Monday, September 28, 2009

Why Bother

Map picture

Volos, Greece

Yesterday I said that I would probably not have time to write about our visit today to Volos, Greece, but in fact there is so little to tell, that it is easier if I just get it over with.

Today turned out to present us with the most useless shore excursion we have ever experienced. Volos is pretty enough. It is a city of around 120,000 people located about 200 miles up the coast from Athens. My guess is that Princess stopped here because it was convenient to Athens, where we will arrive tomorrow morning around 5 am and begin the “turnaround day.” As a tourist destination, Volos really offers nothing that I could see of interest.

We began our tour around 8 this morning. According to our guidebook we were to visit two quaint and colorful Greek villages nestled in the hills surrounding Volos, and also would make a stop at the local museum; sounded reasonable enough. However, as it turns out today is Monday and the museum is closed, so the tour simply added free time to fill the gap.

We left the pier and drove for about an hour up the nearby mountains. The road was very narrow and it seemed as if we took one switchback after another forever. The day was overcast with a light drizzle and the scenery was unremarkable. We drove past homes and some small hamlets. Our guide was an absolute bore. She never spoke more than five words in a row – usually only three, before she paused to think of what next to say. She spoke very slowly and in a complete monotone – no change in inflection or pitch or volume. To make matters worse she had nothing interesting to say, just stories about Greek mythology. I was so lost in her constant stories about some Jason or other that I have absolutely no clue what she was saying.

Finally our bus reached a point where the road became so narrow that it could go no further. At this point we had climbed around 3,000’. From here we had to walk over a half mile up a very narrow, steep and wet cobblestone road. Eventually we came to a small plaza where our guide stopped and proudly announced that we had arrived. She looked at her watch and told us that we had 1 hour and 10 minutes to explore and shop at which point we would meet again at the bus – that is the bus that is now a half mile down a wet, narrow cobblestone road. With those cheery words she promptly disappeared into a nearby café.

I looked around in total disbelief. There was nothing to do or see. A walk to the edge of the plaza gave a view of the valley below.IMG_3841 A very small church was open so you could look inside, but all the shops were closed and there was really no place to walk. There was one small café open, so Lisa and I grabbed an espresso to kill time before the bus departed.

Back on the bus we departed for our next stop. Now listen carefully – the bus drove back down the road for no more than 5 minutes and pulled over at a small hotel we had passed earlier. The doors opened and our guide cheerfully announced that we would now stop for a cup of coffee and meet back at the bus in an hour! I was dumbfounded. This was not a village; it was just a small hotel off the side of the road. IMG_3903 We had passed a small church about a block prior, so I at least walked back to get a photograph or two, but another hour was wasted doing nothing. The small hotel had two severs to handle the roughly 120 people who had just descended on it, so you can imagine how long the process took just to get that “cup of coffee.”

Finally we departed and drove back down the narrow, curving, steep road back to the port and bordered our ship around noon, having done absolutely nothing of any earthly interest.

So our journey ends. We have had many wonderful experiences and a great time over all. Tomorrow we will make the long journey home and look forward to seeing everyone.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nessebar- A whole lot about nothing!


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Varna, Bulgaria

Our ship docked yesterday at Varna in Bulgaria. Unfortunately I think that in hindsight, Lisa and I selected the wrong shore excursion. We picked an all day outing to the ancient city of Nessebar, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage City. I did not know anything about the city, but with that stamp of approval, it had to offer something interesting. Well, it did not! It was a long hard day for virtually nothing.

We drove for almost 3 hours along the Black Sea south from the city of Varna to the city of Nessebar. IMG_3633Bulgaria is a poor farming country, and the drive was made on old style narrow winding roads. Pretty much all we saw were small family farms with an occasional small village to break the monotony.  In the process of our drive, we did learn some very interesting things about Bulgaria.

Our guide was quite well educated, as are many of the guides, and she is married to a physician specializing in Oncology. It was interesting how she explained what had happened in Bulgaria after the fall of the Soviets. In her mind, the country was very happy to be rid of the communist system and looking forward to this thing called democracy and capitalism. They were sure when the communists left that America would come to teach them how democracy and capitalism worked. But America never came, and the country fell into very bad times. During the Soviet era, everyone had work. Their farmers had markets and their industry made for export to the Soviet Union. When the Soviet system failed, so too did the entire economic basis of the country. Old style Soviet farms were split up and given back to the people, but they did not have the equipment to work the farms, and there was no place they could borrow the money to buy the equipment. All of their foreign exchange contracts were now null and void, and no one knew how to get them back. So they had almost no way to produce anything, and no one knew who to sell it to if they did! It was a mess. Many people assumed that in this new age of capitalism they, would quickly get rich.

Let me give you a good example. On our drive, we went through what was previously a small village by the sea. In the last several years, developers had come in and built the city up with hotels, casinos, apartments and condo’s. The amount of building was absolutely incredible. I am not joking when I say that it covered a huge area. Of course the quaint little village was no longer recognizable, but this was capitalism at work; or was it? I do not think they ever thought about who was going to buy all those apartments and condo’s. Where were all the tourists going to come from? Somehow they assumed that people from all over Europe would be flooding in, but guess what; it did not happen. And so now these large and beautiful buildings sit empty, unattended and are becoming rundown. Our guide told us that in the last year, Russians had starting purchasing the properties for almost nothing, and that it has reached the point where 4 or 5 hotels are bought by the Russians every week.

There are some bright spots on the horizon for Bulgaria. It has been accepted by the European Union, but will not gain full membership until 2014. In the meantime, it is a small agrarian country that is in bad need of capital.

Finally we arrived as Nessebar. Well, actually there are two Nessebars. There is the ancient city we had come to see, which sits on a small island connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge. Then there is the new Resort city of Nessebar, that was identical to what I already described had happened up the road. Huge areas had been developed and now sit virtually empty.

After 3 hours on the bus, we were all understandably anxious to get on with seeing something. Our bus stopped to let us off, and immediately the driver was accosted by the police and a shouting match ensued. There was some shoving and it was difficult to actually get off the bus. One of our group accidently brushed up against one of the policeman, and he whirled around and starting shouting at us which his hand on his baton. Our guide quickly hustled us away from the commotion, and left our poor driver to sort it all out.

