The Cruise: Part THIRD and LAST @ 02:08 pm
Day 9: Kuşadasi
After breakfast, we managed to force ourselves near the head of the disembarkation line, so we were some of the first to set foot in Kuşadasi, Turkey. [Henceforth, I will spare you (and myself) the ş's.] After navigating through the port shops, we went to the local tourist office, where we obtained all the info we needed, much more than the cruise's daily info sheet. We got a better map, directions to the bus-stop and info on how to get to Ephesus. Very helpful indeed. Give that guy a raise.
It took me a while to orient myself on the streetmap, but soon I had it down and we walked straight to the bus-stop through various shop-lined streets in the town, which is home to about 50,000 people. We ignored the cries of the barkers and made it on to the bus, which was more of a minibus and apparently the bus system is run as some sort of local cooperative venture. Whatever the case was, it only cost 6 lira to get to Ephesus. Or near it, anyway. Along the road, one could see that the area was becoming a real resort area, with giant hotels on the coast, and, strangest of all, three of the largest waterparks in Europe. It's like a Turkish San Dimas.
Once past the resort area, we got off the bus at the turn-off for the archaeological site. Immediately, we were beset by taxi-drivers offering to take us the 1 km to the entrance. They went so far as to say we were going the wrong way in order to get us to pause a moment. But our legs sufficed for the journey. Along the narrow road, we saw skydivers doing their thing at a nearby little airport.
Most of the ruins of Ephesus lie along one well preserved street, so it's easy to navigate the main sites: the theater, the library of Celsus, the public latrine...
We also got off the beaten path some, but much of the site is quite ruinous out there. It's still nice to sit, somewhere far from the madding crowd and take in the site and examine all the pieces of the city lying about you.
Walking back to the bus-stop, we passed men working the fields., picking tomatoes and putting them in baskets. Along the busride back, we saw a herd of goats. That's what the area outside Kusadasi is like... beachfront resorts, ancient ruins, skydivers and goats. Back in town, we wandered the streets a bit, trying not to look too interested in the shops. Back near the port, we stopped at a little restaurant and had some beer and çaçik (nee tzatziki). Efes beer is quite good and is even named after Ephesus.
With our fluid balances restored by a couple liters of beer, we walked along the water and out to Pigeon Island. Ordinarily, one cannot walk out to an island, but a causeway has been built out to it. The causeway no serves mainly as a dock for fishing boats. The island itself is dotted with little cafes, but the main attraction is a Byzantine fort. Inside the fort, we were surprised to find a mounted whale skeleton, but up the stairs was a nice defensible battlement with loupeholes providing excellent views of the harbor, the city and the sea. After we'd drunk our fill of the sights, we went back to the ship for some showers and quiet time before dinner.
Oh, when we came into port, there was already a Princess Lines ship there. If Pat had taken that cruise, we wouldn't had about 4 hours together in Kusadasi. By the time we got back to the port, the Grand Princess was already pulling away from dock and heading out to sea. We spent a little time by the 'Oasis' pool, sipping manhattans and reading, but now it's almost time to dress for dinner.
Day 10: Athens
We arose to the sounds of the engines idling and dinking and dunking us into port. Our cabin is about as aft and below as one can get, so we can keep pretty good track of the state of the engines. It's not at all bad, particularly since we basically get free Magic Fingers in bed every once in a while.
We planned for the ship's early arrival into the port of Athens (Piraeus) and so by 7:30, we were ashore and forging our way toward the Metro station. For whatever reason, there seemed to be plenty of dogs wandering every part of Athens, from the port to the Agora.
It was quite a hike to the station, but it was well worth it. For less than a euro, we made it to a station a few blocks from the entrance to the Acropolis. Rebecca was particularly amused by the woman talking with her hands in true Mediterranean style... on her cel-phone. Coming around the corner of the station, there it is above you, ancient marble buildings shining high above you on a rocky perch.
As we walked to the entrance, we passed bits of the Roman Forum, including the Tower of the Winds. As we got halfway up the hillside, we turned aside to mount the Areopagus, where the city elders debated and decided on matters back in the day. Finally atop the Acropolis, there are splendid views of the modern city of Athens and, of course, all the monuments. The workers, the scaffolding and the tourists may detract from the experience, but it's still imperssive to be among the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the other structures. There's also a small museum there with various fragments of this and that as well as the actual caryatids from the Erechtheion (the building itself has replicas in place). Sadly, smog continues to eat away at the marble, so go see it before it melts away entirely.
