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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Thanks for the historical visit to Greece---
    Everything sounds great!!Happy Birthday Sam--and many more!! 22 already??? If you are in the valley for some time, call and stop over or have lunch-dinner with us--would love to see both of you---diane and amos