ANTALYA & MARMARIS

NILE BLOG 07

Tuesday 9 October, 2012

Hope you’re not getting Romaned-out or confused about the ancient sites we’ve been visiting, because here are a couple more to add to the list! After docking around breakfast time yesterday in the Turkish resort of Antalya, we drove through the tidy, green countryside of south-west Turkey to the ancient city of Aspendos – where we clambered around its superbly-preserved 2nd-century amphitheatre … wandered over a 13th century bridge … and picked some cotton from a nearby cotton-field.

Next we entered the atmospheric town of Side (‘seed-er’ meaning pomegranate) through a gate in the old city walls, and trekked down a quaint, store-lined street to some more Roman remains. On the way back to the coach, we had time to shop-shop-shop – and sample some refreshing, freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice from a local vendor. (You’ve gotta try it one day!)

Then, after lunch (in the outdoors under trees), we continued to yet another ancient landmark. Perge dates back to 1000 BC … played an important part (centuries later) in the spread of Christianity … and still boasts a Roman-era theatre, a basilica, an early-century shopping mall, a Nymphaeum (hilltop reservoir consecrated to water nymphs), and three Roman temples (dedicated to Dionysus, Apollo and Artemis).

Overnight, while we slept, the Prinsendam motored gently around the coast (known as the Turkish Riviera) to the once-sleepy fishing village of Marmaris. The Mediterranean and Aegean Seas meet here at what is today a popular resort-cum-boatie’s-paradise (with its own castle) – and so did Lord Nelson’s fleet back in 1798, prior to his attack on the French at Abukir.

We drove for an hour-and-a-bit to the tiny village of Dalyan, where we parked our Mad Midlife backsides on a couple of riverboats – that then took us through winding canals, cotton plantations and reed thickets, and past some famous temple-tombs of ancient kings carved into the rocky cliffs, to (i) the ruins of ancient Caunos (featuring yet another Roman theatre and some mud-baths founded in the 5th century BC) … and (ii) beautiful Iztuzu Beach where the endangered Mediterranean Caretta Caretta turtle comes ashore each year to lay its eggs.

Today was, once again, hot, blue-skyish and sunny (that’s all we’ve had since we arrived in Europe 12 days ago) – so a goodly number of us Kiwis stripped to our togs and took to the warm water like ducks. Aaah, yes!

PEOPLE NEWS:

Our hotly-sought-after quacky yellow ducks have been going out the door these past two days:

  • Norman (a would-be sun-bunny) fell asleep in a deckchair beside the ship’s pool the other day, and was overheard by a nameless member of our group “snoring and snorting quite loudly” – and has thus won himself the Mad Midlife ‘Walrus Award’.
  • When Mary decided to join the swimmers this afternoon at Iztuzu Beach, she thought no-one noticed her slipping into (then promptly out of) the men’s changing room – but someone DID notice, and nominated her for the ‘Whoops – Wrong Door Award’.
  • I know we’re no longer in Israel, but Eric takes home the ‘Walls Of Jericho Award’ – for leaning against a temporary partition in a men’s loo we visited today, and causing the thing to fall on the row of guys lined up at the urinal. (You had to be there – but it was probably better that you weren’t!)

TOMORROW:

Kusadasi is an attractive resort-city on the Turkish coast, with beaches, cafés, gardens, a castle and shops full of carpets and leather goods. But 30kms down the road is one of the world’s finest archaeological sites: the famous city of Ephesus – and that’s where we’re headed …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

JERUSALEM & GALILEE

NILE BLOG 06

Saturday 6 October, 2012

“Jerusalem,” (according to an intro-pamphlet we got on the ship) “is the very soul of the inhabited world. A centre for prophet and pilgrim, king and caliph, mystic and warrior, the timeless city has endured a long, and often troubled, history. King David conquered the fortified Jebusite city. His son Solomon built the first temple in 586 BC. Nebuchadnezzar later destroyed it, but returning Jewish exiles rebuilt it under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah …”

The pamphlet goes on to list a succession of rulers and wreckers – leading up to the time of Jesus, when the Romans and their puppet king, Herod, were taking their turn. And then, of course, the present day, when Israel’s 5000-year-old walled capital is still sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians (more than one third of all the people on Earth).

