Tuesday, April 28, 2009

And Down the Stretch They Come!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

We continued on toward New York today, singing “One short day in the Emerald City” whenever the mood struck us. More and more things are happening as we head for Fort Lauderdale.

-----There was a quite photogenic Grand Buffet today. Picture freaks were allowed a half hour to record another mountain of food for posterity; these are the same people who took endless snapshots of the chocolate buffet last week. Are they afraid they’ll forget what food looks like? We decided to eat lunch at the Grand Buffet because the lines were not long – everyone assumed it would be a mad house and went to the Lido which, we heard later, was the real mob scene. We had cold shrimp, shrimp tempura, satay and spring rolls plus too many desserts including out-of-this-world schnecken [sticky buns]. Oink.

-----Cruise Director Thom continued his public madness by swimming the Bermuda Triangle. Just as he swam across the Atlantic when we reached the midpoint in March, he dressed in a tuxedo jacket and shorts to plunge into the pool. Passengers were encouraged to join him and some who crave “dam dollars” did. Of course, the air temperature was only in the mid-60s and the wind was about Force 5, so it took either courage or insanity to do this.

-----On a different note, we have received more goodies in the last few days. We returned from dinner one night to find a necklace with a HAL logo on it and matching cuff links. MA has been wearing the necklace to see how long it takes for her neck to turn green. Yesterday, we received two HAL charger plates to go with the ones from last Fall’s voyage. As noted previously, we have found luggage straps, cruise journals, card wallets, fleece jackets and tote bags. We are supposed to get commemorative pins, too, but they have not been delivered yet.

Other than eating, our main activity today was team trivia where we won again. Today’s goodie was another umbrella apiece. We have enough to open a store when we get home. D continued exchanging messages with Roxanne, played some blackjack with minimal economic impact and did journal-related things on line and off; MA read and then “rested” until supper.

We dined at the Pinnacle Grill tonight, HAL’s extra-cost, ultra-swanky steak house. We were owed a free dinner because of our complaints about last Fall’s cabin and invited Mary to join us as our guest. Dinner was excellent, the service was flawless and the evening was quite leisurely. For the record, MA had lobster bisque, Caesar salad and lobster macaroni; D had the lobster bisques, Dungeness crab cakes and a filet. We both had tri-color crème caramel for dessert. Tie ropes on us and put us in the Macy’s parade. Mary and MA shared most of a bottle of wine which we/they will finish tomorrow night if we are able to eat by then.

Tomorrow – New York City

Monday, April 27, 2009
New York, New York, It’s a hell of a town/ The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down/ The people ride is a hole in the ground

Today was arguably the best day of the voyage, weather-wise – sunny and warm. New York, as usual, was alive with people walking, running, jogging, biking, hustling, working and relaxing. They were dressed in every possible combination of colors and styles, some intent and others as laid back as they could be. It was a typical New York day and crowd.

We were off the ship before 9:15 and cleared immigration, passports freshly stamped, a few minutes later. We had to wait “on line,” as they say here, for a taxi and were still at Rockefeller Center well before 10:00. We wandered through the shops and gawked at passersby, marveling at the wonder seen on the faces of first-time visitors. We had plenty of time and were in no hurry.

We turned north on Fifth Avenue and people-watched as we passed St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Had we been in any foreign port-of-call, we would have gone in and absorbed its atmosphere and immensity, but we’ve been here before and felt like natives. One should not take one’s own landmarks for granted, but we did, just as we do Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Proximity breeds blasé.

We stopped at H. Stern, our favorite jewelry store. On previous trips, we’ve bought baubles at Stern stores in St. Thomas, Buenos Aires, Nairobi and New York, but not today. The salesman seemed disinterested to begin with, as if he were doing us a favor, and then turned off completely when we said that we wanted to see amethysts. Maybe business isn’t as bad as we thought it was. We had started around Fifth and Fifty-second and proceeded toward Central Park. We stopped at the ubiquitous Starbuck’s on Fifty-fifth [in the Sony Building] for a drink and the restroom. Starbuck’s! We knew how Mukti felt.

Speaking of Mukti, even though we ate at the Pinnacle Grill last night, we made sure “the boys” had their tip money before getting off in NYC. We also gave our Starbuck’s card to Mukti to use for the day. He didn’t go wild, but he did buy a coffee mug for his girl friend and, judging from the total, several coffee drinks. He gave the card back at dinner tonight but not the sales receipt, so D went on line to track it down; Mukti spent almost $17 dollars, a good investment on our part.

Part of our Big Apple ritual is a visit to FAO Schwarz, once New York’s premier toy store but now a mere shadow of its former self. Bankruptcy can do that to the high and mighty. We wandered around a bit and then looked for Ben Ten items for Carter who was enamored with this Cartoon Network hero when we last saw him. Ben Ten is too plebian for FAO Schwarz, though, as the staff directed us Toys ‘R Us in Times Square. We sat in the courtyard in front of the store and the General Motors building enjoying the sunshine. At 11:45, we started out for our lunch date with Elle Becker, MA’s former student who now lives in New York.

All we had, other than the name of the restaurant [Jean Georges Nugatine], was an address – 1 Central Park West between 60th and 61st Streets. Our rest stop at the GM building put us on the southeast corner of Central Park and the restaurant was at the southwest corner, so we walked along Fifty-ninth adjacent to the park. It was no short walk, but we watched people in the park and horse-drawn carriages. We arrived at 12:10, a few minutes early, to find Elle waiting outside for us. Her husband appeared moments later and we went into the restaurant which is in the Trump International tower at Columbus Circle.

We had a very pleasant lunch; both the conversation [men: travel; women: people] and food were good [MA: goat cheese salad, gourmet cheeseburger; D: calamari, roasted chicken] and, at $24.07 per person including dessert, a bargain to boot. We would definitely return if we knew in advance since reservations are a must.

We cabbed back to the ship in plenty of time for trivia. While we waited, D called Roxanne from the Lower Promenade and caught up with her and Ed. They discussed next year’s trip and decided to talk again after she hears from her travel agent. She and Ed are excited about the itinerary which includes western Norway, Iceland and the North Cape and the Baltic capitals. We all know how quickly fifteen months can pass by.

Three-peat! Three-peat! We won at trivia today without Scott and Karen, which would probably upset them if they knew, and had a choice of key chains or bag tags. We chose key chains and gave them to Toro and Mukti after supper; they seemed pleased and Toro said that he would use his for his motorcycle keys. You can take the boy out of Indonesia but you can’t take Indo out of the boy. After dinner, MA hung around the Ocean Bar watching the Cruise Staff and the old people dance and D went to the casino where he eventually lost less than the cost of a nail appointment. Perspective is nice when it works in your favor.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

We cruised down the East Coast today in waters so calm that we seemed to be becalmed; if we depended on sails, we would be dead still in the water. Tomorrow is our last day aboard, so, after trivia, MA did a small load of laundry while D caught up on the journal. We lost badly at trivia today, dashing our hopes for a dynastic finish. Key chains again; who cares anymore?

Tonight was also another Formal night and the dining room was decked out in black and gold, a tribute to the majesty of crepe paper decorations. Once again, MA read after dinner [escargots, lobster tails] while D tried again to earn enough in the casino to pay for our next trip. It looks sadly as if our next one will be to Playmobil Land.

Tomorrow we must pack. Our cruise is all but done and this will be the final post on the blog. When we get home, D will add pictures and, eventually, convert the finished product to a PDF file so we [and anyone else who asks] can read it at leisure.

-----The enjoyment of a shore excursion is directly proportional to enjoyment of the guide. The more we liked a guide, the better the experience.
-----Corollary: The better the lunch, the better our memory of the whole day. Our day in Sevastopol was ruined because of a lunch debacle which colored everything. Likewise, lunch in Rome paled in comparison to lunch the previous day in Florence and we did not have as good a time in Rome. On the other hand, we loved our lunches in Florence, Sorrento, Athens, Varna, Istanbul, Valletta, Kusadasi, Santorini and Sintra.
-----Mr. Otah lives in Rome and is known as Mayta.
-----Always ask the price of the fish.
-----Carry extra batteries. Lots of them.
-----The camera will always fail at a critical moment.
-----The Cruise Staff we worked with were unfailingly pleasant and tolerant. They have to be to deal with a ship full of old people. And us.
-----Guest speakers are a sure cure for insomnia.
-----Grand Voyages aren’t as Grand as they were six months ago.
----“It’s me again” and “Here’s Thom.”

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rounding Third and Heading for Home

Friday, April 24, 2009

Today was the fourth sea day in a row. After the frenetic pace of Livorno-to-Lisbon, we have taken advantage of the peace and quiet by doing as little as possible. D was so tired yesterday that he skipped lunch and stayed in bed from 12:15 until 6:00. MA went to lunch, but she, too, took a long siesta. Seas are “confused” according to the captain, better, we suppose, than bipolar.