Our first stop was to the museum where they have housed two items of particular value.IMG_3643 First, they have some gold jewelry on display from over 5,000 years ago. And second, in the basement they have an incredible display of Icons painted on Oak Wood, many of which date from the 1st century.  IMG_3646








Then we started to walk into the old walled city. We would walk for  5 minutes and stop to shop. Then walk another 5 minutes and stop to shop. It went on and on that way for our entire visit. In other words there is very little of the old city that still remains for viewing, but what they do have is a nice concentrated market place for tourists. So our grand tour to a UNESCO site turned out eventually to be 5 hours in a bus so we could shop until we dropped. What a bust!IMG_3650

By now it was 2 in the afternoon, and we had had nothing to eat or drink. Everyone was tired and a little cranky, but it just kept getting better. We had entered the town in the front, and our guide told us that the bus would meet us at the rear of the city down at the bottom of a very long steep street made of cobblestones. When we get there, the bus is no where in site. At first our guide was re-assuring that it would arrive shortly, but when it did not, she suggested that we walk around the city and go back to the front. Somehow she was getting confusing stories from her many harried phone calls, and she was clearly losing her cool. It was a long walk around to the front and when we arrived, there was no bus. The sun was very hot and there was no shade and no place to sit. More phone calls, and more confusion. Finally our guide said that the police will not let our bus into the city until the group that is behind us is also ready to depart. This makes no sense, but we wait in the sun for 20 minutes before they arrive but still no bus.

This time our guide goes back to the police and an intense conversation ensues. When our guide comes back she is very subdued and quiet and asks that we all huddle around. She says that the police are angry with our driver and that if he shows his face in this city again today he will be arrested. No one knows why they are so upset, but there you have it – no driver allowed. However after pleading nicely with the police, he finally relented and said to our guide that because she was now showing the “proper attitude” he might suggest an alternative. If she would take our group around the back road and over the nearby hill, a bus could come pick us up there and could not be seen by the police. So they could hardly arrest someone if they do not see him. She quickly took the compromise and we set out on a very long hot walk to get out of their sight.

We finally stopped for lunch at a local restaurant around 3 and during lunch we were treated with a local folkloric show. IMG_3722 The food was wonderful as  were the wines. The entertainment was well done, and before long everyone seemed in a better mood and so we started our 2 ½ drive back to the ship.

Long day – but hey, it happens.

Finally, I want to share some incredible photographs with you that were taken just this morning. Lisa and I awoke at 6 am and I looked out our window, and before my eyes was the city of Istanbul passing by in the early morning light. It was all alight. I grabbed by camera and starting shooting away. The bridges were lit with every changing colors, and it was one of those times when it was hard to take a bad picture. I do hope you enjoy.IMG_3753 IMG_3761

Today is a leisurely day at sea. Tomorrow we will visit the Greek city of Volos. We signed up for just a half day tour because tomorrow afternoon we have to pack for our return trip home. The following morning our ship will arrive in Athens around 6 am, and with luck, we will be walking in our door around 8pm on Tuesday night. Because of this tight time schedule, I doubt that I will have time to write about Volos or post any pictures until I get home.

I do hope that you have enjoyed our sharing.



Friday, September 25, 2009

The Crimean Coast of Ukraine

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  Yalta and Odessa

Located on the northern shores of the Black Sea, the Crimean peninsula offers a usually mild, sunny climate which is ideal for a resort environment.

Yalta is at the southern tip of the Crimean peninsula, and is most famous as the site of the Yalta Conference in 1945, at which Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill decided the course of Europe following the end of the war with Germany.

Our excursion was to visit two of Yalta’s imperial palaces. The first stop was at Massandra Palace,IMG_3386 which was the summer residence of Tsar Alexander III. As you would imagine it was very beautiful, but as with virtually all the imperial palaces, it was ransacked after the fall of the Tsar and its furniture and belongings carted away. It was then turned into a commune, and finally the Germans left the palace in ruins. So it is amazing to see the restoration and just how well they have been able to rebuild the property.

Our next stop was the home of the famous Yalta Conference, Livadia Palace. IMG_3420This Palace was built in 1911, by the last Tsar, Nicholas II. This building is sometimes referred to as “the White Palace” because it is white all over. During our tour we learned a great deal about the Yalta Conference, and finally about the last days of the royal family.

My pictures can tell you a great deal about what we saw, so perhaps what I can add in writing is what we felt and experienced in Yalta.

It was exactly what I expected to see in a former Soviet Republic in many ways. The infrastructure of the city was clearly in bad repair. Their transportation system was a mess. If you can believe this, they are still using electric powered street cars from the early 1950’s! Old buildings were in very poor shape with some having been simply abandoned. Yet, at the same time the city had a very nice resort feel to it. It was colorful in many ways, and it was full of new cars and new construction of “condos.” Our tour guide repeatedly made reference to the good old days of the Soviets. According to her they now have no money for transportation, schools have gone downhill, and the quality of medical care has declined. People do not know how to deal with this thing called “capitalism,” and so many have lost their life savings. She clearly longed for the good old days.

As for me, I liked Yalta and wished I could have had some more time to explore the city. Our tour simply drove between the two palaces and then back to the ship. On the way between the two palaces our bus was stuck in traffic for over two hours, which our guide said is quite normal! So by the time we got back to our ship it, was quite late and we did not have time to explore on our own.

There is one observation I would like to share, and I think it is very telling. Usually when we travel, local people generally smile and occasionally wave a greeting as we go by. I will take India as an example. The people in India went out of their way to say hello, wave or smile and could not wait to have us take their picture; you felt genuine warmth. Both Lisa and I sensed something different in Sochi, but could not quite put it into words until today in Yalta. As our ship was slowly backing out of the very small harbor, the surrounding shoreline was filled with people. As happens on every cruise, passengers started waving goodbye. All over our ship, people were waving and shouting goodbye – then it hit me – not a single person on shore ever waved back – not one. Lisa and I started to discuss our last two days and we realized what we had not grasped until now – almost no one every smiled or waved at us. Instead we were greeted by stares that I would describe as “wary.” No one was hostile or mean or rude – they just stood and starred at us with a look that was not one of just curiosity but was leery at best.

