Sunday, August 30, 2009

Athens and Istanbul

Athens - August 27th

Coming off of a nice relaxing sea day, our planned day for Athens was going to be one of non-stop go go go. I had arranged for a private tour for us and as we disembarked the ship shortly before 8 AM, our driver/guide was waiting for us, holding up a sign with our name. Mannos introduced himself and we were off. On the agenda was a coastal drive out to Cape Sounion, where the remains of the Temple of Poseidon are. You could tell it was going to be a hot day in Athens, and even at this fairly early hour, the coming heat and humidity, combined with the windy road, made both me and Sam a little queasy. We were happy to get out of the car at the Temple. It was a short hike up the hill to the remains. In Greek mythology, Poseidon was the god of the sea. In power, Poseidon was considered second only to Zeus, the supreme god himself. He was known for having quite a temper and his wrath, manifested in the form of storms, was greatly feared by all mariners. The temple of Poseidon, therefore, was a place where mariners could placate Poseidon by making animal sacrifices or leaving gifts.

The temple was constructed around 440 BC and only a few columns remain today, but there are enough on 3 sides to give you a really good idea of its original size and grandeur. The temple is perched about 180 feet above the sea on a cliff and the view is spectacular.

We spent about a half hour there and then returned to the car for our drive back into Athens. The coastal road is known as the Greek Riviera, passing through coastal towns with some lovely homes that serve as weekend retreats for the wealthy.

No first time visit to Athens would be complete without a visit to the Acropolis and the Parthenon. The Parthenon was a temple to the god Athena, built on top of the highest hill in Athens, which is called the Acropolis. It is quite a place. No expense was spared to build the Parthenon. It was made almost entirely of marble, had 8 columns across the front (most other temples only had 6) and combined both Doric and Ionic architectural styles. The Parthenon stood as the great glory of Athens for eight hundred years. When the Athenians converted to Christianity they made the Parthenon into a Christian church and it stood for another 1,000 years. When the Ottomans showed up in the 1600's, they stored their ammunition in the Parthenon and it was accidentally set on fire and exploded, causing tremendous damage to the Parthenon. Since that time, it has fallen into disrepair, but much effort is going on to fully restore it. When we visited it this day, there was a lot of scaffolding covering much of the structure. The views from the Parthenon of surrounding Athens are incredible. I was amazed at how spread out and extensive Athens is. It reminded me a bit of Los Angeles; in fact, our guide, Mannos, said the same thing. Mannos spent about 20 years in the U.S., living in New Jersey. But he apparently did some traveling, as he was pretty familiar and knowledgeable about our country's big cities, having visited many of them over the years.

Mannos seemed to pride himself on the fact that he is 53 years old and looks pretty young for his age. Ahem, uh, I had pegged him at about 65, so I wasn't about to make any comments. I didn't feel like being tossed out of his pale yellow Mercedes.....I also had no plans to let him know that he wasn't the oldest one in the car!!! He's a nice man, a good guide, and he took us to a great little Greek restaurant for lunch. All 3 of us sat outside at this place and shared typical Greek dishes, some wine, some laughter, all good. It was a pleasant way to spend a lunch. After our lunch and visit to the Parthenon, the day was getting late, and so we drove around and saw more sights of the city before Mannos returned us to the ship, shortly after 4 PM. We saw the Temple of Zeus, the Plaka neighborhood, which is part of the old city, the "new" Olympic stadium where the modern-day Olympics began in 1896, the government buildings, the marina area out in Pireaus, near where we docked and the changing of the guard (this was pretty cool, the military guys were pretty hilarious in their garb and the way they had to "march" along the sidewalk) in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier. Of course, they were very serious, and to be one of these guards is quite an honor, but they looked like something from 200 years ago. We caught some good photos, so I'll try to post some later. By the way, posting pictures is time-consuming and the internet is excruciatingly expensive on board, so I'm not likely to post any more pictures until after I get back - sorry!

Yesterday, Friday the 28th - I lose track of the days and dates, so pardon me if I get things wrong here....anyway, we arrived in Istanbul late in the day, about 4 PM. We did an overnighter here, so we had last night to go be-bop around town until late, and then we've been here all day today, with all-aboard at 4:30. I've got to say, I really loved Istanbul! It's a wonderful city. It is the ONLY city in the world that is located on two continents - Asia and Europe, and has been the capital of three great empires - Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, for more than 2,000 years. It's the 5th largest city proper in the world and has a population of over 12 million. I don't like big cities generally, but there are one or two that I've sort of fallen for over the years - and I think Istanbul is a place I would want to come back to and spend more time exploring. Sam and I only scratched the surface of it during our short stay here, but we packed in quite a lot. It sits on the Bosphorus Strait and surrounds a natural harbor called the Golden Horn. While it doesn't rain a lot, it does snow in the winter. Weird. I can't seem to connect a harbor city with snow, unless you're some place like Maine. I guess I've spent way too much time on the West Coast.