Why am I telling you all this? Well, WE KIWIS WERE THERE … YESTERDAY … WALKING AROUND AS LARGE AS LIFE … ON THOSE SELF-SAME STREETS AND COBBLESTONES!

AND TODAY WE DID IT AGAIN … IN THE NAZARETH/GALILEE AREA … WHERE JESUS SPENT 80% OF HIS SHORT LIFE!

Yesterday began with our ship docking in Ashdod, Israel’s largest port and gateway to Jerusalem – and us cramming onto an air-conditioned coach for a 90-minute drive (on a very modern motorway) to the sun-baked, battle-scarred Old City. We stopped for some magnificent views atop the Mount of Olives (still covered in gnarly, centuries-old olive trees) … and walked through the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spent the last moments before his arrest. We then motored up Mt Zion and entered the Old City on foot via the Dung Gate – arriving at the Western (Wailing) Wall (what’s left of the vast platform that once supported Solomon’s Jewish Temple, and now supports the Muslim Dome of the Rock mosque) – where we mingled with devout Orthodox Jews who were there in their hundreds (the men sporting black hats, bushy beards, long-sideboards, and tassels) to offer their Sabbath prayers.

We then followed-the-leader (Izik, our guide) through crowded narrow streets (including part of the Via Dolorosa, the ancient route Jesus took en route to his crucifixion) … and entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of Christ’s resurrection. (The original sanctuary built here by Emperor Constantine was destroyed centuries later, but a replacement was eventually rebuilt by the Crusaders.)

We departed through the Jaffa Gate, enjoyed a tasty hotel lunch, then climbed back on the coach for a brief drive to the ancient (now Arab) town of Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, built above the tiny cave where Jesus is said to have been born.

Phew! What a HUGE day! And 49 tired Kiwis were glad to return to their welcoming cabins and fall asleep between cool Egyptian-cotton sheets when it was finally all over.

But take a deep breath, folks, because TODAY was just as huge …

Our ship reached the northern Israeli port of Haifa around breakfast-time, and we were soon motoring through the Jezre’el Valley to Nazareth – childhood home of Jesus. Our visit included the Church of Annunciation, built on the site where Mary is said to have lived (and received the angel Gabriel’s message that she was carrying the Son of God) … and the Church of St Joseph, where Joseph’s small carpentry workshop is believed to have stood.

Next, we travel through Cana – where Jesus performed his first miracle (turning water into wine at a wedding) – to Yardenit, a beautiful site on the Jordan River where several Kiwis took to the famous water in their togs (and one of our ladies chose to be baptised, along with pilgrims from all over the world). After another restaurant lunch, we reached the shores of Galilee (across from the war-torn Golan Heights), before driving to Tabgha (where Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes).

The highlight of the afternoon was still to come: a one-hour ride in a wooden ‘Jesus-boat’ on the Sea of Galilee (complete with the raising of the New Zealand flag and the enthusiastic singing of our National Anthem).

Last but not least, we enjoyed quick stops at Capernaum (St Peter’s home-village and site of the ancient synagogue where Jesus once taught) and the Mount of Beatitudes (where Jesus preached his famous sermon).

An unforgettable two days? Yes, TOTALLY! But while these words and pix tell you what we DID and SAW, they can’t adequately convey how we FELT … being in this sacred city … touching those ancient stones … walking in the footsteps of Old-&-New-Testament saints and sinners … putting the familiar stories of Jesus in a new (and sometimes strange) context … standing/reflecting/worshipping alongside Orthodox Jews at the Wailing Wall … soaking up the ambience in Galilee (Jesus-country) … getting goosebumps out there on the Lake … praying for peace in this beautiful, troubled land …

If you want to know how it FELT, you’re gonna have to ask us when we get home!

