ANCIENT TROY & THE WOODEN HORSE

MED BLOG 14

Thursday Oct 9, 2014

Hard to believe, but our ‘Midlife Madness’ cruise/tour is pretty much over. The final chapter of our Mediterranean adventure has been written. We’ve had a ball, and we’ve made some great friends … but today’s the day we must say “güle-güle” (goodbye) to Istanbul and some of our fellow-Kiwis. Ataturk International Airport is our final stop in Turkey, and from there we’re heading off in different directions – most of us flying home on a big Singapore Airlines jet, but others destined for a few extra days in the Greek Isles, or London, or Ireland.

However, before I close this blog down, there’s a little side-trip that we made earlier this week on our way home from Gallipoli that I ran out of room to tell you about.

We’ve seen lots of old stuff this trip, but awaiting us that morning – in some empty countryside on the other side of the Dardenelles, near the coastal town of Canakkale (pronounced ‘Char-nak-arly’) – were the VERY old excavated ruins of Troy: legendary city of Helen, the famous Wooden Horse, and the sneak attack by Greek soldiers on the Trojans (around 1200BC). Generations of historians assumed this place (first mentioned by Homer) was purely fiction – but then, in the 19th century, the remains were found of a once-great centre of civilisation, and the painstaking archaeology continues to this day.

We visited the ancient site, relived a little of its fascinating story, photographed an imaginative replica (?) of the wood horse, posed as a group in what’s left of Troy’s circular amphitheatre, and gave a stirring rendition of Pokarekare Ana.

(No kidding, it would’ve bought a tear to Kiri Te Kanawa’s eye!)

Anyway, that’s it! The past three-and-a-bit weeks (combining luxury-at-sea with discovery-on-shore) have been a BLAST! We’ve seen so much, done so much, learned so much, gained so much and laughed so much that we don’t know where to put it all! We’ve had a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience – and we’ve got stories and memories and photos to prove it!

Just wait till we get home, and we’ll bore you to death!

PEOPLE NEWS: Two final Lucky Quacky Yellow Duckies will be sent via NZ Post to their unsuspecting recipients (shorthand for “I forgot to give them out”):

  • Gloria will soon receive our ‘Box of Fluffy Ducks Award’ – for countless near-misses while on tour: disappearing (briefly) in Barcelona, losing (temporarily) her handbag with passport etc enclosed in Turkey, being last on the bus more times than we could count, and generally running like a hyperactive rabbit all over Europe. Well done Gloria – we love you and are gonna miss you!
  • Val will receive our ‘Oh-I-Wish-I’d-Received-An-Award Award’ – for trying so hard to qualify for one of our cute ducks, but failing right to the end to do anything deservedly silly enough. No one’s ever tried harder, Val – hope your grandkids enjoy playing with it!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

ISTANBUL: MOSQUES, MUSEUMS & MINARETS

MED BLOG 13

Wednesday Oct 8, 2014

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Old Istanbul (formerly Byzantium, then Constantinople) featured large in several of the most glorious empires of all time – from Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperors Constantine and Justinian, to the Ottomans, Crusaders, Selcuks and more. Modern Istanbul, a city which spans two continents, is crammed with sparkling mosques, amazing mosaics, sprawling suburbs, crowded bazaars piled high with carpets and gleaming brass and copper and gold … plus dazzling sultans’ palaces right out of the pages of ‘Tales of Arabian Nights’.

Our gorgeous hotel was nestled in the heart of Istanbul’s celebrated Old City, within walking distance of many famous sites. If you stuck your head out the window, you could hear the muezzins’ wailing calls-to-prayer from the nearest minarets and smell the thick black Turkish coffee they serve here in the streets. Mmmm …

We spent our first afternoon wandering and meandering, sauntering and shopping, in the crowded city streets – returning in the evening for a classy Welcome-to-Turkey dinner at (according to our guide) “the best seafood restaurant in town”. Then, the following morning (Sunday), we headed out for a Big Day amongst Istanbul’s most enduring landmarks:

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  • the Byzantine Hippodrome, centre of life for more than 1000 years, where chariot races and competitive athletic events used to take place …
  • the incredible Hagia Sophia, which started out as a Christian cathedral, then became a Moslem mosque, and is now a magnificent museum …
  • the crawling-with-tourists Topkapi Palace, one-time home of the Ottoman Sultans from the 16th to 19th centuries, featuring treasures galore (and a nice coffee-shop!) …
  • the Yerebatan Sarayi – a vast Byzantine water-reservoir that’s lain under the streets of Istanbul since back in the 6th century
  • the fabulous Blue Mosque, renowned for its six minarets, a zillion beautiful blue Iznik tiles, unique architecture and marble latticework.