Overnight the ship moved on to Odessa, again in the Ukraine and again on the Crimean peninsula. Odessa is the third-largest city of the independent Ukrainian Republic. The city has a population of around 4 million people. It has a much different feel to it from Yalta. Yalta was a relatively small seaside resort city that relied almost exclusively on tourism. Odessa, on the other hand, is a very large cosmopolitan city that is not only a tourist attraction but which has a strong manufacturing economic basis. I would have to say that I was very impressed by Odessa. It was alive, vibrant and really quite cosmopolitan. At the same time it was plagued by a very old outdated public transportation system, decaying old buildings – in other words the same malaise that we saw in Yalta, but here one could feel a city on the mend.

Our tour took us to an old section of the city which dated from the early 1900’s, where we left our bus for about an hour long walk. IMG_3489

It was still very early in the morning and the city was just coming awake. It was a cool pleasant stroll under clear skies. Again, I think the pictures will be the best way to share this experience. Our walking tour ended at the steps of the magnificentIMG_3538 Opera House that was completed in 1887. We drove around the city some, stopped briefly at the newly re-constructed Cathedral and made a visit to the Obelisk of the Unknown Soldier. While there, school children marched to the monument to pay tribute, and our guide said this is a tradition that continues daily.IMG_3562

Finally we stopped at the Ukraine Museum of Fine Arts. This was a bittersweet visit. On the one hand the Museum, housed in a former palace, was beautiful and it held an important collection of Ukrainian and Russian paintings dating back to the 16th century. Sadly the condition of the building was appalling. Plaster was falling; walls were cracked and streaked with mildew. IMG_3584 The building had no humidity control and no air conditioning. This means that the windows were open so that the paintings were exposed not only to pollution and humidity, but more importantly to sunlight. It was obvious that several of the works had already deteriorated. Many of the paintings had cloths draped over them, so that in order to see the art, you had to lift the cloth aside. This is an example of what I mean about the infrastructure being in bad shape. They simply do not have the money to even maintain their museums.

We are now safely back on the ship where I will try to get some pictures uploaded before dinner. Overnight we will travel to Varna, Bulgaria and have an all day tour – so hang on, there will be more to come.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Russian Riviera


Sochi, Russia

Map picture

The Russian Riviera

Sochi, Russia

After leaving Istanbul, the ship transited the Bosphorus Strait into the Black Sea. The Bosphorus is the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation. At its widest, it is 12,000 ft., and at its most narrow only 2,300 ft. Our ship is travelling around the Black Sea in a counter-clockwise direction with Sochi, Russia being our first stop. The countries that border the Sea are Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria.

Our transit has been anything but smooth. Our room, at the rear of the ship, is at times going up and down so much that all we can do is lie down for fear of falling down. We did learn something interesting at dinner last night. Our Head Waiter is from Romania and lives on the Black Sea. He told us that the kind of weather and seas we were encountering were the norm, and then he asked if we knew how the Sea came to be called “Black.” We had no earthly idea. Well, he pointed outside and asked what we saw – it was dark grey, almost black. Then he said that when we had a chance we needed to look into the water. In the Mediterranean, if you look straight down the water has a beautiful blue color to it. If you look into the Black Sea, it merely looks black. Sure enough when we got up this morning we gave it a try, and he was correct – black.

Sochi rose to prominence when Josef Stalin built his dacha on the grounds of a Sochi Sanatorium. The trend continues today where Vladimir Putin and other high ranking members of Russia’s elite vacation here. Now Lisa and I have been to Russia several times, and two things about Sochi struck us as different.

First, the immigration procedures for Sochi were very strict. We could only go ashore with a Princess organized tour, and we were never to leave the tour group. Going ashore, we had to show our passports no less than three times. The last check of our passports was at a formal passport control station. Everyone had to stand in a long line to await their turn with the passport official. They were hidden from view until you had your turn to go, when the green light came on. It was a slow process, and when my turn came, I fully expected to be greeted by some old bored soviet style official dusting crumbs off his shirt. Instead I was greeted with a scowl by a very attractive young lady whose demeanor could melt nails. She looked me up in her computer and started looking closely at my passport, slowly flipping pages. Her scowl deepened, and her pace slowed. Several time she started to pick up a phone, but each time she went back to flipping pages, more slowly than before. People behind me started becoming restless, and I begin to wonder if my big fat passport with all those stamps was about to get me denied entry to Sochi. After what seemed like an hour, she looked up and slapped my passport down as if I had done something wrong, and motioned me to pass – whew!

The second thing we noted immediately was the cleanliness of Sochi. On our previous visits to Russia, we were not impressed. The streets were dirty and in poor repair. Their parks were not maintained, and in general the cities had a dull and listless feel--not so Sochi. This was a lively, clean very upscale resort city that clearly had residents with money. That was obvious from the villas that were under construction, and in the upscale cars cruising the streets.

Our first stop was to see the old Stalin Dacha.IMG_3251 The Dacha was built high up in the mountains, and even today the grounds have been turned into a very posh property for pricey Russian Dachas. The Dacha was painted green so that it would be less visible in the green forests that surrounded the property. Supposedly the Dacha is exactly as he left it, but while much is original we kept seeing signs that someone was in residence. Well it turns out that the Dacha is available for rent on a weekly basis, and even today people pay large sums of money to rent the place. In other words, it is not normally open for a tour, but today because Princess was in port, the property became a museum, sort of. Our Dacha guide spoke only Russian, so the guide on our bus had to translate. In fact, our guide was brought in from Armenia for the day, as was our bus. Ah well, I just don’t believe that Sochi is quite ready for the world Olympics, but what do I know. I do know that the Russian guide spent a great deal of time extolling the virtues of Stalin, and how great a general he was, and how much he did for Russia – it was enough to make me want to throw up.