Climbing back down the hill, we passed through the Greek Agora, where a restored stoa serves as home to another small museum of objects found in the agora from the oldest ages of the city through to the Roman period. In the agora itself are many ruins, including some excellent snake-bodied giants. On the far side is the temple to Hephaistos, which is perhaps the best preserved classical Greek temple. It looks beautiful and stately, and its position often allows you to ignore the modern city and imagine yourself in Periclean Athens.
Back at the Metro, we went a couple more stations down the line, to get us closer to the National Archaeological Museum, which houses so much good stuff, it's impossible to describe it all.
Highlights include the Poseidon of Artemision, the Mycenean treasures and gold, and I was delighted to get a look at the Antikythera Device, which is delightfully astonishing and oddball, while at the same time maddeningly fragmentary. It appears to be an ancient astronomical computer. They had a snazzy reconstruction of it, but there's nothing like looking at the old fused gears of the actual fragments of the dingus.
Wearily, we found a cafe and ordered up some country fries (patatas kantru) with yogurt dipping sauce and a coupla large beers. Thus refreshed, we took a last trip on the Metro back to Piraeus station and then walked back to the ship. We kept our eyes peeled for currency exchanges, but no one was interested in our remaining Turkish lira. Not sure if that's just Greek prejudice, or just the way of the world.
Back aboard, we showered happily and my Oxford t-shirt was retired from duty, not a moment too soon, as the back was streaked with salt from our exertions in the heat. Both our feet (or is that 'all four of our feet'?) are agitating for fair labor practices. Day after day, they've served us well and since we have mostly spurned the transportation supplied by the cruise, they've worked harder than most of the passengers'. But now they're in for a treat. We'll have a day at sea as we move around from Athens to Naples, so apart from occasional strolls between restaurants, deck chairs and bars, the feet should have plenty of time to relax.
Before dinner, we watched as the Galaxy set out to sea, bidding goodbye to Athens and the Acropolis.
Day 11: At Sea
For our 'at sea' day, we lounged here, played Scrabble there, ate lunch here, had a wine tasting there. The wine event was kind of interesting; it covered wine & food pairings and they had little food items that one would try with the different wines: a light white, a full-bodied Chardonnay, a light pinot noir and a heavier red meritage. I feel comfortable with my own untutored wine & food sense, but it was very interesting to sit down and scientifically test each food with each wine. A tart white would make a tomato taste bland, while the other one brought out the fruitiness of the tomato. An even more tart taste of lemon juice on chicken would annihilate the tartness of the white wine and bring out the sweetness. Perhaps the most interesting was the black olive with the pinot noir. I found that the wine really brought out the savory oiliness of the olive. I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing, but it was an unexpected sensation. In the end, all the possible combinations are so bewildering that I'll just stick with my intuition, but maybe my intuition now has a little data to work with. Tonight is our final formal meal and we've been promised lobster and baked Alaska. I wonder what wines go with that?
The one unpleasant event of the day was when our perky cruise director asked that at least one person from each party attend an important meeting, where important information about our important disembarkation would be revealed. We had a bad feeling about this, but being good little girls and boys (or one of each, anyway) we showed up. Before the important info, on the theater screen, they were showing selected scenes from the cruise DVD, showing people frolicking about the ship: karaoke, trivia games, theatrical performances. Since we are misanthropes who don't join in any reindeer games, we weren't part of the show, which is just as well, since the first piece of important information was that the DVD was on sale for a mere $49.99.
The second important announcement was about gratuities for the staff. I certainly won't underestimate the importance of this information to the staff, but those of us guests who were willing and able to read had already dealt with the gratuity form kindly provided to us in our cabin.
The third important announcement regarded the cruise evaluation forms. And how, since excellent was one selection above good, anything better than merely good should be marked excellent. Reminded me very much of a certain Professor M. and his ineffectual and anxious wheedling over course evaluations.
At last we got the important information about disembarkation, which I will summarize as, "Read the thing we slip under your door later today."
Then all the housekeepers & waiters & sommeliers & chefs formed a conga-line or something. Yes, I appreciate all their hard work and dedication to service; yes, I'm sure there are some stingy bastards on board who need to be educated about tipping. But I'm not one of them. The man who makes a mean mojito has already benefitted from my largesse above and beyond the automatic 15% gratuity. The whole bait & switch about the importance of this meeting really left me with a bad taste in my mouth that could only be washed away by a mojito made by the man who makes a mean one.