The main "sights" to visit in Istanbul are all in very close proximity to one another - and easily walkable. They are the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace. Istanbul is a predominantly Muslim country. Sam and I, armed with Rick Steve's guide to Istanbul, set out early this morning to visit these fantastic places. Before we get to that, however, I'll make a quick digression to last night. We got off the ship around 5 PM and headed up the street to catch the funicular (no, it's not a danish pastry, nor a musical instrument, but an underground train/tram that crawls up a hill. This particular funicular carried us up from the street running along the port to the Taksim Square, a busy intersection in the New District that marks the beginning of a mostly pedestrian promenade, filled with shops and restaurants. As the night wears on, the promenade gets really busy, really crowded and really noisy. There's a bunch of little side streets, which are more like alleyways, off the main walking street and in there you pass by tons of cafe/restaurants, with outside seating and where the restaurant owners try to get you to come and sit down and have a meal. They are beyond annoying, but I guess they need the business. Their aggressiveness made me start to wonder about the wisdom of my planned Turkish Bath I have set for Sam's birthday on Monday, on our visit to Kusadasi, Turkey. Sigh. We enjoyed the stroll along the main street and after awhile we got hungry so we set out looking for 3 or 4 restaurants that we had read about in Rick Steve's book. We found only 1 of them - and, as luck would have it, was closed until August 31st. The place next door, Deep Restaurant, looked interesting, so we took a table outside and plopped down for some food and drink. One thing I really like to do while traveling, is to eat the local food. I chose some pasties that were filled with some minced meat, spices and vegetables. They were really good! Sam had pasta. PASTA. In Turkey. Oh well. As we walked back towards the ship at the end of the evening, I stopped in to a bakery and picked up a baklava made with pistachios.

Okay, back to today - our first stop was the Hagia Sofia, pronounced Aya Sofia. It is a spectacular church built in 537 AD by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. When the Ottomans conquered it in the 1400's, it was turned into a mosque, and today it stands as a museum. Once built, it was the largest domed building in the world for nearly 1,000 years. In short, it's gorgeous, both inside and out. There's a huge nave, a stunning apse and beautiful mosaics everywhere. We spent a good hour or more in there, wandering around, Sam stopping us often to read from the guide book about all of the interesting areas within. Who needs a tour guide waving a numbered flag on a pole when you've got Sam Stone whispering historical facts in your ears? Back in the day, when you traveled with Sam, she'd stand there and yawn, looking immensely bored. To see her now, interested in the places we're at and actively engaged, is a grand thing. I am a happy mom.

Across the street from the Sofia, stands the mighty Blue Mosque, one of the world's finest. It only took 7 years to build (in the early 1600's) it is called the Sultan Ahmet Mosque for the ruler who financed it. It is unique because it has six minarets. A minaret is sort of like a small round tower that sits outside a mosque and it is where the person who does the call to prayer climbs and calls from. Most mosques just have one minaret but some Sultans wanted to show off their power and importance so they had more of these built. It is said that when this blue mosque was built, the Sultan got in a bit of trouble because no mosque is supposed to have more minarets than the great one in Mecca, which had six at the time. Rather than removing one of the minarets from this new mosque, the Sultan financed the building of a seventh one at the mosque in Mecca. The mosque isn't blue on the outside, but inside it has quite a lot of blue decorative tiles, thus giving it its name. This is an active mosque, and it closes for visitors (unless you are there to pray) during the 5 daily prayer times. On Friday's mid day service, the Imam gives a sermon and the services extend from the usual 15 minutes to 45 minutes.

The other expansive piece of real estate in the area is the Topkapi Palace. It was built by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in the late 1400's. Over the centuries, the palace was enlarged by various ruling sultans, and as a result, there are a variety of architectural styles, all representing the various periods of time and ruler flourishes as the palace gradually was enlarged. An interesting part of the palace is the Harem. While we Westerners may think of a harem as a place where sex slaves exist to serve the whims of the sultan, in fact, "harem" is an Arabic word which means "forbidden." The Sultan was allowed to have up to 4 wives - favorites that he picked from among his concubines living in the Harem at the palace. If one of them bore a child of the Sultan, then she was treated as a wife. When a Sultan died or was replaced, only the mother of the new Sultan could remain in the Harem - and she was usually already living there. The wives and/or favorites of the previous Sultan had to leave, but they were given a house and a pension. Hmmm, not many places offer pensions anymore - this could be a new industry.....this could put new meaning into Obama's stimulus plan.............

