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Spain: El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo

My husband is an avid train traveller. If he were given modes of transport to choose from, the train wins, hands down. Having said that, given that our kids have just flown the coop, our wanderlust came to surface as we discovered the appeal of having the freedom and time to travel ‘at a drop of a hat’. We decided it was time to resume our nomadic lifestyle while we can, albeit in comfort. So, in the spirit of celebrating our empty nest status, I set about searching for train travels known for luxury and gastronomy. At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, great food and wine were essentials and the entire travel experience had to be decadent. This was after all a celebration of some kind, our rationale for having survived parenthood.

Finding a list of famous luxury train travel was relatively easy. My Google search brought me to the International Railway Society’s website  which in 2011 was actively promoting FEVE’s recently launched luxury train trip across northern Spain. Ferrocarriles Espaňoles de Vía Estrecha (FEVE) or narrow gauge railroads, is a state-owned Spanish railway company that controls most of Spain’s 1,250 km of metre gauge railway. It operates three tourist trains in Spain, one of which is the El Transcantábrico Classico. At the time, it was Spain’s answer to the luxury train trips of the world, providing train travellers an experience that evokes the same nostalgia of the fabled Orient Express, the exotic ambience of the Trans- Siberian rail and the romance of other notable deluxe trains of the world.
El Transcantabrico-Gran Lujo

Twenty seven years later, FEVE went one step further and in May 2011, launched El Transcantábrico-Gran Lujo, an exclusive, grand luxury train designed to satisfy the demands of the most discerning train traveller. “Gran Lujo” is Spanish for Grand Luxury and FEVE conceived of a special train that will live up to its name which it has. In 2012, El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo was named the “most luxurious train” in the world along with the Blue Train of South Africa.

Having decided on  El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo , we set off for Spain with great anticipation, imagining a Spanish version of train legends like the Orient express. Mind you, I stress the word imagine as we haven’t experienced the renowned Orient express either.Mapas Rutas El Transcantabrico

For various reasons, we opted for the west to east route that started from Santiago de Compostela in Galicia all the way to San Sebastian in the Basque region. The journey was to be over a period of seven nights and eight days.

Our tour group was told to assemble at the famed Parador Los Reyes Catolicos, located in the Plaza do Obradoiro in the heart of Santiago de Compostela, right next to its equally celebrated Cathedral of Saint James. We met our fellow train travellers for a group briefing at the lobby of the hotel, the best of Spain’s paradores. Paradors are government-sponsored hotels in buildings of important cultural and historical interest.

The famous cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

The famous cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

After the briefing and a tour of the town centre and its attraction, we were transported by luxury coach from Santiago de Compostela to the train station in Ferrol where El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo was on the narrow track ready to take us on our trip of a lifetime. We were greeted by the crew assembled on the platform alongside the train, resplendent in their gold-trimmed uniforms and black bow ties. It was indeed an impressive way to be welcomed and certainly set the tone for our five- star experience!
cama matrominio suite gran lujo

But nothing prepared us for the experience that was the train itself .To say that El Transcantábrico-Gran Lujo is the gem of the FEVE train fleet is an understatement. With only fourteen double suites (two compartments in a carriage, thus one suite occupying half the carriage); this exclusive train can accommodate an intimate group of twenty-eight people. Each large suite is wood panelled, air conditioned, fitted with a queen bed or two twin beds, a living room, large windows, and a private bathroom with a shower, hydro sauna, and steam bath. Each passenger is provided with amenity kits of a full range of high-end toiletry brands and bathroom accessories such as a hair dryer and bathrobes. It also features private PC with Internet access, flat screen TVs with on-demand movies, and games console. Although, I should add that the Internet access seems dependent on where the train is travelling and in most cases, only works when the train pulls in a station.

Here’s a brief rundown of how the days unfolded during the eight-day journey. Passengers started with a full breakfast on board while the train chugged along the track. Soon after, the train stopped at the chosen historic and cultural site where, at the station, the luxury bus that surreptitiously tailed the train overnight met the travellers for a guided tour. This was followed by a multi- course lunch (usually three courses) at the operator’s chosen local restaurant of repute and then back to the train for a little siesta, or a drink or two at the train bar. Soon after, the train stopped again at the next destination where once more, the luxury bus took over to ferry passengers for a tour on the bus and on foot to attractions not accessible by bus. The day culminated with a multi -course dinner, needless to say, at a fabulous local restaurant. Finally, passengers were taken back to the train where entertainment was provided and more drinks at the lounge bar which was also some hybrid club and then, bedtime for most; but the adventurous also were given the choice to savour the town’s nightlife and make the most of the train’s overnight stop. As you can imagine, a full day with so much food to sample could cause digestive discomfort, which could lead to wakefulness, or worse, sleepless nights. Under normal circumstances, getting a good night’s sleep was not a worry at all.When I told a friend we were going to vacation in Northern Spain on a train, she was horrified with the thought of sleepless nights disturbed by the swaying and noise created by a rattling locomotive. With El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, this was not going to be the case. Each night, the train would remain stationary at the railway station to allow passengers a peaceful night’s sleep. I thought that this was paramount.