We then drove up into the mountains to a spot called Akhun Tower. IMG_3285 I have nothing in my written material about this spot, and all I could understand from our guide was that at one point, this was part of a series of towers to protect the town. We had to climb 140 steps to get to the top, and I must admit that the view from the top was spectacular. When I got down I really needed a bathroom break and when I asked our guide where to go, he set off down the hill to where it was located. I am telling you it was a steep descent into the woods and I swear that we went down as much as I had just climbed for that tower. Getting there, I discovered a unisex hole in the ground with a grumbling old matron standing guard. She was to be paid in Rubles or the “hole” could not be used. No one in our group had Rubles. In fact none of the merchants would take anything other than Rubles, but we were never given an opportunity to obtain Rubles; another slip in their tourist ambitions. Anyway, here I am standing along the side of a steep hill having “needs” if you catch my drift and no Rubles to pay off the guard – and I guarantee she was not going to budge. Fortunately a kind gentleman came to my rescue and paid her my admittance fee, so all turned out well.

That in a nutshell was our tour to Sochi. Of course we had to go back through passport control two more times, but we finally made it back onto the safety of the ship. Well, today was an experience.


PS I was able to upload the blog and the pictures however I do not have time to label all the pictures nor to include pictures in the blog. Sorry, but these next few days are going to be very busy and it is hard to keep up.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Europe Meets Asia


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Istanbul, Turkey

During the last two days our ship, the Royal Princess, travelled at full speed southeast from Venice. We crossed the Adriatic Sea with Italy on our right and Greece on our left. Yesterday we made a left turn around the bottom of Greece and headed northwest across the Aegean Sea towards Istanbul. As we made our way through the Greek Isles, it was a truly beautiful sight.

Early this morning the ship entered the Dardanelles Strait. The Strait is only 38 miles in length. At the most narrow point, it is only ¾ mile wide and never more than 6 miles in width. It may be small, but its importance is immense. It is the body of water that separates Europe from Asia. Technically we will enter the Strait from the Aegean Sea, and when we exit, it will be into the Marmara Sea, which is completely surrounded by Turkey. On its northern shore is  the city of Istanbul. After our stop at Istanbul, the ship will travel a short distance north on the Straits of Bosphorus and enter the Black Sea.

As we entered the harbor at Istanbul this morning the sun was shining and the day looked to be wonderful. IMG_3066St. Sophia

This gave us a chance to get some very good photographs of two of the most important tourist sites, St. Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

IMG_3064Blue Mosque

However, as we got closer to our dock the clouds quickly formed and before we got off the ship, it had started to rain heavily. It continued for the remainder of the morning to intermittently rain or drizzle with overcast skies, which made getting good photographs almost impossible. You will see in the pictures that it is dark and on many shots drops of water on the camera lens are clearly visible.

We had arranged for a private car with a guide because we had visited this city on two prior occasions and did not need the package tour. It turned out that the city was very quiet which was unheard of in our experience. Istanbul is home to over 14 million people and on our prior trips the traffic was awful and extremely slow. It turns out that today was a public holiday. The feast of Ramadan had ended on Sunday, but on Monday they celebrate the Second Feast. All of the shops and businesses were closed--even the Grand Bazaar was closed. So, we were able to zip around very quickly.

Since we had visited before, our guide decided to take us someplace rarely visited by tourists, the Chora Church. IMG_3090 Chora Church

It is reputed to be one of the finest Byzantine Churches in existence. It was built in the 16th Century, and is best know for the marvelous mosaics that cover its walls and ceilings. However, when the Ottoman Turks took over the country, they converted the church to a mosque. Their religion does not allow for any icons to be displayed, so they set about destroying the mosaics. Some were simply chiseled off the walls, but others were merely plastered over and painted. The building was converted to a museum in 1948 and since that time, restorers have patiently been removing the plaster to reveal the outstanding mosaics beneath.


Our guide expected the church/museum to be nearly empty on this holiday Monday, but for some unexplained reason it was absolutely jammed packed with tourists, and not people from our ship either. It was so crowed that it was stuffy with heat and you could hardly move. I was able however in spite of the rain and the crowds to get a few photographs to share.

Our next stop was to St. Sophia. This is without a doubt the best museum in all of Istanbul. On our two prior visits the museum was closed. It was closed again today, except that Princess had made arrangement for the museum to open only for passengers of the Royal Princess. We arrived at the museum around 9 am, which was well before the organized tours had arrived. After some discussion, the guards agreed to allow us to enter, and so unbelievably we had the entire complex all to ourselves. What an experience!

Let me explain a little about St Sophia, and why it is so very important. When the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, now Istanbul, he dedicated himself to building a “New Rome.” St. Sophia, or the Church of the Holy Wisdom, was to be the “queen church” of the new empire. Sadly the original basilica was burned down during the Nike Rebellion, so the Emperor Justinian replaced it with the present masterpiece which dates from around 330 A.D. This huge edifice was constructed of material gathered for all over the ancient empire. Object and stones were brought from ancient Greece to be used in the construction; so much of the interior is much older than its construction date. It was a magnificent basilica.

However, in 1453 the Ottoman Turks defeated the Roman Empire and turned Constantinople into their new capital. St. Sophia’s was converted from a church to a mosque, and graceful minarets were added to the corners. The Islamic faith does not allow images in a place of worship, so the mosaics had to be removed. However the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, had them plastered over rather than destroyed. In 1936, when the structure was converted into a national museum, the original mosaics were discovered, and ever since then their painstaking recovery has been ongoing, and is still underway.


Besides the unique experience of being the only people, except for the occasional guard in this huge and awe inspiring structure, we did encounter a beautiful cat.IMG_3131 Yes, I said a cat in a museum. Our guide explained that this was one special cat. He is fed and maintained by the staff. If you are a tourist and approach the cat, he will let you pet him while he purrs; however if you are a local and approach the cat will run off. Truth be told when President Obama visited the site a few months ago, the cat allowed himself to be picked up by the President, who then proceeded to spend the remainder of his tour carrying and petting the cat. As if to show the truth of his words, our guide approached the cat and he ran off. However, when Lisa approached he allowed her to pet him. Now, you must admit that is one strange story.

My pictures do not do justice to the magnificent interior, IMG_3148but hopefully you can gain some idea of the experience. You will notice that I photographed two very large alabaster jars. These jars were carried on campaigns by Alexander the Great and are over 2,600 years old. 


