KOTOR: SCENIC GEM OF THE BALKANS

MED BLOG 10

Wednesday Oct 1, 2014

Oh boy! There have already been more highlights than we can remember on this Midlife Madness Cruise – and today, without a doubt, we added another. The waterfront town of Kotor is located down the far end of Montenegro‘s most beautiful bay – and our first glimpse this morning was a foggy one, as we motored in through the misty, glassy waters of the fjord. First settled 2000 years ago, during the days of ancient Rome, today’s vibrant modern town boasts medieval architecture plus numerous cultural monuments (like an ancient wall leading up into the hills, built for protection by the Republic of Venice), making Kotor a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We started our sightseeing tour by driving up the serpentine Lovcen Hills – on an edge-of-the-cliff road that took us higher and higher up the oh-so-steep mountainside, around 25-plus hairpin bends (I kid you not) – to a couple of heart-in-mouth photo stops, then finally to the small winter resort of Njegusi, (1700 metres above sea-level) where we snacked on the local specialities: smoked ham and cheese, brandy and wine.

We then headed down the mountains on a route that took us near Budva – another Montenegrin city on the Adriatic coast that they reckon was first settled more than 2000 years ago.

Few of us had ever been to Montenegro before, let alone gone mountain-climbing above Kotor. Were we impressed? Were we ever. In fact, we’d love to come back for a week …

PEOPLE NEWS: Another famous Yellow Ducky flew off this morning to reward a lucky Mad Midlifer:

  • Adrien J claimed our ‘Love Me Tender Award’ – for getting her start-times muddled up, and missing not just one but two ‘tenders’ (lifeboats) when our group went ashore in Kotor. But, true to our kind-hearted Kiwis, we didn’t leave her behind. And all ended well …

TOMORROW: We’ll be arriving (midday-ish) at the final stopover on this cruise – romantic, enchanting, musical Venice – where we’ll enjoy a sensory feast of criss-crossing canals, graceful archways, onion-domed cathedrals, priceless Renaissance art, echoing church bells, and gondoliers working their oars and singing “O Sole Mio …”

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!

DUBROVNIK: JEWEL OF THE ADRIATIC

MED BLOG 09

Tuesday Sept 30, 2014

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Nestled between the rocky hills of Croatia and the deep blue of the sea, Dubrovnik is the jewel of the Dalmatian coast. Girded in 9th-century walls that drop sheer to the water’s edge, it’s one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe – and, miraculously, it escaped serious damage in the violent 1991 civil war that clobbered this region (part of what used to be called Yugoslavia).

Known in earlier centuries as Ragusa, Dubrovnik grew through the Middle Ages and beyond to become a thriving city-state with a merchant navy second only to Venice in that region. The old city, laid out within the ancient fortifications, is compact and easily walkable – which is what a lot of our Kiwi mad-midlifers did later today! But, first, we took a coach-ride along edge-of-cliff roads to the picturesque seaside town of Cavtat on the beautiful Riviera, where we wandered along the palm-lined promenade taking far too many photographs. Then, back in Dubrovnik’s Old Town, we enjoyed local refreshments and a cultural performance — including costumes, songs and dances (accompanied on ancient stringed instruments plus a goat-skin bagpipe) from various Croatian provinces.

Finally, starting in the Stradun (the broad limestone main street), we were free to explore the labyrinth of narrow medieval alleyways … tackle a one-and-a-half-hour hike around the six-metre-thick walls … drink in the views of untold orange roofs, the old harbour, and the stunning Adriatic … shop till we dropped … or just sit in a taverna, order more caffe, and watch the world go by.

Another wonderful day? You gotta believe it!

