Cruising the Mediterranean

Getting Started

In October 2000, Lila and I set forth on this odyssey in the Mediterranean Sea to study the history and cuisine of the region. I chose to study the food, leaving Lila to do the more important research. Our trip would take us to four countries or five if you consider Monaco another country. If however, you consider it to be a "piece" of France, then we only went to four countries. I would like to tell you what I think Monaco is a piece of... but more on that later.

What better way to realize our auspicious goals but to book a cruise on the Crown Odyssey from Orient Lines. Our trip earlier this year to Antarctica was on its sister ship, the Marco Polo. Since we had such a great time on the Marco Polo, our expectations for the Crown Odyssey were extremely positive. And we did have to make sure that this was not a Carnival ship in disguise.

We planned a short stay in Madrid, before going on to Barcelona to board the Crown Odyssey. But first we had to get there and did not want to fly a third world country airline... like Egypt Air. So when we learned that we were on Air France we became a little uneasy. In fact, it was a great flight aboard Air France and we changed planes in Paris for Madrid. We had great seats, the food was fine by airline standards and each seat had its own TV screen with controls that can be hand held, since there were computer games to play, TV shows and multiple movies to choose from. I carefully looked for things to complain about, but I soon fell asleep and awoke on the other side of the great pond ... the Atlantic Ocean for those not acquainted with that expression.

 As we entered the terminal in Madrid, there was a gentleman holding a card with "Letow" on it and I thought how nice... I did not know that my brother was also arriving in Madrid today. Well, this was a first for me.... I had often asked Lila to hold such a name card when I was arriving from a long trip, but she refused. So it is nice to have somebody wait for you at the airport... I was really impressed. After a short ride into town, we checked into our hotel conveniently located right in the heart of the city.

We are in Spain

After dropping our bags off at the hotel... we went for long walk in town. But we did not really drop our bags off, for to do so would mean that I could pick them up. I really have to tell you, that when we were home Lila's first try at, packing her bag left it so heavy, that I could not move it downstairs. After a little discussion and making every attempt not to initiate divorce proceedings, Lila agreed to take out a "few" things. Out came the ski jacket in case the temperature plunges and the second bathing suit in case she decides to swim twice in one day or was that twice on the whole trip.

Well, there we are... we dragged the bags into the room, fully realizing why I work out so much in the gym.... so we can travel. We walked down a main street in Madrid... one with the nice stores and hotels, and strolled into the Plaza de Espana. It had a memorial to Cervantes and statues of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza... my favorite bullfighters. But enough of the history, it was time to sample some of the great Spanish cuisine. And we did and it was great. We have eaten in many Spanish restaurants in this country, but for some reason here in Spain they seem to have excellent Spanish restaurants.

Later that day we met up with our friends, Elaine and Gerald from Medicine Hat, Alberta. Again we set out to be tourists and we visited the Royal Palace, the Odmudene Cathedral, Puerto del Sol (the center of the city both in location and business energy) and the Paseo del Prado. Madrid has wonderful museums, quaint narrow streets and many breathtaking architecturally noteworthy places of interest, like the Plaza Mayor (Madrid's answer to Brussels' Grand Place). We stayed in Madrid for two days, walking and eating throughout the old city and could have used one more day just to rest our feet.  

 

 

Cruising

The next day we left Madrid for Barcelona under the care of an Orient Lines representative... it was a short flight to Barcelona and an Orient lines representative who remained with us through a tour of Barcelona, met us at the airport. We had visited Barcelona a few years ago but we did enjoy revisiting the Sagrada Familia (Church of the Holy Family), a magnificent church designed by Gaudi and still under construction after about 80 years. A little later we arrived at the ship and immediately saw some of the familiar faces from our Antarctica trip. Orient Lines had transferred some of the staff to get the Crown Odyssey operating smoothly after its first cruise in May of this year.

We greeted the hotel manager, Ian Vella and asked about arranging an upgrade to our stateroom accommodations. And soon found ourselves in the penthouse apartment... yes I mean an apartment. This apartment included a bedroom, a living room area and dining room, as well as an expansive patio or veranda. Can you imagine two stewards to pick up your towels, straighten the bed, bring in food, satisfy my every need (for those of you with crude thoughts I did not need "that"... I was on vacation).

