David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Turkey, Greece, Dubrovnik - Oct/Nov 2007

We've never taken any kind of organized tour before, but Oct. 21, 2007, we left our home in Nice for Istanbul (Nice - Rome, Rome - Istanbul via Alitalia) for our first cruise. We had originally planned to leave on the 22nd, but four days beforehand we received an email from Travelocity that one of our 'legs' had been canceled. We called them and found that Nice/Rome was all right but Rome/Istanbul had been canceled. But that was all right, we were told. We could fly Nice/Rome, then Rome/Milan, then Milan/Istanbul, arriving in Istanbul the next morning at 1:00 AM. That was definitely not all right. We opted to go one day early. How nerve wracking! We were to board our cruise ship in Istanbul on the 24th, but went a few days early to spend a bit more time in Istanbul, a city we had never visited. We were picked up at the airport by a transfer service and taken to our hotel, The Apricot, in the Sultanahmet section of the city. We had decided to upgrade to a room with a "Turkish bath" - just a term for the marble bath. Our room was up two steep sets of stairs, but with a balcony with an amazing view of the Blue Mosque. David hated the hotel as it had no elevator and the light in the bathroom, which was sound activated, would not go off. Also had to walk around to the main building and up several flights for the breakfast.

The Blue Mosque was built in the early 1600's; the exterior, which is beautifully lit at night, is a mountain of turrets and domes with six minarets. The inside is tiled in blue, with a blue painted dome. We went to the Blue Hotel opposite the mosque for an aperitif, sitting in the warm evening air and marveling at the view.

Nearby is the Mosaic Museum, which is impressive with a huge stretch of Byzantine floor picturing a hunting scene with deer, elephants, monkeys, and other animals and human figures. The shading on the human faces and the musculature of the animals and warriors is amazing.

Monday we were awakened by chanting at 6 AM from the mosque. One can understand how this religion permeates the lives of the citizens, with reminders and calls many times each day. That day we spent all of the morning at Topkapi Palace, the home of the sultans from the 15th to the 19th century. Most impressive is the harem, the home for the sultan's family, including his concubines. Here one finds intricate tile work, dazzling stained glass windows, and exquisite tortoise and mother-of-pearl doors and shutters that give an idea of the opulence of their lives. Elsewhere in the Palace are rooms displaying the rich robes, suits of armor and weaponry, and furnishings of silver, crystal, porcelain, often jewel encrusted.

Afterwards we headed for Balikci Sabahattin, a very much recommended seafood restaurant, for a bit of our own decadence. We sat outside under the grape vines with a view of the local produce - tomatoes, lettuces, pumpkins and gourds, and melons - scattered around attractively as decoration. With a bottle of Antik, white wine, we enjoyed our lunch. We started with meze, a small plate of fava beans and another of cold cooked spinach that was wonderful. David ordered the bluefish, which he said was delicious but nothing like the bluefish he had often caught in the Caribbean.

After lunch we went to the Grand Bazaar, a maze of shops offering rugs, food, pottery, leather, and souvenirs of every kind. We bought a piece of pottery and a pillow cover made of old pieces of rug. Both these shops asked if I wanted to barter or just hear the real price; I opted for the real price and afterwards realized that I had been taken. Oh, well. In a shop nearer to our hotel I also bought a beautiful purse of rug fabric woven in red, green, black and tan with leather handles and a nicely painted old spice box in another shop, where they showed me the mosaics and ancient mural of Mary in three levels of basement. It's a city with a whole other world below it!

Our friends, Penny and David Lloyd, who also live in Nice and would go with us on the cruise, arrived early Tuesday morning. Together that day, a sunny and warm day, we raced over to the ferry port, just making the 10:35 ferry that sailed up the Bosporus to Anadolu Kavagi, near the Black Sea. There we had a wonderful seafood lunch of bream for David and seabass for Ginna with a good salad and baklava for dessert at Kavak Doganay, a restaurant right on the water. The cost was about half that of the restaurant the day before but the meal was just as delicious.

That afternoon, Penny and I wandered through the Egyptian Spice Market, buying saffron, nutmeg, and pepper. As we wended our way back to our hotel, we passed through another bazaar with more interesting and beautiful things. We all had supper outside at a corner restaurant, near the hotel, where we sampled the kababs and enjoyed the friendly owners.

Wednesday morning we visited Aya Sofya, started in the year 532 AD at the direction of the Emperor Justinian to be the largest Christian church in the world. It was later converted into a mosque by the Ottomans but still contains the elaborate golden mosaics of Mary and Jesus.

That afternoon we boarded our ship, the Nautica, one of the Oceania Cruise Line vessels. It is a nice size, carrying 687 passengers and two staff/crew for every 3 passengers. We would travel 2,022 nautical miles on our home for the next 12 days. Our cabin didn't have a balcony but did have a large window, allowing a good view. We were welcomed with an extensive buffet lunch, a preview of the meals we would enjoy throughout.

The next morning, still docked in Istanbul, we took the tram through the city to the Archeological Museum, which we explored, admiring the artifacts from the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine eras. The adjacent Tile and Pottery Museum was also interesting, especially for me with my interest in pottery.

That evening we discovered the Chamber Music group, Arpeggio, on the ship. Each night we would go down for a pre-dinner drink and enjoy these four young talented musicians from Romania playing pieces as varied as Chopin to Scott Joplin. When they were done, we would move our drinks into the cocktail lounge where Jerry Blaine, the pianist, would entertain us until it was time to go in for dinner. These were two of the things we enjoyed most about living on board ship. Another was the food which was very good and at times excellent. There were several restaurants: The Grand Dining Room was available all day for formally served meals; in the Terrace Cafe there was a buffet that we liked for breakfast and lunch; and there were the Polo Grill and Toscana for dinners only where one had to make reservations - we were lucky enough to book twice for each. And there was the very casual Waves, by the pool and hot tubs, for hamburgers and salads.

