Day 6: Santorini
The morning brought us to Santorini and as the ship drew close to its anchorage, we could see the layout of the area. The island is of volcanic origin and the original island of Thera exploded in 1500 BC, leaving a massive crater behind in its place. Only parts of the rim are above sea level, and Santorini is the largest piece, making a crescent curved about the center, where a newer volcanic island has arisen over the centuries. Little white villages cling to the steep cliffs here and there about the islands.
We got across to the island on a local tender and the next step is to take a cable-car up to the major city on the island, Fira. The alternative to the cable-car is to either ride donkeys to the top, or walk up the endless stairs and switchbacks (covered in donkey-poo) up about 800 hundred feet to the top. The cable-car ride was fun and offered an interesting perspective view on the caldera as we rose higher and higher. At the top, you can really see the whole circle of the old volcano.
It was very early, and we walked about, dimly hoping to run across a taxi, but there seemed to be none available, apart from the one that the Ugly American was questioning intently for ages before finally, reluctantly, getting in. The lack of taxis was probably due to the earliness of the time. It might also have to do with the price of gasoline, which was 11.80 Euros/liter. That works out to about $57 per gallon. I guess that's what happens when you have a city on top of a 800 foot cliff on a tiny croissant in the middle of the Mediterranean, where they probably haul gasoline up by donkey.
Giving up on taxis, we made it to the bus station, where the bus situation is pretty simple for the entire island. From Fira, you can go to three different places: A, B, and C. From A, B, and C, you can come back to Fira. Thus concludes the lesson on mass-transit on Santorini. We went to A, that is to say, Kamari.
Kamari is a cute beach town and we walked down to Kamari Beach. Because of the aforementioned vulcanism, Kamari Beach is composed of black sand, or rather black pebbles and gravel. It's somewhat uncomfortable to walk across, but since much of it is pumice-y, I feel like I've had a free foot-spa treatment.
We spread out a beachtowel and gingerly got into the Mediterranean. It wasn't as cold as the Pacific, but it was not as warm as I'd hoped - I believe the Captain mentioned that it was 73 Fahrenheit. But soon enough we were both paddling about in the sea. The Med is really really really salty. This perhaps helps one's buoyancy, but it's almost shocking when you get a little splash in the mouth, or lick your lips. There was enough wave action out there to push us around a bit.
After we'd splashed about to our heart's content, we lay under the sun to dry off. The saltiness made for scratchiness, but it was still pleasant to bask in the sun and play with the igneous stones of the beach. A few of the women were topless, though the closest example (not Becca!) was not adding anything to my enjoyment of the beach.
The bus back to Fira was pretty crowded and we marvelled as the conductor moved his way through the people standing in the aisle, taking only very small liberties with the American girls as he manhandled them in place to pack people more efficiently while collecting fares.
From Fira, we got on the bus to B, which is to say, Oia. Greece is a poor country and they are unable to afford consonants for the smallest villages. We were just about the last people to board the bus, and if we were amazed at the conductor last time, this was something else again. Forget the conductor, *I* was amazing this time. We were more or less in the well at the rear exit of the bus. Other people were already limpeted onto the sides of the well, so my sole contact with firm support was beneath my feet and a ceiling rail that was just barely within my reach (since I was down a step or two in the well). The road to Oia was filled with plenty of twists and turns, so my center of mass would shift from side to side, bellying my out one way or another. For a time, I think two or three other people in the aisle were basically depending on me for support as we went around the curves. I stood it for about ten minutes, and then I shifted lower down with my feet at the door and a hand on a railing. This was a lot more comfortable, since I could lean into the curves that threated to send me into the door. Hopefully, the door was solidly locked, but I was not about to test it. My only fear now was that someone from above would be flung by centrifugal force(*) into me, causing disaster. But we survived and made it to Oia.
Oia is certainly very cute, perched out on the northernmost spit of land on Santorini. Although composed of the same boxy white architecture as Mykonos, there are fewer multistory buildings, so one can see the sea and the other rooftops everywhere. We strolled about until we found a relatively calm oasis of a tavern and had a light lunch of tzatziki and beer.
As we wandered back towards the bus stop, we picked up a third traveller. Although we had passed many dogs in the streets of Oia, most of them asleep in the shade of a wall, one black & white mongrel walked up to us and began dogging our steps. Or Rebecca's steps to be more accurate. The dog would pace beside us in the shadow of th wall bordering the lane, and every five seconds, he would flick his head over to check out Becca's feet. Like Greek men, the dog had apparently discovered the benefits of persistent unwanted attention. Rebecca was getting ready to look for some sort of treat to offer the dog, when I spotted the sign of recently disembarked busriders coming our way, so we dashed off to the bus and squeezed onto the front. This was a much more comfortable ride and halfway through, there were even seats for us.