The dinner choices are on their third cycle although the combinations have been randomized. Things which were mediocre the first time are no longer appealing. MA has even had the pasta selection two nights in a row, and D has continued to order a chicken Caesar salad. Last night, he didn’t even finish it. Mukti’s cappuccinos have continued to be creative and may be the best part of dinner.

Last night, D left the table early, leaving MA with Sally and Bert, so he could try out for what was billed as the final blackjack tournament. We had convinced Mary that she should try out as well, so she went to the casino when she finished her dinner. By the time D arrived at the blackjack table, the tourney had been canceled because only Mary had shown up. With just the two of us, it was not feasible to offer any prize money and we weren’t really interested in any more T-shirts. [Dora, one of the pit bosses, keeps reminding D that she owes him a drink of any kind to atone for the lower-than-average prize he won earlier] Since D was already in the casino, he squandered the fifteen dollars in chips he had and then returned to the dining room where MA and the Russells were still talking.

Today has been equally lazy. We ate breakfast in the dining room, played trivia and chatted with Scott and Karen who are disembarking in New York in four days. Breakfast was fun because we saw Toro, our dinner waiter, and started singing “Good morning everybody! How are you?” and he responded with “Just fine!” His daughter, who will be five this Fall, sings the same song in nursery school on Bali that Carter sings in Jakarta. It’s a small world after all.

At lunch in the Lido, Linda/Ginger asked us if we were signed up for the Grand World Cruise in Jan 2010. When we said we weren’t, she asked us to reconsider because they wanted to travel with us. After lunch, we checked the e-mail, but the service was so slow we gave it up and headed to the theater for today’s lecture by Sally and Bert. We stopped by the Cruise Lady’s desk and waited to get information, but her client took so long that MA went to the lecture while D waited. He finally got to talk to her and got prices which, although reasonable, were out of our comfort range. The total for the 114 days would have been under $45000 and there were terrific perks, but there was no way to consider it seriously.

MA left the lecture at 3:00 even though it hadn’t ended, and we went to the cabin to discuss the world cruise and for the afternoon ritual nap. Dinner and conversation preceded an early evening.

Tomorrow – Hamilton, Bermuda.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Our penultimate port was Hamilton, Bermuda. The day was cloudy but warm [around 70F] and there was no rain. Imagine, a port of call without rain!

As we left the dining room this morning, we saw Mukti who immediately bellowed “Just fine!” at us. Naturally, we yelled back, “Good morning, everybody! How are you?” and he answered again. Toro must have been coaching him. Last night, Mukti brought the first cold coffee drink of the trip. It reminded D of a pousse café [if that is the right term], layered with milk on the bottom topped by coffee and then chocolate, all over ice. It was almost too pretty to stir but too delicious not to. Since Mukti says that most of his recipes are for cold drinks, we think the fun is just beginning.

Bermuda is a collection of beautiful islands. Altogether they comprise only 27 square miles, one-third of the area of Baltimore City. Because it is too small to be self-sufficient, everything has to be imported. According to our guide ten years ago, everyone goes to North Carolina once or twice a year to replenish supplies of staples. Immigration limits are strict, too, to avoid overpopulating this tiny paradise. Houses and office buildings are painted in bright pastels – pink, blue, yellow – giving Hamilton and the surrounding communities the look of Key West without the honky-tonk atmosphere. Bermuda is veddy refined. And expensive. It is a playground for the rich and for tourists; as they say, if you have to ask the cost, you can’t afford buy.

We wandered around the tourist streets of Hamilton – most of the stores face the water and the ship – and had the battery in MA’s watch replaced for only twice what we would have paid in WPB. D resisted the temptation to have his beard trimmed at Sweeney Todd’s Barber Shop and we meandered up one street and down another, stopping at a cute little café for a Coke. The urge to find Mukti a lemon meringue pie overtook us when we passed a bakery, but there were none left there. The proprietor steered us to a supermarket a few blocks away where we were successful. The best part of the purchase was seeing grocery carts which said “Publix” on their handles; the store manager said that they buy the carts second-hand from “our” Publix. It was a foreshadowing of days to come. Anyway, we placed the pie in our refrigerator when we returned to the room.

The afternoon proceeded as if we were at sea with lunch and trivia. Although we lost yesterday, Scott and Karen still took home 5 luggage tags; D went to the winners’ table and offered to trade for some other prize, but the winning team was glad to be rid of the bag tags which Karen needed to finish her packing. Usually, we pooh-pooh the luggage tags as not being good motivators even when one of us needs them. We won resoundingly for a change and the prize was, ironically, luggage tags. This time we gave them away. Scott and Karen have only one more trivia session before they leave us. We probably will not score as well without them, but we will still have fun.

As we entered the elevator for lunch this afternoon, another passenger said to D, “You put down the wrong name for me when you printed the Cruise Critic e-mail list. My name isn’t Penny.” Of course, D had no idea who she was and she didn’t offer her correct name. She had kept such a low profile, we weren’t sure we had actually ever seen her before. Nonetheless, D checked the information sheets which he had kept and she was right – her name was listed incorrectly – but since she had never given D her e-mail address, it didn’t really make any difference. On the other hand, several of the other CC members have gone out of their way to thank us for the time and effort we put into organizing the meetings and cocktail party as well as the certificates. Norm and Kay were especially effusive since they knew where their anniversary certificate originated. They are a class act.Sally and Bert ate at the Pinnacle Grill tonight, so there were only three of us to watch night fall. We are going with Mary tomorrow night, so it will be several days until we are all at the table together. There are only four dinners to go before we are home.

MA read after dinner and D e-mailed Roxanne & Ed about 2010 and played blackjack. Time is running out for that, too. Where are the snows of yesteryear?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sailing Westward

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ponta Delgada is not the second baseman for the Yankees or even the Orioles. It is the largest city on Sao Miguel, one of the Azores. The Azores are a part of Portugal even though the mainland is somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 miles ENE of here.

The island is a pleasant little place. We were here in 2001 so we didn’t feel the need to go touring today. Even so, we could see changes in the city just from the ship. On our previous visit, we were required to dock at the freight terminal; now, there is a new [to us] cruise ship terminal right at the waterfront’s main street. There has been lots of development along this strip of road, new shops and high-rise apartments to go with the newly opened pier. There are shops and restaurants both by the ship and across the street and we got the impression, based on the number of restaurants, coffee shops and bars, that this was a “happening place” at night. It looks and feels like the kind of place young people would flock to.

There is a “zoo choo” which makes a 45-minute circle of the downtown area, but we skipped that, too. Been here; seen it. Instead, we walked off the ship and across the street in an effort to spend our last twenty euros. We managed to spend about 1.50 euros on a package of lemon cookies for “the boys” and will use the rest for tips. The Prinsendam is turning around in Ft. Lauderdale for another 36-day trip to the Mediterranean and we think will give the remaining euros to a bar steward as a tip on the theory that he may be able to use the euros easier than dollars.

We ate lunch outside on the Lido deck today. It was a bit breezy, but it was good to eat outdoors for the first time in a month. After lunch, D created a generic certificate for the CC members which stated in part that they had successfully completed most of the 50-day cruise. Since we are still 10 days out, it was both accurate and a little joke. He commandeered the future cruise lady’s printer again and ran off fifteen copies.

Dinner with Sally, Bert and Mary was lively once again although Mary left before dessert to visit friends; it was not unusual since she never eats dessert. We closed down the dining room for the second straight night and MA went to the room while D showed Sally and Bert how to access the CC website so they, too, could research upcoming cruises. Later, D reprinted the certificates with the names of all of the people printed in the appropriate space. He played a little blackjack before retiring for the night and is back to even for the week.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Today was the final CC meeting for the cruise. We shared stories and experiences as well as jokes about our voyage [How long is 5 minutes in Varna? About 5 kilometers]. Sally and Bert joined us because they had heard about CC but had no idea what it really was, as if anyone does. Peeking at the website does not begin to demonstrate the camaraderie we have developed. Roger Flauta, the Beverage Manager, came for a moment or two and was greeted with a round of applause when D explained to the assemblage that Roger had done all of the real work in organizing the meetings. D gave Roger certificates for himself and Captain Gundersen. We were also fortunate that Elaine, the cruise lady, came for a few minutes if only to plug her 11:00 presentation on the 2010 World Cruise, and Cruise Director Thom popped in for a short hello and an apology – another meeting was scheduled simultaneously with ours in the Crow’s Nest. We didn’t mind and even shared our cookies at the end of our meeting.

Trivia was a bust today, but we again avoided armed conflict at the table. We ate lunch with Norm and Kay who told wonderful stories of growing up in the wild Northwest. Bears and snakes and moose, oh my! Around 3:00, MA took her nap and D created a CC chart with names and e-mail addresses in response to a request at the meeting. We doubt that the lists will get much use, but we could be wrong.