A short walk in the rain brought us to the Blue Mosque, so named because of the 20,000 blue Inzik tiles that line the interior.IMG_3164 This unique structure has six graceful minarets to adorn the elegant structure.  When built in 1609, it was the intention of the architect to surpass the beauty of St. Sophia just across the street, and by most accounts he did just that. I was able to obtain some good interior pictures and do hope you enjoy.

As we departed Istanbul in the early evening. Lisa and I sat on our deck and marveled at the amazing skyline of the city. As tourists, we had been taken to the old inner city to marvel at the history of the region. Our ship had in fact docked right near the monuments. However as we cruised down the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea we were stunned at the modern city we saw lining the narrow channel. It went on and on for almost two hours. Modern buildings, stunning bridges and super highways; coupled with large high rise office and apartment structures, all combined to remind is that Istanbul is a very large and vibrant modern city with a very long history.

As I am writing this, the ship is proceeding across the Black Sea towards our next destination Sochi, Russia. From the warm and sunny shores of the Mediterranean, we are now traversing a storm tossed sea in a pouring rain. Nearby we can see the mountains of northern Turkey which are already covered in snow.

Our next five days are going to be very hectic with a new stop every day. That means that I may well get behind on writing and in posting pictures, but I will do the best I can. I do hope everyone is enjoying my updates.


Monday, September 21, 2009

The Ghost of the Royal Princess


Our first voyage with Princess Cruise Lines was many, many years ago on the old Royal Princess. Back then there were stories about a ghost that inhabited the ship 11 months of the year and in the 12th month disappeared. It was rumored to be an old woman who walked those hallways, and while from time to time, we thought we caught a glimpse of this ethereal and mysterious figure, we never actually saw the ghost. Even, a crew member seemed reluctant to discuss this issue, and so it remained a mystery and a curiosity, until now that is.

That particular ship was retired from Princess several years ago and a newer ship was placed into service and also called the Royal Princess. It is this newer ship on which we are now cruising.

At first, it was little things that got our attention once again concerning this “ghost.” Every morning just outside the main dining room a small table would have a “reserved” sign on it. Beside it the curtains would be pulled shut making a nice little dark nest. On the coffee table sat an upturned coffee cup and a covered glass of water, as if awaiting the arrival of some royal personage. On the top of the nearby counter two muffins sat carefully and lovingly wrapped in cellophane. However, no one appeared to claim their rightful place.

As time passed, other things caught my eye. There were in fact several little “nests” located around the ship. Areas in which the curtains had been pulled closed, and things arranged “just so” protected with a “reserved” sign. In several locations, small throw pillows were carefully arranged bearing the name “Lorraine” embroidered onto them.

Whenever I would ask a crew member about these little “nests” the answer I received was mumbled, hurried and the crewmember immediately rushed off so as to have no more need to discuss the matter. Lisa and I both thought this strange indeed.

One afternoon, while sitting on the upper deck enjoying lunch, we saw an elderly woman who was surrounded by members of the crew. She was being assisted as she slowly made her way forward. Two things struck me--first, there must have been at least seven crewmembers, including several officers, who in essence constituted her entourage, the second thing that caught my eye was the woman herself, she was elderly ”yes,” but she had enough makeup to be a show person appearing on stage. Lipstick was in prominent display, long earrings, and very colorful flashy clothes. In her hand, she carried a large and very vibrant handbag of many colors. All in all, a stunning and unforgettable demeanor, as she once again disappeared as if she had never been there. When I inquired as to who this “personage” was, I got some clipped answer about her being the God Mother of the Royal Princess.

What does it mean to be the “Godmother” of the Royal Princess? You got me on that! So the mystery continued, until this morning.

The little nest just outside the dining room was occupied by none other than our mysterious little old lady. Lisa and I stopped after breakfast to enjoy an espresso, and while we were seated a steady stream of crewmembers and officers came quietly by to pay their respects to the ship’s “Godmother.” She was all abeam, and clearly excited to be the object of so much attention. Once again, she had on way too much makeup and lipstick and her clothes can only be called colorful in the extreme.

Generally on a Princess Ship they will have a photograph in a place of honor naming the Patron of the vessel. The old Royal had a photograph of the Queen, who was present at the ship’s christening. Walking down the corridor I came across the photograph and shrine for this vessel, and there was a superb color photograph of our mysterious lady; her name is Lorraine Arzt, and she is shown as the “Godmother of the Royal Princess.”

After a little time on Google, I found that Lorraine and her husband, Joe, were professional dancers, who ran a dance school among other things. They then made money in real estate. After his death, Lorraine took up residence on cruise ships and is today considered the most travelled cruise passenger in the World, having travelled on over 4,100 cruises. For many years she resided on the old Sea Princess, but now she lives on board the Royal Princess for 10 to 11 months each year, and then returns to her home in Beverly Hills.

Because of her unique status, she was indeed given the honor of christening the Royal Princess, and in so doing was formally named the ship’s Godmother.

Having solved one mystery however, we still do not know about the ghost on the old Royal Princess. Perhaps, it was just a story after all.

Ain’t it amazing what you learn . . .


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Floats My Boat: Venice, Italy


Map picture

Day One

Here is a quick quiz: where is the city of Venice located? Yeah, I know that there are many cities in the world named “Venice,” but I mean THE Venice. Yes, I too know it is in Italy, but where exactly in Italy is it located? As difficult as it may be to believe, I found myself confronting this very question yesterday, and considering that I have been to Venice many times, I felt like an idiot for not knowing. Initially I kept trying to squeeze Venice somewhere in the heel of the “boot” until I finally gave up and looked at a map. To my surprise I found that Venice is located in the very northern part of the country on its western shores at the north end of the Adriatic Sea. It is very close to the border with Slovenia to the east.

Having solved that conundrum, I can’t tell you how excited Lisa and I were to be spending a day and a half in Venice. It is one of our favorite cities in the world. It is beautiful, historic and exciting all rolled into one. It is revered as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is built on 118 islands and laced with a unique network of canals and bridges. In St. Mark’s square bells chime, violins play, shoppers stroll, lovers embrace and visitors take it all in while enjoying a cappuccino at one of the many side walk cafes.

