April 20-23, 2015 – Portugal.

April 22: Ponta Delgada, Azores.

After another night of heavy seas, we docked this morning in the city of Ponta Delgada, which is on San Miguel Island, in the island group Azores, which is part of the country of Portugal. Sometime during the day yesterday, we got word from the Captain that we would not be able to call in our second Azores port because of an impending storm system. So we will be in Ponta Delgada for an overnight instead. About the Azores: This is a group of nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean, each island having its own unique landscape, traditions, cuisine, and architecture. According to a tourist brochure, “the Azores are considered to be a sanctuary of biodiversity and geodiversity and one of the best locations for Nature Tourism.” During our excursion today, I saw nothing that would make me doubt that statement. It’s a beautiful island, lush with vegetation, orderly, well cared for, free of litter, with awesome natural areas that people on our bus today were comparing to Oregon, the Amish country in Pennsylvania, and Switzerland. Anyone interested in hiking in this spectacular setting might want to visit www.trails-azores.com.

We started our day at the port, of course. From our vantage point on the ship, we could see the main street of the harbor area. It was lined with apartment houses, hotels, and shops. There was also a marina, but many of the slips were empty. Maybe it’s too early for sailors to be here. Included in the harbor were a recreation area with a swimming pool and children’s play yard and a waterfront promenade with several restaurants and souvenir shops. The green mountains behind the town completed this pleasant scene. Everything seemed to be well designed for the comfort and convenience of the cruise tourist.

The focus of our excursion today was a drive around the island to visit the crater of an ancient volcano which has given its name to the small village of Sete Cidades (Seven Cities). We took a four-lane highway out of town but soon turned off on a two-lane road into the countryside. Once we left the houses of the city behind, we saw mostly lush, green pasture land, dairy cows, and cultivated fields. Often, the fields were bordered with high stone fences, maybe 6-7 feet high. The guide told us later that different materials had been used for windbreaks over the years, so I assume these high and perfectly straight walls served that purpose as well. One detail I noticed during our drive struck me as particularly charming. Road and street signs were often made of white tiles painted with blue lettering and decorative flourishes. These tile signs were used not only for street names but also for signs which explained the history of a monument or the importance of a scenic vista. We were also taken with the fact that hydrangeas and azaleas had been planted along the entire mountainous portion of our route today. The azaleas were just starting to bloom, and April is too early for the hydrangeas, but I could just imagine how spectacular that drive would be in a few weeks with all the hydrangeas in bloom. Another interesting fact about the plants we saw, such as Japanese cedar, bougainvillea, tree fern, and lily, is that none of them are native to the Azores. Our guide said that Europeans brought them here from all over the world and that native plants are found in only a few remote locations on the island.

Our drive took us over the lip of the eight-mile-wide crater and down its steep sides to the village of Sete Cidades. We had a short stop here where we could walk around the town park, visit the very clean public restroom, order a drink or snack from a nearby restaurant, inspect a local church, or just admire the small stone houses that look like they could stand forever. Looking up at the greenery-covered crater walls from the vantage point of this town was quite a contrast to our view at Mt. Vesuvius a few days ago. Even though this village seemed to us to be in a truly remote location, it was nevertheless able to participate in one of the prerequisites of the modern world – garbage collection. A garbage truck was making its rounds as we were taking our break there. This service particularly struck me, I think, because of all the countries we’ve seen on this trip which seemed to have no concept of public cleanliness. Our route then took us back up to the rim of the crater where we could have a beautiful view of the two lakes which lie at the bottom on one side of the rim and a similarly spectacular view of the ocean on the other side.

The second part of our excursion was to visit a pineapple plantation, where the fruit is grown in hothouses. Pineapple has become an important export crop for the Azores, and one purpose of this plantation is to help tourists understand and appreciate this key product. The guide explained the growing cycle of the pineapple and its propagation and led us on a tour of several hothouses with pineapple plants in various stages of growth. FYI, it takes almost two years for a pineapple to reach maturity!  As is usual with such excursions, we also got a chance to do a little shopping in the pineapple store: pineapple jam (I bought some), pineapple embroidery, pineapple jewelry, pineapple scarves, etc., etc.

As the last port on our itinerary, Ponta Delgada did not disappoint. It was another amazing part of the world which we can now claim to have seen and loved.

Cows Walking through Village of Sete Cidades in the Azores

Cows Walking through Village of Sete Cidades in the Azores

Typical Tiled Road Sign in the Azores

Typical Tiled Road Sign in the Azores

Santiago Lake

Santiago Lake

Us in the Azores

Us in the Azores

Green View within the Crater of Sete Cidades

Green View within the Crater of Sete Cidades

Two Lakes and Village of Cete Cidades

Two Lakes and Village of Cete Cidades

Azores Pineapple

Azores Pineapple

View 1 of Ponta Delgada Harbor from the Ship

View 1 of Ponta Delgada Harbor from the Ship

View 2 of Ponta Delgada Harbor from the Ship

View 2 of Ponta Delgada Harbor from the Ship (with Mountains)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Double Rainbows over the Harbor

Double Rainbows over the Harbor, Taken from the Ship Dining Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

April 16-19, 2015 – Spain.

April 17: Cartagena.

Late this morning we docked in Cartegena, on the southern coast of Spain. The harbor is enclosed by rugged mountains with impressive ancient military fortifications both at the water level and on top of the peaks. We could see military ships, commercial activity, and pleasure boats, so it must be a thriving port. The city has a long history, beginning at least in the third century B.C.E., and has been under Roman, Muslim, and Arab rule, as well as Spanish, of course. For us today, however, we wanted a relaxing, no-hassle day, and didn’t want to do any sightseeing, so we just walked up and down the main street, looking at the shops, sitting in a café for lunch, and doing a lot of people watching. We were so impressed with this city. The port area is fully paved, with frequent benches and inviting sidewalk cafes. Every street in the pedestrian area was paved with marble or other tile across the entire width of the street, i.e., between the buildings, so that no sidewalks were necessary. Even the gutter was nicely designed. It was a slight indentation down the middle of the street, and it was covered with the same tile as the rest of the street. So the streets were beautifully paved, but they were also perfectly clean – no litter, no garbage anywhere. Shops and stores were on the first floor of the buildings, and apartments were above them. Each building was unique in design, many with decorative iron railings, others with a more sleek and modern aspect. We found a small grocery store at the end of the pedestrian street, bought some typical (supposedly) Cartagenan pastries at a small bakery, and had wifi access and lunch of panini and paella at Il Caffe di Roma. As expected, we kept running into friends from the ship who were also enjoying the beautiful weather and easy walking. Another Holland America Line ship, the Eurodam, was also in Cartagena today, but the additional shipload of people didn’t make the crowds too oppressive, as has happened in many of the ports we’ve visited. The city actually seems very well equipped for giving cruise passengers a good shore experience, so I hope we bring in enough money for them to maintain their high standard of hospitality. This is a port we would be happy to return to.

April 18: Malaga.