It was a fabulous day – and a long day. And our Kiwis were let loose that night to dine where they wished: our fancy hotel … or a quick kebab from a local eatery … or an authentic Turkish, sit-down-on-cushions feast at a nearby restaurant.

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Upon our return to Istanbul (two days later, after our Gallipoli excursion), we woke up, made our beds, brushed our teeth, and enjoyed an on-foot jaunt through the aromatic Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Then we clambered aboard a private ferry for a leisurely small-boat cruise around Istanbul’s crazy-busy harbour and out into the Bosphorus (the narrow waterway that connects the Mediterranean with the Black Sea).

Our final stop for the day was the famous Grand Bazaar. This immense marketplace dates back to when Istanbul was Constantinople, and offers more than 6000 shops (all under cover) selling handmade carpets, leather, ceramics, tiles, gold, copperware: it’s all here by the tonne. While the men tried not to look bored, the women bargained and haggled to their hearts’ content!

Finally, in the evening (our last in Turkey), we celebrated our Midlife Madness Farewell Dinner at a posh Turkish eatery, where we were wowed by a live show featuring bosomy belly-dancers, foot-stomping Cossacks, and songs-from-around-the-world (including a rousing haka-performance by three of our very own blokes).

A great late night was had by all – phew! – so, if you don’t mind, I’m going to join my gently-snoring wife in bed. ZZzzzzz …

TOMORROW: All good things come to an end, and the time has come for us to say “güle-güle” (goodbye) to Turkey and the Mediterranean. Don’t miss this finale …

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 entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

GALLIPOLI & ANZAC COVE

MED BLOG 12

Monday Oct 6, 2014

I don’t know why it happens, but it happens on every Mad Midlife adventure. As the end of the tour approaches, time speeds up and the days zoom by in a blur and it’s kinda hard to catch your breath.

Two days ago, we bade farewell to Venice and flew to Turkey, landing at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport and opening the final pages of our grand Mediterranean adventure. This huge, chaotic, energetic city (as many as 25 million people, by some counts) immediately captivated us, and we couldn’t wait (yesterday) to see the eye-popping sights.

But I’m gonna come back to those in my final blog, because today was something extra special …

We grabbed a temporary break from Istanbul and drove south along the Sea of Marmara – arriving this afternoon at Gallipoli (or ‘Gelipolu’ in Turkey-speak). It was here in 1915, WW1, that Allied Forces battled the Turks for control of this strategic location – an ambitious eight-month campaign that ultimately failed, at enormous cost to both sides. Among the dead were some 2700 New Zealand soldiers (roughly one quarter of the Kiwis who fought here) … 8000-plus Aussies … 21,000 Brits … sundry other allies, and nearly 100,000 Turks. And the gravestones of fallen soldiers on both sides seem to stretch forever.

We followed the unforgettable story across this rugged windswept stretch of coastline and through the tree-covered ridges and hills. Quieter-than-usual and lost-in-thought, we visited the haunting sites that have special significance for Kiwis and Aussies: Anzac Cove, Lone Pine, and Chanuk Bair.

We stood before a huge commemorative wall and reflected on the gracious words of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s wartime leader (and the creator of Turkish democracy):

“Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives … you are now living in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore, rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours … You the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries: wipe away your tears. Your sons are now living in our bosom and are at peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

Then we gathered beneath the towering New Zealand memorial, shared some Anzac thoughts and words and prayers, sang the NZ National Anthem, and listened to the haunting sounds of the Last Post.

It was a moving experience, I tell you. And we Kiwis were in a sober frame of mind when we crossed the Dardenelles by vehicular ferry to our hotel for the night in Canakkale (pronounced ‘Char-nak-arly’).

NEXT BLOG: Join us in Istanbul (formerly Byzantium, then Constantinople) … hear muezzin wailing from the nearest minaret, calling their people to prayer … and smell the thick black Turkish coffee they serve here in the streets.

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 entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

MAGICAL, ROMANTIC VENICE

MED BLOG 11

Friday Oct 3, 2014

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If you ever come to Venice, you’ve GOTTA arrive on a cruise ship. You’ve GOTTA be out on deck as your ship sails magnificently along the elegant Grand Canal. And you’ve GOTTA watch this remarkable city, unique in all the world, rise from the lagoon like a mirage … the sun’s rays caressing her palaces and towers … the sound of church bells echoing across the water … and gondolas gliding along the canals under graceful archways of stone.

We did precisely this yesterday, and we can tell you for a fact: there ain’t nothing quite like Venice!

