glinting off the ocean and accentuating the whitewashed houses of the island. But it only but a slight damper on the day, it certainly didn't ruin it by any means. The island was still just as I had remembered it, beautiful, special, amazing.

Upon getting off the tender, you're dropped of at the base of the caldera where there are a few shops, but not much else. If you want to see the island, you need to get yourself to the top of the caldera to the city of Fira (or Thira). There are 3 ways to accomplish this task: take a cable car up to the top, walk up a zig-zagging path, or use that same path and ride a donkey. Walking uphill can be difficult, and probably isn't recommended. The donkey's are a unique experience, and before there was a cable car, it was probably the method most people used. But the risk of smelling like donkey the rest of the day wasn't too appealing, saying nothing about the fact that some of the donkeys appear to be unhappy and emaciated. So cable car it was. Last time I was here, I took the cable car then too. The cable car system was donated to the island by a wealth Greek businessman. The system contains 6 cable cars on the right track, and 6 on the left track. Each cable car only seats 6 passengers, so at any one time, the maximum number of riders you can have is 36 going up while 36 come down. Now you can see why trying to get 10 or 15,000 passengers from the bottom to the top can be quite the process. Luckily for us, getting on the first tender, off the first ship to begin tendering operations, meant that we were one of the first ones up the cable cars.

It was a bit of a weird feeling as we were sitting in the cable car climbing to the top of the caldera. Due to the fog, it was difficult to really be able to see anything. Once we got to the top of the caldera and into Fira, it was a bit better, but it was still hazy. Our plan was to immediately walk to the bus station and take the local bus over to the village of Oia. From our previous trip here, we already knew where the bus station was, so we just started walking.

In another sign of the increased tourist activity to Santorini, when we arrived at the bus station, we saw that there was a large sign written in English that said "Bus Station," plus there was a board with the names of the bus destinations and a map and prices written on it. Lastly, the man sitting at the information window was passing out sheets of paper in English with the map, the prices, and a bus timetable on it. The first time we were in Santorini, there was none of this: no sign for the bus station, no maps, no time tables, and people who barely spoke English. By the time the first bus left from Fira to Oia, it was packed with cruise ship passengers.

The ride from Fira to Oia only takes about 25 minutes. As we approached Oia, we could see that there was fog here at the northern tip of the island as well. The hope was that we would make it up to Oia before the cruise ship shore excursions passengers overran the city. By the time we arrived, we discovered that there were already some cruise ship passengers there, but it wasn't too bad.

The best part of Oia is the views. This little village atop the caldera is really the quintessential Greek island community. It's what you picture in your head when you think about the Greek islands. Narrow cobbled lanes, completely whitewashed houses, churches with blue domed roofs, infinity pools that seem to just drop off, all clinging to the edge of the volcano in this island paradise. We ended up staying in Oia for quite a few hours. We stayed while most of the tourist horde came and went and the village was quiet again. We even enjoyed a light refreshment on a rooftop terrace overlooking the ocean just to soak up the sights and the sounds.

From Oia, we took the local bus back to Fira and decided to spend the remainder of our day there. Even when we returned past midday, the fog was still so thick that it was hard to see the cruise ships idled out in the water from the top of the caldera. We spent the rest of the day just shopping, walking around, enjoying the views and the sights and the sounds, and of course, partaking in some ice cream! By the time we were ready to head back down to catch the tender to the ship, we discovered that the line for the cable cars was enormously long. This is something we didn't encounter on our first trip to Santorini either. But with the influx of cruise ship passengers, and with the cable cars only being able to handle 36 passengers going down at any one time, the line had gotten pretty long. We knew that as the day wore on, the line would just get longer and longer, so we decided to just get in line now. The line took about 30 minutes to get through. But once we were back down at the harbor, it was a quick little jaunt from the tender back on board the ship.