Our port this morning was Malaga, one of the major cities of Andalusia, Spain. As in many of the other sites we have visited, the history of the area has been dominated by one major power after another. Phoenician, Roman, Moorish, and Spanish peoples, and probably others as well, have left their mark on this city, and our bus and walking tour today brought us to some of them. After a bus tour which gave us a flavor of the downtown area (wide and clean streets, parks, trees, fountains, 10-12 story buildings but no skyscrapers), we took a narrow and winding road up through residential areas to Gibralfaro Castle, which is a 14th century Moorish fortress located on the summit of a mount where a Phoenician lighthouse once stood. This structure has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. Today, I found it a moving and peaceful place with stone walls and steps, ramparts, terraced planting beds, unusual plants, and expansive views of the harbor and the surrounding countryside. It reminded me a little bit of the grounds of the Alhambra. Our guide took us through a small museum about the history of the area. We needed his explanations because all descriptive text was in Spanish.

The Moorish influence on the architecture of Malaga appears in many of the public buildings but in the residential areas as well. Some of the characteristics that I noticed are widespread use of colored ceramic tiles, both ornamental iron and shaped wooden railings, orange roof tiles, and ornately patterned ornamental bars over windows.

Next, we drove back down into the city and began our walking tour among the narrow lanes (all fully paved with stone and perfectly clean) near the cathedral. First, we had to see the house where Picasso was born. He lived in Malaga with his family until he was nine, and Malaga has not forgotten its favorite son because his name is all over the place. [I wonder if I recall correctly from my reading that he didn’t like it here and couldn’t wait to get away?] We walked past a Roman theater in the process of restoration, with the bustle of city life going on all around it. The guide next conducted an in-depth tour of the interior of the cathedral, to which we were not attentive. But it was a good place to sit for a while. We next had a half hour or so to explore on our own, but the guide made a point of directing us to the main pedestrian shopping street, so off we went. As we found in Cartagena yesterday, this street is beautifully maintained and full of happy people. Malaga is a much larger metropolis however. On the way back to the ship, we drove past an 11th century Moorish fortress (Alcazaba), 140 year old ficus street trees, and a two-story carousel ride.

April 19: Cadiz.

During the night, we sailed from Malaga to Cadiz, Spain, through the straits of Gibraltar. We were near Gibraltar about 2am, so we didn’t even think about trying to see the Rock again. Besides that, we had a stop in Gibraltar on our Barcelona-to-London cruise a couple of years ago. As we were sailing into Cadiz this morning, we got to see a beautiful sunrise, since we were up early to meet our excursion bus. During breakfast, we looked out the windows of the ship to try to understand the nature of the harbor we had entered. It did not seem to be a natural harbor like the one in Malaga, but it had a breakwater and several piers to which different kinds of ships were docked, such as freighters, container ships, and even another cruise ship.

Our tour today was to be a walking tour of Cadiz ending with a flamenco dance performance, and our guide Dori was very helpful in orienting us to the city, to the history, and to the culture of the area. We started with a bus ride around the city, during which she gave us a few facts: this area was first settled by the Phoenicians in the 11th century B.C.E. (guides from other cities have said this as well); it was also ruled by the Carthaginians, Visigoths, and Muslims, and probably other peoples that I don’t remember; a cigar factory built in 1741 was recently closed and is being renovated for other uses; the mayor is a woman, the first in the 3000 year history of the city; the botanical garden was opened in 1892 and contains many plants brought from both North and South America; people from elsewhere in Spain regard Cadiz as different from other Spanish cities (I believe this is because the architecture has no Moorish influence, as we have seen in Cartagena and Malaga). Our bus tour brought us to a lovely beach area with a promenade along the waterfront, and we had a photo stop here. The morning was chilly, so there weren’t many people on the beach, but given the number of apartment houses nearby, I’m sure this area gets crowded during warmer weather.

We disembarked from the bus in the old city at Plaza de Espana. This is a lovely park which features a monument to the first Spanish constitution, which was instituted in 1812. The park is conveniently located just across the street from the cruise terminal and was to be a helpful landmark for us when we walked out on our own later in the day. During the walking tour, Dori took us past historical buildings and churches, and then gave us some free time at the flower market, which is found at the center of the city. This being Sunday, most stores were closed, but a flea market was underway. Curiously enough, the stuff being sold looked just like the flea market stuff that’s available in the U.S. We continued our walk, learning about historical figures who have passed through Cadiz, such as Christopher Columbus and Miguel Cervantes, and about more general types of visitors, such as shipping magnates and hotel speculators. At 11 o’clock we had an appointment for a special performance of a flamenco dance troupe in a “taberna flamenco” named La Cava. This was amazing. There were five performers: a guitarist, a singer, and three dancers (two men and a woman). Wow! The guitar playing, the unique singing style, and the moves of the dancers blew us all away. And the ambience of the restaurant contributed significantly to the whole experience. We were in a small, windowless space shaped like a T, with the stage placed at the intersection of the two parts of the T. We sat just a few feet away from the performers at wooden tables on wooden chairs. We were served tapas (ham, cheese, frittata, crackers) and drinks (sangria, wine, sherry, soft drinks). The intensity of the performance was riveting, and the whole experience was just like what I’ve read about in books (except no one was smoking). As we left the restaurant, the performers had formed a receiving line, and we bought their CD.

Our walking tour route then brought us back to our starting point, La Plaza de Espana, where a few people returned to the ship, but we decided to continue walking. The narrow streets of the old city would be a perfect place to wander for days because every street seems to have something interesting to look at: shops, old building facades, plaques marking some event or circumstance, entryways decorated with all different patterns of ceramic tile, etc., etc. And then when a few streets come together, there’s a plaza, which becomes a gathering point for families and children and passersby. We found a café with seating on the plaza before it and sat there for a while with hot chocolate and internet. Some ship friends came by and chatted for a while, so we felt like we were participating in the local life in an entirely appropriate way. We eventually left our table, continued walking a few more blocks, and then returned to the ship.

We have been so surprised and pleased by our ports in Spain. Each city is unique and full of the kinds of sights and experiences which we value as travelers.

Us in Front of Our Ship in Cartagena

Us in Front of Our Ship in Cartagena

Street in Cartagena, Spain

Street in Cartagena, Spain

Lunch Café in Cartagena, Spain

Lunch Café in Cartagena, Spain

View of Harbor in Cartagena

View of Harbor in Cartagena

Street Scene in Malaga, Spain

Street Scene in Malaga, Spain

Birthplace of Picasso in Malaga, Spain

Birthplace of Picasso in Malaga, Spain

City Beach in Cadiz, Spain

City Beach in Cadiz, Spain

Old Arch between Modern Buildings in Cadiz

Old Arch between Modern Buildings in Cadiz

Market Square in Cadiz, Spain

Market Square in Cadiz, Spain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Side Street in Cadiz, Spain

Side Street in Cadiz, Spain

Gibralfaro Castle in Malaga, Spain

Gibralfaro Castle in Malaga, Spain

Fountain in Roundabout in Malaga, Spain

Fountain in Roundabout in Malaga, Spain

Male Flamenco Dancer in Cadiz

Male Flamenco Dancer in Cadiz

Female Flamenco Dancer in Cadiz, Spain

Female Flamenco Dancer in Cadiz, Spain

Plaza in Cadiz, Spain

Plaza in Cadiz, Spain

 

Tiled Entryway in Cadiz

Tiled Entryway in Cadiz

 

 

 

April 13-15, 2015 – Italy.