The palace sits on the edge of the Golden Horn and, once inside the walled enclosure, I found it quiet and peaceful. The grounds and various buildings encompass quite a bit of acreage, but it's quite lovely. We could have easily spent half a day wandering inside all of the buildings, but Topkapi was our last stop over a long and hot day here in Istanbul. We made a point to tour the Harem - and while we would have liked to have seen some of the crown jewels, including an 86-carat diamond - the line to get in that particular building was long and slow. We opted out.

We had lunch at another recommended place from the guide book and were not disappointed. The food was simple yet tasty. I love the fact that everything is so fresh and flavorful.

After also visiting an underground cistern and the small hippodrome outside of the mosque, we hopped on a tram and rode back to the ship.

Tomorrow we are in Mykonos, a tiny little Greek island. There's not much to do there, but we're planning on renting some scooters or ATVs and trolling around the island or heading to a beach. Monday is Sam's 22nd birthday, which we'll spend in Kusadasi, Turkey and where we'll no doubt be pummeled to death by a killer Kusadasian named Korat at the Turkish bath. Tuesday is Santorini, another Greek island, Wednesday is Katakalon (Olympia), Greece and Thursday is both our last day on the cruise and our final sea day. Friday brings us back to Venice, and our flight home to L.A. I probably won't post again until next Thursday.

There's been no sign of my "dastardly Dutchman", I'm sorry to say. Sam keeps a pretty close eye on me, so there hasn't been much opportunity to get into any kind of trouble or involve myself in any shenanigans - the worst mess I've gotten myself into has been tripping up steps with my big feet and that's only served to embarrass her, not me.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

At Sea 8-21 thru 8-26

Saturday August 22 -

Sitting in Munich airport, waiting for my flight to Venice. So close, yet still so far!!! I've been up now for 24 hours and the long flight has made me weary and sleepy, yet I can't sleep. It is the Sherita curse for flying. Doesn't matter if I'm sitting up or lying down, I can't sleep on a plane.

Sat next to a nice man on the flight over from Chicago. Max. He lives somewhere on that hand of Michigan (he rolled his eyes when I put up my hand, palm facing him, fingers closed together and asked him to point out his town....). Anyway, he was on his way to Croatia, where he grew up. The only bad thing about sitting next to Max for 8 hours is that he had the window seat and he's about 6'3" and I guess since he decided we were on a first name basis, he could invade my territorial imperative and proceeded to sleep almost Sam-style during the flight. "Sam-style" means using my shoulders as a head rest, slopping his knees over onto mine, etc. Good grief. I felt kind of bad for him since there was no place to put his knees even in an upright position. The new Airbus 340 plane is nice, but the seating leaves a lot to be desired. Even the business class section looked small. Oh well, what's a little shoulder and knee canoodling among strangers on a plane.

Tuesday August 25 -

We're anchored off of Split, Croatia today. Let me back up a couple of days, however. I arrived Venice pretty much on time, got my bag and as I came out of the baggage claim area I spotted Sam standing there waiting for me! She had arrived Venice the evening before, and she was a beautiful sight to see! 13+ hours of flying and exhaustion aside, I hadn't felt this happy in a very long time. Reunions are very sweet indeed.

We shuttled back to the hotel, I got a little settled, showered, and we were off to a local pizza/pasta place a short walk away. We had a nice meal and then it was back to the hotel and I pretty much crashed. I slept long and well and awoke very refreshed and ready to go. Our ride to the ship came at 12:30 and after a bit of time waiting in line to check in and board, we were in our lovely cabin suite. They hadn't delivered our luggage yet, so we headed upstairs to the Lido deck and had a nice lunch from the buffet. One of the nice things about cruising is the constant abundance of food. Sam mentioned this in her blog awhile back, so I won't repeat it, but you'll never go hungry on a cruise ship. Trust me. Never.