I mean I never had it so good except maybe when we were first married. Forget it... this was even better. Our steward was Efren, a calm, considerate person who could not do enough for us. When we left the stateroom, Efren would walk in and make the place perfect. I was getting a little concerned, however and about four days before we left, I asked him to stop making the beds and picking up the towels. Efren was quite bothered by this and wanted to know why I said that. He was concerned that he was not doing something right, but I told him that I did not want going back home and make that big of an adjustment.  

I didn't even want to go home again... I could have stayed there the rest of my life. This ship was just great... an all‑Filipino crew.... they are the most gentle, caring staff that I have ever sailed with. Food was excellent both in its quality and presentation. We had interesting meals everyday for lunch and dinner, the ship was absolutely spotless throughout and the crew provided considerate service in every way. The shows each evening were excellent and they had a most marvelous magician and his wife, called "Moscow Magid', who performed simply amazing illusions. Well, enough of this advertising... we must go on to the trip itself. Unlike the Antarctica trip, we did have some younger guests on board, so the median age onboard could have been about fifty-five. Does that still seem old to some of you... well, not from where I sit. On some ships the guest median age is deceased.

On this cruise, we would be making many port calls, sailing during the night and pulling in to a port early each day. We did not have to get off, but we did want to see the places of interest. At some ports, the ship anchored off shore a few hundred feet and we would tender into the dock. Otherwise, the ship would tie up directly at the dock and we would just walk off, if we did not have too much to drink. Or if we had way too much to drink we would not leave the boat because we would not want to use the bathrooms at some of these places. I was talking about coffee at breakfast each morning. Another thought was that with many of the senior citizens aboard, prunes was really a main staple of the diet. Now, we would have to be very careful if we were going ashore to temper the amount of prunes that we were eating, especially if we were going on a bus tour ashore. I do not mean to belabor this point, just trying to provide helpful hints should you find yourselves in this predicament.  

Monte Carlo, Monaco

Well the Crown Odyssey left the Barcelona port and we had a great dinner, met our tablemates, saw a show and got ready for the next day in Monte Carlo. There we tendered ashore, which also gave us even more time to meet the other guests. I did have a picture in my mind as to what I expected Monte Carlo to look like and it did not look anything like I thought it would. There is no beach, just a harbor area and as you can see from the picture, just one building on top of another. Not sure that I even saw a tree there. We walked up to the Palais du Prince and then walked over to the Monaco Ville, or the old city. The quaint streets were filled with modern stores with expensive pieces d'art and clothing. We then headed for Monte Carlo area, which is home to the Casino, just north of the harbor. The cost to go in was five dollars just so we could lose our money in style. When we went in, we found that most of the gambling tables were not operating, so we wondered what we were paying for... so we asked for our money back and left. We then went to a cafe, adjacent to the casino, to relax and have a cappuccino.

 We sat down and waited ... and waited ... and waited. After our rest stop and no cappuccino we left the cafe. There was a fancy hotel next door so I decided to walk in and take a look around (translation: use the bathroom). The doorman beat me to the door and instead of opening it for me asked if I was a guest at the hotel. I replied that if he let me in there was a possibility of my being a guest. He then told me that this is a private hotel... and to go away. I found the people snobbish, stuffy and certainly not very polite in Monte Carlo. But, I could just imagine James Bond walking out of that casino and jumping into the Rolls Royce that was parked in front. The image was much better than the reality.

We tendered back to the ship about 4:30pm and the waves were picking up a bit so we were glad to be back onboard. Later, the waves became quite severe and those still on the shore had quite a time getting back to the ship. In fact the ship left Monte Carlo almost three hours late, because of the problems bringing people back from shore. This was the only time we had any trouble tendering from the ship. Well then it was off to dinner and then another evening, another show. That has a nice ring to it, doesn't it.... maybe a nice tune as well.

Glorious Rome

The next day, Saturday, we were in Rome... a short bus ride from the port put us in the middle of the city. With my handy dandy little ATM card I was able to pull out a few Italian lire just as I had withdrew pesetas in Spain. This ATM toy is pretty neat... no more travelers checks and having to convert them to a local currency... just plug the ATM card in and out comes local currency, just that easy. So here we are in Rome and we head directly for the Vatican.... it was crowded.  At first I thought that all the people knew I was in town, but soon I realized that this was the month for the pilgrimages and the Pope would be addressing the crowd on Sunday.

