Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Almost Over - Goodbye Greece and Turkey

I'm losing track of time. Today's the 2nd of September. Okay. Well, on Sunday we arrived in Mykonos about mid-day. It's one of Greece's smaller islands, just 86 kilometers in area. is composed primarily of granite and has very little natural fresh water, so it relies heavily on the desalination of sea water in order to meet its needs. The population there hovers around 11,000. Chora is the island's main port and center, but it's also called Mykonos Town. It's easy to get lost wandering in and among it's maze of whitewashed buildings, shops and restaurants. The town layout is disorderly by design - the twisting streets helped to foil would-be attackers - villagers could maneuver them into ambush. Sam and I got lost and turned around on more than one occasion during our visit to the town.

It's a pretty place, but not much to do there unless you're into shopping, which we're not. We found an internet cafe and Sam spent about 45 minutes in there, yakking away with Ari on Skype and checking her emails. I chose to sit outside, across the street, on a nice bench in the shade in front of a small cafe. There was lovely Greek music playing from inside and I pulled out a book and did a little reading. At some point early on, a local Greek man came and shared the bench with me. We said hello to one another - he spoke no English and I, no Greek. We nodded and smiled and he asked me "Americano" and I nodded yes. He said "Obama?" and I made a snarky face. Then he said "Bush?" and I made another snarky face. He just laughed. And I laughed. I went back to my reading and he sat there, staring out at the little street in front of us. Pretty soon, a car pulled up in front of us, parked and a woman rolled her window down and started yakking at my Musing Man From Mykonos on my bench. It was clear she was MMM's wife. She got out of the car, handed him the keys and yelled something at him and stalked off. He turned to me, tipped his cap to me and got in the car, waved and drove off. Well.

I went back to my book. About 10 minutes later, who comes walking up the street, sits down on the bench? MMM. My Musing Man from Mykonos. We both laughed. I said to him, "where is your car?" Knowing no English, he sensed my question and responded in Greek. I think he said "I parked it and came back to keep you company on your bench." So, we both sat there now and stared at the street, enjoying the day. Then, along came another man, driving a small utility van. He pulled up right in front of us, parked and got out. He went to the back of his van, opened the hatch and pulled out some tools and set out working on fixing his window in the driver's door. You see, the window wouldn't roll up. He spent about a half hour working on that thing and he finally got it fixed just right. MMM and I clapped when he was finished and the man turned to us and gave us a toothless smile. He got back in his van and drove off.

Before long, MMM's wife came back again, this time in a different car. Again, she parked, rolled down her window and yakked at him, got out, gave him the keys and stalked off. This time we looked at each other, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said goodbye. I'll never know if MMM came back for a 3rd time, because the next time I looked up, Sam was back and off we went. We did pass by the toothless window fixer man further down in town and I waved to him like I'd been his friend for years. He smiled and waved back. Ah, life in a small town.
About the only other item of note for Mykonos is that they have these very old windmills - I believe they are from the 1500's. They are one of the most recognized landmarks of Mykonos. The ample supply of wind on the island and the need to refine grain and compact it for transport made Mykonos the perfect location for these windmills. This island had easy access from its port and was a popular trading stop between Venice and Asia. As the industrialization age came about, the importance of the windmills began to wane. Today, there are only 16 left. I took some photos of them and will post them later on, in my album.

On Monday, it was Sam's birthday. We were in Kusadasi, our last Turkish port. Kusadasi is one of Turkey's main holiday resorts and it is a very pretty port city. It is known for its many powdery beaches, temperate climate and over 300 days of sunshine a year. I had arranged for a private tour to the ancient city of Ephesus, which is just a few miles outside of Kusadasi. Once, long ago, Ephesus was a sea port, but now the sea is 6 miles away! Ephesus dates back to 2000 B.C. and the ruins are simply amazing. As you enter the ruins, you can see the remains of the upper city gate, and a good part of the agora and Temple of Isis is clearly visible, the agora walkable. There's a very well preserved Odeion, a town hall, stoas, fountains and baths. It is really incredible. Little by little the people working on this site and unearthing an amazing city. Just last year, the Terrace Houses were opened to the public to view. These were VIP houses and there are 6 of them. They were built along one of the main streets and each house is two stories. I took some great photos of these houses and my words just can't do them justice. There are beautiful mosaics along the floors, frescoes on the walls and clearly defined rooms - kitchens, sleeping rooms, parlors. They used clay pipes to route water through the houses for heat - they hid the pipes behind the walls and under the floors. We could see some of these original pipes as we walked through these houses. Just incredible.

Near the other end of Ephesus is a magnificent building called the Great Theater, the largest in ancient Asia, which had a capacity of 24,000 and is in excellent preserved condition. It was built around the first century A.D. and it is said that St. Paul was dragged into this theater to face the crowd because of his famous letter to the Ephesians. Fortunately for St. Paul, he was rescued by the security cops of the city.