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo luxury coach

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo luxury coach

A word to the wise from me: If you are an obsessive weight watcher, you will find it difficult to resist the tempting cuisine. You’ll either have to miss out on the gastronomic delights or ditch the diet! Dieting is definitely not an option!

El Transcantábrico’s superb dining lounge

El Transcantábrico’s superb dining lounge

Another key point to note is with so much history and culture to take in, a tour guide can make or break an otherwise exceptional tour. With El Transcantábrico’s tour expert who spoke five languages fluently communication was not an issue. The guide’s every utterance about the facts, history and trivia of the places we explored made the tour one that wasn’t only fabulous but highly educational and entertaining.

More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain)

Available through online retailers: Barnes & Noble and Google Books

The Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico , located in the Old Palace of the Counts of Calimaya, an eighteenth century building converted into a museum in 1964.

Mexico City foodie and anthropologists’ dream destination

Mexico City-Ciudad de Méjico

At Mexico City International Airport otherwise known as Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez, Catalina, the Mexican representative of our Australian travel agent, Eclipse Travel, greeted us warmly.

“Bienvenidos –Welcome to Mexico City. Is this your first trip to Mexico?” We replied no, but we were nevertheless really excited to be back and explore places we haven’t visited. Catalina was delighted; a tour guide for decades, she is proud of Mexico City and loves her country passionately. In her perfect English she bombarded us with information the moment we got settled in her car, casually pointing to the few security cameras looming on street lamps as she drove towards our hotel. “Mexico City is misunderstood”, she said. “It’s no different from big cities and is as safe as can be. In fact there are approximately 127,000 security cameras all over Mexico City and there is a very strong police presence everywhere.” She sighed almost with resignation and said we mustn’t believe the negative publicity about the ‘dangers’ in Mexico City.

Mexico has been getting a lot of attention of late but for the wrong reasons. At the time we were there, Donald Trump was just inaugurated 45th president of the United States of America. Despite being maligned by Donald Trump, Mexico is still considered by many as an extension of North America, specifically Texas and California. Thank goodness though, that it retains its distinct character and heritage. Good food, tequilas, its unique Aztec and Mayan culture as well as influences from the colonial days of Spain, France and America, are the heady mix that make Mexico an exciting destination. Unfortunately Mexico has also become synonymous with drug lords, “bad hombres” and danger. Regardless, based on our short sojourn there, nothing could be further from the truth. For us, Mexico City is an awesome travel destination. A few years ago, I spent a few days in this interesting and vibrant city on business and marvelled then at the city’s beauty. This time around, as a tourist, I still felt the pulsating energy that was so much part of the fabric of Mexico City.

Our hotel situated right at the heart of the historic centre (Centro Histórico) facing the square, the Zócalo, or the Plaza de la Constitucion, was a delightful surprise. The Gran Hotel Ciudad de México, an elegant 5 star hotel reminiscent of the Art Nouveau period was originally built in the late 1800’s as an exclusive department store called El Centro Mercantil. In those days it was the grandest and most luxurious department store in all of Latin America. When the department closed in 1959, the preserved building was converted to its current use. Styled in the Art Nouveau, its pièce de résistance was the stained glass ceiling made of a mix of glass and cast iron. Jacques Gruber, a student of the Nancy School Tiffany in France, created this elegant piece of work, which was very much in keeping with the ‘Tiffany look’.

Styled in the Art Nouveau, the hotel's pièce de résistance was the stained glass ceiling made of a mix of glass and cast iron

Styled in the Art Nouveau, the hotel’s pièce de résistance was the stained glass ceiling made of a mix of glass and cast iron

If in Mexico City, this hotel is worth exploring with its many art nouveau features, including an old lift and gilded birdcage.

