Saturday, July 3, 2010

Corfu, Greece

Russel and I didn’t plan a tour today, since we‘re pretty tour‘d out, so we went out to explore Corfu on our own. Corfu is a rather large island, with plenty of sights to see. We first explored Corfu‘s “new town“ - where there is a large fortress and many modern shops. Then we went off to explore Corfu‘s “old town“. The older town was much more interesting - another fortress sat on an adjacent island, connected by a bridge. On the Corfu side, there is a large park and open area of museums and statues/monuments. We strolled through the park for a while, and explored some of the nearby shops. Again, narrow streets full of stores for jewelry, leather and beach-type souvenirs. However, in Corfu, there is an additional specialty - kumquat liquor. This liquor is only made in Corfu, and is made from the very sweet, orange-tasting kumquat fruit. We went into a store that was selling their own bottled kumquat liquor and they let us taste it. It’s very sweet, and has a similar taste to Grand Marnier. We bought a bottle to share when we get home. We also tried out the Greek version of McDonald’s in Corfu. I must say, besides the lack of the dollar menu, McDonald’s is really nice in Greece. The inside was really clean, really modern, and looked like a NYC restaurant (leather stools, geometric patterns on the walls, etc). The bathroom upstairs was for patrons only, and you had to enter a code on your receipt to unlock the door. We were pretty impressed - and the food wasn’t any different than the US, so we got a little taste of home. That was pretty much it for Corfu - afterwards we went back to the boat and sunbathed. It was our second and final “formal” night on the ship - we got all dressed up, and had a really nice dinner with our table. It was the Captain’s Gala dinner night, so we got to eat lobster and beef Wellington, and drink lots of wine. Definitely a nice way to conclude our trip. Tomorrow is our last day at sea, and then disembarkation in Venice!! This will be the final blog post until we get to Venice, or maybe Pittsburgh, because we have very limited access to the internet. Hope you all enjoyed reading!

Katakolon, Greece

Katakolon is the gateway to the town of Olympia, the site of the very first Olympic games played by the Greeks. Our tour was in the afternoon, so in the morning, Russel and I explored the port town of Katakolon for a bit. Katakolon is a very small town, only home to about 600 people - so the people disembarking the ship actually outnumbered the residents. Many of the people in the town are fishermen, since it’s right up against the sea. Others grow olive trees to make olive oil and olive wood. The remainder of the people have opened shops aimed towards tourists who visit the area. Katakolon is a much greener area than Mykonos and Santorini, with many more trees and vegetation than we’d seen in a while. The shops ranged from the typical beach souvenir shops to jewelry stores and art galleries. After a quick tour of the town, we headed back to the ship to lay by the pool until our tour of Olympia. Olympia was very beautiful, surrounded by lush trees and bushes. Many of the structures were beyond recognition, but we luckily had a very good tour guide to help bring things to life. We learned that some of the architecture ruins were several thousand years old - one house foundation was actually built 4,500 years ago. Most of the Greek architecture used limestone, and it was evident that the city had once been underwater because there are many imprints of seashells in the stones. We saw the different areas for field games and foot races, and chariot races. We also saw the area at which they light the Olympic torch every two years. They use a concave set of mirrors in a basin heated by the sun to ignite a flame. No matches allowed. The last part of our tour took us to the area of the 200m race - used for foot races and chariot races. The original starting and finish lines are still in-tact. I tried to convince Russel to really run it, since this was his race in college, but he had flip-flops on, so the two of us just jogged it instead. Afterwards, we were pretty spent, since it was 36 degrees C outside (somewhere around 97 degrees F). We also saw the Temple of Zeus, where his ivory and gold statue was once housed - one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Not much is left of it now, and frequent earthquakes in the area keep knocking down any reconstruction as well. Oh, and yet again, on the tour, we were stuck with mom-skank and her gang. Although, luckily for us, she was in a different group this time, so we got to hear the reactions of other people. Our tour guide was simply flabbergasted by her shoes (I’d say they were about 5 inches high today) and a woman nearby murmured something about her appearance - which was soon followed by her young son loudly asking “mom, what’s plastic surgery?” This inspired our new nickname for her - “Heidi Mom-tag” After we visited Olympia, it was time to head back to the ship and relax for the night before our last port: Corfu, Greece.