Another beautifully preserved structure along the main street is the Temple of Hadrian. It was build around 100 A.D. and was dedicated to Emperor Hadrian, one of the Five Good Emperors of the Roman era.

We spent several hours touring Epehesus, and our guide, a young college student studying history and archeology, helped to make this city come alive. I truly enjoyed every minute of it. Once back in town, we had arranged for a Turkish Bath, and so we said goodbye to our guide and entered the bath house.

So, the bath house is an interesting place. You enter in what looks like a small hotel lobby, worn Turkish rugs on the wooden floor, a wooden "cage" behind which sits a small Turkish man with long gray hair, dark tanned face and dressed all in black. He's the "spokesman" for the enterprise. He takes your money, and tells you to sit down on the couch and wait. Then about a minute after you've sat down, he barks at you to go upstairs and points the way. We then climb up a narrow flight of wooden stairs and walk into a dressing area with private rooms. It is in here we change out of our clothes, leave our belongings and lock our door, putting the key around our wrist. Sam and brought her bathing suit to wear, I had not. I had read ahead about this place and was under the impression that everyone was in their birthday suits. Well, I had the small towel they had given us. About the size of a cotton dish towel. Well, maybe slightly larger, it was enough to cover most of my privates....We were then herded into a marble steam room. There were 4 Irish women in there already lying around. Ahem, THEY all had their bathing suits on too. I guess I must have read the wrong write-up.
Anyway, we sat in there for a few minutes and then a woman came and yelled at us to follow her. We went into yet another steam room, but this one had several men in it and it was really hot and steamy in there. (That's what she said.) There are little benches around the walls of the room and one big large marble slab in the middle of the room. I got up and laid down on the center slab, letting the hot marble work its magic on my back. Pretty soon the men left and us women-folk were left to ourselves. After about 20 minutes, the woman came back and took us back to the first room, and she put on a scary looking loofah glove and started washing each of us down, one woman at a time. I was next to last. Off went my towel and she started scrubbing me. Actually, it felt really good. Kind of like when you rub coarse grade sandpaper all over your body with brute force. You can imagine all the dead skin that sloughed off. At the same time as the woman sandpapering us down to a human wall ready for priming, a man came into the room and ordered the women who had been scrubbed already to get up on the slab one at a time, and he proceeded to blow up this pillowcase thing which was filled with soap bubbles. He then sort of popped it over you, starting at your feet and moving up to your head. All these wonderful soapy bubbles fall out and then he starts massaging you all over your body while the soapy concoction is on you. The cleansing massage lasted for maybe 5 or 6 minutes and it, too, felt really awesome! When both the woman and the man wanted you to turn over, they slapped you on the bottom and muttered something that maybe sounded like turn over, even though it wasn't. If you looked at them like you didn't understand they just yelled at you louder. Like that really helps....When the man was done soap-massaging you, he stood you up and dumped big bowls of warm water all over you to rinse you off. Then he went and got a dry cloth towel and wrapped you up and yelled at you again to get out. And off we all shuffled back to the dressing area.

The whole bath took about an hour from start to finish. The soapy massage was the best part, that man knew how to use his knuckles!!!

After getting back to the ship, I think Sam and I took a nap. We had a late dinner in the ship's specialty steak house called the Pinnacle Grill. They have amazingly delicious steaks there and top-notch service, very elegant. We always try to eat there once each time we cruise. The only difference this time was that neither Sam nor I are eating meat, so there was no steak for us. I didn't suffer too terribly, however, - I had a nice big lobster tail and Sam had a beautiful piece of king salmon. For dessert, the Grill is known for his chocolate volcano cake. It's about the closest thing to heaven one can imagine. It's a bowl with rich chocolate cake, still soft and gooey in the middle, and a big glob of real cream. And everything is still warm. Gawd. I think this dessert is what caused drooling to be invented. I have nothing more to say about it.

Well, on to Santorini. This is one of Greek's - and, I dare say - the world's most beautiful islands. I'm sure you've seen postcard pictures of this place when you've seen advertisements for Greece. Brilliant blue seas, a tall island rising out of the middle of them, with whitewashed sugar cube houses and churches with bright blue domes set against the deeper blues of the sky and the Agean Sea. Santorini is crescent shaped and forms a ring around the volcanic islands in the bay. I got some nice photos of it which I'll post in my album after my return home next week.

We rented a car from Tony's - a local rental place and he had us off and running in about 10 minutes. Armed with a map of this small island, we headed first to Oia (pronounced ee-yah) a pretty village about 20 minutes' drive away. It's a windy mountainous road and about halfway there we came upon an accident that had just happened. It seems a couple on an ATV and rolled over and both the man and the woman were injured. The taxi driver in front of us quickly hopped out and started yelling for someone to call an ambulance. There was another couple with the injured people, and they were trying to tend to the woman, who looked quite dazed. The inured man was up and walking about but he had a big gash on his head and he was covered in blood all running down his face. It was not a pretty sight. Sam looked at me and said "well, I guess it's a good thing we rented a car instead of those." Parents and boyfriends, you may all breathe a sigh of relief.