Our first obvious stop at the hotel was the terrace bar with a view of the Zócalo. To celebrate our first night in the city we enjoyed several glasses of the ubiquitous classic Margarita cocktail with our guacamole and Cochinita Pibil Tacos (a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatán Península served on soft tortillas). Auspiciously that evening, we were treated to a spectacle at the square, which was the lowering of the flag, executed with much pomp and ceremony.

the ubiquitous classic Margarita cocktail

the ubiquitous classic Margarita cocktail

guacamole enjoyed with my favourite cocktail, the Margarita

guacamole enjoyed with my favourite cocktail, the Margarita

spectacle at the square, which was the lowering of the flag, executed with much pomp and ceremony

spectacle at the square, which was the lowering of the flag, executed with much pomp and ceremony

The next morning Catalina met us promptly for our first guided city tour of Mexico City that included a visit to the Museum of Anthropology, a drive along the Paseo de la Reforma, the Zona Rosa, the trendy neighbourhoods of Condesa, Roma, and Polanco and then back to the Zócalo to visit the Catedral Metropolitana (The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven), the pre- Hispanic ruins at Templo Mayor of the Aztecs and the Palacio Nacional. These sights were all within walking distance from our hotel.

Catedral Metropolitana (The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption at the historic centre of Mexico City.

Catedral Metropolitana (The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption at the historic centre of Mexico City.

The Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana) in Mexico City is the oldest and largest cathedral in all of Latin America.

The Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana) in Mexico City is the oldest and largest cathedral in all of Latin America.

the pre- Hispanic ruins at Templo Mayor of the Aztecs

the pre- Hispanic ruins at Templo Mayor of the Aztecs

El Palacio Nacional located at the historic centre of Mexico City

El Palacio Nacional located at the historic centre of Mexico City

the courtyard , elPalacio Nacional. Inside the palace is Diego Rivera's murals (painted between 1929 and 1951). It tells the story of Mexican civilization from Quetzalcóatl (the Aztec plumed serpent god) to the post-revolutionary period

the courtyard , El Palacio Nacional. Inside the palace is Diego Rivera’s murals (painted between 1929 and 1951). It tells the story of Mexican civilization from Quetzalcóatl (the Aztec plumed serpent god) to the post-revolutionary period

pre- Hispanic ruins excavated at the palace

pre- Hispanic ruins excavated at the palace

We certainly noted the police presence that Catalina was talking about…Policemen and policewomen were in every street corner ready to help wandering tourists and more importantly, that particularly day, to ensure that the demonstrating farmers who descended on the ciudad ( the city) didn’t cause any disruption to the daily rhythm of life and the adventurous tourists’ sightseeing.

artefacts at the Museum of Anthropology

artefacts at the Museum of Anthropology

more artefacts at the Museum of Anthropology

more artefacts at the Museum of Anthropology

interesting artefacts uncovered on display at the Museum of Anthropology

interesting artefacts uncovered on display at the Museum of Anthropology

the largest and most visited museum in Mexico, the Museum of Anthropology is world-famous for its repository of some 600,000 art and other objects .

the largest and most visited museum in Mexico, the Museum of Anthropology is world-famous for its repository of some 600,000 art and other objects .

The next day was our free day and we decided to see more of Mexico City. For this foray, we took the Turibus (Mexico City’s hop on –hop off double decker bus that makes a circuit from the historical centre, down to the Paseo de la Reforma to Chapultepec Park and other stops for only Mexican pesos140). It was truly a great way to explore the city. Along *Paseo de la Reforma the main avenue that runs diagonally along the city, there were several stops but we chose to hop off at the Monument to Independence to make our way to the Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park), a vast 1700 acre park where the Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle) sits majestically on a hill. The Mexican Emperor Maximilian I and his wife Charlotte used this castle as their residence during the Second Mexican Empire (the short French intervention period of 1861 to 1867 while Napoleon III reigned in France).

El Castillo de Chapultepec

El Castillo de Chapultepec

The Mexican Emperor Maximilian I and his wife Charlotte used this castle as their residence during the Second Mexican Empire

The Mexican Emperor Maximilian I and his wife Charlotte used this castle as their residence during the Second Mexican Empire

Getting back on the bus, we later hopped off at 5 de Mayo Street to stroll down to the 18th century palace built by the Count del Valle de Orizaba family, the Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles-located at Callejón de la Condesa, between 5 de Mayo Street and Madero Street). What was appealing about this building was its façade made of blue and white tiles from the Puebla state.

La Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles-located at Callejón de la Condesa, between 5 de Mayo Street and Madero Street)

La Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles-located at Callejón de la Condesa, between 5 de Mayo Street and Madero Street)

interior of LaCasa de los Azulejos

interior of La Casa de los Azulejos

Note to visitors: The house itself is now a very busy restaurant. Even if one is not interested to have a meal there, a look around the interior is highly recommended.