Athen, Greece

This morning we traveled to Athens, Greece and docked in Piraeus, a small port town outside the city. Our tour was in the morning, as usual, and took us up to the Acropolis. I didn’t realize how high up the Acropolis was, until we walked up to it. The Acropolis is a large area that overlooks the entire city of Athens. The views were incredible. The Parthenon, the most famous structure at the Acropolis, is in the process of being restored - as are most of the structures in the area. We also saw the temple of Hera and a temple dedicated to the Goddess of Victory, Nike. Mom-skank (as we have now named her) was on our tour again, and she managed to wear taller and spikier heels this time. Of course, she also had on her signature tube top and white shorts combination, and as expected, turned many heads (more gawking than admiring). Believe it or not, the woman managed to stay on her feet the whole tour, despite the very rocky, slippery and uneven terrain - even Russel and I slipped a few times in athletic shoes. After the Acropolis, our tour took us on a city drive through Athens - aka we were stuck in traffic for an hour and saw some cool things out the window. We were supposed to stop at the Olympic stadium and park for pictures, but at the last minute we weren’t allowed to stop because of traffic and the current security conditions in Athens. Fortunately, we got to slow down past the stadium though - since it was quite a landmark. After the city tour, Russel and I returned to the ship to relax for the remainder of the day. Next up: Katakolon, Greece.

Mykonos, Greece

Mykonos was our next stop on the ship - a small Greek island full of sandy beaches and a rather wild nightlife. Our ship actually docked at 1:00am, for anyone that might want to party until the sunrises (a popular beach tradition on the island). Russel and I decided to get our sleep and went out to explore the island around 9am. Our plan was to wander around the town in the morning and then find a beach to lay on for the afternoon. The town was in some ways similar to Santorini, sans the cliff. Whitewashed houses with brightly colored doors and windows, narrow streets full of shops, bars and restaurants. An area of the town, which sits right against the water is called “little Venice” and is home to some of the nicest restaurants in the town. There are also many clothing and jewelry stores in the town - a lot of handmade jewelry, clothing and art everywhere. Russel bought me a beautiful pair of earrings from one of the stores - see the picture below - they are studs of the “evil eye” - a symbol brought over to Greece by Turkey, which is supposed to ward off evil from the wearer. The symbol can be seen everywhere around Greece and Turkey. By this time, we were hungry and on a mission to find lunch. Gyros! We found a great little gyro shop and each got a gyro for $2.50, much cheaper than we expected. The funny thing about Gyros in the Greek islands is that they come with French fries on them - sound familiar? I wonder who came up with the tradition first, Pittsburgh or Greece? After an amazing lunch, we headed over to the bus station to make our way to the beach. The many beaches of Mykonos are accessible by buses that run frequently (or so we thought). Now we just had to choose which beach to go to. We had heard that one was more “family” oriented - ad that a few others were semi-nude, nude, and gay-nude. We knew which beaches were the nude and gay-nude beaches, but weren’t sure which were the family and semi-nude beaches - we took our chance on Paraga beach. Paraga beach is a small inlet surrounded by rocks and sand - when we arrived we saw many beach chairs and umbrellas available for rent, and luckily, no naked sunbathers! Further down the beach we saw that people were just laying on towels, which was free and more our style anyway. So, we headed down to that area of the beach. Once we reached the far end of the chair area Russel elbowed me to let me know something was up. I had been so excited about being on a beach that I didn’t even notice the fully naked man standing 10 feet from us. By then we had reached the towel area and realized that there was a difference between the people from the chairs and the people on the towels - swimsuits. We saw way way way more than we bargained for. Fully naked (and I mean FULLY) men and women (and most of them over the age of 60) just walking around like there wasn’t a care in the world. Both of us looked down at our feet and finally caved in and paid the 12 euros to rent beach chairs and an umbrella at the other end of the beach. We lounged on the beach until the next bus was scheduled to arrive - of course, the one time in Mykonos something left early. Since busses only come once an hour, we had some time to kill. Luckily we had been conservative with our time and had given an hour or so cushion time incase something like this happened. So, we sat at the nearby bar (which turned out to be a very strange youth hostel) and each had a large beer. We had each ordered a liter, so by the time the next bus was scheduled to arrive, we were feeling’ pretty good. Of course, that buzz was killed as soon as we realized that the bus schedule was every hour except for the 3:00. The receptionist a the youth hostel told us to wait a bit because they usually come every hour anyway and that they’re usually a little late. 45 minutes later, still no bus. OK - time to panic - we had an hour to get back to the ship and we were several miles from the town, which was another two miles from the port. Luckily, there were a few Australian travelers in a similar situation (although they didn’t have a cruise to catch, just wanted to get home) and they agreed to share a cab with us to the town. The cab driver was insane, as expected, but we made it to the town in time to catch one of the last shuttles to the boat. Not exactly the most relaxing end to the day in Mykonos, but a wonderful day on another wonderful island nevertheless. Next up: Athens!

