Monday, August 27, 2014

Cruising the Mediterranean Sea: Port of Athens

Athens is steeped in history – there's a bit of ancient Greek every corner you turn, there's simply no avoiding it.

Not that you would, of course. Why else would you be here? 
View of the city from the Acropolis
Arriving in the height of summer and in the midst of the Euro crisis – the mood around town was slightly depressing with empty shops along some streets, and tourists being the only visible consumers about town.

We hired a driver who's a born-and-bred Greek and he had spent many years of his adulthood in US. For me, that's a bit of a guarantee of his language proficiency. And it was pretty affordable – 200 euros for a party of 4. And he said he drove a Benz E-class. Sounded like a really awesome deal.

When he picked us up at the port, I realized that he's really just a taxi driver – who specialized in tourist business. Not that I had any problems with that. And he had already planned a very packed itinerary for us (that's his standard itinerary – and there's really so much to see in Athens).

First up, he drove us to the Acropolis of Athens – probably one of the most important sites in Athens. Now, as he wasn't a licensed guide, he couldn't bring us into the site. What he did was bring out a book on the Acropolis (in the air-conditioned cab) and told us abit more about the sites we would see inside.

Then he left us to enter and explore for an hour or so. But not before insisting that we take a group photo right outside first.

About to venture into the ancient site of Acropolis.
The Acropolis of Athens is an ancient citadel located on a high rocky outcrop above the city of Athens. It containing the remains of several ancient buildings of great architectural and historic significance, the most famous being the Parthenon. 

View of the ancient and modern city of Athens.
The Parthenon was a temple dedicated to the maiden goddess Athena, whom the people of Athens considered their patron. 

The Parthenon
While the Parthenon was the most impressive temple on the Acropolis, another building, the Erechtheion was built to accomodate the religious rituals that the old temple housed. 

Side view of The Erechtheion
Now, it was a real shame that we didn't hire a guide for the Acropolis. 

It was scorching hot and hard to navigate (due to slippery and uneven roads and tourist hordes) so we would have benefited greatly if I had decided to hire a guide (either pre-booking one with the driver, or just hiring someone at the entrance). 

My aunt actually slipped once near the Parthenon. While slippery and uneven roads was very much a feature of ancient ruins and there was no reason for us to complain except be extra cautious, we were not very impressed with the wild dogs roaming about what must be the most important tourist site in Athens.

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I'm pretty certain we would have learnt a lot more about the Acropolis if I hadn't been stingy and not hired a guide. While my mom and aunt were happily reading up information available on the plaques, and snapping away, my dad and I ended up a little bored. Bad move, this one. 

Tourist madness at Acropolis becoming unbearable for us.
When we were done with the Acropolis, the driver brought us to see a couple other sights such as the ruins of the Temple of Zeus etc and also the Panathenian Olympic Stadium of the 1896 Olympiad. 

Yep, this was where the first modern Olympics was held. 

First Modern Olympics was held here! 
Round the corner from the stadium is the statue of the Marathon runner - made entirely of glass sheets. Love it! 

And then, it was time for lunch. 

Again, it was useful to have your own driver as he had done some research beforehand to help us find a vegetarian restaurant that we could dine at. He had one in mind, but that shop was closed for the day, so he brought us here instead. 

He had never brought any guests here before, but it looked pretty decent. 

Vegetarian cafe in Athens. 
Sadly though, there was a bit of a screw-up. The place was really nice and cosy and had a great menu. However, the kitchen couldn't really keep up with the orders (and there weren't even many guests!)

They got the chef out (Indian fella) to help my mum with the order (she cannot eat garlic, onion, fennel - aromatic vegetables that are used liberally in Indian vegetarian cuisine) which was a nice touch - BUT, he forgot about it, and my mum's dish ended up containing onions. 

We had to send it back, and I think a fight ensued in the kitchen. (We overheard raised voices whenever the kitchen door opened). 

Sigh, it was slightly painful and stressful, but well, my mum got her dish in the end, and we quickly ate up and left. 

We got back to the car and continued on our journey. 

There were so many sights that he pointed out to us as he drove slowly through the streets, that I kinda lost count. 

Eventually, he brought us up to the hill of St. George Lycabettus with its panoramic view of the city. 
View of the city with the Acropolis at the top, from the hill of St George Lycabettus.
It's not your usual tourist spot, we were told, as big tour buses don't usually come up the winding hill roads. 