From there we all just walked through the city visiting the Coliseum, the Pantheon (my favorite), the Forum, Piazza Venito - Capotiline Hill, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and some other sites that I had often visited in earlier years. When we stopped at the Pantheon, I went to see the restaurant that I would frequent and be able to gaze at that wonderful edifice before my eyes. I had hoped to have lunch there but time took its toll as it does in so many ways... it was now a McDonald's restaurant, ...what a sad commentary on progress. Rome was busy wherever we went... all the familiar sites were packed with tourists...more then I had ever seen on earlier visits.  I guess that was all related to the pilgrimages, as it was not holiday time in Italy.

 Well, it was time to get back to the square where we had to meet the bus for the return ride to the ship. It had been a long day and we had walked and walked... we were tired. Now, it is always important to get back to the ship on time as the staff pointed out to us ... they had said that it is truly a beautiful site to see as you are standing on the dock watching your ship sail out of the harbor. But, none of us wanted to experience that scene. Back for exercise, Sabbath services, dinner and another evening, another show.  We all had a great day.

Sorrento, Italy and the Amalfi Coast 

The next we were in Sorrento, along the Amalfi coast of Italy. Sorrento is a beautiful, picturesque town located up on a ridge well above the Mediterranean shoreline. It was a day that we would all split up ... Lila went to Capri, Elaine went to Pompeii and Gerald and I were free men ... oops, we just went to Sorrento and walked around looking at the pretty women... uh, stores. Again we tendered in from the ship and journeyed up to Sorrento on a bus from the dock area. We could have walked but sort of chickened out... wanted to save our selves for better things (that never came). Arriving early, the stores had just started opening for the swarms of tourists coming into town. We walked along a charming overview that had a great view of the sea and the shoreline below. Many tourists were now in Sorrento and it seemed that there were more Americans there than Italians. Thank G-d for the senior citizens. Then, Gerald and I decided to have a cappuccino (we are always having a cappuccino), but away from the tourist area... so we hiked up the hill further from the water's edge and closer to where the local's live. Found a lovely little patisserie and bar and had some of the marvelous pastries that Italy is so famous for along with our cappuccino. It was great and no calories as well. Later, back to the ship after we enjoyed an Italian lunch.

Messina, Sicily

The next day we had been scheduled to go to Malta, but the weather was bad so the Captain rerouted us to Messina, Sicily. Some of the people were piqued by that change of plans, but I rather enjoyed Messina. Messina is a Sicilian town with a nice port/dock area as well as some interesting sites to visit. Among the best was the Piazza Duomo... a 12th century Norman style church with a famous astronomical, mechanical clock, which had moving characters ... considered to be the largest in the world. This is a real town, not just another tourist area where people go to shop. We walked into the business district near the courts and sat at an outdoor cafe for quite awhile talking with the locals about life and the upcoming American election (which does not seem to end).  After lunch, Lila, Gerald and I hiked up to a large church, the Christo Re, which we could see above us in the hills of Messina. It provided us with a beautiful overview of both the city and the harbor.

Well, then it was back to the ship to exercise, have dinner and then another evening, another show. It was just another shitty day in Paradise. The next day was an at‑sea day, so we walked the deck early in the morning, went to the Captain's cabin for a cocktail party and then watched a show put on by the Filipino crew. We had seen a similar show on the Marco Polo and this one was just as magnificent. Our steward, Efren sang a love song, as did our wine steward in the dining room. Then we exercised, had dinner later in the day and finally, you know, another evening, another show.

Santorini, Greece

Today, we arrived in Santorini, one of the Greek Islands. It is a wonderfully quaint town with little streets that meander all along the ridge high above the water. Situated 1,000 feet above the waters edge, we had three options to go to the town, ...we could walk, but what an exhausting choice, ...we could ride the mule to the top, but one must have a very, very bad cold, or finally, we could take the newly completed funicular (now why would they build such a contraption). After careful thought we decided on the funicular and it was worth every drachma or dollar or whatever. In town, we walked among the white buildings and narrow streets that house the untold numbers of tourist shops scattered throughout. In particular, there are over 450 jewelry shops, almost all with the proprietors standing at the door urging each visitor to come in and look around. One wonders how they can all make a sufficient income to stay in business, but with up to five ships sailing into port each day during the height of the season delivering some 7000 tourists... well maybe they can all survive.