Kusdasi, Turkey

The ship docked at Kusadasi, Turkey today. Russel and I planned a morning tour of the ancient city of Ephesus, followed by some on-our-own exploration of the port town. Ephesus was about a half hour away from the port, and on our way we traveled along the shoreline. We arrived at Ephesus and were guided around the ruins, learning about the ancient city and its history. We saw a statue and temple dedicated to the goddess of victory, Nike (and now we know where the brand came from). Our tour guide claimed that she had a “swoosh” on her clothes, but I think it was just a coincidence. We also got to touch the pillars that made up the arch of Hercules. Legend has it that if you touch them both at once you will gain strength. Next we walked past the temple of Hadrian and Hadrian’s library, which was a massive two story structure. Finally, we walked down the same paths that are said to have been walked by St. John and Mary, and stopped by the amphitheatre where John gave his legendary speech. The amphitheatre seats 25,000 people - and the acoustics are so perfect that you can have a clear conversation between a person standing in the top row and a person standing on the stage. They actually still use the amphitheatre for concerts today - Elton John performed there a few years ago. After the visit to Ephesus, we headed back to the port of Kusadasi and wandered around the Turkish bazaar for a while. Their main specialty of course is carpet making - which we witnessed, and is quite an intricate art. There were also many jewelry and leather stores throughout the town. Mostly though, there is a market for “fakes” - watches, sunglasses, purses, clothing - you name it, they faked it. They weren’t’ shy about the fakes either - more than once we saw a sign on a store that said “Genuine Fake Watches” - ironic, right? After managing to escape the bazaar without spending too much, we decided to dip our feet in the Mediterranean at one of the local beaches. Finally, we got to touch the water of the beautiful sea we’d been staring at for days. The water is crystal clear up close and from afar gives off a turquoise tint, similar to the Caribbean. After the long day, we went back to the ship to relax and rest up for the next port: Mykonos, Greece.