After another pleasant dinner, MA went to the cabin to read and D went to the casino. On the way, he met the captain who was confirming that the appropriate chart for our current position was posted. D joked that if the Captain was lost, then D would start to worry. The Captain replied that he knew where we were and that he would have been worried if the Mediterranean chart were still posted. Uneasy lies the head….

D returned to the cabin at 11:00 to find MA still reading. Shortly after he returned, she turned off the light and went to sleep. This sequence will be important when we continue with a sea day tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sometime in the middle of the night, D decided it would be fun to print a certificate for Norm and Kay who were celebrating their 55th anniversary today. He crawled out of bed at 7:45, dressed and was about to leave when realized that he couldn’t find his cabin key; it wasn’t in the usual spot. The cabin was still dark, so he grabbed the old one [from weeks ago when he locked himself out] and trudged up to Cruise Lady’s desk where he made and printed the certificate.

In order to keep it a surprise, he asked one of the dining room gatekeepers, Rahmat, to place it on Kay and Norm’s table tonight; they’ll know who sent it since it is eerily similar to the CC certificate they received yesterday. Rahmat found that HAL was already aware of the anniversary and that a cake was being delivered to them as well. Undoubtedly, a slew of Indonesians will serenade the “lovely couple” when the cake is delivered. “Happy anniversary, lovely couple; Happy anniversary to you.”

D had no trouble getting back into the cabin, but he and MA tore the place apart trying to find the key card. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find it. It wasn’t on the floor, under the bed or in any of his pockets, yet it must still be in the room since D was able to open the door last night. As Yul Brynner said, “It’s a puzzlement.”

Today was also Mariner Day. HAL alumni were invited to brunch or lunch as a “thank you” for their loyalty. On previous cruises, the alumni have been given cocktails or what pretends to be champagne in the show lounge as new “milestone” passengers receive pins and/or medals. This time, it was a seated brunch for us; we think the “milestone” folks were invited to the later gathering. We sat with Barbara and Marvin and two other couples who looked vaguely familiar and had a pleasant time. We think we are approaching 200 days on HAL, but the next pin or medal comes at 300 days, so we have a while to wait for that one.

We returned to the room after our early lunch but still could not find the key card. MA rested while D updated and proofread the journal as we awaited the start of trivia at 3:15. The time was changed today to accommodate the Mariner lunches; Hell hath no fury like an angry trivia player.

We should have stayed in the room. We scored a miserable 11 points out of 23 and still weren’t too far behind the winning score of 15. Even if the correct answers we ignored had been used, we would have had only 14. [Which river rises in the Black Forest and goes to the Black Sea? What Baltic nation was the first to break from the USSR?] After the usual apres-trivia chat, “we” went shopping and bought another[!] mug for the kitchen and some T-shirts. When MA went for an iced latte, D went to play blackjack for a few minutes. He returned with a 50 per cent return on his money – his ten dollars was now fifteen, a start on paying for the mug. We sat with Barbara and schmoozed a bit, then returned to the cabin to rest for dinner [and continue proofreading]. When we returned to the room, D made one more search of his dress pants and found the missing key card in a pants pocket where it had been hiding all along.

Here’s another flashback – It must have been Monday night. D had just sat down at the blackjack table when Shirley, one of the regulars, complained that she was having a hot flash. A discussion of hot flashes ensued among Shirley, Carol [another regular], Dora [the pit boss] and the female dealer. The casino workers are too young to know the joys of hot flashes and Carol, especially, was trying to explain them. D felt Shirley put her head on his shoulder and thought she was resting until he realized that she had slid down his chest and had her head on the blackjack table. She had passed out cold. He and one of the other players sat her up as she started to recover consciousness and the casino manager half carried her out to the deck where it was cooler. He managed to get her to her cabin and reported to the table that she was feeling much better and had refused to see the doctor or nurse. Oh, the drama! Oh, the excitement!

The evening was unusual only in that there was nothing on the menu that appealed to us, so D asked Toro if he and MA could get Caesar salads with a grilled chicken breast [no problem]. It was like being home again.

Afterwards, we followed our nighttime ritual of reading and blackjack. D did not lose his key card this time.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Homeward Bound

Thursday, April 16, 2009

We made it to Cadiz, Spain, only 45 minutes behind schedule, not bad considering we left Valletta eight or nine hours late. We had no tour planned today and were in no hurry to get up. Nevertheless, we were up before 8:30 and were in plenty of time to have breakfast in the dining room with four members of the geriatric set. Only one of the four was still in touch with reality.

We decided to take the HO-HO bus around Cadiz, then to look for a grocery store on the second pass. The other night, MA ordered lemon meringue pie for dessert. It came to the table still frozen, so Toro, our waiter, said he would have a piece for her the next night. When she mentioned it to him at dessert time, Toro had to tell her that Mukti, his assistant, had eaten it. Mukti was embarrassed but he is so lovable that we couldn’t get mad at him; besides, he continues to make exotic cappuccinos for D for dessert. Today’s mission was to find a lemon pie for Mukti.

Rather than head for the old city on our second pass on the HO-HO, we opted for Cortes Ingles, the mammoth department store of Spain. One of the bus stops was smack in front of the store, an omen, we hoped. Indeed, there was a full grocery store inside. Unfortunately, there were no pies of any kind, so we settled for limon cookies. It’s the thought that counts, right?

Back on board, we lost at trivia before going to the theater for a local Flamenco presentation. Andalusia is the home of Flamenco [or flamingo as one passenger calls it] despite the show in Barcelona. It was intense and we were exhausted when it ended.

Dinner, reading, e-mail and blackjack rounded out the day.

Tomorrow – Sintra and Obidos, Portugal. Docked

Friday, April 17, 2009

We are docked at Lisbon, Portugal, today. We have visited Lisbon twice before and seen the same “highlights” both times, so we were anxious to see something else this time. We arranged a private tour to the towns of Obidos and Sintra. We knew nothing about either one other than that HAL was running its own separate shore excursions to these towns. We had a great day.

We met Marvin & Barbara and Lynn & Leonard, our companions for the day, and were off the ship before 9:00. Once we cleared the terminal, we were greeted by Filipa, today’s guide. She whisked us off to the minivan and headed off to Obidos which lies about an hour from Lisbon.

Obidos is another medieval village complete with a multinational history as reflected in its architecture. It has its own castle, a big, dreary-looking affair, which we skipped. According to Filipa, there is nothing in it worth seeing. It would have taken a medium walk in light rain to get there, so we passed it up. Instead, we visited an old church. It was not much to look at from the street. It had a small courtyard in the front where we found schoolchildren playing the local version of hopscotch using a roll of packing tape in lieu of the heel of a shoe, and Marvin hopped across the “board” as if he were 10 again.

Although Filipa said this was a plain church devoid of the ornamentation of the cathedral, we found it charming and beautiful. The walls were covered with decorative ceramic tile in the Manuelian style [named after King Manuel]. Most were in blue and white, but there were other colors as well. The painted ceiling was not ornate but was in good repair and the central painting was bright with golds and reds. Filipa told us a little about the church and its artwork before leading us to the first of today’s surprises.

We have been surprised by guides on earlier tours -- the lemoncello in Sorrento, baklava in Athens – but this one wasn’t free. We walked through the tiny main street of Obidos and entered a wine shop. Here was our surprise: cherry liqueur served in dark chocolate cups. We paid the one euro per person to sample this local treat and were all pleasantly surprised, even D who doesn’t usually drink. We vowed to return to purchase some of the liqueur on our way back to the car. We then had a half hour to walk and shop, there being little else to do here. Most of the stores were selling similar, if not identical, merchandise, so it didn’t take too long to find a box for the collection. We looked in several stores before selecting one and then went back, as promised, to purchase the cherry liqueur which is sold with cherries in the bottle. As we returned to the minivan, we stopped at a roadside vendor’s and bought dried apricots and a trail mix which was mostly dried bananas. We shared our goodies when we got to the car and enjoyed fresh almonds bought by Lynn.

Filipa drove toward Sintra, another hour or so away. The rain alternated between light and horrid, but tended more to drizzle than downpour. On the way, we discussed whether we wanted a quick lunch or a traditional lunch. We agreed on a traditional Portuguese lunch, so we stopped on the outskirts of Sintra at a restaurant Filipa said is one of her favorites.

Lunch in Portugal is no ten-minute affair. First, of course, we had to figure out the menu since not all of them were in English. Once we got that settled, we all opted for what was labeled “The Tourist Menu.” The “tourist menu” included bread, butter and olives; soup; main course; salad; drinks and dessert, all for 16.50 euros per person. Such a bargain! We offered to pay for Filipa’s lunch but she told us hers would be comped by the restaurant for bringing in her tour group.