April 13: Messina, Sicily.

During breakfast this morning, we watched several groups of sea animals, apparently dolphins, playing near the ship. The ocean was unusually flat today, with no visible swells, and we had land to the starboard. As we approached the Straits of Messina, the wind came up making the water choppy, but it dropped off again as we entered the harbor, where the ship did a 180 to line up with the dock. We had previously arranged to walk around Messina with our tablemates Juliana and Roger, so we met them off the ship and started on our way, along with others from the ship, to a famous clock tower a couple of blocks from the dock. We arrived about noon, just as a lion was roaring. At least that’s what it sounded like, and sure enough, there was a lion holding a flag and moving its tail at the top of a series of figures on this clock we had found. Next, a rooster crowed a few times. Then, an orchestral version of Ave Maria began playing as other figures began a parade around their levels on the clock tower. When the music stopped, we didn’t see anything else moving, even though some of them had been still during the whole performance. By this time, we had lost patience with the whole proceeding and left.

Other than to find a place for lunch, we didn’t really have an agenda for Messina, so we started walking toward a restaurant which had been recommended to Roger by an Italian friend of his from the ship. By following Fabio’s directions and asking a few passersby, we found the restaurant and went inside. We were warmly welcomed and grateful that Roger speaks Italian because it seemed that no one there spoke English. Arancini (rice balls) were the important item on the menu in this restaurant, so we ordered them and a couple of pasta dishes. Everything tasted good, but what was more interesting than the food was the life of the restaurant, clearly a popular neighborhood place with regular customers who know each other and the staff.

When we left there, we walked in the direction of a shopping area, but since it was siesta time, not many stores were open. We came to the Piazza Cairoli, which is a city block in size and planted with a dozen or so fully grown trees, giving the piazza a somewhat exotic aspect. We were having a cool and sunny day, but I imagine that this piazza is wonderfully cool on a hot summer’s day. Since we had different shopping needs, we split with Roger and Juliana and went into an electronics store, one of Denise’s favorite kinds. We continued around the perimeter of the piazza and came upon a gelaterie, which had gelato in popsicles, rather than in scoops. It was delicious. We made our way back to the ship late in the afternoon.

As a city, Messina did not meet my expectations. For some reason, I thought it was going to be small, quaint, and backward. But it was none of those. Our port lecturer told us that 20th century earthquakes and wars have dictated the modern look of the city. It’s a busy port city with very substantial, but not very tall buildings which fill the space between the water and the base of the nearby mountains. It seems like a real city, not just a tourist destination (for example, many stores were closed for the afternoon siesta), and has any number of historical sites and cultural activities to offer the visitor.

April 14: Naples.

Walking out on deck this morning, I was particularly taken with the hulking presence of Mt. Vesuvius off in the distance, because that was to be the destination of our excursion today. We walked off the ship into the full-service Naples cruise terminal, where we noted a number of shops we could look at upon our return. Our tour guide, who is from Naples, gave us lots of facts about the history of the city, beginning in the 15th century B.C.E. when Greeks first settled here (somehow, that date doesn’t sound right for Greeks, but that’s what she said). One of her observations about Naples I found quite interesting: People in Naples are very religious – and very superstitious, although she didn’t give us any examples. Anyway, we drove quite a distance to get out of the port area. It’s huge. Warehouses, containers, cranes, and other port-support facilities cover many acres of the waterfront.

The bus followed the autoroute for a few miles, and then turned off onto local roads which were clearly built without buses in mind. We wound through neighborhoods of houses and apartments and shops, making 90 degree turns and squeezing through spaces that seemed big enough for at best a Smart Car! These neighborhoods were similar to many others we’ve seen on our trip, with some buildings crumbling and in disrepair and others nearby well maintained and decorated with pots of flowering plants. As we advanced higher up the mountain, we saw many catering facilities and hotels, as if people wanted to celebrate their occasions right next to the volcano. We found that interesting.

As soon as we left the buildings behind, we entered a national park, where we had to leave our tour bus and board a four-wheel-drive bus, which looked really intimidating, with huge wheels and army green paint. We wondered what we were getting into. This vehicle had a shorter wheelbase than our touring coach, and this feature plus the big wheels enabled it to tackle the task ahead – the next segment of the road to the top of the mountain. A really bumpy ride was ahead of us. At the point where we started, the road had been paved at one time. But maintenance has been needed for years, and today potholes and unpaved areas have made a mess of it. Where the road started, there was a low masonry wall on both sides which served as a guardrail, sort of, but as we continued further up the mountain, the wall became just a loose rock wall and then went away altogether. So did the pavement. At any rate, we were driven to a point about a mile from the top and had to walk the rest of the way. We had expected to walk some, but didn’t realize how much of a personal physical contribution we would be making in the trip to the top. The path went through volcanic ash and was generally edged with a post-and-rope fence which seemed particularly ineffective, since many of the posts were no longer stuck in the ground, but we took our time and made it to the top without any real difficulty.

Of course, the effort was worth it. The views as we were walking up and as we looked down into the crater were spectacular. We could see steam escaping from a few places within the crater, and the guide pointed out the different layers of rock which are the evidence of earlier eruptions. Even though it was a Tuesday morning, we were not the only people on the mountain. Several groups of school children were there as well. I wonder if they realize how lucky they are to have had this first-hand experience of Mt. Vesuvius at such a young age. When it was time to head back down, we picked our way through the lava rocks and ash, remembering to keep our balance because we could not rely on the rope railings to save us from a too-quick descent. On our way down, Denise and I discussed how the ascent of Mt. Vesuvius would be handled in Switzerland – undoubtedly with a smooth and efficient gondola ride.

Once off the mountain, we had to make one more stop to complete our day’s tour – at a cameo factory. I think this was really a rest stop, as I didn’t see anyone showing any interest in buying any of the cameos that were being offered. When we arrived back at the ship, Denise decided to walk into downtown Naples, and she returned late in the afternoon. She saw the Galleria Umberto, shopped in the city, had pizza lunch with Beverly, had a coffee break with Juliana and Roger, and shopped in the cruise terminal stores.

April 15: Civitavecchia (Rome).