Yesterday we got up and headed into Venice for a leisurely stroll through town. We've both been to Venice before, and we've "been there, seen that." This time we decided to seek out the Cannaregio District - otherwise known as the Jewish Ghetto. While Venice is considered one of the world's most beautiful and romantic cities with its canals and streets remaining the same as they were hundreds of years ago, for Jews, however, Venice is also a place with a dark history. In 1516 the government issued special laws and instituted the first Ghetto of Europe. Jews were forced to live in this area only and could not leave from sunset to dawn. The area was closed by gates watched by guards. Today, you can still see the marks of the hinges from the gates. The quality of Jewish life often shifted with the whims of the ruling power. The word "ghetto" is from the Italian getto meaning "casting" or Venetian geto meaning "foundry." When the doges, Venice's ruling council, decided to allow the Jews to remain in the city, they moved them to the Ghetto Nuova, which was a small island that used to house a foundry. This Ghetto existed for more than 250 years, until Napolean conquered Venice and eliminated every gate and Jews were finally free to live in other areas of the city. Made famous by Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, the Ghetto is now a quiet and pleasant neighborhood where Venice's small (500 or so) Jewish community still lives.

In contrast to Cannaregio, Piazza San Marco, on the other side of Venice, is a frenetic mass of human bodies, pigeons and beautiful buildings. On the canal end of the Piazza sits the massive and imposing Basilica San Marco, a magnificent place to behold. If you stand in the middle of the Piazza, with every turn, there is something beautiful to see - The Clock Tower, Doge's Palace, the Grand Canal. The only thing that spoils it all a bit is the mass of people milling about. When Sam was there a few years ago for Carnivale she told me that when it was over, late at night, as she and her friends walked back to their hotel, the Piazza was quiet and empty. A rare event.

No cars are allowed within the city of Venice, and so everything in the city is transported by boat from the mainland and through the city's many canals to its destination. The fact that there's no vehicles makes Venice a perfect place to walk around and enjoy the old city sights. The city has done a good job of holding up to the march of time. It's not hard to imagine you are seeing the city as it was seen by Marco Polo in centuries past.

Before we leave Venice (and Italy), let's have some fun facts, shall we? The country of Italy is only slightly larger than the state of Arizona. 20% of Italy's population is over 65 years old. The main crops from Italy's farms are grapes, potatoes, sugar beets, soybeans, grain and olives. Pinocchio was written by an Italian. Pizza was born in Naples. The piano hails from Italy. Italy is the 4th most visited country in the world. Famous Italian inventions: thermometer, ice cream cone, eyeglasses, telephone, espresso machine and the typewriter. A few "there's no surprise": the national dish is pasta, national sport is soccer, 98% of Italians are Roman Catholic, the average Italian consumes 26 gallons of wine a year - doing some quick math in my head, I think that's about a cup a day.....Every day, about $5,000 worth of coins gets thrown into the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Florence Nightengale was named for her city of birth. Canned herring are called Sardines because they came from Sardinia and cantaloupes are named after the gardens of Cantaloupe, Italy. Finally, it is illegal to make coffins out of anything except nutshells or wood.

Ciao Italia!!!!

Port of call - Split, Croatia - Tuesday August 25th

The city of Split is situated in the warmest region of the northern Mediterranean coast. It's average annual rainfall is just 2 inches. Note to self --- don't ever move to Split. You will be unhappy.

In the 4th century BC, the Greeks conquered parts of present-day Croatia. The Romans succeeded the Greeks until about 800 AD, when the Croatians established their own state rule by princes or dukes. Hungary then governed Croatia until about World War I. In 1918, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed which would later be called Yugoslavia and was ruled by the Serbian royal family, which naturally favored the Serbs and caused a tremendous amount of resentment in Croatia. Fast forward to 1991, when Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, which then prompted Serbian invasion. After 5 years of battle, the country was liberated. Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, and Split lies on the Dalmatian coast of the country. There's about 4.5 million people in the country and the majority religion is Catholic.

Split is best known for the Diocletian Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This palace is one of the best-preserved Roman royal residences in the world. It was built on the seacoast of Split around 295 AD. It's structures cover about 9 acres in area, and houses 16 towers, 3 temples and an emperor's mausoleum. The Roman Emperor Caius Valerius Aurelius Diocletianus built a palace as a summertime residence, but after he abdicated in 305 AD, he spent the rest of his days in his enclave. He was not a popular emperor, because he was well-known for his persecution and torturing of Christians. Tsk tsk, those pesky Romans.

The ship anchored in the bay outside Split and Sam and I took an early tender in. We wandered through the fish market, and then into the palace grounds, which, besides housing the museum, towers and the remains of the Palace, there is also an open-air market where local vendors showcase their crafts, artwork, fruits and vegetables and the usual touristy items - t-shirts, fridge magnets, shot glasses. Croatia might be best known, however, for its neckties, as they were invented here. It is called a "cravat" which is derived from the word "Croat.".