Our driver also told us that this was probably the only spot where we could have a picture of the Parthenon in our hands. 

Very cheesy. But, well, we tried anyway. 

After another drive through the city, we finally ended up at the new museum of the Acropolis. 

It's a really nice swanky looking glass museum, very modern, pretty well-run and it had an excavation just below the site! (Glass floor to look at the entire excavation site!)

We spent quite some time just looking from above, before we entered the museum (where photography was strictly prohibited - and security guards prowled the museum to ensure the rule was enforced). 

Honestly, I was really tired and overwhelmed by the sights after this museum trip. 

I was sleepy from the big lunch and hot weather and more driving in the car only made me sleepier. Hah! 

Our driver brought us to Plaka (the old city of Athens) where tourists go to shop, and after a brief pause, he drove us back to the port on a scenic coastal road, stopping by the Ship Museum next to the posh Flisvos Marina.

And even if it makes me sound like a bad tourist, but I confess, I was super duper happy to be back on the ship! 

Sunday, August 26, 2014

Cruising the Mediterranean Sea: Port of Kusadasi - Ephesus (Turkey)

The port of Kusadasi was the most welcoming port of them all. Literally. 

There's a board out there at the port to welcome us to Turkey!

I woke up this morning to see the ship slowly inch in towards the port, delicately docking itself right next to, coincidentally, another Royal Carribean ship. It was a pretty sight, with the rising sun in the horizon, and the seaside city of Kusadasi in its backdrop.

While having breakfast, we also witnessed another ship from luxury liner Silversea gracefully sail in and dock itself on the other side of our ship.

Three ships docked so closely side by side at a port! That's the first time we've encountered something like this on this cruise.

Now, we were signed on a half day private tour so that gave us ample time to have a leisurely breakfast, before going off the ship to meet our guide at 9.30am.

We were going to visit the ancient city of Ephesus – the third largest city of the Roman empire after Rome and Alexandria (Eygpt).

The ancient city of Ephesus was once the site of many great civilizations and home to the Temple of Artemis – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But all that is left now, of what must have been a magnificent building, is but a few columns. I guess that really makes it a proper ruin!

It was a 20 minutes drive from the Port, and is the most important archeological (and tourist) site in this little seaside town of Kusadasi. It disappeared after an earthquake shook Ephesus a long time ago and the ruins was discovered about 150 years ago.

It was another scorching hot day and we began our hour plus walk through the entire ancient city of Ephesus close to 11am. It was however not as punishing as I thought it would be. 

Along the way, our guide would stop under trees as he told us more about each site, before he set us free to snap away to our heart's delight.

Seeking refuge under trees
It was all quite manageable. There were quite a lot of tourists but it didn't get too horribly crowded. 

I'm guessing 80% of the tourists at Ephesus were from the three cruise ships docked at the port that day, and seeing that, it's no surprise there were many older tourists.

The crowd generally made their way forward slowly, and that was a good thing because the slippery and uneven steps were a potential hazard.

Perils of visiting ancient ruins - slippery roads and uneven steps.
One of the first things we saw was the Odeon – this was both a concert hall and a meeting place for the members of the Senate. 

Ephesus was administrated by two Councils: the Council Chamber that had a few members and only held annual meetings, and the Popular Chamber (Demos) where citizens of Epehsus discussed their daily problems. Quite the multipurpose hall. 

Behind me is what's left of the Odeon
Then came the Prytaneion, where four women from noble family had to give 30 years of their lives to stay there and keep the fire going at the Prytaneion. The perpetual fire symbolized every Ephesians' hearth that is represented by Hestia, the goddess of Family. 

These four women started their service when they were 10, and remain in service for 30. For them, life only really began at 40. The shame!

These were toilets that politicians used. According to our guide, they would sit side by side and continue to talk shop. No partitions, no cubicles, men in the ancient times. But the toilet seats were made of marble, and we overheard another guide tell his group that the noble men would send their slaves to warm the toilet seat before they used it.

Now, this was the main street of ancient Ephesus - Curtes Street.

Curtes street - as crowded as ever?
Celsius Library The third largest library of the ancient world with a collection of 12,000 parchment books.

Celsius Library
Her name is Nike, and yes, Nike the sports apparel brand not only named itself after her, they apparently drew inspiration from portrait, and developed the tick as their trademark.