Back in Fira, we walked through the shops back toward the cable-car and discovered that the line to get back down the cliff was already out the building and down the street. We considered the donkey option or even walking downhill, but the line moved just enough to convince us to stick with it.
While we were in line, as it advanced in fits and starts, the septagenarian behind me bumped into my shoulder a couple times. I figured she was a blind old bat and didn't think much about it. A bit later, she used the word 'dizzy' to her companions and in short order she was on the ground. Not unconscious, but not feeling too good. Many of us offered waterbottles & Rebecca was getting ready to use that CPR training, but it looked like some water and rest was going to be enough to put things right. As for us, we got down the cable-car okay and then back across the harbor to the ship.
We cleaned up our salty bodies enough to go to a wine-tasting in the 'Savoy Room'. Twelve wines from around the world. Some were blah and some were tasty, but with the wine & little hors d'ouevres, it was sure a nice way to pass the time. The ship's sommeliers were ar the various pouring stations and would offer informative comments about each wine. The Santa Carolina Chardonnay from Chile was pretty good, and I liked the interesting taste of the white Burgundy wine -- although it was based on Chardonnay grapes it was unlike your typical California Chardonnay. The Peter Lehmann Shiraz from Australia was really tasty: so much blackberry taste, it was like liquid jam. The St. Francis Old Vines Zin was pretty excellent, also. Strong and fruity and strong again.
After 12 (little) glasses of wine, it seemed that the floor was a little unsteady beneath our feet, but that was only because the ship had left its anchorage and was now on its way to Istanbul!
As I catch you all up with things, Becca is taking a little nap before dinner. Since I have some time, I can at least mention that service aboard the Galaxy is unbelievably attentive. Good Morning or Good Evening is on the lips of every employee and they are all eager to serve. Much of this, no doubt, is aimed towards eliciting tips above and beyond the recommended gratuity (which is helpfully filled out ona form with blanks for additional tips) for the cruise, ranging from $3.50/day for the cabin attendant to $0.75/day for the assistant maitre d'. Whether money is the root of their motivation or not, the level of service has been quite impressive.
(*) Not a real force, but 'it' can still kill you, y'know.
Day 7: Istanbul
Dear Travel Diary,
It has been two days since I last recorded anything, and those two days have been jam-packed with Istanbul, so I'm bound to forget plenty of details.
In the morning, the ship had already passed through the Dardanelles and was making its way through the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul. We broke our fast and then lay about poolside for some hours, long enough for me to finish reading The Invisible Man. The Master of the Galaxy made an announcement that one of the engines was out-of-whack and that it would slightly delay our arrival in Istanbul.
As Istanbul grew nearer, we obtained a couple mudslides and kept an eye on the horizon from the Stratosphere Lounge. It's a jazzy disco-y hangout popular with the Friends of Dorothy by night, but at noon it was empty and peaceful. Slowly buildings appeared on the port and starboard as the Sea drew together. Then, at last, the heart of Istanbul came into view.
To see better, we moved out onto an open deck to watch as we came into the city. For a while, you see nothing but hints of general city-ness on shore, but they resolve into domes and minarets and palaces and fortifications. Istanbul is home to 15 million people, so there were plenty of houses and apartment buildings further in the outskirts. As we came closer, we spotted some dolphins frolicking off the ship's bow, but they pop up so briefly that a picture was sadly impossible.
It's a neat thing to see the domes and spires of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque growing larger and more majestic with every minute. To the right, the bridge connecting Europe and Asia came more and more into view. Once one of the longest suspension bridges in the world, the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge is still amazing!
Once docked, we set off amidst the mad rush of excursion-takers and made it on land. There were dozens of buses waiting to take people, but we set off on foot in search of adventure in the mysterious East. Our first mystery was the ATM. The Turks have reset their currency, with the new Turkish lira (YTL - soon pronounced yittle by us) equal to a million of the old lira. The cruiseship info for the day didn't mention the current exchange rate (After all, they want you to go on excursions where they take care of everything. If you go on foot, you can die in a gutter for all they care.) Anyway, a glance at a Turkish exchange told us that the exchange rate from yittles to $ was about 1,500,000. Assuming that the sign was old, that meant that it was about 1.5. But it was still unclear (my Turkish is rusty) whether it was 1.5 yittles to the dollar or vice-versa. Anyway, we pulled a few hundred YTL's out of an ATM (fortunately, it had and English option) and eventually we figured out that it was 1.5 YTLs to the $. As it happens, many of the shops are happy to take $'s or euros and will offer prices in all three currencies. Now that we had all three on us, we could make mental calculations and get the best of the three prices offered. Since most of the cultural sites only accepted lira, it was a good thing we got some.