It all started in 421AD, when the people of Veneto fled their mainland homes ahead of the invading Goths. They founded this extraordinary city on marshy, flooded islands, using wooden pilings and impermeable stone for foundations – an astonishing feat of engineering. By the 13th century Venice boasted a formidable navy, capable of turning out a warship a day. And for some 1000 years it was home to big names – like Casanova, Vivaldi, Monteverdi, the sculptor Canova, and the explorer Marco Polo.

Venice, today, continues to exceed all expectations – its onion-domed cathedrals, priceless Renaissance art, and criss-crossing canals (more than 400 of them) attracting hordes of adoring, camera-toting tourists – just like us!

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Yesterday afternoon, we took a couple of vaporettos (water-taxis) to the popular central area around St Mark’s Square, where we visited the Basilica di San Marco (a church of unquestionable beauty) … explored the opulent, gold-encrusted Doges’ Palace … and crossed the lagoon via the Bridge of Sighs (so-named because this was the olden-days route that prisoners took on the way to their execution).

Last night we enjoyed our final gourmet dinner aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam, with a menu that’s sure to make your mouth water:

Appetisers & Soups

  • Latin-American Style Gravlax (salmon)
  • Argentinian Guisso Soup (beef)
  • Vietnamese Spring Rolls with Chicken
  • Shiitake Salad with Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette
  • Mediterranean Mezze Plate
  • Scandinavian-Style Seafood & Potato Chowder
  • Brie in Crispy Phyllo with Apple-Cranberry Chutney
  • Chilled Pumpkin Soup with Cinnamon & Ginger

Mains

  • Bourbon Glazed Beef with Grilled Portabella Mushrooms
  • Poblano Stuffed ‘Pechuga de Pollo’ (chicken)
  • Wattleseed Roasted Duck with Apricots
  • Tofu & Vegetable Korma
  • Lebanese Lamb Shank
  • Asparagus & Fontina Cheese Risotto with Sautéed Cod
  • Sautéed Shrimp Provençal
  • Orecchiette with Italian Sausage & Escarole

Desserts

  • The ‘Big Apple’ Cheesecake
  • Kiwi & Passion Fruit Pavlova
  • Mohr Im Hemd (chocolate nut sponge)
  • Baked Alaska

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This morning (after still-more food, at breakfast!), we disembarked and said a sad goodbye to our floating hotel. Over the past 12 days she and her crew of 880 have taken us a total of 1816 nautical miles, and we’ve had more fun than we’ll ever have time to tell you about.

Leaving the ship, we climbed into a couple more vaporettos and roared off through the vast, scenic Venetian Lagoon to two fascinating islands:

  • Murano has been the region’s glass-blowing centre since 1291, and tradesmen still practice their jealously-guarded craft today. We got to watch them do it at one of the famous glass-blowing factories, and enjoyed a (careful) nose-around in a showroom filled with the most intricate creations.
  • The equally famous island of Burano has a well-earned reputation for exquisite lace-making – and while those women who wanted to eyeballed this handwork, the rest of us roamed picturesque streets and canals lined with quaint multi-coloured houses.

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Finally, after returning to Venice-Central and freshening up at the Hotel Saturnia – a beautifully-restored 14th century merchant’s mansion on one of the city’s countless lagoons – we grabbed another special take-home memory: a Gondola Serenade, drifting along the Venetian canals as darkened waters lapped against the sides of our sleek black boats and musicians serenaded us in the traditional fashion.

“O sole mio …”

PEOPLE NEWS: Not many Quacky Yellow Duckies still remain in the nest after a mass exodus this morning:

  • Rob was nominated for our ‘Waiting for his Ship to Come In Award’ – when he was spotted standing in the Nieuw Amsterdam lobby, waiting for a lift to come and take him to the deck he was already on.
  • Keith received our ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion Award’ – for copying the tour leader’s excellent choice of clothing, by wearing an identical t-shirt and shorts on exactly the same day.
  • Trish B walked away with our ‘Human Rooster Award’ – for, well, here’s what Gloria (her room-mate) told us: “Trish starts snoring around 6am each morning, and she wakes me up – I don’t even need an alarm clock!”
  • Michael was granted our ‘Cross-Dressing Award’ – when he was seen sporting a lady’s handbag over his shoulder yesterday. (Gucci, I think it was.) He claimed he was carrying it for someone else, but yeah, sure, Michael!
  • Kevin received our ‘Safe-Cracker Award’ – for jiggering their hotel safe in Venice, making it inoperable, and requiring middle-of-the-night attention by the hotel’s repair-man – not just once, but twice on the same night!

TOMORROW: We begin the final chapter of our Mad Midlife Mediterranean Adventure by bidding Venice “Arrive-derci!” and flying to Istanbul in Turkey. Something completely different? You bet … watch this space!

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 entry, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!