Today is the 100th day of our cruise! This morning we docked in Civitavecchia, which is the port city for Rome. This is a busy commercial port with many fishing boats, ferries, and other cruise ships, but it also shows evidence of its ancient past, with a castle, ramparts, and Roman wall fortifications, all within the port area and sharing space with the modern commercial elements. Our excursion destination for today, however, was not Rome, but its former port city, Ostia Antica. Founded in the 4th century B.C.E., Ostia was Rome’s main commercial port and military base. It was located at the mouth of the Tiber River, which runs through Rome, but it declined in importance as the result of barbarian invasions and malaria and eventually died as a city and was buried in sand for centuries, thus explaining its preservation as a significant architectural ruin today. We had a wonderful guide who knows the city inside and out and who took us on a walk through some of its highlights. These were some of the types of structures we visited: cemetery, private home, laundry, bakery, restaurant, hotel, theater, forum, temples, warehouses, and shops. We walked along stone roadways, under arched doorways, and along brick walls which had all once been covered with a layer of plaster and then of marble. During recent times, in an attempt to preserve these artifacts, a topping of cement has been applied to the top of exposed walls. Walking in the footsteps of the long-ago Romans and their foreign trading partners and then being able to almost visualize where they lived and worked has been one of the many fascinating windows into the past which we have experienced on this cruise.

Since Ostia lies about an hour’s drive south of Civitavecchia on the autoroute, we got a good look at the Italian countryside on this beautiful spring morning. Unlike in some of our earlier ports, here we had cultivated, green, rolling hills often irrigated by sprinklers, numerous greenhouses, and several fields filled with solar panels, rather than crops. Since it was springtime, flowering trees and bushes and fields of yellow flowers were everywhere. Although we saw many eucalyptus and cedar trees, the ubiquitous Mediterranean pine tree is the one most characteristic of Italy to my mind (see Denise’s pictures).

Just as on our previous trips, we have been fascinated by the ancient history that is evident everywhere in Italy. We will be back.

Clock Tower in Messina

Clock Tower in Messina

Messina Lunch Restaurant

Messina Lunch Restaurant

Gelato Pops in Messina

Gelato Pops in Messina

Mt. Vesuvius Park Vehicle

Mt. Vesuvius Park Vehicle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Path to the Top of Mt. Vesuvius

Path to the Top of Mt. Vesuvius

 

Standing Next to the Crater on Top of Mt. Vesuvius

Standing Next to the Crater on Top of Mt. Vesuvius

Looking Inside the Crater on Mt. Vesuvius, with Steam

Looking Inside the Crater on Mt. Vesuvius, with Steam

 

Galleria Umberto in Naples

Galleria Umberto in Naples

The Main Road in Ostia Antica

The Main Road in Ostia Antica

Mediterranean Pine in Ostia Antica

Mediterranean Pine in Ostia Antica

 

 

Baths Complex with Mosaic Tile Floor

Baths Complex with Mosaic Tile Floor

Ostia Antica Theater Behind the Pines

Ostia Antica Theater Behind the Pines

 

Arched Passageway in Ostia Antica

Arched Passageway in Ostia Antica

Example of Tiled Floor in Ostia Antica

Example of Tiled Floor in Ostia Antica

 

Laundry Building in Ostia Antica

Laundry Building in Ostia Antica

Inside a Private Home in Ostia Antica

Inside a Private Home in Ostia Antica

 

Restaurant in Ostia Antica - Note Marble Facing Stone

Restaurant in Ostia Antica – Note Marble Facing Stone

 

 

April 10-12, 2015 – Greece.

April 10: Piraeus (Athens).

Last year when we decided to take this cruise, we discussed with my Serbian cousin Jovana the possibility of getting together while we were docked overnight in Athens. We were so happy when we found out that she and her brother Jovan would be able to meet us. Before we left home, we booked a hotel for the one night. What a great hotel it was! As usual, Denise’s sleuthing turned up a gem: the New Hotel, 16 Filellinon Street, near Syntagma Square, in Athens. We would recommend it to anyone who likes a modern, comfortable, conveniently located hotel with a friendly and helpful staff. It was a nicely appointed, small, typically European room with 22 magic eyes arranged on the wall opposite the bed. The Greek superstition is that this charm wards off evil spirits, or something like that, but we just felt like someone was watching us.

We left the ship after a leisurely breakfast, walked through the cruise terminal, found taxis outside, negotiated for a €20 fare, and left Piraeus on our way to Athens. Thinking we might want a personal tour, the driver took us through the harbor area of Piraeus, with its cruise port, big marina, and small marina. The marinas were full of yachts, some of them as big as a house. When he understood that we just wanted to go to the hotel, he picked up speed and got us there without further discussion. When we arrived, the room was ready and we instantly logged on to the internet just because we could. Actually, Denise had business to attend to and was thrilled to have fast response time for a change. We got a text from Jovan mid-morning saying they could be at our hotel before 2pm, so we finished our computer work for the time being and went down to the hotel restaurant for a very nice lunch, complete with really good, dense home-made Greek bread, which was delicious with Greek olive oil. Jovan and Jovana arrived soon, and we spent a little time catching up with family news, then set out for a walk. The reception clerk had outlined a walking tour for us, so we took off in the direction of the New Acropolis Museum, which our port lecturer on the ship had recommended and which we all found to be perfect for our needs. It’s a new museum, clean and modern and containing artifacts from the Parthenon and other Greek sites. The map provided at the entrance clearly identified the best route through the museum’s collection, so we followed it and were amazed by the sculptors’ skill in depicting folds of fabric, horses in various poses, and of course all the people.

We wanted to allow enough time at the Acropolis, so we walked there next, going up the south slope, which was a little steep at times, but which had some interesting piles of stones and the Theater of Dionysus along the way. As we approached the top, we came to the structure before the Parthenon (I don’t know what it’s called), where crowds of tourists had gathered. After catching our breath on a bench with a great view, we continued up the steps and the hill to the Parthenon, walked along beside it as we tried to peer inside, and ended at the viewing platform just past it, with a 360° view of Athens. Before us was a solid mass of mostly white buildings stretching to the base of the mountains ringing the city in the distance. We could even see the Aegean Sea past the mountains. It’s really an impressive view, and one surely enjoyed by the ancient Greeks as well (without all the buildings). The fierce wind at the top reminded us of our last visit here, but it was also raining then and somewhat more uncomfortable.

We then took the more gradual route down from the Acropolis and started walking along Apostolou Pavlou, a pedestrian street with occasional vendors selling things like beaded bracelets, paintings, evil eye charms, bags, and jewelry. Ready for a break, we stopped at a café where we could sit in the sun (the air was chilly in the shade) and have refreshment and more conversation with Jovana and Jovan. I got a cup of hot chocolate, which was very thick, creamy, and delicious. We continued walking along streets with markets selling everything, past the Monastiraki metro stop, a cathedral, and a very small old Greek church until we came to Syntagma Square, the “modern hub” of Athens. Here we sat for a while on a low wall and watched the people and talked some more. Since evening was approaching, we decided to return to our hotel for dinner since we had enjoyed our lunch there earlier in the day. We had a good meal and more good conversation, and then Jovan and Jovana returned to their hotel and we returned to internet-land, where I was able to publish our Israel post.

April 11: Piraeus (Athens).