Goddess Nike and me.
Our tour did not include a visit to the House of Mary at the hilltop. 

While I was planning the trips, I found out that it was the festival of Ascension of Mary on the day of our visit (Aug 15), so imagine the crowd! I didn't want to waste time queuing, only to be allowed in for 5 minutes so we kept our itinerary simple.

Lunch was included as part of the tour. We were brought to a "handicraft village" where young women learnt to weave carpets. This was run by a family, supported by the government. 

Our lunch was prepared by the family and it really turned out better than I expected.

Yummy food in a rustic, picturesque location
Very pretty place! And our guide fussed over my mom's food and she was happy to just have a big bowl of salad with a squeeze of lemon. Despite its simplicity, the salad was really quite tasty!

We had quite a lot of appetizers and some chicken on skewers and beef patties. The chicken was very tasty, I don't eat beef but the patties looked quite delicious.

But here comes the catch, since we were at the handicraft "village", an obligatory visit to see how they hand weave their carpets followed. In fact, almost every itinerary I saw (whether it was the ship's coach tour or local private tours) included this – there was just no way of escaping it.

To cut a long story short – we had to endure a sales pitch, pretended to be interested (you know, to be polite), but managed to get out of buying silk rugs with intricate designs for US$3-4000. 

To be fair, the one that I fancied looked really nice, but I had not come here to buy a rug, so I firmly and politely declined. It was not easy – they were insistent (and the sales guy worked in Australia before so he spoke really good English, I couldn't even pretend that I didn't understand him), but I did it anyhow.

The silk wool carpet that I kinda fancied. 
On the drive back to the port, the driver very gently asked if we wanted to go to the factory outlet to check out "silk leather" – leather obtained from the skin of a lamb's stomach and it was so light and soft that you could fold the whole jacket and stuff it into a little pouch, yet it could also keep you warm in the harshest of winters.

As our guide had really been really good so far, I thought, well, let's just go check it out. To cut another long and painful story short – this factory outlet was your typical hard-sell tourist establishment.

The product seemed really good. Soft to the touch, but whether or not it was really that warm, well you would have to take the salesman's words for it. And they kept on going about how their products were exported to high end boutiques in Europe.

I mean, I think I have a good eye for design, and their jackets' designs just do not cut it.
It was painful, but we managed to wrestle ourselves out of their clutches and headed back to the port.

It was only early afternoon and we had a couple more hours to go before the ship sailed off, but I was really tired after having to deal with these sales people, so I let my mum and aunty walk about the port area while my dad and I went to seek refuge in our cabins.

One last photo before I bid Kusadasi adieu!

Saturday, August 25, 2014

Cruising the Mediterranean Sea: Days at Sea

Out of our 12N cruise, we spent four nights out at sea.

The first "days at sea" happened on Day 4 and 5. 

While I was planning for the trip, I thought these days would be extremely boring, but after three full days of shore excursions in Cannes, Cinque Terre/Pisa and Rome, I welcomed the two day break with wide open arms.

The next two "at sea" days were Day 10 (after Ephesus, Athens and Santorini) and Day 12, as we made our way back to Barcelona from Naples.

During the "at sea" days, the ship was abuzz with activities that kept my mum and aunty occupied.

Just look at the "Activity List" on the back of our daily cruise newsletter! Jam packed with activities!

During these four days, my mother and aunty laughed at comedy nights, attended "Destination lectures" where they learnt more about the places we were about to visit. 

They played ping pong, listened to musicals in theatre, watched movies in the cinema, enjoyed and ‘live' music at the lobby lounge, sang karaoke, learnt salsa, played golf, swam… the list goes on.

For me, I was happy to just chill out at the balcony, enjoying some quality me time, reading, blogging, spacing out, breathing the fresh sea air.

It was great. I love my balcony - wind in hair, listening to music, and discovering how many hues of blue the sea can become under various lighting conditions. 

At night, when the wind in the balcony can get scary, I hung out at the library located on the same floor as my room and listened to the excellent live music from the lobby lounge at Deck 4. 

But, to add some spice to my very sedentary lifestyle on the ship, I jogged in the mornings that we were out at sea.

It was an absolute delight to jog early in the morning on the open air jogging track on Deck 12 of the ship. 

The air was fresh, the scenery breath taking, and the hordes yet to arrive at the poolside. So it was all very tranquil. Just the sea, and me.