With local currency in hand, we struck out for the Galata Bridge, which crosses the Golden Horn into the heart of the historic part of Istanbul. Sadly, our ship was the furthest cruiseship from the bridge, making our walk pretty long. Since we had arrived at 1pm, the sun was high overhead and the day was humid. I was perspiring freely by the time we got to the bridge and there was much more walking to come. Galata Tower on the hillside above marks this end of the bridge. The lower level of the bridge itself houses little restaurants right over the Golden Horn, while the upper level was lined with fishermen, hauling mostly very small little fishies out of the water.
Just on the far side of the bridge is where a number of ferries dock, streaming in from various points on the Asian side. Thus, there were always milling crowds of people through this section. We emerged safely on the other side and navigated our way to the Grand Bazaar. Even before arriving at the bazaar proper, there were plenty of shops on the street, but the Grand Bazaar is quite a thing. It's a lovely complex of high arched passageways that interconnect in baffling ways -- sort of a Habitrail for shoppers. And of course it's entirely lines with shops shops shops, reputedly as many as 4000. Carpet sellers were always the most insistent, but other shopkeepers were also eager to have you look over their clothes, leather, watches, jewelry or what-have-you. Sadly, the overall atmosphere was closer to Rodeo Drive than an Eastern bazaar.
Luckily, Becca wanted to see the Spice Market. But we didn't know where it was apart from a street name that we couldn't find on any of our maps. Not that that would've helped, since none of the actual streets have streetsigns anyway. But through a process of walking three blocks and then asking the most intelligent-looking Turk which way to go, we made it there. The Turks were uniformly very friendly and helpful. Along the way, we passed through streets of shops that seemed to cater more and more to the locals. No more platinum jewelry and funny hats. Now it was pantyhose and toys.
The Spice Market, like the Grand Bazaar, was a covered network of shops, but it was dimmer, narrower and much more what an Eastern market ought to look like. It was clearly more geared for the locals. Certainly, there were many touristy things, but I can't imaging a tourist wanting to buy curry powder or saffron or green tea or any of the other spices that were heaped in colorful mountains at each shop. Becca haggled over some Turkish Delight and we picked up a few other souvenirs. We weren't there long, but it was a much real-er experience than the Grand Bazaar.
We bought a little water and climbed back up the hill to go to Hagia Sophia. It started as a church (OK, not a church, but THE Church - the largest in the world for a thousand years) in 537 in Constantinople (not Byzantium), was converted to a mosque in 1453, when Sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul (not Constantinople). Since 1932, it's been turned into a museum. The dome is quite enormous and reaches high into the sky, but it's somewhat marred by enormous scaffolding that reaches all the way up to the top for preservation purposes. No twisty little cathedral, this. It's built on a massive scale. Even the spiralling ramp to get to the upper gallery is broad and solid.
Everywhere within there is beautiful marble and the masons matched the marble patterns to make interesting symmetrical patterns. Most of the gold mosaic is gone, but a few pieces are left so that one can imagine how the place would have glowed in the old days.
From there, it's a short walk to the Basilica Cistern, an underground reservoir that (like Hagia Sophia) dates back to Justinian's day. Some of the columns and other stonework that makes up the cistern was scavenged from earlier buildings. Two giant blocks with Medusa's visage on them are one of the highlights. Although it was damp and a little drippy down there, it was refreshingly cool down there, so it was a pleasant place to explore. The darkness, the cheesy lighting, the little fishies in the water... it all makes for a neat place. I was also tickled by the full-fledged subterranean snackbar, fifty feet below the busy city streets.
During the long march back to the ship, we saw a couple unusual things. One was heard before it was seen - the strangely modulated whine of a small plane. In a bit, we could see a small plane making steeply banked turns over the river. It seemed that the plane was doing it over and over again at regular intervals, but what it turned out to be was the fourth leg in the Red Bull Air Race World Series.
The second bizarre thing was a fortuneteller on the sidewalk. There was a grimy person, a table set up with various fortune cards and a fuzzy bunny. The handlettered sign read "Let the rabbit tell your fortune" or words to that effect. I guess he (the rabbit) picks your fortune. This is apparently a somewhat common Turkish divination method. It's like the fortunetelling bird in the Cowboy Bebop episode where they pick up Ein. Um, yeah.
Anyway, heading back to the ship, we were again waved past by bored Turkish security and then rigorously X-rayed and metal detected by the Celebrity staff. We were given official travel documents from Turkey and (to jump ahead a bit) they were never so much as glanced at by anyone, ever.
One nice amenity of the stateroom is the ever-filled ice bucket and ewer of cool water. We drank every particle of water in both upon our return.