Our ship arrived at the dock this morning around 6am. To our utter surprise, we were held onboard literally as hostages until noon. We had hoped to go into St. Mark’s square early and sit for a cup of coffee in the morning cool and quiet, but such was not to be the case. Princess would not allow any passengers who were staying over for the next cruise to leave the ship until 10:30am. Even then there was one big problem: the ship had docked at a pier way outside the city, so that walking into town was not a realistic option, or so we were told. The only way to get into the city was by water taxi and none of those were anywhere close to our pier. Princess had thoughtfully arranged for a shuttle for passengers, but not until noon. So, not to put too fine a line on it, the absolute earliest we could really leave the ship was noon, and then it was a 30 minute water shuttle ride into St. Mark’s square. Pooh!

We left our cabin around 11:30, and assumed we would be early to the shuttle. However, no one seemed to know how we could leave the ship or where we could get our cruise card to re-enter later. We finally got that figured out but then had to fight our way out against all of the people lined up to board. There were no signs to the shuttle, and in fact the stairs to the shuttle were closed off. It went on and on, but to shorten a long story, we jumped aboard the shuttle just as it pulled away. We were the only passengers who made it. All the rest were still fighting their way off the ship.

Last night had been stormy, but today dawned bright and sunny. We arrived at St. Mark’s square all revved up. The light was perfect for some great pictures.IMG_2800 Now when we got on shore it was packed. I tell you that if there were one million tourists in Italy today, then 999,999 of them were in Venice! IMG_2834 The crowds were so thick that you could scarcely move. Because Princess had shut down all food service, we decided to seek shelter from the crowds and grab a quick lunch at one of the sidewalk cafes. We dove into the first one we ran across and had an absolutely wonderful meal. The sun was out, the day invigorating, the food and service wonderful.

Leaving the restaurant I was starting to feel somewhat sick, but I chose to ignore it for awhile. Rather suddenly I could ignore it no longer and ran back to the restaurant to find a bathroom. When I got back to Lisa I told l her I was fine, but the heat started to get to me, and I guess I did not look too well because she was not buying it. I ended up running back to the restroom yet again and at that point I gave in and decided that Lisa was right, we should return to the ship. I spent the afternoon in bed sleeping after a shower, and by tonight feel better. Sadly, our long awaited day in Venice did not happen after all.


We were able to squeeze on to a walking tour tomorrow morning, so IMG_2913 if I feel up to it we will get to see some of the city. Our ship departs tomorrow at noon, so whatever we do it will be a short day.

To be continued…….

Day Two

The Gods have clearly conspired against us. We awoke this morning ready to take Venice on once again only to look out our window and find a thick fog had enveloped everything during the night, and there was a light drizzle falling. IMG_2856 Intrepid travelers that we are, we decided to take the chance anyway, and so we set out on what turned out to be an almost 3 hour walk from the ship to the center of St. Mark’s Square. The tour was billed as a chance to view up close the “hidden” Venice and would end at San Giorgio Church, where most of the rulers of Venice are now buried. They got the “walk” part of the summary correct – it was a rapid walk across much of the city’s backwaters, but when we got to San Giorgio Church, it was closed for a funeral.


Frustrated and tired with me not feeling well yet again, we grabbed the shuttle and headed back to the ship. About this time, the low overcast was clearing, and the afternoon promised to be beautiful. That actually turned out to be a good thing because when our ship departed at noon, it turned and cruised out the entire length of the Grand Canal. That offered us some really beautiful pictures of Venice which we hope you enjoy.


I did learn a few items of interest on this trip. First, I, for years, have rather naively believed that Venice actually had cars, but that they were hidden away from the tourists, and that emphasis was put on the canals for their beauty. I was absolutely wrong. Cars and trucks can only come about as far as where our ship was docked and from there everything and everyone that goes onto one of the 118 islands arrives by walking or by boat. Imagine supplying a modern city by water alone!

Next, I learned more about the continual flooding of the city. I think everyone knows that over the centuries, the city of Venice has been slowly sinking into the soft sand on which it was built. Today, it is not at all uncommon for St. Mark’s Square to flood, and indeed today, it did. Rather than stop the tourists, the city quickly rolled out elevated platforms so that people could walk around the flooded square on them. It was an amazing sight. Anyway, I always assumed that the flooding was a result of high tides combined with a sinking city. Well, that is not the case. This came up when a slight southerly wind developed while we were walking, and our guide stopped and looked up to announce that St. Mark’s Square would be flooded by the time we arrived, and so it was. When the winds blow from the south, they push the waters of the Adriatic Sea up into the shallows around Venice and that causes the flooding, not the tides, which the city very much needs. It needs the tides, to remove the sewage from the city. No kidding. Their waste goes directly into the canals. Only because of the extreme tidal flows are the canals kept clean. Without that back and forth flow, Venice would quickly become a cesspool.

This brought up a very sore point with our guide. Italy is engaged in its largest ever construction project to build giant gates that will stop the waters of the Adriatic from flooding Venice. As we departed the city we could clearly see the construction. However, if they stop the waters from flowing, then citizens of Venice are convinced that the city will suffer a massive problem from sewage. When someone in our group asked how the government could let this happened our guide angrily responded “because the government is located in Rome and our “shit” is not their problem.

On that happy note I think I will move on – we are headed to Istanbul, and from there into the Black Sea I have the pictures from Venice loaded on Picasa, and the blog page is done as well. I hope everyone is enjoying them.



PS for those who are wondering about how I got well so fast – I didn’t. I became terribly sick again today, but fortunately it was after our walk and I was back safely on the ship. I need the next two days to heal.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Split, Croatia


Map picture

Today we enjoyed a brief 4 hour visit to the city of Split, in the country of Croatia. As I mentioned yesterday, Croatia is one of four countries that line the shores of the Adriatic Sea on its Western side, while just across the Sea on the East is Italy.

Croatia is today an independent country with a Presidential/Parliamentary Democracy. It achieved its independence in 1991 with the collapse of the old Yugoslavian Empire. It neighbor, Slovenia was the first of the former Yugoslav republics to achieve membership in the EU, and Croatia hopes to follow. The population of the country is only 4 million with three main cities. The capital is Zagrab. Split is the second largest city and Dubrovnik the third. Both Zabrab and Split are active functional cities, even though they have their old sections. We went to Dubrovnik about a year ago, and there the old city has become only a tourist attraction, with the people living in the outskirts of town.