The bread, butter and olives were on the table when we arrived along with very small wheels of cheese, a plate of sliced cold cuts, and something which resembled cottage cheese. Barbara and Marvin tried one of these before we realized they weren’t included, but it wasn’t a big deal. Soon we were served a potato-based soup made with Portuguese cabbage [which was rather stringy] and a piece of sausage. Main course choices were meat or fish, so we ordered one of each so we could compare. The fish dish was mashed potatoes, salmon and shrimp mixed together and then baked; the meat dish had cubed pork and cubed potatoes sautéed in olive oil with spices and maybe chiles. Both were delicious and we could not decide which we liked better. The salmon entrée reminded us of old-time salmon croquettes but not as strong. It was heavier than the pork-and-potatoes which we ate more of, but there was simply too much food. One entrée could easily have served two people. Had we know, we would have ordered less and passed platters more. Halfway through the meal, a simple salad of greens, onions and tomatoes dressed in olive oil was delivered to the table, but no one could eat any of it.

Then we realized that dessert was included. Despite universal complaints about having eaten too much, we all had dessert, too. MA and D shared two different ones: a pie which resembled a pecan pie but was lighter and was made with almonds; and a crème caramel [sort of] flavored with cinnamon. The crème was so light that it was like eating air. We finally waddled out of the restaurant ready to tackle Sintra.

Instead of walking through the town with Filipa, as our itinerary had stated, we went straight to the Pena Palace [PEN-nuh]. This conglomerate of a building had once been a monastery and the original building was still intact and in some a state of exterior dilapidation. The flaking paint on the outside walls reminded us of Lisbon most of which needs a few coats of paint. The rest of the Pena Palace had been built over the years a succession of Portuguese kings, especially Charles. It has gargoyles, arches, a ceremonial drawbridge, formal rooms and family rooms.

To get to the Pena Palace, one must traverse a dizzying switchback road up the side of the highest point in the area. The curves are tight and the distance between them is short. Combined with Filipa’s habit of jerking the steering wheel and swerving in her own lane, the ride could have been disastrous but wasn’t. By the time we arrived, the rain had become more of a problem and we were pretty wet by the time Filipa bought our entry tickets. We had to wait for a trolley to carry us up the rest of the hill – this thing just kept on going.

Once at the top of the hill, we found ourselves at the bottom of a long, slippery, cobble-stoned driveway. What may have been an easy approach for a carriage was wearying for us, especially those with bad knees and backs. Just when we thought we were finally at the top, we rounded a corner and found more cobblestones. Finally we found a flat entryway where Filipa took the time to explain some of the history of the Palace. We took lots of photographs of the exterior which showed several styles of architecture and was covered mostly in ceramic tile. There were monsters portrayed; decorative mad-made coral and shells around and arch; and towers. We saw bits of Moorish influence combined with Baroque. It was Disney on Drugs.

No photography is allowed inside [all the better to sell the commemorative booklet], but our pictures would not have captured to extent of the Palace or its opulence. Because it is not very old, we found flush toilets, bathtubs and even an early telephone. The ceilings here were done in a variety of styles including the trompe d’oiel painting made to look three dimensional. One room was painted to look like wood, not stucco. The original furnishings were still in place and it was a wonderful museum of Nineteenth Century royal life.

There were lots of steps to get to the bottom of the palace since there had been a lot to get to the living quarters. The worst, though, was going back down the slippery cobblestone driveway to the bus stop. Once there we had to fight our way through a group of rude Europeans [Polish, we think] and only Barbara, Marvin and MA got seats. D, Lynn, Leonard and Filipa waited for the trolley to return before they could join the others and head for our next surprise.

We zigged and zagged down the hill in full mortal fear as Filipa sped toward Sintra. We stopped in the main square where she gave us directions to our next adventure. After having eaten enough for a small army, we were being sent to sample the local pastry. Oy! We followed her directions while she parked the car, were able to describe what we wanted to the saleswoman and took seats to await our treasure. We ordered three pieces of two kinds of indescribably delicious pastry and then ordered drinks while we waited for plates and carbohydrates to appear. Mamma mia! What a way to end the day.

We wandered into a few shops before heading back to the Prinsendam and arrived just past 7:00, a full two hours after our tour was supposed to end. We paid Filipa who seemed genuinely surprised that there was more money in the envelope than the tour price. In fact, instead of our usual ten percent tip, we left almost twenty percent. She was speechless.

We all agreed that we would be skipping dinner tonight. We certainly did. WD went to the dining room to let Toro know we would not be there and then MA read before turning in for the night and D caught the journal up-to-date before he forgot anything. It was a very good day.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

We’re on the downhill side now with just 10 days until Ft. Lauderdale. We have run out of land tours and will take it easy in the Azores and Bermuda; in New York, we will have lunch with one of MA’s former students.

That is not to say that we haven’t been busy. We haven’t been busy but it has been by choice. There are plenty of things to do on a cruise ship, we have just chosen to do them. Yesterday’s big excitement was another blackjack tournament. D made it to the finals again but lost again. We lost at trivia yesterday, too, but won resoundingly today. More key chains – we have enough to open a store. Which former leader do Cambodians pray to for good luck in the lottery? What is the primary cause of death for on-duty police officers? How much does the brain of the average 30-year old male weigh?

D tried to organize a luncheon meeting for the CC crowd, a sort of farewell feast, but the only available time was 11:00 a.m. We decided that that was too early for lunch and, besides, it conflicted with the regular 11:30 trivia. Instead, we will have our last get-together at the regular time, 10:00 a.m., on Tuesday. We’ll tell stories of our assorted shore excursions, perhaps exchange e-mail addresses and let others know about our blogs [Sk8teacher and Grumpy1 are writing them as well].

We were surprised at dinner tonight when one of the supervisors asked us if we minded adding two people to our table. Since we have been eating alone, save for Mary next door, we agreed without hesitation. Our new tablemates are guest lecturers from Coral Gables just outside of Miami. They are both psychologists and will present five lectures between here and home. Bert and Sally’s first presentation was at 11:00 this morning, so we missed it [trivia trumps everything], but Marvin and Barbara said it was interesting. The topic was “How to Forget Worrying About Your Memory,” a perfect topic for HAL’s geriatric set. They said they had about 200 attendees, almost one-third of the passenger complement, and four times what they expected. We had an enjoyable conversation and didn’t leave the dining room until almost 10:00, more than a half-hour later than usual.

After dinner, MA read and D played blackjack in an effort to recoup the $20 he lost during naptime this afternoon.

Tomorrow -- Ponta Delgada, the Azores

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sea Days

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The good news is that we did, indeed, leave Valletta, but it was early Tuesday morning before we started out. The Chief Engineer said last night that he hadn’t gotten to bed until 3:30, so we can only imagine. The engineer also said he was grateful that the malfunction had occurred in harbor rather than at sea. How reassuring.

We had a very relaxing day at sea – trivia, naps, casino. It’s not a bad life, really. D is still ahead at the blackjack table, but it was touch-and-go for a while last night. Before dinner, though, we attended a cocktail reception given ostensibly by the captain. Most of the guests were passengers who had embarked in Athens last week. We are not sure why we were invited, but this affair was much less crowded than the earlier one. There probably weren’t more than 50 people there, not counting the staff, so it was very relaxed. The March 23 reception had us crammed into the Crow’s Nest, practically fighting for seats. Last night, waiters came to us to take drink orders. It was oh so veddy civilized.

We are still not sure of our arrival time in Cadiz, but we don’t care. This is the one port in the sequence since Florence where we have no tour planned. We expect to get off the ship and wander around, but we will have no time pressures. People who have booked tours, especially private tours, must be sweating bullets. Our last planned excursion is set for Friday when we dock in Lisbon and then we are free.

The last two days have been very relaxed; we feel we have earned them and are looking forward to the Atlantic crossing so we can even more days of nothing.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Maltese Walkin'

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Today was Easter Sunday and we spent a quiet day at sea. We went to an Easter egg hunt before trivia this morning and lost at both [What female singer had 3 hit singles on her first album? What American flag is never raised or lowered? What country used to be called East Pakistan?]. It was also formal night and we looked just lovely, thank you.

We have seen and/or met a wide variety of people on this cruise. Today, we shared lunch with a Dutch couple who have lived in Boca Raton for more than 30 years. She is a holocaust survivor, having been an infant who was overlooked when the Nazis came calling. The rest of her family, save for three uncles, all perished. We had an interesting conversation although she does not usually talk about her experience.

Then there’s the “Hat Lady.” In other circumstances, she would be standing on a corner in mid-town Manhattan either begging for coins or standing motionless. She has a million homemade hats which she has named. Each has a theme, like a bird or flower, and some obviously took a great deal of effort, but she still looks peculiar. She walks with a white cane but doesn’t appear to have too much difficulty seeing, and has been known to use it to move people out of her way [like Mayta Munson in Rome]. She is tolerated with amusement by the rest of the passengers. Heavens only know what the Indonesian and Filipino staffs think of her – they’ve probably seen worse.

There’s an androgynous person who uses a scooter and goes out on deck after dinner each night. Maybe riding the circuit is as good a form of exercise as walking. We still haven’t assigned a gender to this one because there are conflicting details.