Oia's village is quaint and cute but doesn't offer much other than cliffside cafes, small hotels with amazing views of the sea, and shopping. But, some good photo ops, and some great art galleries, too. We stayed there a little while, then popped back into the car and zipped off to a winery. We sat outside on a nice vine-covered patio and sipped a glass of local wine. They are able to grow nice grapes here, on the hillsides and in such rocky soil. The wine was good, but I'll stick with California vineyards and their output.

We then left the winery and headed down to the southern end of the island, in search of the Red Sand Beach. We thought we were going the right way, but we ended up at the Black Sand Beach. It was pretty and picture-worthy, so after that we corrected out mistake (I was the driver, not the navigator this time) and in short order we found the Red Beach nearby. Very pretty also. The waters here are so clear and clean! I could stand coming back to this island again - maybe stay for a week or so and just totally vege out. The pace of life is slow and easy and everyone smiles. I'm not sure you can ask for much more than that.

To get up to the towns on Santorini, you must first tender in from the ship, there is no dock big enough for even a small cruise ship, so everyone anchors out in the bay and little tenders come out and get you. Once you get to the dock, you have your choice of climbing about 600-plus stairs that wind in a serpentine way, up the side of the steep mountain, which, by the way, you must share with donkeys, or you pay 4 euro to ride the cable car. Needless to say, most everyone opts for the cable car. It was a quick but breathtaking ride up the side of that mountain. Fun!

Last night, the seas were a little rough for a few hours, and Sam was not feeling all that great - between the bouncy tender rides and the rocking of the ship, she was a bit green around the gills. We went to dinner, but she ended up taking her entree back to our cabin and I finished my dinner solo. Our waiter, Deddy, was very distraught about Sam, because he had planned to sing happy birthday to her, along with the other waiters in our area of the dining room. We had missed her actual birthday dinner since we dined in the Pinnacle Grill, and I think Deddy was anxious to provide her with his own special celebration. This is a common thing they do on the ship, unless you're an old fuddy duddy, it's fun to let the waiters sing to you. It's a sweet gesture and you get a little mini cake with a candle on it. For our dinners, we are assigned a table and we sit there the entire cruise, so we tend to get to know our neighbor diners and our wait staff are the same the whole time. They learn what your likes and dislikes are and if you tend to order hot tea or coffee after your meal, by day two they've got it down and they just automatically bring it to you. It's a nice touch - something we really enjoy about this particular cruise line. Great service and always with a smile.

Today we are in our last port - Katakalon. It's a tiny little port town, but it is the jumping off point for a 30 minute car ride to Olympia, where the ancient ruins of the first Olympics lie. The original Olympics began in the 11th century as a small regional festival, dedicated to the god Zeus. The origins of the town are the Mycenaens, who worshipped the goddess Rhea, who was the mother of Zeus. And we know that Zeus went on to be top god and founder of the Olympic Games. The first games were held in 776 B.C. In 426 the emperor Theodosius II banned them because they were pagan, and the temples were destroyed. It wasn't until 1896 in Athens that the "modern day" Olympics resumed once again.

Sam and I rented a car again, and off we zipped to Olympia. Our car was a cute little Fiat thing, but it's speedometer did not work, so we had no idea how fast we were going. I pretty much tried to keep up with traffic but shortly before we arrived in Olympia, I came flying around a curve in the road, behind what I thought was a taxi, but suddenly the taxi was gone and a policeman was waving us down and motioning for us to pull over. Nice. He walked up to the car, I rolled down my window and innocently pointed to the speedometer and said "the speed thingie isn't working." Of course, he spoke no English, so "thingie" meant nothing to him. He said "passport". I said, "no passport, our ship has our passports." Again, he said "passport." Again, I said, "no passport." Then he said something in Greek, which (sorry) was Greek to me, (I HAD to get that in here somewhere....) and I finally gave him our rental car papers plus my driver's license. I guess that satisfied him, because he thrust them back at me and motioned for us to go.

Sigh of relief.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the ruins of Olympia, but truth be told, I far preferred the incredible Ephesus to this. It was really hot here too, and muggy as all get-out. We left after a while and drove back to town. Sam spotted an internet cafe and after returning the car we went in there for about 30 minutes and then back to the ship for lunch.

Tomorrow is our last day and it's a sea day, so it should be relaxing. We've got stone massages scheduled and that's something nice with which to end our cruise. We arrive Venice early Friday morning and have a noon flight to Munich, then a long-ass flight back to Los Angeles. In coach. And while I won't have Max the cunning Croation from Chicago next to me, I can bet that Sam will try to sleep in that style of hers, arms askew, knees plopped over mine and head on my shoulders. Yep-a-doodle. It's gonna be a long flight.