Fun facts about Croatia: the largest truffle ever found was in Croatia, in 1999. It was 7.8 inches long 4.1 inches wide and 5.3 inches tall. Yum!!! Our White House was built out of Croatian stone, coming from the island of Brac. And my favorite fun fact - Dalmation dogs (hi Rox!!!) come from Croatia's Dalmation coast.

I've posted some pictures here of Venice and Split. Today is our first sea day, so we have been perusing the day's calendar of activities and events to see if there's anything that floats our boat (tee hee hee). I haven't worked up much interest in attacking the Daily Quiz yet - I'm not sure I have any fight left in me for it these days. There's a lecture giving an overview of Greek history and architecture but unless the speaker is really good, it makes me feel like I'm back in school and I find myself nodding off. There's the start of a blackjack tournament that I might sign up for. Last time I did that I made the finals and it was a lot of fun. There's also some sports activities, games, and just lazing about or taking dips in the pool and catching some rays. Most of you will recall my write-up last year about my love for sea days, so I won't repeat myself again. All I'll say is that it's a good day.

Do videnja!!! (that's "goodbye" in Croatian)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Musings Pre-Flight

The week leading up to vacation departures is always very frenetic - there's tons of last-minute tasks to finish up at work - there never fails to have at least 2 to 3 mini-crises appear just as you think you've got things covered.

And then there's the myriad of personal things that need to be taken care of. Laundry, enough pet food to last 2 1/2 weeks for the pet sitter, stopping the mail, calling the credit cards to put travel alerts on your accounts, etc. Lists for this, lists for that. I'm a major list-maker (thanks Daddy) and I even hi-light and color code. And no, I don't really have too much time on my hands....

Anyway, by the time the bags are packed, and you're on the plane, everything literally just fades away into the distance as the plane takes flight and that little tube of steel hurtles you across the sky towards your intended destination, there's nothing like your favorite glass of (insert drink of choice here) in your hand to make you lean back and sigh with excitement and content.

2 days and counting............

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Gotta Love Those Upgrades

Ah, got news today we got an upgrade to a full-on suite for the cruise. Gotta love that.

All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go
I'm standing here outside my door
I hate to wake my dogs up to say goodbye
But the dawn has broken, its nearly noon
Big Blue shuttle's waiting, hes blowin his horn
Already I'm so excited I could SIGH.

I'm leavin' on a jet plane
Flying over land and sea
Headed to Venezia
Just my Sam and me

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sunday Tales

I've lived here in the Sacramento area since mid-February and have yet to venture out to the downtown Sacramento area. Today was the day I decided to get with the program and go out and have a look-see. The weather was supposed to be lovely - high 70's to low 80's and the promise of that held true.

So, early this morning, I loaded up the van with the dogs and the dog stroller and we headed downtown to Old Sacramento. I had read about an easy 1 mile hike along the Sacramento River that begins at the train/railroad museum and goes in a loop along the riverfront walk. You could also take a detour down Capitol Mall road to the Capitol buildings, which I decided to do.

It didn't take long to get to the J Street exit off the 5 - about 25 minutes from my home in Roseville. There was a nice parking garage just across the street from the museum and within a few minutes I had the dogs out, Molly in the stroller, and we were ready to rock and roll.

We spent a little over an hour down there - walking the entire time - Rox was exhausted, bless her nearly 13 year-old self, and Molly, well, Molly had a chance to get out and walk some too, but she does love her stroller!! Since it's so hard for her to walk farther than a couple of blocks these days, this stroller allows us to all stay together and enjoy our time outdoors.

I really enjoyed spending the morning in a new place - I am constantly amazed at how much I really like it here - I dragged myself nearly kicking and screaming to this area, but I'm so glad I came (on many levels....) Sacramento is called the City of Trees, and I can see why! It is really a green place.

On our way back from the capitol mall area, I chose a zig-zag route that took us along parts of Old Sacramento - neighborhood cafes, the Crest Theatre (where my favorite independent and artsy/fartsy films play - now I know where it is!!!) and an eclectic mix of local shops and businesses. It's a place I'm anxious to visit again.

I've attached a few pictures - some riverboats along the Sacramento River, the Tower Bridge (it's the one that is gold in color) and of course, the dogs and the Capitol building.

Till next time - oink out

Countdown Time!!

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