After a peaceful night of sleep, we were suddenly aroused at 7:36am by a wild clanging of bells from the Greek church across the street from the hotel. It was just discordant nonsense that lasted a minute or so, and may have had some significance for the Greek Easter Saturday observances, but it was a shock to us so early in the morning. After great showers, where the water flowed out in a steady stream of warm water, unlike on the ship, we went down to breakfast. Since we were in Greece, I wanted to try the nonfat Greek yogurt since I have Chobani Greek yogurt for breakfast at home all the time. It was good but just like what I have at home. I don’t know what that means really, if anything. We sat at breakfast until Jovan and Jovana arrived and then went out for a walk in the neighborhood. The hotel is a block away from the National Garden, so we headed there, strolled among the plants, visited a small zoo with birds and goats, enjoyed the smell of orange blossoms everywhere, and marveled at how this peaceful space is available to everyone in this busy city. We could see the columns of the Temple of Zeus ruins nearby and walked towards them for a few pictures.

By this time, we needed to start heading back to the hotel because we were due to be back at the ship by mid-afternoon. We shared sad good byes with Jovan and Jovana. We don’t have a specific date for when we’ll be seeing them again, but we’ll always try to get together whenever we can get to Europe. And Serbia is one of the stops on a Danube River cruise we’d like to take. Spending time in Athens with these two very special people has made this stop one of the highlights of our cruise.

After they left, we packed up our stuff and sat in the hotel lobby (because of its good internet access) for another hour so we could finish the Turkey post. We then asked bellman Spiros to call us a taxi to take us back to the ship. A female driver arrived, who wasn’t particularly friendly and who drove very fast, but she knew where the port was and how to find the cruise terminal gate for our ship. When we arrived and were settling the bill, Denise remarked that it’s great to find a woman cab driver. She smiled, agreed, and said women are always better. So maybe she wasn’t so unfriendly after all.

April 12: Katakolon.

We docked in Katakolon this morning, our second port in Greece, on a partly cloudy and cool morning. Wanting a quiet and leisurely morning for a change, we took our time with breakfast, did the laundry, worked on the journal, and read back issues of the Times Digest. After lunch at the Lido, we walked out of the dock area and were in the main street of Katakolon within five minutes. The part of this town that we visit is only one street long, with shops on both sides, and a waterfront promenade lined with cafes. There are longer walks that one could take, but we just wanted to be lazy and were happy not to be on a tour bus. After a little shopping and using local internet, we returned to our wonderful life on the ship. For the rest of the cruise, we’ll be heading due west!

New Archaeological Museum and Theater of Dionysus

New Archaeological Museum and Theater of Dionysus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Parthenon with Scaffolding

The Parthenon with Scaffolding

Jovana and Jovan Below the Parthenon

Jovana and Jovan Below the Parthenon

Denise and Susan Behind the Parthenon

Denise and Susan Behind the Parthenon

 

Family Behind the Parthenon

Family Behind the Parthenon

City of Athens with Temple of Zeus

City of Athens with Temple of Zeus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the National Garden

In the National Garden

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

Katakolon, Greece - View from the Ship

Katakolon, Greece – View from the Ship

 

 

 

April 8-9, 2015 – Turkey.

April 8: Kusadasi.

We docked this morning in the port of Kusadasi, in Turkey. The day started out cool and cloudy and remained so for the rest of the day. The normal sight to see here is Ephesus, but we visited there on a cruise several years ago; and although Ephesus was archaeologically impressive, we wanted to see something different. So we signed up for an excursion which went to the city of Miletus, further south on the Aegean Sea coast, and to the Temple of Apollo a few miles away. This turned out to be a great choice. Our Turkish guide Izzy, who is a Sunni Muslim, told us a little about his country. Three languages are spoken here: Turkish, Arabic, and Kurdish. In 1924, Turkey adopted the Latin alphabet and decided to be a secular country, even though most of the inhabitants are Muslim. He said he always gets asked whether Turkey wants to be in the European Union; his answer is maybe. Evidently, they would be hurt economically in terms of everyday prices, but they would be better off in developing business relationships. He made a point of saying that Turkey is a significant member of NATO and takes the responsibility seriously.

As we drove towards Miletus, we got to observe the countryside here at the western edge of Turkey in the springtime. Once one gets away from the seashore, the terrain is mountainous, green, and forested. Olive trees are planted both in orchards and randomly around the villages. Eucalyptus trees are also common, I assume as the result of the Australian presence here during World War I. Even though English is widely known in Turkey and it’s taught in the schools, most signage is in Turkish. In the larger communities, apartment houses were the norm, all with balconies. The villages have smaller homes, where everyone has a small yard and often fig trees and a garden. Often a brand new home has been built next door to one that has clearly seen better days. Many houses and apartments have solar panels for heating water on their roofs, and we also saw several wind turbines in one town. We noticed that many of the homes are unfinished and asked Izzy why. Evidently, finished homes must pay more taxes, so they leave them unfinished for that reason. The Meander River is the important river in this area, and the wide, flat valley seemed to be completely under cultivation. Once, Izzy asked the bus driver to stop so we could see a group of ancient columns standing by themselves on the side of a hill. It seems apparent that ancient artifacts are commonly unearthed everywhere in this area. With evidence of settlements here since the 18th century B.C.E., that’s not surprising.

Our first stop was Miletus, the oldest and most powerful of the twelve Ionian cities in Asia Minor. Today, it’s a forsaken ruin in the middle of nowhere. Since ours was the only bus taking this excursion, we felt practically alone as we toured these ruins, a Greco-Roman theater and Roman baths. The massive stones and the engineering skill are still impressive even though weeds and the results of vandalism dominate the site today. As in several other places, we were accompanied by cats for most of our tour, but I don’t know if they were actually feral cats since they were friendly and obviously wanted our company. Our guide took us to the top of a hill behind the theater to show us the location of the ancient port. Today, it’s marked by a column poking above a puddle of water, and the ocean shoreline is now several miles away. As another illustration of western Turkey as a crossroads of civilization, we could see off in the distance the dome of a 14th century mosque. Before leaving Miletus, we got a chance to do a little shopping. They had turned a 14th century caravanserai into a tourist rest stop, complete with refreshments and some locally made (supposedly) hand crafted ceramics. So we bought a couple of heavily decorated bowls (as if we needed more). A few miles away was a small museum containing artifacts recovered from the many ancient sites in the area. The displays were nicely presented, aerial photographs of the sites were helpful, and the explanatory text accompanying everything was in Turkish and in English. I could have easily stayed here a couple more hours.

Our other stop for today was the Temple of Apollo, which dates from 560 B.C.E. If I understood the explanation correctly, this was not a temple for worshipping the ancient gods, but was rather an oracle, where people could come to get advice about the future. At least two other temples had been erected on this site, but they were destroyed by fire. Because of the nature of the carvings on many of the stones, the archaeologists believe the existing structure was never finished. The building today is a few standing walls and paved pathways, and the grounds are littered with blocks and clumps of partially carved stone. Unlike our experience with many ancient temples, we were able to walk inside the perimeter of the building and get a sense of the impression the edifice might have made on the original visitors.