Shortly after 5 pm, once everyone was back on board, the ship set sail in a southerly direction headed for our next port of call in Naples, Italy, but not before we were to enjoy our one, and only, sea day of the cruise.

Santorini will be a place I always consider special. The views and the sights of this island are just beyond what words can describe. This time around, the crowds and the fog put a little bit of a damper on the experience, and if I hadn't ever been here before, I might have a different perspective on the island. But having seen the beauty and amazement that Santorini can offer, this experience didn't dull my senses to what has to be one of the most gorgeous spots on Earth.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rhodes, Greece

Rhodes was a true diamond in the ruff. A destination that I knew very little about, expected much less from, and instead discovered a treasure trove of wonders. This port stop was certainly the most surprising stop of the entire cruise, and one of the most memorable, for several reasons.

Prior to leaving for the cruise, I had tried to do as much research as I could on all of the ports of call. Unfortunately, I found the least amount of information Rhodes. It seemed like guide books just glossed over the island. So, I figured, this would be one of those not-so-memorable type of port stops where the highlight would be the beach, or something like that. That couldn't have been any further from the truth.

Rhodes is a rather large island that is located just off the coast of Turkey. Therefore, the feel of this largest of the Dodecanese islands, feels much more Eastern than it does Western. From my research, I had decided that we were going to take try and take the public bus out the city of Lindos and try and climb to the top of the Acropolis. Beyond that, I wasn't quite sure what we would find, what we would see, and how we would feel about it. Luckily, I was able to get some help in advance regarding the bus schedule from Rhodes Town (where we were docked) to Lindos, so I had an idea of timing of everything in relation to our time in port.
However, we got off to a bit of a late start. Due to some high winds, and the tricky way that the Ruby Princess had to dock at Rhodes Town, we were almost 30 minutes late in docking. The ship actually docks just outside of the Old Town portion of Rhodes Town. Old Town is enclosed behind a very thick and formidable wall that was used for protection purposes in medieval days. Old Town tends to be the favorite stop of most cruise passengers arriving in Rhodes.

As soon as passengers were cleared to disembark the ship, we were one of the first ones off. We immediately tried to find the bus station to catch the bus to Lindos. We had 30 minutes to make our way there, and it appeared that it was going to be pretty tight in timing. The bus station in Rhodes Town was not easy to find at all. It's not within the walls of Old Town, and it took me asking about 5 people for directions, and about 25 minutes before I found the bus station. Once I arrived, we located the bus to Lindos, the bus driver opened up the doors, we paid for our tickets, and the bus took off for Lindos exactly on time at 9:00 am.

The drive from Rodos (Rhodes Town) to Lindos took approximately 90 minutes, with a few stops in between. Surprisingly, the island is rather large, and in terms of distance, the two cities are separated by almost 70km. In Lindos, the bus actually drops you at Krana Square, which sits above Lindos itself. Like most other Greek islands, Lindos is made up of whitewashed houses. The town itself sits down at sea level, and the famous Acropolis of Lindos rests atop this huge rock that seemingly rises up out of nowhere just off the coast. Once you arrive at Krana Square, you still need to get yourself down to the main square of Lindos. This can be accomplished by either taking the free bus that circles between Krana Square and the Lindos Town Square all day, or by walking. In our case, walking was not an option. Luckily for us, the free bus arrived at Krana Square right when our public bus arrived.

The first difference we noticed between Rodos and Lindos was the temperature. Whereas Rodos was windy with the ocean breezes cooling down the town, Lindos was the exact opposite. Even though we were situated right next to the ocean, there was nary an ocean breeze. And the sun was blazing. This was by far the hottest day of the cruise. With the sun pounding down, the temperature soared to well over 100 degrees, and that task of climbing up to the Acropolis became even more daunting.