PEOPLE NEWS:

Two new nominees have walked away with quacky yellow ducks:

  • Peter C (not Peter T, who earned one two days ago) was spotted lining up with the ladies at the Old City security check-point (instead of with the men) … and is taking home the Midlife Madness ‘Wailing Wall Award’.
  • Catherine H was seen leaving the restaurant with a hot cup of tea in each hand. No problem there. Except that Catherine, who had watched a magician-show the previous night, performed a trick of her own – causing one of her cups to separate from its handle, smashing (and splashing) all over the floor, and winning her the Midlife Madness ‘Abraca-Dabra Award’.

TOMORROW:

We deserve a break, after all this high Israeli drama. So we’re gonna cruise all day – taking a north-east route through the beautiful Mediterranean … giving Syria a wide berth (for obvious reasons) … then curving back, eventually, towards southern Turkey and our next port-of-call: Antalya.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

ALEXANDRIA & PORT SAID

NILE BLOG 05

Thursday 4 October, 2012

Alexandria

As we were waking up this morning, on this our second day in Egypt, the Prinsendam was manoeuvring gently alongside the cruise terminal in Port Said, at the northern end of the Suez Canal. And, from our up-high vantage points in our cabins or out on deck, we watched a colourful tangle of fishing boats jostling for mooring-space in the harbour below … and ate breakfast to the accompaniment of muezzin calling faithful Muslims to prayer over loud-speakers installed in the tops of nearby minarets

We spent yesterday, of course, in Alexandria – Egypt’s second largest city, founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great. These days, nine million people live cheek-to-jowl in that tired, untidy, overflowing metropolis … and watching the teaming masses go about their daily business was an education, to say the least!

We Kiwis climbed aboard two coaches in the afternoon (along with armed guards) for an overview drive through the civic centre, the main square and the bazaar. We motored along the cornice (waterfront) to the eastern harbour, with a toilet-stop at the impressive Salamlek Hotel (built by Khedive Abbas II for his Austrian mistress) … and photo-stops at the Montazah Palace & Gardens (built by Abbas as the summer home for Egypt’s royal family), the Abu al-Abbas Mursi Mosque (a superb example of modern Islamic architecture), the Fort of Qait Bay (built on the ruins of the Faros Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), and Alexandria’s massive new library (built with help from UNESCO).

But yesterday’s highlights were actually (i) a rush-hour (literally) traffic-jam, which saw us all waving to friendly locals and going nuts with our cameras … and (ii) the extended conversations we had on both coaches with the highly-educated, well-informed, and surprisingly-frank young ladies who were our tour guides for the afternoon. About what? Oh, about Muslim customs, Egyptian politics, the recent changes that have shaken this ancient nation, and lots more. Fascinating? You bet!

Then today? Well, Port Said (pronounced ‘side’, not ‘sed’) was founded in 1859 at the start of the Suez Canal excavations – and, by the late 19th-century, had become a bustling port (synonymous with hashish-smuggling and crime) where all the major maritime powers had consulates. It took a beating during the Suez Crisis and two wars (1967 and 1973) with Israel. Nowadays, however, this hyperactive, ramshackle city of half-a-million people earns its living as an important harbour: both for Egyptian exports (like cotton and rice), and also as a fuelling station for the 20,000+ ships that pass through the Suez each year.

Port Said is a popular kick-off point for tours to Cairo, the pyramids, etc – but we Kiwis are returning to Egypt later to do all that in style. So we just took it easy, watching all the comings-&-goings, wandering the town, rubbing shoulders with locals, enjoying horse-&-buggy rides past mosques, markets and landmarks, and sitting out the afternoon heat in the Prinsendam’s air-conditioned restaurants or around the pool.

This is a tough life, I tell you, and I don’t know how much longer we can keep it up …

PEOPLE NEWS:

Have you ever noticed how some couples, the longer they’re together, start looking more and more the same? Well, that must have happened to today’s nominee for a quacky-duck award:

  • Goodness knows how, but Peter managed to get off – and back on – the ship today using his wife’s photo-ID card. Must’ve been his new lipstick, we think. But for that little bit of trickery Peter earns the Mad Midlife ‘Sex Change Award’. A round of applause for Peter …
  • There are numerous lectures, classes, workshops, etc that passengers can attend on this ship. And some of us have been learning Creative Photo Editing with Windows Live. The panorama shots included here are by Rodger Grant (Alexandria) and yours truly (Port Said). Aren’t we clever?