Back in Kusadasi, our tour continued on to a presentation at a carpet factory near the ship. We left the tour at that point and headed for the shopping district, which was within a block of the ship. There were several nice stores in the area, but all of them had people outside urging shoppers to come inside just for a look. We came upon our friend Jim and several others while strolling here, and Jim’s recent purchase of a leather jacket convinced Denise that she might need one as well. So she entered a shop and eventually bought two jackets, one of them for Susie. She didn’t like the bargaining aspect of the transaction, but Jim had told her what should be her top price, and she did come pretty close to that. The sales people kept trying to get me to try on something, but I was adamant, and they finally gave up. In the meantime, they had given me a glass of apple tea while I was waiting, which I did enjoy. I had seen a sweets shop and wanted to stop in there before we returned to the ship because I was in need of Turkish baklava and decided I’d like a box of apple tea tea bags as well.

With all our purchases in hand, we returned to the ship to prepare for our big night out at Ephesus. HAL management had decided that the best way to show their appreciation to their 800 passengers was to host an evening of food and entertainment at the ancient site of Ephesus. So we all piled into buses and left the ship after 6pm. We arrived just before sunset, and Denise got some good pictures of the theater just catching the last rays of the day. We were served drinks and what they called “heavy hors d’oeuvres,” which just meant lots of them; in other words, we were not having a sitdown dinner. As one might expect at such an ancient site, walking here in the dark on the uneven paving stones and boardwalks was difficult – not necessarily for us, but for the physically challenged folks on our ship, who are considerable in number. But after dinner we all traipsed off to the Celsus Library for a selection of Turkish desserts and then back again to the theater, where we watched Turkish folk dancers and then listened to a concert of classical chamber music by the Aegean Chamber Orchestra. In addition to the energetic dancing and the familiar music, the ancient monuments were beautifully lit, and we had a most enjoyable evening. The evening was a little chilly, and having to negotiate the uneven pavement and the stone seating of the theater were often-heard complaints, however. One of the reasons there were no accidents that we heard of had to do with the crew. Many of our familiar stewards and staff were on hand throughout the evening to help the passengers in need of assistance. Their kindness and thoughtfulness were amazing.

When we returned to the ship, we were exhausted and went to bed right away. The next day I heard someone saying that they’d gone up to the Lido deck for more food after we got back. I found that remarkable.

Faustina Roman Baths at Miletus

Faustina Roman Baths at Miletus

Old Harbor at Miletus

Old Harbor at Miletus

Theater at Miletus

Theater at Miletus

Roman Road near Miletus

Roman Road near Miletus

Temple of Apollo with Rubble near Miletus

Temple of Apollo with Rubble near Miletus

View from inside the Temple of Apollo

View from inside the Temple of Apollo

Outside the Temple of Apollo

Outside the Temple of Apollo

Sunset at Ephesus Theater

Sunset at Ephesus Theater

Sunset at Ephesus

Sunset at Ephesus

Celsus Library at Ephesus

Celsus Library at Ephesus

Turkish Folk Show at Ephesus

Turkish Folk Show at Ephesus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

April 5-7, 2015 – Israel.

April 5: Ashdod (Jerusalem).

This morning the ship docked at the Port of Ashdod in Israel. We had to be up and ready to go by 7:15 in time for Israeli immigration procedures, which was quite early for us. After that, we picked up our excursion bus number and made our way through the cruise terminal to our bus. It was a dry and sunny day, somewhat cooler than what we’ve been having in our previous ports. Ashdod is a major commercial port for Israel, with hundreds of containers and parking lots filled with new cars, and our bus took a while to get out to the highway. Our destinations today were to be Yad Vashem (the holocaust museum), the Israel Museum, and a walk through old Jerusalem to the Western Wall (the Wailing Wall). Our guide David was knowledgeable and competent, but he told us practically nothing about himself, unlike some of our other guides. But he knew what we needed to know about our destinations, and he did his best to help us deal with the city traffic, which was a headache all day. (We do have one reservation about him, which I’ve explained below.) The city was full of people observing both Passover and Easter, so we were there on an unusual kind of day.

The drive through the countryside on the 3,000 year old road towards Jerusalem was interesting for us because it provided such a contrast to the countries we’ve been traveling through lately. Both Jordan and Oman had desert landscape with very dry conditions everywhere. Israel is in the desert also, but irrigation and thoughtful agricultural practices have “made the desert bloom,” as they say. Orange groves, vineyards, many other crops, and pine forests give Israel an entirely different aspect, at least in the areas that we drove through today. As we made our way through Jerusalem towards our first stop, we could see that it’s a city of hills, white stone buildings, forested areas, and traffic. Traveling along city streets, we often had lovely views of the hills and valleys, some areas with green trees and others with closely spaced apartment houses. The guide told us that the overgrown terraced hillsides seen around the city are evidence of earlier farming practices which are no longer being used. He also pointed out the Hadassah Hospital, a big complex of buildings on top of a mountain that dominates the area. People from all over the Middle East come here for medical treatment.

Our first stop was at Yad Vashem Museum, which has been dedicated to the millions of Jews who died during the holocaust. This facility is on top of a hill and includes a number of buildings other than the museum itself, such as a children’s memorial, research facilities, and gardens of trees planted to honor righteous gentiles. The museum has a long and narrow shape, with rooms branching out on each side. The material is arranged chronologically, and the layout of the building makes it easy to follow the progression of events. In addition to displays of normal museum-type artifacts, such as items of clothing, children’s playthings, and family heirlooms, this collection is a media powerhouse. Printed and handwritten paper documents, art work, photographs, slide presentations, motion pictures, and individual interviews are all employed to impart a human face to this inhuman period of world history. The far end of the long building is an open window which overlooks Jerusalem and the surrounding area, as if emerging from the horrors of the holocaust the viewer can see the safe haven which was denied to the victims.

We then returned to the bus for a short drive to the Israel Museum. A visit to the museum itself was not on the itinerary, but we did see outdoors a model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period (in preparation for our visit to the Old City) and the Shrine of the Book, a round building which holds fragments of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a reproduction of the book of Isaiah. Our next stop was to be for lunch, and our drive took us through several more neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Most of the buildings and apartments have flat roofs and are made of a yellowish-white stone. Traffic was heavy, on this holiday weekend, but also orderly – few motorbikes and no tuk-tuks here. Highway and traffic signage is provided in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, but most signs for businesses and public announcements are in Hebrew only. In what has become a familiar theme to us, our guide spent some time as we were driving explaining to us how well the different ethnic groups in the state of Israel get along with each other. It’s like this: Palestinians live in one neighborhood; Jews live in a different neighborhood; and everyone is happy with this arrangement. And they all get along just fine.

Our lunch buffet was in a Jerusalem hotel which is owned and operated by a local farming and tourism kibbutz. The food was good and plentiful, although some people complained because only matzo was offered as bread (duh!). However, we felt rushed through the meal. According to our guide (we question his motives), the itinerary required that we visit a diamond and jewelry store during the afternoon. This shopping stop was not mentioned in our excursion description, and we think this time should have been allocated for the museums and a more leisurely lunch instead. We, and most others on our bus, left without buying anything, considerably annoyed at having had to make this stop. Next, we drove up to Mt. Scopus for a panoramic view of the Old City. Our guide pointed out to us the major landmarks and explained the route of our upcoming walking tour.