At dinner, I splurged on a lovely sauterne during dessert that I happily shared about the table.
Day 12: Naples
The morning brought us to Naples. We have no fond memories of Napls, but I always had an inkling that the good part of town was down by the sea, rather than the seedy neighborhood around the train station where we spent most of our time last time. It's true, the area near the sea is much better. Nevertheless, the improvement was not so great that Naples will make any appearances on Mike's list of Italian cities he'd like to visit in the future.
Still there were some neat sights near the ship. We visited the Castel Nuovo, which houses some offices and an art museum. The castle itself is quite interesting and it offers great views of the city. In one room they had replaced the floor with large, clear, plexiglass slabs so that one could look down into the foundations and dungeons, where a few skeletons were. According to legend, prisoners in the dungeons mysteriously disappeared for a time until a hole was discovered, through which a crocodile (implausibly imported from Egypt) was spotted making away with one of the unfortunates.
The castle also had an interesting chapel that seemed inordinately devoted to images of the painful and sadistic martyrdoms of various female saints.
Almost next door to the castle is the Palazzo Reale, home to the Bourbon kings of Naples. It's a magnificent building built with great care in a mostly hideous 18th century style. Like the castle, it is now home to government offices and a museum, in this case one devoted to the furniture, tapestries and objet d'art of the Bourbons, in addition to the ornaments of the building itself.
The opera house was not open for tours, so we spent a little time walking down a shop-lined pedestrian street -- probably the most pleasant moments I've ever spent on the streets of Naples. But then it was time to get back to the ship & gather for our excursion to Herculaneum.
Like Pompeii, ancient Herculaneum was destroyed by Vesuvius' eruption in 79. The modern city grew on the same site and the ruins were discovered far underground only in the 1700's.
Sadly, the modern city could probably use another eruption and destruction. Unemployment is about 70% in modern Ercolano and our guide Antoine was very serious about the possibility of pick pockets and Vespa-riding pursesnatchers. He would stare at the jewelry hanging about the neck of one of our partymembers and tell her sternly to put it away.
Oh, but before we got to the site, the bus pulled up at a cameo shop for a chance to obtain expensive souvenirs. They did have an interesting short film about the making of cameos from shell, and the ancient cameo-craftsman was still there on duty after 60+ years on the job. But it was all an excuse to fleece tourists.
Once at the site, we found the parking lot inexplicably closed (well, it's Italy, so this stuff happens all the time), so we had to walk a bit further than expected to get to the entrance, and Ercolano is certainly a pretty awful place. We literally saw one of the locals tossing dishwater out a window into the squalid alleyway we were traversing. Not to mention the smoking soccer-hooligan types hanging about the graffitoed bus benches.
To make up for that, the archeological site itself is tremendous. Herculaneum was buried under dozens of feet of hot volcanic mud that just encapsulated the city. All the wood was carbonized into fragile charcoal, but much of the city is quite intact. The excavation itself is interesting to look at. A big rectangle of land has been dug away, removing all of the solidified mud down to the level of the city. The depth and extent of the mudflow is quite obvious, especially when you see where the city wharf used to be ... now 90 feet underground and miles from the sea.
Descending a long tunneled ramp down to the streets of the city, you could tell when you got to sea level, as the water suddenly began to drip and ooze from the walls. Once down into the city, we roamed about looking at homes of the local rich and the local shopkeepers. Mosaics, frescoes, baths... it was all wonderful, but hard to recall in any detail. Hopefully, my pictures do it some justice.
Back to the ship, we had just enough time to wash up in time for our last dinner on board.
Day 13: Travel
Given our early flight, we were up at 5 and off the ship by 6, taking the shuttle to the airport. Coming home is a boring story. On the flight to Atlanta, there was an excited Italian tour group on their way to Mexico for two weeks. They treated a 767 like a piazza - they would sit in the aisles or backward in their seats and talk excitedly to each other in groups of a half dozen or more.
Atlanta is an awful airport. We were shoved around like cattle through the formalities and there were woefully inadequate places to eat and drink. Since I can't even get a soda without a half hour wait, I've managed to catch up to the present. Soon enough, we'll board a plane on the last leg of our journey home.
And that's just what we did. Home safe and sound. Tired but relaxed. A great trip.