TOMORROW:

Oh boy! Another big day … another ancient culture … and another bunch of unforgettable memories! Ashdod, with its seaside promenade, is Israel’s largest port – and serves as a gateway to Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem. (You’re green with envy, eh?)

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

Port Said

DELPHI & THE PRINSENDAM

NILE BLOG 04

Tuesday October, 2012

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“Time’s fun when you’re having flies …” (as the old saying goes). And our sojourn in Greece came to an all-too-sudden end yesterday when we boarded our cruise ship and sailed for parts unknown. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

Yesterday began with another 5:30am wake-up call … another yummy non-Weight-Watchers breakfast … and another loading of the coach with bodies and bags. We waved goodbye to Meteora and its unforgettable mountain monasteries, and drove south (that’s right, south – or southeast-ish, if you want to be precise) towards the rising sun. The temperature outside rose steadily (we’ve had 39 degrees, and maybe more, here in Greece) – but we Kiwis weren’t bothered. In air-conditioned comfort we snored with our mouths open, told laugh-yourself-silly jokes, and sang a few choice numbers from the Midlife Madness Ye Olde Songbook … stopping every hour or two to top-up on food and drink at Greek autobahns.

Our destination was the ‘biggie’ of Greek religious shrines: the 2400-year-old Oracle of Delphi – considered by ancients to be the physical and spiritual centre of the earth. This place has everything: a long and glorious history, spectacular ancient remains, a new museum, and a breathtakingly beautiful location on the craggy slopes of Mount Parnassus. There’s not a lot left standing, to be honest – with the ruined Temple of Apollo being the main draw-card, and the smaller Sanctuary of Athena with its mysterious ‘tholos’ (circular temple) being Delphi’s most photographed attraction.

But we Kiwis lost no time puffing, panting, sweating and clambering all over the site.

Then, in the afternoon, we motored eastward to the port of Piraeus (Athens) where our floating hotel, the ms Prinsendam, was waiting to welcome us aboard.

The Prinsendam is the baby of Holland America Line’s proud fleet – carrying only 800 passengers, weighing 38,000 tons (for those of you who like to weigh your ships), with four giant diesel engines giving her a maximum speed of 21.5 knots. We sailed all night, leaving Greece and its untold islands behind, and have continued sailing all day.

I won’t go on about it now, because you’ll just get jealous. But let me drop a very broad hint: the 5-star-luxury part of this Mad Midlife adventure has begun in earnest. And, even as I write these words, your loved ones and friends are being disgustingly pampered.

I know you feel sorry for them, and I will pass on your sympathies and commiserations tonight when we sit down together for another four-course gourmet dinner.

CORRECTION: Several of you dear readers spotted a misteak in the previous blog-entry – where I stated that Kalambaka was “rebuilt after being almost entirely destroyed by the Nazis in WW1.” Surely I meant WW2? Well, yes and no. The town was, in fact, nearly almost destroyed in WW1 by the Nazis – who were a virtually-unknown group at that stage. However, when it was pointed out that they should have waited until the next war, they apologised and stopped their almost-destruction, returning to properly almost destroy it in WW2. (And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything …)

PEOPLE NEWS:

Two more Mad Midlife Kiwis have each walked away with a cute little yellow Quacky Duck (or they will tomorrow morning when I’ll make the thrilling announcements):

  • As we embarked the Prinsendam yesterday we each received a plastic ID card (much like a credit-card) which (i) gets us on and off the ship, (ii) gets us into our cabins (doubling as a key) and (iii) allows us to purchase luxury goods and services on the ship (where cashlessness rules). Martin, who managed to lose his card almost as soon as he got it, had to go to the front office for a replacement – and shortly thereafter he found the original, tucked inside the little nametag-pouch which was hanging around his neck. For this and other misdemeanours, Martin wins our ‘He’d Lose His Head If It Wasn’t Screwed On Award’. (You had to be there …)
  • Pam gets the ‘Upside Down & Inside Out Award’ for reading the security code on her Visa card upside down – and spending 30 panicky moments wondering why her online Visa transaction was being declined.