Croatia is beautiful, and clean. The streets were in good condition and people were friendly. Except for a problem with graffiti in the town of Split I found Croatia to be a good place to visit.

Our visit today consisted of two stops. The first involved a 30 minute drive to the Medieval Town of Trogir. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is located on a very small island that IMG_2644 connects with the mainland by a bridge.

We walked around the town admiring the buildings and churches for about 90 minutes and then took a break for coffee in the square where we enjoyed a good session of “people watching.”

Returning to the Old City of Split, our group went on another walking tour, this time of a most unusual place, a Roman basement! Since it too is on the UNESCO list, it was obviously not your ordinary basement. Allow me to explain. In the late Roman period, which dates from around 300 A.D., the Great Roman Emperor Diocletian decided to abdicate – or in other words to retire. In preparation for his retirement he had a massive Palace constructed in Split. It was designed as a rectangular Roman Fort which covered 8.4 acres and had four massive gates and 16 towers surrounding its walls.


Over the centuries the palace fell into disrepair was buried under the surface. The new city of Split was built on top of the subterranean halls of the former palace. In fact as structures were built on top of the ruins, people would dig holes into the floor, which opened into the subterranean ruins, and dumped their construction trash down the holes, and then sealed the holes back up.


Today the substructure of the Diocletian Palace is a World Heritage Site and is slowly and carefully being excavated revealing structures that are in remarkably good condition for their age.

In addition to the “basement,” we visited the Cathedral of St. Dominius. Originally it was built to serve as the mausoleum for the Emperor, but today it stands as the only Roman Catholic Cathedral in the world built in the shape of a hexagon.

All too quickly our day came to and end, and we are now on our way to the city of Venice, Italy where our ship is due to dock at 6am. Fortunately we left town just in time because right now it is pouring down rain outside. Let’s hope tomorrow is better.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Across the Mediterranean

Map picture

Finally we are getting caught up on our photographs, sleep and blog writing. While I sent out my observation about Port Said just this morning, in truth we have been to Alexandria, Egypt already and are now headed at full speed across the Mediterranean towards Split, Croatia.

The ship was in port in Alexandria for only 5 hours, so having been there on two prior occasions, we took the day off and stayed onboard the ship. For that reason, there is nothing to write about that port and no pictures to share. Yesterday was a full day at sea, as is today. We enjoy these days since we get to be lazy, read and nap.

Today is a most unusual one because of the weather conditions. We awoke to a sunny sky without a cloud in sight, and it has stayed that way. There is no wind, and the sea is flat calm. I cannot recall ever seeing the water this calm. You would not know that our ship is moving except for the slight shudder of the propellers, which are right under our room. If you go up front, there is no sense of motion.

This morning I got out some maps and tried to get my bearings. The city of Alexandria lies at the very northern tip of Egypt and is located at the mouth of the Nile River. Croatia on the other hand is at the upper end of the Adriatic Sea. To clarify, I am sure everyone is familiar with the “boot” that is Italy. On the West side of Italy are the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, and further West is France and Spain. The Eastern sides of Italy is bordered by the Adriatic Sea and across that sea, from top to bottom, are the countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Greece. We have been to the city of Dubrovnik in Albania, and of course to Greece, but not to the other three countries, so this will be our first visit to Croatia. Our ship will dock around 8am and depart around 2pm, so we will not have much time in port.

From Split, the ship will travel overnight to Venice and arrive there at 6am. That day is known on the ship as a “turn around” day because that ends the cruise we are on and most passengers will be departing, and a whole new passenger load will be embarking. That makes it a very busy day for the crew. I do not know how many people will be staying on as we are, but I gather that it will be a fairly good number.

Lisa and I hope that if the weather is good we might get off and go for a walk around Venice and perhaps have lunch off the ship, but right now there is a good chance of thunderstorms that day. From Venice the ship will then spend the next two weeks cruising the Black Sea, which will be completely new to us.

We do hope that everyone is well, and that you are enjoying both our travelogues and pictures.

Take care-

Jim and Lisa

Gateway to The Suez Canal



Port Said, Egypt

Overnight our ship moved from Israel to Port Said in Egypt. The port is the gateway to the Suez Canal and owes its existence to the Canal itself.

Having visited Egypt many times, Lisa and I decided to stay on the ship both today and also tomorrow when our ship moves to Alexandria, Egypt. The only tours being offered today involve either an overnight journey into Cairo, or a day trip to see the Pyramids and return to the ship. This sounds all well and good until you realize that the drive into Cairo is almost 4 hours long, which means that going on a “day” trip involves a 12 hr. day, 8 hours of which are spent riding in a bus. Still, almost all the passengers made the journey, which has left us virtually alone on the ship.

In recent years, security in Egypt has tightened considerably. People travelling the roads to Cairo must travel in armed convoys, and on each tour bus, there is an armed security agent. From our room at the rear of the ship, we can see a security boat just yards away where a large group of armed men in bullet proof vests, silently sit and watch. While we were having lunch we could look over the city, and in so doing we begin to notice that in the shadows all along the dock boundaries there were armed guards moving about.

I do have one story to share about the port. You will see in our photographs that the ship is docked directly next to an adjacent port that appears to be used for fishing boats.IMG_2608 In the distance, we can see a large mosque and then the city streets beyond. At first glance, the port seems to be a mass of small boats all tied together in a jumble. I am guessing that in the small harbor there are well over 100 boats jammed together. As you sit and watch however, you can see that this “mass” almost seems to be alive, and that in fact, there is quite a bit of order and activity.

Since the actual dock area where the boats can unload their cargo is quite small, the ships tie themselves together in long chains. The chain closest to the ship stretches almost 20 boats in length, each boat tied side to side to its neighbors. The boats are facing stern, or rear, outward. Then in front of each boat is another, with its stern facing outward. So all in all, there are two chains of around 20 boats all together. This mass floats and sways in the wind, and seems to move like a giant congo line. At times the chain expands and a boat moves in or out. Sometimes the entire line drifts away from the dock, allowing boats to unload, after which the line closes up again. For the life of me as I watched this spectacle, I could not figure out how the lines were being moved. I never heard or saw engines started, except when a boat was entering or leaving the harbor. This mass just seems to have a life of its own. It is all rather fascinating to watch.

