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.