We have seen several grown men in the 30 – 40 age range who are traveling with their parents. One insists on wearing T-shirts to the dining room on casual nights despite being asked to dress a little better or go to the Lido for supper. We know the staff will never summon the nerve to deny entrance to the dining room to him or the others who dress similarly. These guys should know better.

The dining room was decorated for Easter tonight and it was amusing to consider the prospect of Moslem or Hindu wait staff offering everyone a “Happy Easter” as we entered and left. We also wondered about the feelings of the staffers who had to wear bunny costumes for our amusement. We did ask our waiters, both of whom are from Bali, if they were allowed to place the customary offerings outside their doors as is the Hindu custom; we were assured that they were continuing the practice without any problems.

The staff represents three major religions [and some minor ones, of course]. The Indonesians are Moslem except if they hail from Bali. The Balinese are generally, but not exclusively, Hindu. Many of the Filipino staff members are Catholic and each group celebrates and conducts rites freely. One of the casino dealers told D that there would be an Easter Mass for the crew today, distinct from the passenger’s Mass conducted this morning.

The Cruise Staff is wonderful, a group of high-energy young people who seem to really like their jobs and the passengers. We joke with them at trivia, especially, and have gotten to know them as well as one can on a moving cruise ship. They work long hours just like everyone else on board and seem to like each other, a good thing since they are working so closely together. We hope they are enjoying us as much as we are enjoying them. Fifty days cooped up with anyone can be an ordeal, but they handle us well.

Our dining partner, Mary, is an interesting person, too. She is a combination of Katherine Hepburn and Carol Channing. With her self-deprecating humor and sense of who she is, perhaps she is Elaine Stritch. Well-dressed and bejeweled, there is a streak of the plebian running through her. Although she presents herself somewhat elegantly, she is really just a “small town girl” at heart. She has cruised extensively but detests the name-droppers among us; she never goes to the shows; and she rarely goes on shore excursions. She prefers to walk into town whenever possible, find a good hotel and have lunch. Her weakness is jewelry and she has bought some in practically every port. She’s also an addicted smoker who knows the habit is unhealthy and expensive but who still goes out for a cigarette between courses during dinner. She hates carrots; can be politely demanding of the wait staff; and looks out for her friends on board.

Then there is Captain Gundersen. First, he’s cute as a button and, second, there is no doubt that he is in command. Like any good administrator, he is handles his staff and his customers with ease. He is in the odd position of being a Norwegian captain on a Dutch ship operating out of Seattle and owned in large part by the Israelis who started Carnival Lines; he is his own United Nations. His wife and 10-year-old daughter joined us during the cruise. Both are beautiful and Isabel, the daughter, is charming. The girls on the cruise staff have a good time playing with her. We gather that it is traditional for the Captain’s family to be aboard for Easter. We have enjoyed the Captain’s largesse with during a large-group cocktail party and drinks for the CC group in his quarters and will have another taste opportunity to see him Tuesday when he is hosting another get-together in the Crow’s Nest. And he looks good in his uniform.

Tomorrow – Malta.

Monday, April 13, 2009

We were up and at’em, Atom Ant, and on the dock by 8:30 to meet our guide, Joan. The weather was like something out of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day with winds approaching Force 7 on the Beaufort Scale [near gale] and light rain. Joan explained the itinerary for our day in Malta but assured us that she and the schedule were flexible.

Our tour today covered three different periods in the history of Malta – prehistoric, Medieval and more recent. We went to the ancient walled city of Mdina first. This Medieval city is now a World Heritage site, protected from the intrusions of anything “modern.” Even the few streets are closed to traffic at 10:30 every morning; after that time, only residents are permitted to drive into the protected area. Mdina was built on the highest point in the area of what is now Valetta, site of the main harbor on the island. Height gave Mdina the advantage of being easier to defend since the residents could see in all directions and attackers would have to come up a hill to reach it.

For many years, Mdina was the capital of Malta, but it was eventually superseded by Valetta when later rulers felt Mdina was too small to afford them the grandeur they thought they deserved. It was also the center of Islam in Malta although there are no longer any mosques or other religious edifices. Basically, all of the buildings were built right onto the street and those that weren’t are surrounded by walls which are. Of course, sidewalks have been added since. There are no front yards but we were told by Joan that all of the houses have gardens and courtyards. The properties are now so valuable that they are not sold on the open market but are auctioned off.

We walked through the rain and fierce wind looking at the exteriors of homes, churches, monasteries and cloisters. Like the rest of Malta, these buildings were made from the native limestone and are all a uniform beige. Buildings were three stories tall and had a fairly uniform exterior architecture. Some of the facades seem out of place because they were added when buildings needed work after earthquakes. The Cathedral is Baroque and really stands out; because Baroque buildings were meant to be seen, the Church cleared everyone out of the houses in front, then razed the houses. This small area had several churches in addition to the Cathedral. Because of the narrow streets, it was difficult to see the facades clearly and looking up at them was tricky because of the rain.

Mdina was enclosed by fortifications and a dry moat, a common defensive feature on Malta. The city was surrounded by Rabat, which means “outside.” Rabat is not restricted in its development and is just another neighborhood now.

It was time to change eras and we drove over badly surfaced roads to Hagar Qim. The ruins here are presumed to be a six-thousand-year-old temple. It is reminiscent of Stonehenge on a miniaturized scale. There are monoliths, doorways and altars still discernible, all of it just sitting on a small plain. There was a map near the entrance indicating that there are other ruins within walking distance, but we didn’t explore them. Many relics, now housed in the Museum of Archeology, have been found here and at other excavations. The wind was still horrific so we headed back to the van after Joan finished her explanation.

Staying with the pre-historic, we went to the Ghar Dalam cave. The cave has been the object of much research and restoration over the years and it, too, was a treasure trove of bones and artifacts. Here, however, the materials were not retrieved from a hillside but from a naturally occurring cavern. Because Malta is mostly limestone, it was not difficult for rain water to seep down and eventually create a cave by eroding the softer stone and leaving the hardier variety behind. Much later, a river created a valley which cut through the cave leaving it exposed on both sides of the resultant valley.

One enters the cave by first passing through a museum building. The left-hand room contains graphics describing the action of the water in creating the cave and also shows how some species of animal came to Malta over land bridges or shallows to escape the Ice Age in Europe. As a result of this migration, Malta was host to elephants, hippopotamus, voles and other four-footed friends. Some adapted by becoming smaller and more efficient while others survived by becoming larger. The right-hand room of the museum contained teeth and bones from these animals as well as recreations of skeletons to show their eventual size. Imagine an elephant the size of a St. Bernard.

The museum, naturally, is at the top of the hill and the cave is near the bottom. We slogged down endless outdoor stairways, in the rain and wind, to get to the cave itself [Sharon stayed in the van because she was leery of both the steps and the cave]. Once we entered, we were awe-struck. Only a small portion of the cavern is available to the paying public because officials are worried that that the roof or walls could collapse on faults in the rock; they must not care about paid staff and researchers. What is visible has been dimly lighted with electric lights which stretch away in the distance. Here we saw stalactites and stalagmites and fossilized bones which had not been removed. We also saw areas where items had been retrieved and sent to the Museum. It was obvious, even without Joan’s narration, to see that early humans had lived here. There were unmistakable signs that not all of the structure was made by nature; instead, some “alterations” had been made by early inhabitants who used rocks and bones to decorate and improve the place. The few extant wall paintings sealed the deal. We enjoyed the peace and quiet of the cavern, as well as the dryness.

Our itinerary called for an open-air ride on a traditional Malta boat, but we exercised our right to alter the schedule by vetoing that because of the weather. We were sure Joan was happy about our decision. Instead, we headed to a small fishing village for lunch. Once again, we were early by European standards, but we were not the first patrons for a change and Rons was packed by the time we left. Joan recommended the fish [sound familiar?] so D & MA and Scott & Karen ordered fresh fish. Bill & Sharon chose pasta dishes, perhaps leery after the debacle on Santorini. Joan ate with us and ordered a fish platter, too.

Our fish was served for four people. There were five or six pieces of fish of different varieties. The owner told us what they were but we were never sure [one may have been bream]. The fish was served with salads and French fries and, of course, we had Cokes as well as bread and olive oil. We thought the fish was quite good and we enjoyed the family-run restaurant. Scott was less enthusiastic but was relieved when the price per couple was the promised 20 euros. We and Scott & Karen paid for Joan’s whole fish platter, so lunch cost us 30 euros, a bargain, we thought.

The dining room was on the second floor of the building and we had a wonderful view of the fishing harbor and the colorful boats bobbing in the water. Karen and MA also spotted a tent market, so after lunch we all trooped across the street to enrich the local economy. MA found nesting boxes with a Maltese cross and Scott found a Malta polo shirt to add to his world-wide wardrobe. Joan allowed us fifteen minutes, so we were shortly on the road again.