Once we arrived to the main square in Lindos we had two options for getting to the top of the Acropolis: walk on foot, or take a donkey ride up. I had initially thought that I wanted to take a donkey. But when I got there, I just couldn't do it. Luckily, the first half of the uphill walk to the top of the Acropolis is through Lindos' tourist shopping zone. Somehow walking and looking at souvenirs made the walk not feel so bad. It's only the last little bit up to the ticket booth where the incline becomes quite steep. Once you're past the ticket booth, all that's left to navigate is a steep set of stairs to the main entrance of the Acropolis. However, with the weather being as hot as it was that day, even that last set of stairs was grueling.

The Acropolis in Lindos is certainly not as lauded as that of the Acropolis in Athens; it's history is not as grand; but nonetheless it's views are spectacular. Atop the Acropolis there are few ruins that still stand. There are scattered stone pieces here and there, and it appears that there is a concerted effort to restore, or rebuild, the temples and buildings that once stood atop the Rock. It appears that the lone standing building that remains is a small monastery. However, it's not the buildings that make this Acropolis spectacular, it's the view. From the top of the Acropolis the views out over the ocean are gorgeous. There's a beautiful little cove with a beach down below the Acropolis, and everywhere else you look there's nothing but the beautiful blue ocean with the sun's rays glinting off the surface like explosions of light.

After spending a bit of time atop the Acropolis, we walked back through Lindos and it's maze of vendors stalls, even stopping for a crepe, before making our way back to Krana Square to catch the next bus to Lindos. Our timing was perfect as the next bus was scheduled to depart in less than 10 minutes. The trip from Lindos back to Rodos took a little bit longer than our trip out there because there was a lot more afternoon traffic in Rodos.

By the time we made it back to Rodos, it was early afternoon and we had a few hours left to wander through Old Town. Rhodes Old Town, contained within the city walls was amazing. The cobbled streets, the vendors, the buildings, all of it. There's so much to like about Rhodes, and absolutely nothing to dislike.

Since it was so hot, I couldn't resist stopping at a little gelato place for some cool refreshment. Only this wasn't your typical gelato stand, they were clever enough to shape all of their gelato flavors to look like animals! It was the cutest thing I've ever seen. And it turned out to be pretty good gelato too.
The balance of the afternoon was spent wandering through the cobbled lanes all throughout Old Town and doing a lot of shopping. We also had a little bit of an adventure trying to find our way back to the cruise ship at the end of the day. Subsequently, we ended up walking about halfway around the outside of the Rhodes Old Town city wall.

What a delightful and charming little city Rhodes turned out to be. Lindos was spectacular, albeit a little hot. And Rodos proved to be a charming medieval village. I certainly wouldn't mind going back to Rhodes again in the future.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Kusadasi, Turkey

Out of all of the port stops on my recent cruise, this is the one stop where I had the most trouble deciding what I wanted to do. It wasn't because there was so much to choose from that I felt overwhelmed, it was more because of the fact that I've been here before and I didn't want to pay to do something I'd already done. I had decided long before that if I was going to take a tour in Kusadasi, it would be through the ship, so therefore, I knew I had time to make a decision as to whether or not to purchase the tour. I just didn't think that I'd wait until the absolute last second to make my decision. In the end, I felt that since I had come all this way, I might as well purchase the tour to Ephesus that included a tour of the Terrace Houses.

The first time I went to Kusadasi, I took the basic tour of Ephesus, just the archaeological site, and nothing else. It was fascinating as I never knew there was an important Roman City that existed in what is today, Turkey. Secondly, I never realized that there was a city that was as well preserved as Ephesus was. The ruins at Ephesus are quite impressive, and maybe more impressive, than those found anywhere in Italy. The most fascinating aspect of Ephesus, to me, is the fact that what we see today is estimated to only be 15% of the ruins that are in the area. I can only imagine what other fascinating ruins the archaeologists will discover in time.