Santorini, Greece

For those of you who know my obsession with this island, you understand my excitement as we sailed up to the volcanic island of Santorini. Not chancing it on our own, Russel and I signed up for a morning tour of the two main towns - Fira and Oia (pronounced ee-yah). Right before our trip, our tour bus took us to a local winery - which we expected to be a tourist trap, but was actually a nice way to start the day. We got to sample the three main types of Santorini wine (even though it was only around 9am). The red and white wines are what we were used to, just a little stronger, and then their third type, native to Santorini, was a very sweet, very strong, dessert wine. We didn’t really like it, but it might have worked well as an after-dinner wine…just not really a before-breakfast wine. Then our tour took us up the cliff-side to Fira. Fira is probably the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen, unlike anywhere we’ve ever been before, and we are definitely planning on returning some day. The whitewashed houses bundled together on a cliff looking down at the sparkling Mediterranean sea was an unforgettable sight. Don’t worry, we took lots of pictures (literally, hundreds) We explored the small town, navigating the cliff-side walkways and admired the architecture. At the highest point we could get to, we bought some paintings of the island from a small shop.
Next, we traveled to Oia, another popular town, on a cliff above the port. Oia has a much less steep cliff to maneuver up than Fira, so it’s accessible from the water, but not by motor vehicle. We were lucky because we traveled to Oia the back way from Fira, but people coming off the boat had three options to get up to the town - cable car, walking, or riding a donkey….those are also the three ways to get back down (more on that later). Oia was just as pretty as Fira, but slightly bigger and a little more crowded. Here, there were many more beach-type shops and stores, and lots and lots of jewelry shops. We stopped for lunch and had our first genuine Greek meal. I had moussaka for the first time - eggplant with meat, potatoes and cheese and pasta in a lasagna-type formation. It was really really good! Russel was a little less adventurous and ordered spaghetti, but he enjoyed his meal nevertheless. We also got an order of tzatziki sauce and bread - Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic and dill, all the makings for an amazing dip. After lunch, we explored Oia for the rest of the day, bought a bottle of Santorini wine, and decided to head down the cliff to the port. We had the same three choices as I mentioned above - cable car, walk or donkey. The line for the cable car was outrageous, and we wanted to enjoy the scenery, so we decided to walk. The locals told us it would take about a half hour to walk down it - so approximately a mile and a half on the path. We started down the path, and ran into the donkey drop-off/pick-up area. I managed to convince Russel that riding the donkeys down would be the best, and most memorable way to end our day in Santorini. I mean, how many times can you say you rode a donkey down a cliff-side? Plus, the donkeys share the road with the walkers, so the whole way down we’d be walking through donkey crap anyway, so avoiding the smell wasn‘t an option regardless. The donkeys were well trained to go down the cliff unguided - as soon as their handlers set them off they headed down the path independently. Luckily, Russel and my donkeys were buddies and stayed together the whole way down - which definitely made it a lot less terrifying for both of us. Although the donkeys were stable on the cobblestone, they often walked in a zigzag pattern down the path - so one minute they’d be checking you up against the wall of the cliff, and the next thing you know you’re right on the edge. A few times the handlers would be on the path and would whistle to make them speed up - since occasionally they’d stop and smell some flowers or take a break. After the fact, I’d ride the donkeys down again (although I’m not sure if Russel would agree with me). I absolutely loved the experience and will remember it forever. As we sailed away from Santorini, we caught a glimpse of the beautiful sunset over the islands. Next stop: Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey.

A day at sea

Russel and I enjoyed a long day at sea today - again the weather was gorgeous, sunny and warm. We slept in a lot longer than planned, but we didn’t mind. Although, we wish we had gotten up a bit earlier since everyone had the same plan as us - sit by the pool and sunbathe. After searching around for a while, we managed to find what seemed like the last two lounge chairs on the ship - and spent the day in the sun, resting up for another long stretch of ports. Dinner tonight was formal dress - so Russel put on his suit, and I put on my blue cocktail dress and we got to experience our first cruise ship formal night. Or as we nicknamed it, the “mom-prom”. We both expressed how lucky we are to have mothers who don’t dress like highschoolers in full length “prom” gowns. There were lines of people waiting to have their formal photos taken by the ship’s photographers - all standing in the traditional “prom” pose - oh, silly cruisers. There’s one more formal night on the ship - so I think Russel and I will have our picture taken then and do a silly pose - we have credit for one free photo aboard, so we might as well make the most of it!