Friday, August 24, 2014

Cruising the Mediterranean Sea: Port of Civitavecchia - Rome

Hello Port of Civitavecchia! Hello Rome!

Rome's many wonders span the centuries, from ancient Imperial ruins, to the Renaissance master works, to the divine gelato that gives you an out of the world experience – especially when you have to walk around in scorching weather measuring 36 degrees Celsius.

I love gelato. Especially gelato in Rome. Perhaps because I bring the sun to Rome (from tropical Singapore) it always gets insanely hot when I visit. Hah!

The other wonderful thing about Rome, for this trip at least, is its International airport. Because that meant that my sister and her hubby could meet up with us for a (hot) day of fun in Rome! How cool is that!

Hello sister! Hello bro-in-law!

Rome airport
We booked a private tour where the driver picked us up at the port at 8am, sped the four of us to the airport just 40 mins away, picked the two jet lagged people up and off we were to Rome!

It was perfect especially because my sis and bro-in-law were merely stopping over in Rome to meet us. They were scheduled to fly off to Budapest that same night, so it was really useful to be able to dump their luggage at the back of our van. No luggage storage issue.

As we drove into the city of Rome, the first sight we saw was the Pyramid of Caius Cestio.

Following that, we visited the first church of the day – San Giovanni in Laterano (St John's). 

It is the cathedral of Rome - the privileged seat of papal authority and there are marble statues of 12 apostles in the niches in the interior. 

It was relatively quiet there, very few visitors, safe for several visiting nuns and that made it easy for our driver-guide Claudio to talk us through the church.

San Giovanni in Laterano
Our next stop was San Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul's Basilica outside the Wall), which is the second largest church in Rome (after St Peter's). It was also surprisingly quiet at 10am, which is a good thing.

Our driver Claudio
But my sister was inappropriately dressed for the church. 

They were a lot stricter with the dress code over here, but Claudio simply went straight to the church security people, had a quick conversation in rapid Italian and brought this stiff chiffon paper that I think is used for making flower bouquets, though the colour reminds me of a doctor's robe.

The silly girl had to wrap herself up in this thingy – but it kinda matches her outfit doesn't it? 

 San Paolo fuori le Mura (St Peter's Outside the Wall)
After that, we went to the Colosseum because my sister had booked tickets for us to enter. I was a little apprehensive about it, because it was a Sunday, and Colosseum is a major tourist site…

And true enough, the tourist hordes outside the Colosseum were a force to be reckoned with!

Tourist hordes at the Colosseeum
And even though we skipped the super long queue under the hot sun as our tickets had been prepaid and printed out, upon entry, we still ended up waiting (under the shelter) as my sister queued 15 minutes to pay, and then another 15 minutes to collect the audio guides. 

I just stood there gaping at the sheer number of tourists.

Our driver-guide had already given us some running commentary on our way to the Colosseum, but in Italy, you have to be licensed to be a driver to tourists, and specially trained and licensed in order to give a tour within an attraction, so he couldn't come in with us. Lucky him!

The audio guide was quite good actually, especially in a crowded place like this. We got one each in Mandarin for my mom and aunt, and one in English which my sister shared with her hubby.

And My dad and I? We shared a common distaste for crowds. (so we simply moved grudgingly along with them)

Listening to the audio guide.

But we did take photos, oh yes, my father and I. He took pictures of us, while I took pictures of myself, with my sister disturbing me in the background. Hurhur.

We were there at noon time, so it wasn't long before I started looking for shelter. 

Don't get me wrong, I really think the Colosseum is a great tourist attraction because it showcased the superior architecture skills of the Roman empire – if a fire broke out, all spectators could be evacuated in just 5 minutes. That's amazing achievement for something built thousands of years ago.

I have a lot less admiration for the concept of gladiator shows though. They are too savage for my liking.

When they were done with the audio guide, we headed straight to a vegetarian restaurant in Rome, near the Spanish steps. I found this restaurant online and it seemed to have good reviews. 

I am so glad we had a driver take us there because it was in one of those small streets, off the main road where the Spanish steps were and it would have taken us a long time to locate it. 
Brisk walking to lunch!
This was where we had lunch – Il Margutta RistoArte. We had made reservations through the driver-guide's company and it was almost empty when we arrived at 1230pm. (The restaurant filled up quite quickly at around 1pm)

Vegetarian lunch buffet at Il Margutta RistoArte
We had a vegetarian buffet for lunch for 25 euros per person. There was a good variety of pastas, pizzas, salad, soup and dessert to satisfy all omnivores among us. Drinks was included too.