Upon leaving Istanbul we had a full day at sea, giving us time to rest up for the next stops. There were many activities available - putting lessons and needlepoint classes, an art auction which was quite educational. We were up early that morning to watch the ship pass through the narrow straight of the Hellespont, now known as the Dardanelles, leading us from the Sea of Marmara, past Troy and the sad site of Gallipoli, into the Aegean Sea. That evening there was the Captain's Reception with champagne and music.

Our next stop was Ephesus, one of the most anticipated stops of the trip and one of the greatest archeological sites in the world. The four of us rented a taxi for the day; the driver took us out to the site, stopping at Selcuk to explore the ruins of Basilica of St. John, said to be built over the tomb of the apostle. Then we arrived at Ephesus. The porticoed street, paved with mosaics and lined with shops and temples, leads to the famous Library of Celsus (pictured above)and the Great Theater which held 24,000 citizens. We also visited the Terraced Houses - a separate ticket but a MUST SEE. The houses - more like condos, one on top of another - are filled with artistically painted walls and mosaic floors with intricate designs. It must have been a wonderful life for the citizens.

Next we docked at Rhodes, the first of the Greek Islands we would visit. The harbor is where the Colossus of Rhodes once stood, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Knights of St. John (Knights of the Templar) came here in 1291 and controlled the island until 1522 when Suleyman I, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, conquered it. Within the remaining massive walls is the Palace of the Grand Master, filled with mosaic floors moved here from Kos. How does one move a mosaic floor?! Apparently it is done by laying cloth over the mosaic pieces and gluing the cloth down, then carefully lifting it. Along the street leading to the Palace are the smaller palaces of the various factions of the Knights, whether from Provence, Italy, or another State. The Archeological Museum is housed in the 15th century Knights' Hospital. One of the items we were surprised to see was a display of magnifying glasses used to make tiny engravings and for painting details. There were also small cups with spouts and a sieve on top for feeding babies. Each display was of a specific burial plot, whether of a child or a woman or a man and had artifacts specific to that person. Very personal.

Instead of returning to the ship, we had a nice Greek lunch - Greek salad and lamb chops - sitting under a tree in the Old Town. It was quite a relief to be in Greece and away from the sales people in Turkey who will "kidnap" you and drag you to their shops. I'm not very good at saying no convincingly to these people and had to be rescued by David Lloyd one time - he found me upstairs in a rug shop, being shown carpets that I had no intention of buying. Why do they waste their time like that?

The next day, Monday, we stopped at Delos. The island is usually closed on Mondays but they would allow us to visit but only with a tour. We were divided into groups of about 12 people each - maybe 10 groups - and we went ashore to meet our guides whom the Cruise Line had brought in specifically for the tours. At first I was a bit annoyed that because of their planning we were forced to take a tour but I quickly realized that this was the best option. Our guide Danai was wonderful and the ruins on the island are not well marked for an independent visit. Delos was the birthplace of Apollo and to honor him no one was allowed to be born or die on the island. The most famous site is the Terrace of the Lions, located near his birth site, a row of somewhat Egyptian-looking lions carved in the 6th century BC (only replicas are on the site; originals are in the museum), guarding the sacred area.

That afternoon we were tendered ashore on Mykonos, famous resort of jet setters, a place of stark white walls, blue painted balconies, and cascading fuschia. The most interesting area is Little Venice, a row of picturesque restaurants and shops hanging over the sea, an idyllic spot to view the sunset. Nearby is the famous row of windmills.

Tuesday we were tendered ashore at fabulous Santorini, to take the funicula up the steep slopes formed by a volcano. In 1650 BC the volcano erupted, causing the center to sink - this center is now where the cruise ships anchor. The explosion caused a huge tsunami believed to be responsible for the destruction of the Minoan civilization on Crete. We visited the Museum of Prehistoric Thira (another name for Santorini) which was fascinating with its wall paintings - flowers, figures, and even blue monkeys - from earlier than 1000 BC. Only 2% of the ancient archeological site has been excavated. One of the most beautiful pieces was a table for sacrificial offerings painted with lively dolphins.

Our next stop was Corfu Town, a town with many influences from occupations by the French, the British, and especially the Venetians. Two fortresses loom above the old town with its narrow alleyways and ochre tints more reminiscent of Italy than other Greek islands with their stark white buildings. The four of us enjoyed a Corfu lunch of Greek salad, sofrito (lamb with garlic, vinegar, and parsley), pastitsada (beef in red sauce served with macaroni), again with the Italian influence rather than the Turkish influence found on many other islands.

The next day we anchored off Dubrovnik which we had visited a year earlier. As day trippers, we found how crowded this town can be, even this late in the season. We went off on our own, walking the walls which we hadn't done the year before because of rain and wind. The views from the walls are beautiful, whether of the sea and islands or of the tiled roofs of the town. There was a special show of Faberge eggs at one of the museums and we enjoyed lunch at a favorite restaurant, Proto, from the year before.

The next day, again we were at sea, sailing all the way around the Peloponnese to Piraes, the port for Athens. We would be in Athens for a full day and then disembark the next day to fly home. We took a train into the city and visited the Archeological Museum, especially to view the Antikythera Mechanism, perhaps the world's first computer, designed as an aid for navigation 2000 years ago. Then we walked to the Plaka for lunch and made the climb to the Acropolis, which seemed an easier climb than the last time, 20 years ago. We imagine this will be the last time we will see the Parthenon and were glad we made the effort, in spite of a bit of rain and not feeling our best.

The next day we took a bus to the airport and flew Athens to Milan and then on to Nice, an easy flight. Nice to arrive home with no jetlag!