TOMORROW:

With our heads still spinning from all we learned in Greece, we get face-to-face with another ancient culture in Alexandria – Egypt’s second largest city, founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great. (Bet you wish you were with us – right?)

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

ATHENS & METEORA: A GREEK FEAST

NILE BLOG 03

Sunday September 30, 2012

Sorry for the blog-gap, but these past three days have been full-on! I mean, our grand Middle Eastern adventure has only just begun, but we’re already been/done/seen HEAPS! So allow me (as best I can) to bring you quickly up to date:

FRIDAY: After leaving Singapore and flying through 11 hours of darkness, we touched down, bright and early, at Athens International Airport (Elefthérios Venizélos) – then headed to the Royal Olympic Hotel for an early check-in, some shut-eye, and some out-on-the-street exploration. At nearly every intersection in this famous Greek capital the glories of its distant past intrude on the present, and 2400-year-old monuments like the Acropolis, Hadrian’s Arch, and the Temple of Zeus could be seen – up-close and in-your-face – from the rooftop restaurant of our hotel. Talk about a photo-op – it was incredible!

Then, come late afternoon, we met Vicky (our fun-loving Greek guide) and went sightseeing. The Olympic Stadium, soaring Corinthian columns, the Plaka (old town) with its narrow cobbled streets and lively tavernas ringing with the music of mandolins – we sampled them all. And then we sat down at the foot of the ghostly, floodlit Parthenon to our first-of-many feasts: Greek salad (lettuce, onions, tomatoes, capsicum, feta, olives, whatever, all drenched in olive oil) … barbecued lamb, chicken, pork … and baklava (a pastry/honey/nuts dessert soaked in yummy syrup)!

SATURDAY: We were up-and-away right after breakfast for a walk-around visit to the Acropolis, the mighty rock formation dominated by one of the world’s most beautiful ancient buildings: the Parthenon – built around 400 BC and dedicated to the Virgin Goddess, Athena. We oohed and aahed and wandered the marble ruins, taking in two other gems while we were at it: the delicate little Temple of Athena Nike, and the Erechtheum, famous for its Porch of the Caryatids (its roof supported by six stunning statues of Athenian women).

Then, in the afternoon, we drove west for some stunning views of the crystal-clear waters of the Saronic Gulf … the amazing Corinthian Canal (a 6km shipping channel carved through 80 metres of solid rock back in the 1800s)  … and the archaeological site of ancient Corinth,where St Paul lived for two years.

Back in Athens (I can’t believe it was only last night) we enjoyed another Greek feast at the Old Stamatopoulos Taverna, set amongst the narrow lanes, colourful stalls and foodie-joints of the Plaka.

TODAY: We were packed up, fed and watered, all on the coach, and driving out of Athens (believe it or not) before the sun came up this morning … motoring north through Greece’s rich agricultural plains (past cotton fields and olive-tree plantations) to Kalambaka (an attractive small town nestled at the foot of mountains – rebuilt after being almost entirely destroyed by the Nazis in WWI). We parked our bags at the Divani Meteora Hotel and drove up a windy mountain road to our real destination – the sheer stone pinnacles that rise abruptly from the surrounding plains. Built into and on top of these rocky peaks are the famed Monasteries of Meteora – one of the most extraordinary sights in mainland Greece.

‘Meteora’ means ‘suspended in the air’ … and the almost inaccessible monasteries provided monks (at the end of the 14th century) with peaceful, safe havens from increasing bloodshed. Back then, the monks had to climb hundreds of metres up removable rope ladders – or get hauled up in nets. But access these days (lucky for us!) is via paved roads and steps hewn into the vertical rock walls.

We spent a couple hours in two of the six still-working monasteries, marvelling at the landscapes, appreciating the art and culture, and learning more than most of us ever have about the Greek Orthodox faith.

A good day? You bet! One out of the box, I reckon …

TOMORROW:

First on our agenda is the ‘biggie’ of Greek religious shrines, the Oracle of Delph. Then, late afternoon, we’ve got a date at the port of Piraeus (Athens) with our floating hotel, the ms Prinsendam. We’re going SAILING … yeehaa!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.