As the afternoon wore on and the foot and vehicular traffic became increasingly heavy, we were deposited at Zion Gate to commence our stroll through the Jewish Quarter, our goal being the Western Wall and the Dung Gate exit. We proceeded very slowly through the crowds of people of all ages. Perhaps because they looked so unusual to us, the orthodox families drew our attention and seemed to predominate, especially as they tried to corral their many children and maneuver their baby carriages over the large and very uneven stones which pave the streets and sidewalks. Intense socializing was going on, and everyone seemed to be enjoying the experience of the crowds and (what seemed to me) confusion of the afternoon. There was an additional element to the crowds which surprised us. Groups of young Israeli soldiers were also making their way through the masses of people. We had seen similar groups at Yad Vashem, and our guide told us that one aspect of a soldier’s initial training is to tour Israel’s historical and cultural sites as a way of teaching them why they have to be soldiers in the first place. It seems like a great idea to me. As for the city itself, there seems to be little to say except that everything is old, old, old. That’s not necessarily bad – just old. As we left the city to return to the ship, we passed buses and bus stops that were jammed with people and overflowing parks where barbeque cookers and revelers gathered together every few feet.

April 6: Haifa (Caesarea).

This morning we sailed into Haifa, a 3,000 year old city and our second port in Israel. The day started out cloudy but later was sunny and warm, almost hot in the sun. This is another large commercial port, with the normal cranes, containers, and parking lots full of new cars; there was even a train station nearby. Aside from the usual boring tan buildings which we could see from the ship, one tall structure with a distinctive pointy top caught our attention. The locals say it looks like a sail, and that’s where they have to go to pay taxes.

Our excursion today was to Caesarea, which is a coastal town and national park several miles south of Haifa. Our guide Sharon was one of the best and most passionate guides we’ve had so far. She loves history, her country, and Caesarea, and in her enthusiasm made us do the same. Before we left Haifa, however, we visited a site important to the Baha’i faith, a shrine situated within a series of beautifully maintained terraced gardens. Sharon’s commentary explained the origins of this monotheistic faith and its main tenets. It seems to focus on peace, which we could all use more of. As we continued on our way, she told us about Haifa, a city of 300,000 inhabitants. She thinks it’s a perfect city: religious tolerance is promoted and practiced, it’s clean, has great weather, is not crowded, has many parks and museums, and is the home of Israel’s premier technological university. She may be right about all this, but it’s also a very hilly town and probably not suitable for biking, if anyone cares particularly about that sort of thing. Aside from that, I would agree that it looks like a very attractive place.

Leaving the city, we drove along the completely undeveloped coastline directly to Caesarea, which has been populated almost continuously since the Phoenicians first settled here around 400 B.C.E. Roman general Herod, who ruled in the Roman colony of Palestine between 37 and 4 B.C.E., named the city for his patron Octavian Augustus Caesar. Herod was able to realize his grandiose plans for the city, and it became the headquarters of the Roman government in Palestine. The fortunes of the city changed over the years as it was ruled by Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, and Ottomans. The ruins that we can see today are the remnants of those earlier civilizations: a theater for 4,000 spectators, a racetrack, a harbor, a temple platform, and aqueducts. Our guide Sharon, who admitted to a special fondness for the site, was largely successful in helping us to visualize the magnificence of Caesarea at the height of its power.

Denise was moved by the experience of being in Israel, and we look forward to going there again in the next couple of years.

Landscape of Israel

Landscape of Israel

Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem

Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem

 

Yad Vashem Museum

Yad Vashem Museum

View of Jerusalem from Yad Vashem Museum

View of Jerusalem from Yad Vashem Museum

 

Shrine of the Book

Shrine of the Book

Model of Jerusalem During Second Temple Period

Model of Jerusalem During Second Temple Period

Traffic Sign in Three Languages

Traffic Sign in Three Languages

Jerusalem Houses

Jerusalem Houses

 

View of Old City - Note the Gold Dome

View of Old City – Note the Gold Dome

Western Wall in Jerusalem

Western Wall in Jerusalem

In the Old City

In the Old City

Baha'i Gardens and View of Haifa

Baha’i Gardens and View of Haifa

Caesarea Theater

Caesarea Theater

Caesarea Harbor

Caesarea Harbor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Israeli Flag

Israeli Flag

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 29-April 4, 2015 – Jordan.

March 29-April 1: At Sea Days.

We have come to enjoy our at-sea days more than we had anticipated, so for this post we’ll give you an idea of how we occupy our time aboard ship when we’re not off on an excursion.

  • Classes: Digital Workshop (Word, Windows 8.1 apps), drawing
  • Lectures: countries we’re visiting, Indian Ocean, Arab culture, Rappin’ with the Rabbi
  • Activities: family photos project, writing posts, laundry, walks around the deck, reading
  • Evenings: cocktails with friends or at the Piano Bar, dinner with our tablemates or other friends, shows (music, dance)

Holland America offers many more activities, such as fitness, Tai Chi, meditation, games of chance, bridge, watercolors, arts & crafts, dance, wine, cooking, trivia, but our list above keeps us occupied and happy.

April 2: Petra, Jordan.

Our excursion today was to Petra, first brought to our attention many years ago in the opening scenes of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Carved out of the red sandstone rock in the desert mountains of “Arabia,” Petra was, to my mind, the ultimate exotic location, and we knew that experiencing it would be one of the highlights of this around the world cruise. Access to Petra is via Aqaba, the port city at the southernmost tip of the country of Jordan.

This morning, we docked in Aqaba, which is Jordan’s only access to the sea. From this area we could see lands in Jordan as well as in three other countries: Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Our guide, a Jordanian native, gave us a few facts about Aqaba and about Jordan.

Aqaba:

  • It’s the largest port in the Middle East.
  • The impression is that “All Jordan comes here to work.”
  • The city is growing fast but only to the north since the Gulf of Aqaba is to the south, Israel is to the west, and Saudi Arabia is to the east.
  • In our drive through the city at the end of the day, we could see that it’s generally prosperous and attractive.

Jordan:

  • The language of Jordan is various dialects of Arabic.
  • About 12% of the population is Christian; the rest are Muslim. Religious tolerance is strictly observed: they celebrate each other’s holidays, support each other as needed, and receive equal treatment from the government.
  • It has the highest tax rate in the Middle East, with much of the revenue being used to improve infrastructure.
  • Although Jordan doesn’t have natural resources available for export, such as oil, two important sectors of its economy are manufacturing and tourism.
  • The government requires that Jordanians achieve a high level of education and that everyone study English. On our tour of Petra we found that even the youngest vendors were able to speak some English.
  • Women in Jordan can choose whether to wear the black robes and headgear which we’ve seen in other Muslim countries, but they can also drive, travel, and work in all sectors: government, education, medicine, army, police, etc.
  • Jordanians can travel freely except to Saudi Arabia, where they are not welcome because Jordan chose to remain neutral in some recent conflict.