We stopped to look at a U-shaped inlet which featured a different fortified town on each of the three legs of the U. We walked through some of Birgu, marveling at its three defensive gates and dry moat. Emerging from the fortified area through the Provence Gate, we continued through this old section which has become an expensive and trendy area. We spent some time at the Inquisitor’s Palace where we saw not only a private chapel [unusual in the Middle Ages] and religious displays but also the torture rooms and prison cells for alleged heretics and witches. When we left, we passed the neighboring Executioner’s House which had two axes over the doorway. We passed the auberges, hostels for various national groups [Provence, Paris, London, etc.]. The Auberge de Provence was built by the Knights of St. Johnof Jerusalem, also known as the Knights of Malta.

Finally, it was time for our reserved tour of the Hypogeum. We have seen maps and remnants of a necropolis in Varna and catacombs in Rome, so it should be no surprise that the Hypogeum was an ancient burial ground. Unlike the cavern at Ghar Dalam, what is now known as the Hypogeum had been carved out of the rocks by humans around 3500 B.C. It has three levels and contained the remains of as many as 7000 bodies when it was discovered by accident in 1903. Unlike the other ancient monuments we visited today, this one is in the middle of Valletta no more than 15 minutes’ drive from the cruise ship dock.

We watched a video before entering the dig itself, then walked down stairs and followed a catwalk to numbered stations while listening to an explanation of what we were seeing. The most amazing feature of the site was the workmanship which we saw. There were rooms, which had been carved out of rock without the use of metal implements, that looked like they had been sculpted. One room in particular had a ceiling which had been made to resemble a dome. It looked a little like the dome at Monticello. This same room saw “windows” cut into the walls, giving depth to the entire room. All of this work was done in near darkness since researchers have found no evidence of soot to indicate the continued used of torches. The rooms apparently used for mass graves had steps which stopped as much as 2 meters above the floor; either te gangway was this was done to allow space to pile remains or it was a defensive construction designed for attackers to fall into the unknown. The whole visit, including the film, took less than an hour, but it was the highlight of the day.

Joan had us back at the Prinsendam exactly at 4:00, as requested, because the gangway was to be raised at 4:30 and we are nothing if not cautious. The Griswold’s boarded right behind us because at 5:10 Captain Gundersen announced to the whole world that we would be delayed by mechanical troubles. He hoped to leave by 8:00. We thought it would be fun to watch Valletta slide by as we ate supper.

Danger! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson! First, there was the fire alarm, but the captain said that there was only smoke in the engine room and everything was fine. Smoke? Fine? Then, as MA was finishing her shower just before 7:00, the ship lost almost all of its power. The emergency lights and PA worked but nothing else. With an outside cabin, we still had light from the window, so we finished dressing and went to the Ocean Bar. We were hoping that there would be free drinks to calm the anxious masses. There weren’t. We finally got power restored around 8:10 and dutifully trooped in for dinner. The ship had still not left Malta at 11:15 [as this is being written] and the captain has said only that he will tell us tomorrow if and how this delay will affect our arrival in Cadiz, Spain, Thursday.

We are hoping we get stranded in Valletta, have to be flown home, and get a refund and a free trip. We also still believe in the Tooth Fairy, so there you go.

Tomorrow – a sea day, if we’re not still in Malta.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Fun in Santorini

Saturday, April 11, 2009

One of the best things about Santorini was that there are no Roman ruins here. This Aegean island boasts nothing but beautiful vistas. Whether it is the mountains, the towns or the water, Santorini is one large Kodak moment.

All of this beauty comes at a price – there is not a level place on the island. What we see now is the remains of an active volcano which erupted in the Seventeenth Century B.C. According to some historians, the resultant tidal wave destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete. Today, all that remains is a string of islands which form the caldera of the volcano. There are two newer islands in the middle of the caldera, one purely volcanic and the other, the active remnant of the volcano. Local legend has it that the lost city of Atlantis is buried beneath the water near these two small islands.

The classic views of Santorini show the sheer cliffs of Fira, a town which faces into the caldera. On this side of the island, we found most of the high end tourist hotels and stores as well as the usual array of souvenir shops. Our guide today, Nikos, says that hotel rooms on the cliff can rent for as much as 1000 euros per night. These are not luxury high rises, either, but boutique hotels built on and sometimes into the cliff. One thousand euros to sleep in a cave! Some of the houses here cost several million euros.

On the other side of the island, the outer wall of the volcano, prices are as much as 90 per cent less. Rents are more affordable with accommodations available, according to Nikos, for 50 – 75 euros and up per night. The outside of the island is where swimmers can find black sand and gravel beaches. The biggest are two and seven miles long, respectively. We saw a few American sun worshippers on the smaller beach this afternoon but none had ventured into the chilly water while we watched.

We saw just about everything there was to see here, starting with Fira. We took a port tender [not a HAL tender] to the dock and climbed stairs to reach a cable car to ascend to the top of the cliff. We could have walked approximately 600 steep steps up the side or even taken a mule ride up the steps, but there was really no discussion as we trooped purposefully to the ticket booth. The ride is smooth and relatively quick, but Sharon’s fear of heights weighed heavily on her; she made it to the top without incident but was a nervous wreck.

We were supposed to meet our guide “at the top” at 10:00, but no one was there with a sign when we arrived, so we wandered through the cobblestoned shopping area before deciding to return to the cable car area to wait. We found our contact person looking for us by the time we got back. Then the fun began. Instead of walking down the hill to the van, we walked farther up the hill until we got to the very top. We stopped twice to catch our collective breath and to avoid cardiac arrest. This was not an easy climb, especially since three of the six of us have had some sort of orthopedic procedures. Climbing, steps and cobblestones are not our friends. We wheezed our way to the top to meet Nikos a breathed a little easier as we headed for the northern end of Santorini. [Santorini is also collective name given to the islands which form the caldera] The town of Oia [EE-yuh], one of twelve towns on this island, is smaller than Fira but has the most classic picture opportunities.

We walked up a hill, down a hill, up a hill, down a hill…looking at the town, the cliffs, the water, the other islands. No matter where we looked, we saw blinding whites and bright blues – the water was dark blue and the church domes were a brilliant blue. It was a nice change from Roman ruins and world history. Oia and Santorini exist just to be pretty. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Or A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

As time passed, we drove to other areas of the island, snapping away as we went. After we visited the black sand beach, we went to a restaurant which Nikos said specialized in fresh seafood. We were the first customers of the day and the staff could not have been more attentive not the food any fresher. Bread, tomato paste and briny Greek olives were brought to the table first. We ordered the Santorini salads, which were simply a Greek salad of cherry tomatoes, red onion, capers, green pepper and feta cheese, and split three of them among the three couples. MA order moussaka and D order stuffed cabbage leaves [like dolmades but with cabbage] and an order of the house specialty recommended by Nikos, broccoli. Although no one ordered dessert, the waiter brought a plate of fresh fruit – six slices of apple, kiwi, orange, strawberry and apple – a refreshing way to end the meal. It was all good, but there was simply too much food. With the bread charge and Cokes, our bill was about 32 euros.

Bill & Sharon and Scott & Karen ordered fresh fish which they selected from a display of fish on ice. The fish were sold by the kilo, not the piece, and were weighed prior to cleaning. Scott and Karen also ordered fried cheese, something Scott had discovered in Rome. Bill & Sharon’s bill came to about 75 euros and Scott & Karen’s was an amazing 115 euros; their red snapper sold for 57 euros a kilo and weighed a whopping 1.5 kilos resulting in a price of 83 euros just for the fish! No wonder the waiter/proprietor offered them the head when he brought out the platter. He should have given them the head, the ears and the tail.

Our penultimate stop was at the highest point on the island. We drove more switchback roads as we snaked up to the peak more than 1800 meters above sea level. Despite a slightly overcast day and incoming clouds, it was a breathtaking sight. We watched as clouds obscured a building on the peak as we watched. Photographs will no more capture this moment than they will the grandeur of the rest of the island. Sharon’s acrophobia kicked in and she stayed in the car, relying on Bill’s pictures to experience it.

Our last stop was at a winery which also sold retail. Bill & Sharon like to sample local wines and wanted to bring home something unavailable in the States. While they discussed and then bought their wine, the rest of us were helping the local economy, too. MA got a ceramic box as a souvenir of Santorini, deciding that she wouldn’t have to deal with the shops in Fira later. It was a good idea.

We drove back to Fira and let Scott and Karen out so they could shop. The rest of us were dropped off nearer to the cable cars, paid our fare and went home.