But of course, there was the problem of garlic and onions, which my mother who is a strict vegetarian could not consume, but I guess vegetarian restaurants are very used to people with different dietary requirements asking a lot of questions. 

A waiter got the chef out of the kitchen (it was good that they were still quite empty when we first arrived) to tell us exactly which dishes did not have the forbidden stuff in them.

About half of the dishes there were ok, so my sister and I heaved a great sigh of relief.

But as an added level of precaution, my sister and I tasted every dish to verify the absence of onion and garlic before my mum ate them. I think apart from the food on the ship, this must be the only other place where my mum didn't have lunch with a worried look on her face.

And most importantly, there was free wifi at this restaurant! OMG! I can't tell you what I was hungrier for, lunch, or wifi.

Vatican city was closed on the day of our visit so we took a tour of other sites, some of whom I had never been before so that was great.

History is all around Rome and I think the driver had a story to tell of every building, obelisk and statue at every corner we turned, but of course he couldn't because there was just not enough time.

Strolling on Capitol Hill
I really liked the view we had of Temple of Jupiter from this vantage point. It looked vaguely familiar, I couldn't really remember if I had seen it before. Oops!

Temple of Zeus ruins
Then there is of course the world famous Trevi fountain.

You can now throw coins in for charity! 
Our driver-guide said it is ok for us to throw coins in now. 

The coins collected would be used to help needy families, as opposed to being used to fund the city development - which Claudio said was what happened in the past. 

Next, we went to an old private villa Cavalieri di Malta where the first structure that was constructed for the villa, was the gate – with special attention being paid to the keyhole. Yes, they built the gate first, before they built the rest of the villa and the key to the entire project was the keyhole.

So you can see my brother in law peering through the keyhole here.

It was only after they sorted out the keyhole, did they start the landscaping of the garden. Now, why was that so?

Check this out, the view through the keyhole.

A very picturesque view isn't it? With the beautiful trees framing the dome of St Peter's! (Unfortunately, the photo doesn't do the view much justice)

This site is not frequently mentioned on major travel sites, which is why there were just about 10 tourists at this location at about 3pm on a Sunday afternoon. 

Pity the drink stall owner.

Now that we've seen a prettily framed dome of St Peter's, it was time to see the real thing.

It was clear that this was a place that our driver – guide, a born and bred Roman, was immensely proud about. It had been a long day of sightseeing but he was getting increasingly excited as we progressed as it was obvious he had saved the best for the last.

He enthusiastically motioned us to a spot in the square where all four pillars became one.

Behind each and every pillar you see in the picture are three pillars. These pillars support a curved structure and Seen from any other direction, you would see the pillars behind, but seen from this particular point, they form one straight line.

Look at the pillars from the side and it's a different story. 

By this time, we were already running late, it was 4-ish and the tour was supposed to end at 5pm. (We had to be back to the ship at 6.30pm).

Nonetheless, he brought us for the much awaited gelato stop just next to St Peter's.

It was not too bad, but I remember having had much better gelato in Rome. Or maybe my expectations have gone up.

Before leaving Rome, he just had to drive us up to a vantage point where he gave us a lesson on perspective.

Flanked by two rows of buildings on either side of the road, we saw the huge dome of St Peter's basilica. (St Peter's basilica was far away, and on much lower ground)

As he drove down the street, the dome became smaller and smaller as we saw more and more of the church and its surrounding. It was over in 10 seconds but was quite fun. If we had more time, I would have asked him to do one more round so I could film it.  

This was one of those perks of hiring a private local driver – guide. He shared a lot more intimate details of his city (I'm sure he would have driven his kids here when they were little) than someone who has merely memorized a lot of information about the city. 

There was also the flexibility. I told him that I wanted to buy a few bottles of mineral water and if we could find somewhere along the way to stop and buy. It was more difficult than I thought as it was Sunday and most shops were closed.

Outside of Rome city, we drove for a while before he found a supermarket that was open for business. As we were running late, he accompanied me in. And we scored a deal! A 6-pack 1.5litre mineral water that cost only 99cents euro!

Best buy of the century!