After applying plenty of water externally as well, we went to the Turkish buffet set up at poolside. Nothing too frightening for the timid (I would have preferred more spice... something true of most of the shipboard food), but still a pretty nice spread. Speaking of spread, my favorite part was standing at the buffet loading up on tzatziki (oops, we're in Turkey, so it's chachik) and hummus. A Nebraskan was pointing at the hummus and saying, 'What's that?' I said, "I think it's hummus." No lightbulb of comprehension. The Cornhusker asks the server what it is. The server says it's hummus. The server pulls another waiter over, who explains that it's chick peas and tahini and garlic... Ms. Nebraska looks at us all like we're speaking martian. I helpfully offer 'garbanzo beans'. No sale.
It was almost as funny as when the blue-haired old lady put dollops of tzatziki on her salad as dressing.
We slowly savored our Turkish food and some Boddington's as we watched the sunset color the buildings of Istanbul. The next day...
Day 8: Istanbul
... we were out early and made it to the Blue Mosque, which is actually practically next door to Hagia Sophia. It wasn't exactly cool in the morning, but it wasn't as fearsomely hot as it had been at noontime yesterday. The Blue Mosque is not nearly as big as Hagia Sophia, but the blue tiled ornamentation of the interior certainly makes it more lovely.
We doffed our shoes at the entrance (they supply plastic bags to carry your shoes about with you - as well as big opaque cloths to swathe your infidel immodesty) and jostled among the Japanese (and many other) tourists for the best views of the interior. Though lovely, there is not much to do in the mosque, so we were soon back in our own shoes again. We sallied across the street to the site of the Roman Hippodrome. Nothing really remains of the racecourse, so you can't relive Ben Hur here, but there is an Egyptian obelisk, a Roman obelisk and the remains of a bronze Greek trophy (the Tripod of Plataea) commemorating their united victory over the Persians. The Tripod had originally been in Delphi, the Egyptian obelisk had been at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor. Each empire spends its time dragging around the symbols of empires that came before. The other obelisk was built there in the 10th century and was originally covered in bronze plates, but these were stolen during the Fourth Crusade, when the crusaders gave up on taking the Holy Land from the Muslims and decided to sack Constantinople instead.
Coming around Hagia Sophia on the other side, we entered Topkapi Palace. Formerly the residence of the Ottoman Sultans, the palace is now a museum, displaying mainly the luxurious wealth of the sultans. Everything the sultan owned had to be encrusted with diamonds, rubies, pearls and emeralds, emeralds, emeralds. After a while, you didn't even bother to notice an emerald unless it was at least as big as an egg. They have an uncut emerald there that weighs 7 pounds. Turban pins, swords, thrones, clothing, incense burners, straight razors, rifles... you name it, they got it, and its inlaid with mother-of-pearl, covered in gold-leaf and is 37% emeralds by weight.
The buildings that make up the palace are themselves very ornate and wonderful. And the baths had a lovely exhibit about, well, Turkish baths. Perhaps the most interesting thing was that the women wore bath clogs, which seem impressively impractical, but when has that not been true of women's shoes? These were sorta like wooden Japanese clogs, but like an Elton John platform version. I guess it keeps your dainty feet out of the water. Still in the baths, one of the museum guards asked us (well, Rebecca, really) how to pronounce the English word 'soap' that was on an exhibit. Apparently, in Turkish, those letters come out "show-op". Stupid nonsensical English diphthongs!
Having wandered all about the palace and the surrounding parklands, we decided to take a cab back to the ship. We are clearly going native, as we refused the exorbitant price of the first taxi and talked the second guy down from 20 yittles to 10. For ten lira, the driver was not going to take us by the scenic route and point out interesting sights. Instead, he made our trip back to ship faster than I believed possible, involving plenty of dodgem and one near pedestrian fatality. Frankly, we approved, so he got a generous tip.
After cleaning up, we hit the lunch buffet and then sat with our drinks and watched as we pulled away from Istanbul, bidding adieu to its fabulous skyline. In the morning, we'll be in Kuşadasi where the ruins of Ephesus await us.
Dinner was quite good, though it helped that things were started off with a lemon martini in the martini bar and a Campari and soda as an apéritif. For dinner: polenta allegedly flavored with jalapeño, pumpkin velouté, tomato salad and a tenderloin brochette, followed by a strawberryish cake covered in a layer of marzipan goop. Quite frankly, I felt let down by the dessert, but the Zinfandel from the earlier wine tasting was a good match for the beef. I pat myself on the back.
For a while after dinner, we went up to the topmost deck and watched the Dardanelles strait approach and the lights in the little villages coming on as the twilight faded. On the right side was the peninsula of Gallipoli. When it grew dark, we retired.