A picture is worth a thousand words:

Friday, April 10, 2009

Black Sea Adventures

Wednesday, April 08, 2009
The six of us met our guide, Maria, at 8:30 this morning and climbed into a minivan for the long ride to Bakhchisaray [bok-CHIH-suh-ree]. The town was once the capital of the Crimean Khanate, comparable to a Crimean empire. “Bakhchisaray” means “palace of the gardens” so the palace gave its name to the town which grew up around it.
Although we did not tour Sevastopol proper, it is important to note that the city has had a rich military history since it is located strategically in the Black Sea. It is most famous as a submarine base, especially during the cold war. Today, it serves as a base for both the Ukrainian and Russian navies. During WWII, 98 per cent of its buildings were destroyed, so the city as we saw it is only sixty years old, constructed mostly in Soviet-style architecture. It is not pretty despite the numerous statues, many of which honor Soviet leaders. While Ukraine is now an independent nation, Sevastopol has made no effort to change street names [for example] but embraces its history. The city was founded officially by Catherine the Great in 1792.
The Bakhchisaray palace is not a Disneyland castle, but is a collection of one- and two-story buildings set amidst plentiful open space and gardens. It dates to the Middle Ages and is, according to the printed description, a “vivid example of…Tartar culture.” Civilization of sorts in the area dates to the Eighth Century BC based on the discovery of graves from the Scythians and Taurs who lived here. In the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, Bakhchisaray became the capital of the Khan’s empire.
The palace dates from the early Sixteenth Century. Although the palace was built from 1532 – 1551, Maria said that the first ceremonial door we viewed was built in 1503. This door was a solidly built wooden one, now closed and locked to keep people out of the room behind it, and is decorated with marble carvings on the door frame. The décor highlights flowers and Arabic script, the latter because the Khans were Moslem.
We went from room to room, gawking at rugs, pillows, ceilings and wall decorations. Many of the rooms had stained glass windows, but these were added long after the Khans were gone. Originally, the windows were just openings, some window size and some really porticos. Since there was, obviously, no air-conditioning, the open construction encouraged air circulation and creature comfort. Many of the rooms had decorative fountains to help cool them. We visited the Khan’s private mosque which included a stained-glass Mogen David, the traditional Jewish six-pointed star. We found this somewhat ironic until Maria explained that this was a non-religious image -- at the time of its inclusion, the star was thought of as a yin-and-yang symbol of duality; at its center was the image of a turtle with its four feet, head and tail paralleling the symmetry of the star.
Since the entire complex has not survived, the harem we saw [pronounced hah-REM here and in Istanbul] may have been the living quarters of the Khan’s wife or mother. It was elaborate by the standard of the time, so we decided on our own that it was the Khan’s mother’s quarters; the wife would have been second best. The harem rooms contained a bedroom, a kitchen/dining room; and a formal living space. All were richly decorated although none of the furnishings were originals. After all, it has been almost 500 years.
We wandered through rose gardens waiting to emerge from their winter rest; saw the Khan’s private entrance to the harem; and the falcon tower that the women could use to see the outside world. In the tower and on the front porch of the harem were elaborate wooden screens used by the women to look out in such a way that no one could look in. Two of the screens had “bay windows” which permitted the women to see to the left and right as well as straight ahead.
In the center of the Palace grounds was a former parade ground. Used for military exercises centuries ago, it is now grass-covered and home to many bushes and trees. It looks a little like the Hippodrome in Istanbul without the fountains.
On the opposite side of the esplanade from the Khan’s quarters and the harem were the graveyard and two mausoleums. Marble ceremonial coffins were strewn about and Maria told us how to distinguish men, women and children’s graves – men’s had tall “pillars” on the corners; women’s had short pillars; and children’s had none. In the walls of the mausoleum were indentations with arrow-shaped tops indicating the direction of Mecca so people could face the holy city when they prayed [Mecca is south of Sevastopol].
We were expected at a Jewish community center at 1:00 and couldn’t be late because Passover began tonight and people had to get home early. We opted to skip a visit to another cave monastery especially because Maria said there were lots of steps; we learned our lesson yesterday. We drove past one of the monasteries on the way back to town – it was partly in the cliff-side but there was also a more traditional monastery in front, its blue dome flashing in the sun.
We arrived early at the JCC and got the complete tour of the medical clinic, the adult day care area, the dining room for the elderly, the multi-purpose room and, later, the after-school center.
The bulk of the time was spent listening to the unofficial archivist of the Jewish community from the beginning in the Eighteenth Century to the present. There have been Jews in the area since even before its official beginning although the original settlers died out with no connection to the immigrant Jews who started coming later. Artifacts showing the Star of David were found, however, lending credence to the theory of their presence. We saw a photo display of famous and/or heroic Jews of the past and learned a little about the present state of the Jewish community. Most surprising was that Jews can “come out” with no repercussions but many of the approximately 4000 Jews of Sevastopol still conceal their religious preference. MA, more than anyone else, noticed that there was little understanding of spoken Hebrew among our hosts. In fact, as we discussed over dinner tonight, they seemed like a little Diaspora, a community which has grown in isolation and has developed cut off from its past. In this, they are like the Russian Jews who emigrated in the 1970s and 1980s who were Jews by birth, not religion, and knew nothing of the religion.
We also discovered that there is no synagogue and no rabbi for these people, another sign of their isolation. In fact, the matzoh being distributed for Passover had been brought in from Kiev. When D asked about the matzoh, the center’s director insisted on giving us a box. This was welcome news for Scott and Karen because none of the rest of us really wanted it. We were encouraged to make donations to help maintain the center [which we did] and then left, glad for the cool air outside.
It was at this point that the Griswolds joined us. We had hoped to lunch on the way into town, but the Tartar restaurant Maria knew wasn’t open at 11:30 when we stopped by. She also told us that we would have been unable to use euros, dollars or credit cards but that we would have no problem in Sevastopol itself. Well, she was wrong. When we arrived at a restaurant after leaving the JCC, we discovered that the place dealt only in local currency, no charges. Maria said we could go to a currency exchange across the street but we balked at that. We didn’t know how much to get; we couldn’t use the leftover cash; and we were aggravated that the situation had arisen at all. She offered to front the money until the end of the day, but we didn’t want to do that either. Her final attempt was to suggest that we order and then exchange money since we would know how much we would need. We said, “No.”
We were all set to end the tour and return to the ship, but Scott wanted to see the Panorama. The rest of us were tired and hungry; Sharon had brought her snacks and water along and offered everyone beef jerky, but that wasn’t going to satisfy us; and MA and D wouldn’t get to dinner until 8:00, five-and-a-half hours away. Scott was insistent, so we went to the Panorama which was sort of on the way back anyway.
The Panorama is what we call a cyclorama. Opened in 1905, it celebrates the Battle of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. The battle took place in 1855 and last for weeks. The Panorama contains a 115 meter long circular painting which forms a 360 degree picture of the Battle as it happened on June 18, 1855. The painting, naturally, is on the outer walls of the circular structure. Between it and the visitors’ gallery are real cannon and other constructions to give the experience depth and verisimilitude. As one circles the observation deck in the middle of the gallery, one can see the battle going on in all directions. We were able to hear an explanation in [sort of] English as we walked to three observation points. The painting is populated with likenesses of actual participants and they are shown as would have been seen on June 18. The painting was done in grids and then the pieces were mounted seamlessly to form the cyclorama. The effort and artistry are amazing, but at least some of us were still too miffed to fully appreciate it.
When we left, Scott bought a booklet about the Panorama; it was their second visit and they wanted pictures which they couldn’t take inside. We waited in the tent-city shopping section and waited some more while Karen got her pin. Sharon, meanwhile, was so angry that she said she refused to buy stamps, post cards or anything since “they” didn’t want her money. We agreed.
We finally found our way back to the ship where D paid Maria the tour fee; reimbursed her for tickets at the Panorama and the Palace; and added a tip [despite his better judgment]. As we prepared to walk away, Maria presented us with a bottle of local wine as a “thank you” for being this year’s first cruise customers for the travel agency. We gave the wine to Bill and Sharon [Scott and Karen had the matzoh and we have the lemoncello from Fabrizio]. Most importantly, we were home! We dropped out stuff in the room and ate Laughing Cow cheese [from Barcelona] for lunch, then headed up to Deck Eight, skipping trivia. MA got an iced latte while D went to the computer area and sent a letter to the tour operator.
We were disappointed that the day ended on such a sour note because we had enjoyed the Bakhchisaray palace. The situation could have been avoided if we had had prior knowledge of the monetary peculiarities of Sevastopol. Not only did we not get the Tartar lunch promised in the tour description, we got no lunch. What we did get were negative feelings about our visit to Ukraine, especially coming just one day after our experience in Bulgaria.
Ah, well. Tomorrow is a sea day, so we can recuperate before we hit the trail again.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

We are at sea today after several days in the Black Sea. At the CC cocktail party the other night, Captain Gundersen remarked on how calm the Black Sea had been. He said that normally, one can expect rough seas, but we have been lucky for a month and we hope it continues on the return crossing.

We ate breakfast in the dining room, arriving a little past 9:00. The Prinsendam is heading generally west as we traverse the Bosporus again. Istanbul’s two intercontinental bridges slid by overhead as we approached the city. These bridges connect the Asian and European sides of this narrow section of the waterway which connects the Mediterranean and Black Seas. We watched the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque as we glided by. As always, there was a light fog, so it was a bit magical. Around Cape Horn, into the Sea of Marmara and on to the Dardenelles as we head to Kusadasi, Turkey.