PEOPLE NEWS: Two more Yellow Duckies have quack-quack-quacked their way out into eager, waiting hands:

  • Adrienne A picked up the ‘Technically-Challenged Award’ – for a minor faux-pas on the coach yesterday. Our guide had handed out ‘whisper’ headsets (little radio-gadgets that make it easy for us to hear what the guide is saying) and, holding the tiny headset ‘bud’ in her hand, Adrienne enquired of everyone in general, “Does this go in one ear or two?” (You had to be there …)
  • Glenda scored big with our ‘Selling-Herself-Too-Cheap Award’ – for a revealing moment in Corfu. When paying for a souvenir photo Glenda realised she didn’t have enough change, but the old guy in the photo-booth didn’t mind. He took what change she had and asked for a kiss to cover the shortfall – which Glenda promptly supplied. Her husband was heard to mutter something about wanting a discount …

TOMORROW: Phew! It was just a couple of days ago that we were in Italy. Then Sicily (albeit briefly). Then the Greek Isles (yesterday) and, today, Croatia. And tomorrow? Montenegro! (We’re gonna have to come home for a holiday!)

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!

CORFU – IN THE GREEK ISLES

MED BLOG 08

Monday Sept 29, 2014

If you’re meticulously following our progress and have spotted what seems to be a two-day gap, give yourself a pat on the back and let me explain.

  1. We were supposed to spend Friday on the island of Sicily – which hangs off the toe of Italy’s boot, and is separated from the mainland by sea and by centuries of history. And arrive in Sicily we did … but from that point on our best-laid plans got hijacked. The sun was shining and the sky was blueing, but strong winds and rough seas conspired against us, making dropping anchor and tendering ashore too risky. Eventually, the captain called off the scheduled Sicily visit, and (with much apologising) announced that we would sail on slowly towards our next port-of-call.
  2. We were supposed to be at sea on Saturday – and that’s exactly what we did! For the second day in a row, we kicked back and blobbed-out, enjoying shipboard-life to the max, while the Nieuw Amsterdam cruised gracefully on, around the bottom of Italy, and then across the open waters of the Adriatic towards the west coast of mainland Greece.

We woke this morning to find our ship navigating its way through the stunning Ionian Islands, in waters claimed by Greece. Popular Corfu, or Kérkyra in Greek, is where we finally docked (check the map) – a green and mountainous isle, much loved by the likes of Homer, Odysseus, Shakespeare and Milton.

We got to spend a full day in this gorgeous place, enjoying a scenic drive into the countryside for a nose-around the 100-year-old Achillion Palace, built by Empress Elizabeth (‘Sisi’) of Austria (who adorned the place with fabulous statues and mementos). Later, on our way to lunch, we passed through Corfu Town, eyeballing the Old Fortress and the elegant Palace of St George and St Michael – before stopping at a beautifully situated private villa – where we sat down to a generous Greek feast (including ouzo and wine) and some live toe-tapping music and folklore dancing. Yeehaa!

PEOPLE NEWS: Yes, another ever-popular, hotly sought-after Quacky Yellow Duck has found a new home:

  • Vic picked up his second win, our ‘Can’t Find My Speedos Award’ – for creating mayhem on deck after a soak in the outdoor spa. En route back to their cabin, Vic discovered he had lost his togs – and, suspecting he had dropped them by mistake in the wet-towel bin, he returned and (almost climbing inside the thing) he emptied the large bin, scattering wet towels all over the entire ship. Well okay, slight exaggeration – but his wife did admit he made a mess – which she then made him tidy up. Oh, Vic found his missing togs, by the way – so he hasn’t had to carry out his threat to swim au-naturale!

TOMORROW: A sight-for-sore-eyes awaits us – the magnificently-walled medieval town of Dubrovnik, a Mediterranean favourite with me and Mrs Cooney …

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!

SORRENTO & POMPEII

MED BLOG 07

Friday Sept 26, 2014

Naples (Napoli, capital of Campania, down the ‘shin’ of Italy’s boot) is a sprawling orange/yellow mass of extremes – grimy streets and palm-fringed boulevards, crumbling façades and cutting-edge clubs – and quite unlike anywhere else in Italy. It’s also one of the oldest cities in the world, with evidence of human habitation as early as the 9th century BC.