What convinced me to take another tour of Ephesus on this trip was the fact that the tour I purchased would also include a tour of the Terrace Houses. When I was last at Ephesus, I saw the structure under which the Terrace Houses were located, but I had never heard of them at the time and had no idea what I was missing. Subsequently, in the past 3 years, I constantly heard people raving about how amazing the Terrace Houses are and how they are a "not to be missed" stop on any trip out to Ephesus. So, I bit the bullet, and shelled out the money for the Terrace Houses.

By the time we arrived in Kusadasi, it was early morning. Shortly after our ship docked at the pier, a HAL ship appeared on the opposite side of the pier. A little later in the morning an Ocean Village ship docked at the next pier over. It was going to be a busy day in Kusadasi today.

The port town of Kusadasi is just as I remembered it from 3 years ago. Not much has changed, if at all. Located within walking distance of the pier is the Grand Bazaar shopping area that sells assorted "Genuine Fake" products; everything from handbags, to luggage, to clothing, to jewelry. You name it, they've probably got it. And they're aggressive in trying to sell items to you. If you so much as glance in the direction of the merchandise in a particular store, the merchant will pounce right on you and try and drag you into their store. Unfortunately for them, their aggressive nature is pretty much a turn off for me. So, I didn't have the slightest interest in doing any sort of shopping in Turkey.

I ended up meeting with my tour group not too long after we docked in Kusadasi. As this was billed as an "Elite" tour, there were only 17 passengers in my tour. Part of the reason for the smaller touring group is the fact that there is limited admission into the Terrace Houses, therefore, large tour groups would never be able to go through the area. However, it took us quite a awhile to get organized and get going on our tour. By the time we left Kusadasi, there are were already plenty of tour groups on the road ahead of us.

The drive from Kusadasi to Ephesus takes about 25 minutes. Along the way, we passed some very nice resort beach hotels that dot the coastline. The archaeological ruins at Ephesus actually lie just outside of the town of Selcuk. Back when Ephesus was a strategic stronghold for the Holy Roman Empire, Ephesus was a port town. There is a famous road in Ephesus known as the Harbor Street. It used to be that the sea came all the way up to this road, and the road then lead into the city. It was that road that Mark Antony and Cleopatra once walked, as did St. John. However, over time, the sea retreated, nearly 5 miles to where it is now, and Ephesus ceased to be an important strategic harbor city.

As the city fell out of importance, the population of the city began to decline and eventually it fell to ruins. It was only recently that the ruins at Ephesus were even discovered, and to this day, work continues on a daily basis to unlock all of the treasures that this ancient city has to offer.

Included on the grounds that are believed to be part of Ephesus are the remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, though there's not much left to signify that this grand Temple once stood on this spot. One of the neat things about this trip is the fact that this cruise included stops where 3 of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World once stood: The Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, and the Colossus of Rhodes in Rhodes.

As Ephesus appears to have been built on an incline, the majority of tourists start their tours up at the highest elevation of the city at the Magnesia Gate, and then follow the main road down to the Harbor Gate. By the time we got to Magnesia Gate, it was packed with tour groups. I don't ever remember seeing this many groups when I was in Ephesus on my first Mediterranean cruise. The unfortunate part about Ephesus is that until you get down near the Harbor Gate, there basically is no shade to be found within the archaeological site, which means translates to people sweltering under the harsh 100+ degree temperatures with no reprieve.

The ruins are themselves are pretty well preserved, with archways, buildings, and arenas that are all intact. One of the first buildings you come upon is an open air arena where the Senate used to meet. The upper part of Ephesus is made up mostly of governmental and commercial business, including the commercial agora, or shopping area. The residential and leisure buildings of the city are found more towards the Harbor area of the city.

Some of the more interesting ruins to be found throughout the city include the Temple of Hadrian and the Temple of Domitian. Both are marked more with ornamental arches, rather than the temple structure itself, which can't really be made out. There are also all sorts of interesting carved tablets that can be found throughout the city. One of the tablets made from stone is carved into the symbol that today represents the medical field with the intertwining snakes. There is also a famous carved stone statue of the Goddess Nike.