I must admit that I cherished each and every moment that I was able to visit the shops and just envision how each and every piece of jewelry would look on Lila. I could have walked among the shops for hours on end, but alas lunchtime came early that day and stayed late. We found a pretty little restaurant off the beaten path, but not before I had yet another opportunity to put my ATM card to the test in another foreign land. What fun ... sometimes I get to see my checking account balance in the local currency and it really adds up to a lot of money (especially in Turkey where each dollar equals 650,000 lire). At the restaurant, the food was excellent, better than so many of the Greek restaurants that we eat in back home. We then dragged ourselves through town some more and then decided to head back to the ship.

Well, how should we go down to the water's edge?  We decided to forego the funicular this time and walk the walk. Well, as we started to make our way down we soon, in fact very soon realized that we would be sharing this walkway with the mules.  To tell the truth we smelled something wrong right away, but there was no turning back... we were a hardy lot, if not stupid, so we continued on our way.  They tell us that the views from the steps are just lovely; unfortunately we did not see them as we were anxiously surveying the ground beneath our feet.  Careful not to leave our footprints in any substance that was about, and holding our noses as we walked, we made extremely good time descending, except however, when we had to plaster our bodies along the side of the walkway when a group of mules would pass.  Well, back to the ship we went... well, you know the routine.

Athens and the Acropolis

Today was to be an exciting day for we arrived early in Athens and were heading into town to visit the many historical sites that this city has to offer, in particular the Acropolis. For those who have previously visited this city you might say it is crowded and busy, difficult to absorb the many wonders... well, you would be correct. As we headed into town we immediately got caught up in traffic. I think it was when we left the dock area and it continued until we arrived back at the dock area some five or six hours later. Traffic is so bad that the government restricts cars into town only with even license plates on even days and the odd license plates for odd days. So as not to confuse the police, most of the citizens have two sets of plates to ease their commutation. And you would think that all these cars would be belching all kinds of exhaust into the environs... and again you would be correct. There is smog and gray air spread all over the city.

 The Acropolis was a very fascinating site to visit ... first because of the history, but for me because of the effort underway to restore the structures back to a semblance of their original splendor. The work ongoing is being supported by the fees they charge to enter the grounds and by contributions from various organizations. There is some extensive participation by Americans through various grants and university research programs. It actually seems that with every step they take forward they go back two or three. When they try to reconstruct a particular site the old structure at the bottom is crushed by the weight of the pieces on top. So why is that hard to understand ... that is why the structures have been falling apart for the last 700 years. The restoration is never going to happen. In our lifetime and the next, these buildings will always remain in ruins. The environment is still dirty, the money available to correct the problem will never be sufficient, but the people keep coming.

It was particularly crowded when we were there... people from all over the world... looking at a pile of rocks and rubble that they are trying to pile back up. I met two young secondary school girls from Serbia. We talked about the war, life in their country today and how they felt about the United States.  They indicated that life is tough there today, but they are also glad that Milosevic is out of power and they are not angry at the United States for the bombing. I tell you this not because it has anything to do with the Acropolis, but rather because it was so interesting to me to meet and talk with people from all over the world.

It was a day of traffic and unfortunately, we did not get an opportunity to see as much of the city as we would have liked. Gerald and I did take off on our own in Piraeus, the area where the ship was docked (a suburb of Athens) and walked into a local community. Certainly, not a tourist area, we had to walk some distance before we could even find a cafe to get a cappuccino (so what is new here?). We did manage to locate one, it was filled with locals who spoke no English and while it was interesting trying to convey our thoughts, we did get through. They were very friendly and soon we were communicating through some strange assortment of hand movements and words. These little interludes are very satisfying to me and I look back on them with much excitement, as I was able to immerse myself, even for a short time, into their environment and become a very small part of their lives.

                                             Part 2 Continued