The rest of the day was a little less poetic. We came that close in trivia again [What was the Lone Ranger’s real name? What four Shakespeare plays have ghosts?]. After lunch, MA took a long nap while D played one-on-one blackjack and came home a winner. Before dinner, he tried to qualify for tonight’s blackjack tournament but didn’t expect his paltry 600 point s to qualify. When he checked after dinner, he found that there were only four contestants, an unusually low number even for this cruise. Luck was with him again as he won the tournament and $90 [less than the $100 awarded in the other competitions but not bad considering how few people paid their entry fees]. The hat he won will be worn proudly tomorrow in Kusadasi and Ephesus.

Friday, April 10, 2009

We are docked in Kusadasi [Koo-shuh-dah-si], Turkey, today. The weather gods honored us again with a beautiful day, clear skies and warm temperatures. We packed rain jackets as insurance against disaster and never took them out of the carry-all.

Kusadasi is a pretty little town, filled with vacationers and sun-worshippers in the summer, but a bit sleepy today because we are early in the season. In fact, we are the only cruise ship in port which is a good thing for us if not for the local merchants. The main attraction for us, though, is not here but a few miles away in Ephesus.

The four of us [MA, D, Bill and Sharon] met our guide Banu outside at 8:30 and walked to the port entrance to discover that we had another thirteen-passenger van to ourselves. We each had several seats in which to spread out and had plenty of leg room for a change. We drove through Kusadasi and nearby Selcuk to the ancient ruins of Ephesus.

Ephesus is probably best known because one of the New Testament books is the Letter of John to the Ephesians. According to legends, John spent several years preaching to and converting residents of Ephesus. Late in the tour, in fact, we visited the Basilica of St. John where John’s reputed remains were discovered; they were sent to Rome for entombment, but the ruins of the Basilica still attract visitors [including us]. We are at the point where one set of ruins looks pretty much like any other, but we were able to distinguish the baptismal pool in the ruins as well as the spot where the crypt was discovered. Otherwise, it’s all a blur of columns and arches [and cats].

We started the day in Ephesus itself. The town was built into a hill, so modern visitors start at the top and walk down, considerably easier than climbing up. Although one Roman ruin looks like another, this one was worth the trip. First, it is so large that it can’t be seen in one glance. It extends into the distance and around corners. In this, it reminded us of the remains of Pompeii. We first came upon what we thought was a small amphitheater when, in fact, it was a meeting room of some sort in the “official” side of the town. Apparently, this structure had been roofed, so it couldn’t have been an amphitheater since those were open-topped. We gawked and continued down the path, passing piles of clay pipe used for the distribution of water to all of the buildings in Ephesus.

It is impossible to remember all of the buildings, but the most memorable were in the commercial or public area of Ephesus. The two sections, official and public, were separated by an open gate made too narrow for vehicles to pass through, thus separating, but not isolating, them. Among the buildings were a brothel, a library, a public latrine, a public bath and the theater.

While there is no definitive evidence that the building identified as a brothel was, indeed, a house of happiness, there is nothing to disprove the theory either. Since Ephesus was a port town, there had to be one somewhere. And it wasn’t a secret to the populace or the visiting seamen – there is an advertisement and directional arrow carved into the marble sidewalk between the brothel and what would have been the harbor if it hadn’t silted up over the centuries. The ad included the likeness of a woman’s face; the directional arrow; a footprint; and a referral to the library. If a potential customer’s foot wasn’t big enough to fill the footprint, indicating he was too young, he was directed to the library; if it is was big enough, he was pointed toward the brothel.

The library was reputed to be one of the largest in the world in its time, third only to Alexandria and Athens[?]. Small by our standards, it allegedly had over 12,000 scrolls in its collection which was quite impressive for the times. Its reconstructed façade has been put back in place after a massive restoration effort; most of what we saw is from the original structure and it looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.

The latrine and bath were for visitors to Ephesus because every house had hot and cold running water as well as latrines and a sewer system. Waste water was gravity-fed down the hill to the Aegean Sea. Likewise, the public facilities were continually flushed by piped-in water. There were no individual stalls and no lids to leave up, but the ergonomics were pretty much what we have now. The use of togas afforded some semblance of privacy in an otherwise very public performance. The baths were like the one in Varna – fridgidarium, tepidarium and caldarium plus steam room – but on a much smaller scale.

The street was paved with marble, much of which is still there. On either side were businesses and, over them, housing. In some areas, there were only houses where the rich had more space and better views of the countryside and the long-gone harbor. We didn’t visit them because of the steps, but others said they were worth the climbing.

We passed but did not explore the commercial agora which would have been like the ones in Rome and Athens. Instead, we took the time to struggle up the ramp to the theater. A massive Greco-Roman theater, it was built into the hillside and was definitely not roofed; it is so big that it is used now for concerts and other performances. Banu said she wants to marry a man who is “crazy rich” so she can rent the auditorium and hold her wedding there! Having walked up ramps to enter the theater, we had to climb down marble steps to reach the orchestra area. It was here that MA slipped on the last step and landed unceremoniously on her tush. She struggled on but had a 3 inch long bruise to show as a result when we got home.

We continued past the sites of the Arcadian Way, the main road into town from the harbor; the Harbor Gymnasium; the Stadium and other collections of columns and rubble before running the gauntlet of souvenir shops to reach the van.

We also visited the alleged house of the Virgin Mary. Legend has it that she spent the last years of her life in this cavernous stone cottage atop a steep hill about 2000 feet above the valley floor. A twisting switchback road took us up the mountain and the constant twisting and turning reminded us of the drive to Positano. The view was as beautiful with the town of Selcuk laid out below us, appearing and disappearing as we drove higher and higher. The fields below became a checkerboard of fruit trees, mostly pear, and looked like a patchwork quilt. It was breathtaking.

The climb from the van to the house itself wasn’t as steep. Banu paid our way in and gave us the tickets as souvenirs [as she had done at Ephesus], then escorted us to the stone and brick house. It is considered a shrine by many and the interior no longer resembled a domicile. Instead, the main room was almost empty with a few straight chairs arranged as for a religious service. The one side room was likewise pretty sparsely decorated. There were religious pictures on the walls and tokens from several visiting popes, including Benedict XVI, but it no longer looked like a house. No pictures of the interior were permitted, either, so one must rely on memory alone. Once outside, we passed faucets set into a wall so that pilgrims could drink the “holy water” which came from an underground spring. We ran the gauntlet again and drove off.

Banu decided it was time for lunch, and no one argued with her. We drove back to Selcuk and went to Anton’s, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant which was so far off the beaten track it didn’t even have a track. Once again, we were the only Americans in an ethnic restaurant; of course, we were also the only customers, but Anton’s was not going to be on any HAL bus tours agenda.

We feasted on what we can only assume was traditional Turkish food. Banu and our driver certainly enjoyed themselves and Banu and the waiter/owner[?] explained what we were eating. We started with a chopped salad of carrots, cucumber, tomato and arugula served simultaneously with a dish that was a cross between and Indian kulcha, a quesadilla and a pizza -- it was dough filled with mashed potato, cut into pizza-sized wedges, cooked on a stovetop, not deep-fried. It was yummy.

Next came bread which we ate with Turkish meatballs. The meatballs were shaped like small sausages and made from beef and lamb. Although Turkey is a secular Moslem country, pork is not only not eaten, it is not cooked except in major tourist venues said Banu. She admitted that she is a modern Moslem woman who does not subscribe to many of the ancient practices. When the call came at 12:15 for mid-day prayers, she said that she does not see the need to pray five times a day or to wash ritually before prayers or meals because hygiene has improved since these rules were instituted.

Back to lunch – the wonderful meat dish was followed by a very sweet milk-and-rice dessert. It reminded us in taste of sticky rice in the Floating Market of Bangkok but was milkier in texture. Everyone except Bill loved it, but it was too sweet for him. Of course, we had Cokes, Bill had a local wine and Sharon had Efes beer, the local beer named after Ephesus.

After lunch, we visited the Basilica of St. John as mentioned earlier. The fact that he spent 2-1/2 years in Ephesus combined with Mary’s presence lends some credence to the theory that John and Jesus were brothers, but we’ll never really know. Still….

A quick stop at the remains of the Temple of Artemis/Diana showed us the one remaining pillar and a drawing purporting to be a schematic of the temple before the ravages of time, earthquakes and pillagers. Again, it became just another ruin.

We stopped for wine and olive oil for Bill and Sharon, who didn’t buy anything. MA found apple and pomegranate tea, though, so it wasn’t a wasted stop. We also visited a pottery demonstration and managed to leave some euros there, too, before returning to the Prinsendam. We won a double tie-breaker in trivia but gave our picture frames to Norm and Kay, our partners.

Rest time, dinner, reading and journal writing rounded out another full day.

Tomorrow – Santorini,