Towards the bottom of the main road through Ephesus, you come upon a series of buildings that almost look like a row of houses. The buildings themselves aren't very distinctive, but it's what lies in front of the building that is impressive. It is an almost entirely preserved mosaic walkway. It's amazing that after all these years, something that delicate and beautiful remains. The mosaic walkways seem to indicate that the residents of this area must have had wealth to afford a delicate mosaic marble walkway in front of their dwellings.

Directly adjacent to this gorgeous marble mosaic walkway is the entrance to the Terrace Houses. The Terrace Houses is basically a 3-tiered set of about 6 dwellings that are believed to have been owned by the rich and powerful of the city. They are so-called due to the terraced nature in which the buildings are built and the beautiful view of the city that these residences hold. In order to preserve these buildings and their contents, and also to provide a safe, and accessible way for tourists to view these wonders, a huge and expensive ($30+ million) enclosed structure was built over the Terrace Houses. Inside the structure, there are glass bottom walkways that lead visitors through all three levels of the buildings allowing visitors full visual access to all of the Terrace Houses.

To this day, work is constantly being done inside the Terrace Houses, not only to preserve what has been found, and to reconstruct everything, but also to uncover more treasures. What makes the Terrace Houses so special isn't just the fact that these were noblemen's houses, it's the fact that found within these dwellings were beautifully preserved frescoes, and found on the floors were elaborate and incricate marble mosaic floors. Each of the six dwellings have some remanants of frescoed walls remaining. Some of the frescoes contained on the walls and ceilings of some of the houses are enough to blow your mind away. (It was only later at the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill in Rome that I saw even more magnificent frescoes.) To this point in time, in all of my travels, I had never seen such well preserved frescoes. There were paintings that showed birds, geometric designs, plans and flowers, and other small animals. Beyond the frescoes, the mosaic floors were mind blowing. The quality and detail of the crafstmanship was obvious. And the fact that entire floors in rooms were so well preserved only speaks volumes about the painstaking work that was put into creating and designing these floors. The mosaic floors were more than just random geometric designs on the floor, some of them were works of art with beautiful lion scenes. The quality and nature of the ruins found within the Terrace Houses blows away anything that is found outside in the rest of the archaeological site.

As you exit the Terrace Houses, you come to Ephesus' most recognizable sight, the facade of the Library of Celsus. At one time, this was the third largest library in the world, measured by the number of scrolls contained at the sight, only behind the libraries at Alexandria and in Rome. The three story facade of the library is a wonder to behold. Made of delicate marble, it's amazing to think of the reconstruction work that was undertaken in order to restore the facade. I've honestly never seen anything like it before.

Finally, the last great sight of Ephesus is it's enormous outdoor amphitheater, located at the end of the Harbor Street. This is the spot where St. John came to preach and spread the word of God. The Great Theater seats over 40,000 people and is considered by archaeologists to be the largest theater of the ancient world. It's acoustics are so astounding, and it's ruins so well preserved that it is still used to this day for outdoor concerts. One of the more famous performers to have performed at the Great Theater was Elton John.

From the Great Theater, it was a short jaunt back on to the tour bus to get back to Kusadasi. At the very end of the tour, they tried to drop us off at a Turkish Carpet factory to get a demonstration as to how Turkish rugs and carpets are made and to try and convince us to buy one. As I got roped into this tour last time, I quietly snuck out and headed back for the ship once we were back in Kusadasi.

Overall, it was an interesting day. Ephesus, while I'm glad I've now had the pleasure of experiencing it twice, is not a place I think I'd consider coming back to on my own. And now that I've been here twice and feel like I've seen and done the things I'm interested in seeing and doing, I don't particularly have a desire to go back to again. However, as it is a rather popular port stop for Mediterannean cruises, I have a feeling that before it's all said and done, I'll probably find myself back there again.