As I said tonight the ship will move 120 miles to Alexandra, Egypt, and for now, we are very much enjoying our days at leisure.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jerusalem, Israel

The Holy Land


Map picture

The next morning we started very early for our “day” in Jerusalem. It had dawned as a clear blue morning, and while the heat would build as the day matured, for the moment it was quite comfortable. Jerusalem is a truly remarkable city. Remember that to Jews the Western Wall, the sole surviving remnant of the Second Temple embodies their cultural and religious identity. Christians walk the Via Dolorosa and observe the Stations of the Cross to recall Christ’s sacrifice. And for Moslems, the city is home to the third holiest shrine in all Islam, the El-Aqsa Mosque, from which Muhammad ascended into Heaven to receive the teaching of Allah.

Our first stop was on the hillside of the Mount of Olives. IMG_2346 From here one can gain a breathtaking perspective of the Old City.


IMG_2376 Nearby was the Garden of Gethsemane which is where Judas betrayed Christ. Today it is home to The Church of All Nations.

Next we stopped at the Israeli museum, where we saw two fantastic exhibits.IMG_2420 The first was a full scale model of what the city of Jerusalem looked like during the time of Christ. The man who so meticulously constructed this model dedicated his life to its construction. Just looking at the model you begin to realize just how impressive the city of Jerusalem really is. Next we entered a special and very unique building where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed. This was a special moment for me because while in college I had done a research paper on the Scrolls, and now for the first time I would get to see them firsthand. The Scrolls were discovered in eleven caves between 1947 and 1956. Altogether there are over 900 documents. They were produced between 150 BC and 70 AD. Here scholars have found the first known text of the Bible, which is complete with the exception of the Book of Esther. I had always assumed that the Scrolls were long in length, but in fact, their height is about what a hard cover book would be today. I was also surprised by the excellent condition of the writings. As you can no doubt gather from my enthusiasm, I was enthralled to finally get to see the actual documents.

At this point, our guide had to depart our bus since our next stop was to be the city of Bethlehem, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. I will tell you right now that passing over to PLA controlled territory was somewhat unnerving. The enclave is completely surrounded by a high security concrete wall. IMG_2435 To enter the city, our bus was searched and we all had to show our passports to gun toting personnel. As we passed through the checkpoint, we also passed into another world. Behind us were wide boulevards and open spaces. Now we were into crowed narrow roads full of people everywhere walking to and fro. Our bus first stopped at a gift shop. It stopped within feet of the door into the shop, and we were escorted directly into the shop and when we had all entered the barred doors were locked behind us. Soon there was some kind of altercation outside the door and several very, very big guys showed up to stop whatever was happening. It was all rather unnerving. However, without Lisa knowing I begged my way outside and walked up the street to where there was a huge commotion taking place. There were police cars and ambulances and people pushing and shoving everywhere. Other than the street vendors, no one bothered me and in fact two teenagers asked me to take their picture. IMG_2458 What I had stumbled onto was the exit gate from the walled compound into Jerusalem. Today turned out to be Ramadan, a big religious holiday for the Muslims, and they were trying to get out in order to attend services at their mosque. Obviously the lines were long and tempers were short. I decided it was best to move on. Chruch of the Nativity Church of the Nativity

Our bus then navigated the narrow streets to the Church of the Nativity, which is built over the spot where it is believed that Christ was born.


Of course this church is itself built on a much older church structure. They have been able to open the floor to reveal some of the mosaic floors of the original structure, which dated from the 1st Century BC. Next to this church is yet another church. As I said yesterday, it was a “church after church” tour in many ways.

Leaving the city of Bethlehem was no small feat. Because of the religious holiday, cars had been abandoned along both sides of the only exit road, leaving at best a very narrow lane. Unfortunately this road had to carry two-way traffic. Our bus managed to make it about half way up the road before coming to a complete gridlock. It could not go forward, and it could not go back, and so we sat with horns blaring and tempers flaring.


Eventually a police car arrived and the hopeless officer tried to clean up the mess, but it took the good services of many locals to sort the whole mess out. Finally we reached the checkpoint to return to Israel. Once again our bus was searched and once again a gun toting officer checked our passports, but then we were back in an entirely different world again.

Lunch was at a Benedictine Monastery, after which we went for our two hour walk in the Old City. Here was a maze of narrow streets filled with vendors and overflowing with people. The sights, sounds, smells and constant jostle of people were overwhelming. The streets were very uneven and worn slick. Looking back it is almost a blur of activity. Lisa very wisely elected to stay with the bus, and in hindsight her knees could not have handled the walk.

IMG_2543 Church of the Holy Sepulcher

We started at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This huge Church, which has been destroyed and re-built many times, has within its wall the sites where Christ was crucified, entombed and was resurrected. The structure we see today was built in the 12th Century and is actually shared by several denominations, each having very specific areas and very specific tasks to perform. From there we walked the Via Dolorosa, which is the road that Christ walked on the way to his crucifixion. Along this walk are the Stations of the Cross.


The final stop on our walk was the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall. This is the most sacred of Jewish Shrines. Security to enter the area of the Wall was very tight, and armed soldiers were everywhere. The Wall is actually the sole remnant of the 2nd Temple which was destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans. It was part of the Temple Mount foundation erected by King Herod the Great.

Finally, a very hot and tired group boarded our bus for the 90 minute drive east to the coastal city of Ashdod, where our ship would be waiting. More security checks and finally we were back onboard. I must say this was a very exciting and highly educational visit. For the first time I truly understand the plight of Israel. It is a small country bordered by the countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, all in very close proximity. During the six day war all of these countries with the exception of Lebanon sent their armies to destroy the State of Israel. The emotional scar of that event still runs deep today.

So we are off to Port Said in Egypt, and then onto the city of Alexandria, Egypt. Believe me, we need some recovery time.