Our guide today was a Bedouin, you know, those nomadic herders who ride camels through the desert and live in black goat-skin tents. But this Bedouin is also a tour guide. He was born in a cave in Petra during the 1960s (one of 16 children), was educated in Amman (the capital of Jordan), has studied abroad, and has served as tour guide to important people, such as Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and the Prime Minister of Indonesia. His commentary throughout our time with him was full of insights and facts which we would never have known otherwise.

For most of the two-hour drive from Aqaba to Petra, we followed the highway that leads north to Amman. This is a major truck route from the port to the interior, as we could tell by the numbers of trucks and truck stops along the way. Curiously, there were speed humps every few miles, which caused the bus to shift into a lower gear and sometimes almost to stop before we could continue. I wonder if this is the Jordanian way to control speeding.

Eventually, we turned off the highway onto a secondary road as we made our way towards Petra. The scenery for the entire trip was amazing. It reminded us at various times of parts of the desert southwest that we love so much: southern Utah and Colorado, Joshua Tree National Monument, the Grand Canyon, etc. There were steep, rugged mountains with no greenery except what was struggling along in the bottom of washed-out gullies. At higher elevations, there were places where rocks seemed to be emerging out of the alluvial plains, some in rounded piles, and others just in jagged clumps. Occasionally, we would see small herds of goats or sheep, always attended by a nearby human being. So there must have been some kind of vegetation which we couldn’t see from the road. There were no fences except around holding pens. Our guide also pointed out to us several Bedouin campsites, with the characteristic long black tents and people wearing long robes and headgear. Most spectacular were the distant views: from the bus we could often see for miles and miles into deep valleys with all kinds of rock formations which had been created by the wind and rain of the desert.

As we approached the modern town of Petra, which lies outside ancient Petra, the road descended through the mountains toward the town center. Off in the distance, we could see our destination, the red sandstone cliffs behind which ancient Petra was located. Built only during the past 40 years or so, modern Petra is a collection of exclusive hotels and of tan and white flat-roofed houses clinging to the hillsides. Stone stairways connect some of the streets, olive trees are everywhere (olive oil can be a family business), and signage is often, though not always, in English as well as in Arabic. Our tour bus had to negotiate the narrow streets of the town and deposit us near the gate in a parking lot with at least two dozen other tour buses. That gave us a hint about what to expect in terms of crowds. Actually, there were lots of people at the site, but given what we were seeing, they didn’t really detract from the experience.

When we arrived inside the gate, our guide started his commentary about the site. It has been populated throughout recorded history and before, but the monuments we see today seem to have been built during the first century B.C.E. by an Arabic people called the Nabateans. The influence of other civilizations, such as the Greeks and Abyssinians, can be seen in the architecture as well. To reach the monuments, we followed a well-worn path and then walked about 1.5 miles along a deep, narrow canyon, slightly downhill. This passage is called the Siq. The walls of this canyon have been sculpted by water and wind, and with our guide’s help we also noticed severely eroded man-made figures which reflected the business of Petra as an important trading center. At the end of the Siq, the space suddenly opened up into a wider canyon, and the Treasury was before us. What an amazing achievement! This is the most famous and outstanding of all Petra’s monuments. The space in front was full of tourists, camels, donkeys, and vendors, but the sculpted red sandstone is what attracted the eye. Our tour group stood together for a while as we took in the experience and the guide gave us more history; then we moved on down this wider canyon another half mile or so to view some of the other sculpted rock faces. We could see openings for caves everywhere and there was even a theater which could seat 3,000 people. We were given a map of Petra which identifies 36 different monuments which can be found nearby. We saw only a few of them. We would have loved to have seen the others but had neither the time or the hiking ability to see more at this time.

As for what we saw at Petra, we have to fall back on the picture is worth a thousand words concept. Denise’s pictures will show you what we saw in the hour or so we spent in the canyon. Just being there among the sculpted architectural structures and the naturally eroded stone passages was among the most moving travel experiences we have ever had.

April 3: At Sea Day – Transit Suez Canal and Passover.

Today, we passed through the Suez Canal. This is a sea-level waterway (it needs no locks) which connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. It was opened in 1869 after 10 years of construction. It is owned and maintained by Egypt, but according to international treaty, it may be used by ships of any country. We had to lie at anchor most of the day as we waited our turn to pass through. Dredging operations, the Captain told us, had disrupted normal procedures, and ship traffic was able to run in only one direction. Our forward decks were full of onlookers as the ship entered the canal about 4pm. We went up to the 6th deck, but there wasn’t much to see, actually. A few ships were anchored nearby, ships were ahead of us and behind us in line to enter the canal, a community of apartment buildings was on the left side (displaying hundreds of satellite dishes on the roofs), and sand was on the right. As we continued, we could see past the sand banks on both sides to the communities beyond. There was also evidence of the recently undertaken construction project which is supposed to markedly increase Egypt’s revenue from the world’s use of its canal. The ship was due to exit the canal after midnight, but we knew we would be too tired to stay up to watch for that.

Dinner tonight was the Passover Seder. It was held in one side of the Lido restaurant and included about 170 people. At our table were our neighbors from across the hall and our normal dinner tablemates, none of whom was Jewish. The meal was somewhat shorter than Denise was used to, but I thought the pace and amount of detail were fine. The food was also good except that each of us was served half of a chicken – too much to eat, so Denise and I shared one. Rabbi Starr runs a good service, and our tablemates seemed to enjoy the evening, as we did.

Jordan Desert Landscape

Jordan Desert Landscape

Modern Petra

Modern Petra

 

On the Path to the Siq and Petra

On the Path to the Siq and Petra

Obelisks on the Path to Petra

Obelisks on the Path to Petra

 

Our Bedouin Guide for Petra

Our Bedouin Guide for Petra

Entering the Siq

Entering the Siq

 

Walking through the Siq - 1

Walking through the Siq – 1

Walking through the Siq - 2

Walking through the Siq – 2

 

Narrow Canyon 1 in the Siq

Narrow Canyon 1 in the Siq

 

 

 

 

Narrow Canyon 2 in the Siq

Narrow Canyon 2 in the Siq

 

 

 

 

 

Eroded Carvings of Camel and Man

Eroded Carvings of Camel and Man

Walking through the Siq - 3

Walking through the Siq – 3

 

First View of the Treasury from Inside the Siq

First View of the Treasury from Inside the Siq

The Treasury at Petra

The Treasury at Petra

To the Left of the Treasury

To the Left of the Treasury

Us in Front of the Treasury

Us in Front of the Treasury

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camels in Petra

Camels in Petra

Streets of the Facades in Petra

Streets of the Facades in Petra

The Theater at Petra

The Theater at Petra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jagged Mountains in Jordan

Jagged Mountains in Jordan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jordan Desert Scene with Goats and Herder and Camel

Jordan Desert Scene with Goats and Herder and Camel

Tomb of Uneishu at Petra

Tomb of Uneishu at Petra