KATAKOLON & CORFU

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Saturday 13 October, 2012

The ‘Midlife Madness’ label is responsible for lots of laughs on the part of our ship’s crew and tour guides – and more than a little confusion. In the past we’ve been mistaken for the ‘Midnight Madness’ group … the ‘Midlife Crazies’ … and (by the Hungarian Cruise Director we had a couple of years ago on the Rhine and Danube) the ‘Midlife Crisis’ group. But yesterday, our lovely Greek guide misread the sign on our coach as ‘MIDWIFE Madness’, and assumed (I kid you not) that she was about to take a group of childbirth-experts sightseeing!

Imagine her relief when we fun-loving Kiwis turned up instead, responding to her question: “Is everybody happy?” with a thunderous “You bet your life we are!”

You’ll recall we started this grand adventure in Greece – right? Well, we’ve been back in Greece these past two days, catching up on stuff we missed the first time around. Yesterday, for example, while the rising sun turned the sky orange-red, they parked the Prinsendam in the small Greek fishing village of Katakolon (pronounced ‘kaTAKolon’) … and drove us 40km to mystical Olympia, ancient site of the very first Olympic Games. We wandered the vast ruins, picturing the temples, porticoes and statues as they were 2700 years ago … the area crowded with athletes, orators, merchants and philosophers surrounding the Temple of Zeus (with its 12-metre-high statue of the god). We could almost hear the roar of 40,000 spectators as (naked) athletes took their marks on the marble starting blocks … we stood on the very spot where, every four years, the modern-day Olympic flame is lit … and we even got to do a lap or two (jogging, walking or hobbling!) in the famous excavated stadium!

Somewhat exhausted after such strenuous exercise, we dropped in on the magnificent Mercouri Estate Vineyard (owned and operated by the same family for five generations)to taste its famous, locally-produced wines. Sounds good? Yep, it sure was … and a short-but-drenching downpour only added to the fun.

Then overnight, while we snored in our beds, the Prinsendam sailed north into the Adriatic Sea and the beautiful Ionian Islands. Corfu was where we docked, and dramatic seascapes surrounded us on our scenic drive through the Old Town, past a fortress, a palace, and lots of elegant arcade buildings. We then drove out of town to the 100-year-old Achillion Palace, built by Empress Elizabeth (Sisi) of Austria, and adorned with fabulous statues and mementos.

Later, to quieten our rumbling tummies, we rendezvoused at a beautifully renovated private villa – where warm hospitality and a traditional Greek luncheon (with ouzo, wine, and more food than you could shake a stick at) awaited us. Oh, plus some live Greek music and costumed-dancing … followed up by a stand-out rendition of Pokarekare Ana by our Mad Midlife Kiwi Choir.

PEOPLE NEWS:

Another quacky yellow duck has been hung around another Mad Midlife neck:

  • On quite a number of shore excursions, we’ve all been kitted out with ‘whisper’ headsets to make it easier to hear the guides. But, after visiting the loo during sightseeing the other day, Brian ‘lost’ his ear-piece, eventually discovering it tucked down into his undies along with his shirt … and earning himself our ‘Down-Under Hard-Of-Hearing Award’.

TOMORROW:

Leaving Greece in our wake we cruise further north through the blue-green Adriatic to Croatia and the sun-drenched island of Korcula (one-time home of Marco Polo). The show’s not over yet, not by a long shot, so don’t go away …

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.

EPHESUS & ANOTHER DAY AT SEA

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Thursday 11 October, 2012

You might think we’ve seen enough of Really Old Places, but half an hour down the road from Kusadasi (a Mecca for sun worshippers and holiday-makers, and our final port-of-call on Turkey’s western coast) is Ephesus – one of the best-preserved ancient cities in the world. And that’s where we headed yesterday, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (after being welcomed ashore by Turkish dancers).

On the way, we detoured up a tree-covered hillside and single-filed through a tiny chapel built on the remains of what’s thought to be the house where Mary, mother of Jesus, spent her final years. (Wait till you hear the fascinating story!) This lovely peaceful site, forgotten for hundreds of years, is now a place of pilgrimage for Christians from all around the world.

As for Ephesus … well, during its prosperous Golden Years, before its ancient harbour finally silted up (the ruins are now 5kms from the sea), it boasted a population of 300,000, and was a major Greek port, with noble houses, marble streets, temples, fountains, sewerage, indoor heating, a library, theatre and (what d’ya know?) even a brothel!  Ephesus was occupied at various times by various conquerors – and the superbly restored site records a long and colourful history.

We Kiwis wandered down the ruin-strewn Arcadian Way … took a zillion photos of a zillion re-erected columns and headless statues  … ogled the stunningly-restored Library of Celsus … and tried our best to imagine what bustling, sophisticated, day-to-day life was like for the Ephesians, some 2000 years ago.

Then those who could sing (or couldn’t – it didn’t matter) climbed up into the partially-restored 35,000-seat Amphitheatre (where St Paul once provoked a riot by challenging local devotion to the many-breasted fertility goddess, Artemis – aka Diana) … and then gathered down on the makeshift stage and sang Pokarekare Ana (to the applause of other tourists)!

Back in Kusadasi, we were treated to a demo of Turkish-carpet-making (from silkworms to glorious hand-loomed rugs) … before browsing the shops and returning to our mother-ship (parked as she was between two much-bigger giant cruisers).

Which brings us to today, as the Prinsendam made its lazy way through the blue-blue waters of the Mediterranean to the western isles of Greece – in flat seas and 29-degree sunshine. It was truly lovely … about as good as it gets … and a welcome break from all this fabulous sightseeing, all this ancient history, all this oohing and aahing and clicking of cameras.

PEOPLE NEWS:

Two more of our little yellow ducks have quacked their way into eager, waiting hands:

  • We’re not sure what Sid was thinking the other day at Iztuzu Beach when he waded out in his shoes and socks, but we suspect he was suffering delusions of grandeur after our boat trip on the Sea of Galilee – and have awarded him the esteemed ‘Walking On Water Award’.
  • Yesterday, for the trip to Ephesus, our group was split into two busloads – and when it came time to leave, Jan was missing. We were about to send out a search party when she sheepishly emerged from the bowels of the other bus – and was promptly nominated for our ‘Stowaway Award’.

TOMORROW:

We’re back in Greece … and the small village of Katakolon is our gateway to the mystical site of ancient Olympia, 40 kilometres to the east – site of the very first Olympic Games. You never know, we might get to sprint (or hobble!) along the famous stadium!

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

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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

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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

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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.