But our sightseeing-eyes this morning were set outside the city limits …

After breakfasting on dry toast and water (yeah, right!) we began our day with a clifftop coach-ride around the ooh-aah-gorgeous coastline to a picture-postcard-come-to-life: Sorrento. Perched high above sapphire waters opposite the Bay of Naples, Sorrento was once called ‘Home of the Wicked Sirens’ (the mermaids who, legend says, called out to seamen with their haunting songs) – and this oh-so-lovely town still lures visitors with a history so rich and a natural beauty so untamed that we were blown away. (Well, we would’ve been, if it wasn’t for the zillions of tourists who chose the same day to visit, and jammed-up the narrow streets and lanes with their stupid coaches!)

Following a shopping-stop (plus an obligatory coffee and, for some, a taste of the local liqueur, Limóncello), we lunched like royalty under overhanging lemon trees, before driving back around the Bay for an afternoon visit to a stark reminder of a very violent moment in history: the town of Pompeii. On August 24, 79AD, the looming bulk of Mt Vesuvius erupted hugely, burying Pompeii and its populace under tonnes of lava, ash and volcanic mud – inadvertently creating a remarkable window on an ancient civilisation. Excavated in the 16th century and now somewhat restored, Pompeii offers a fascinating view of Roman life 21 centuries ago – with roads (plus chariot-tracks), theatres, villas, brothels, storefronts and residents all frozen in time, the day the mountain blew up.

Sobering stuff? Sure was. But another unforgettable memory for our Kiwi adventurers.

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PEOPLE NEWS: Another Quacky Yellow Duck has left the nest in favour of a new owner:

  • Barry deserves our ‘Hand-Fed-&-Watered Award’ – for an incident we spotted at dinner last night. Barry had ordered fish and, not knowing quite where to start, he sat back and let the waiter carefully remove the bones from his fillets and all but put the succulent meat into Barry’s open mouth. (Yes, we’re all being pampered, but this was a step too far – don’t you agree?)

TOMORROW: We’re on the island of Sicily, driving up zig-zagging roads for some heart-in-mouth views and some leisurely wandering around more medieval towns – keeping a watchful eye out for Mafia (of course) …

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!

ARRIVEDERCI ROMA!

MED BLOG 06

Thursday Sept 25, 2014

We had another big day today – a VERY big day – which, for most of our mad midlifers, included many moments that felt unreal: “Pinch me, please – this can’t really be happening!”

The first of those moments was when our air-conditioned coach reached Rome, after a 90-minute drive from the Port of Civitavecchia (Shiver-ta-veckia). I mean, this place with its historical remains, churches, palaces, parks, babbling fountains and inspiring domes was once the hub of history and the centre of the ancient Western world.

The second “pinch me” moment occurred when we entered the Catholic Church’s Vatican City and stepped inside the lavish St Peters Basilica – truly one of the peak achievements of European culture, with its precious works of art (including Michelangelo’s stunning sculpture, Pieta).

It happened a third time when we stood amongst the skeleton-remains of Rome’s awesome Colosseum – that vast, stunning arena where 60,000 screaming spectators used to enjoy the cruellest of life-&-death sports.

And the “pinch me” feeling returned a fourth time when we eyeballed the beautiful Trevi Fountain. Except there was one small problem: a large-scale renovation is currently underway; the backdrop-building is smothered in scaffolding, the fountain’s not playing, and the pool has been drained. We could still ogle the massive sculptures, but tossing coins over our shoulders will have to wait until next time.

There were some very satisfied, very weary, Kiwis who sat down for dinner tonight in the Manhattan Dining Room aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam. But that weariness quickly disappeared when we saw what was on the menu.

As I keep saying, it’s an awful life, this luxury cruising! But someone has to do it …

TOMORROW: We visit a stark monument to a very violent moment in history: the Roman town of Pompeii, buried under volcanic ash in the year 100BC. Whatever you do, don’t miss this next episode!

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!