* Paseo de la Reforma is reminiscent of the great avenues in Europe such as the Champs-Élysées in Paris; the Emperor Maximilian I in the 1860’s commissioned this avenue.
( images)

La Ciudadela was our last ‘must see’ for the day. Recommended by our guide, we found our way to this artisans’ market and were charmed by the colourful handcrafted wares. We purchased a few gorgeous Mexican handmade products, as they were really pretty and inexpensive. We always like to explore markets in cities we visit and La Ciudadela is one that we would also recommend. We were however intrigued that there were no piñatas with Donald Trump’s head. We were told by American friends to look for this trendy item.

The stroll made us hungry and for our merienda ( snack) we tried a bowl of pozole ( stew made from Hominy – a form of dried maize or corn in either pork or chicken broth, served with condiments of chopped onions, coriander, shredded lettuce, chicharones or crunchy pork skin, lime and chili, avocado and many more). This dish reminded me of the Philippine arroz caldo – a Filipino style congee made of rice soup, chicken broth, spiced with ginger and spring onions.

Mexicans eat a lot of maize or corn. As we were reminded over and over again during this trip, the corn has a spiritual and ritualistic significance for them since the Aztecs and Mayans believed the corn to be a sacred plant. Legend has it that gods created men from cornmeal dough also known as masa. Pozole then was meant to be consumed during special occasions but in modern times; one can spot little food stalls and restaurants specializing in this dish.

La Ciudadela , Address: Av Balderas s/n, Cuauhtémoc, Centro, 06040 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico

We highly anticipated our last day in Mexico City as Catalina was going to take us to the Guadalupe shrine, approximately 50 Km northeast of Mexico City, followed by the Teotihuacán archaeological ruins, a UNESCO World heritage site.

Our visit to these two places of interest didn’t disappoint. The Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, the most visited site in the Catholic pilgrimage was for me a wish come true. I suppose, I can now cross this off my ‘bucket list’. Catalina who was somewhat intuitive to my moods gave me a few extra moments to light my candles after viewing the Virgin’s image in the new Cathedral. (The old one is slowly sinking).

The Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, the most visited site in the Catholic pilgrimage

The Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, according to a survey by Forbes.com it is the most visited site in the Catholic pilgrimage with an estimated 20 million pilgrims

the original image of 'Our Lady of Guadalupe' in the new Cathedral

the original image of ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’ in the new Cathedral

Another fortuitous thing that day was La Candelaria, which we witnessed at the Basilica. The annual celebration of the Feast of Candelaria, celebrates the official presentation of baby Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem 40 days after his birth. This is a ritual that follows the Jewish practice according to the Old Testament’s law. Among Catholics in Mexico, the person who is privileged to look after the doll dressed up as baby Jesus has to take it to mass (the event we just witnessed) and is then allowed to keep the figurine in a niche in his house or a chapel, all year round. This custom is juxtaposed with a pre- Hispanic practice of villagers bringing their corn to church in order to get their crops blessed after planting their seeds for the new agricultural cycle. This was on February 2, the eleventh day of the first month on the Aztec calendar.

The annual celebration of the Feast of Candelaria, celebrates the official presentation of baby Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem 40 days after his birth

The annual celebration of the Feast of Candelaria, celebrates the official presentation of baby Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem 40 days after his birth

From Catholicism we were transported to the vast archaeological complex that was a city in pre-Colombian times and a homage to Mesoamerican religion.
Built between the 1st and 7th centuries A.D. the enormous monuments of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the plumed serpent) and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon were indeed impressive.

Pyramid of the moon at Teotihuacán archaeological ruins

Pyramid of the moon at Teotihuacán archaeological ruins

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest building in the Teotihuacán archaeological complex

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest building in the Teotihuacán archaeological complex

On our return to the hotel, we saw from the balcony that the Zócalo still had remnants of the La Candelaria ceremony with stalls being dismantled. Decorated with maize leaves vendors were selling various delicacies and tamales. Apparently tamales were being handed out to the crowd. We just missed the tamales , much to our disappointment.

Departing early to catch our flight to Villahermosa in the Mexican state of Tabasco, where we would start our exploration of the Mayan ruins, we promised Catalina we would shout our positive experience to the world.

Mexico, according to her, needs as many goodwill ambassadors. Her parting words were: “Did you know Mexico means navel of the moon? It comes from the Nahuatl words for “moon” (mētztli) and navel (xīctli).”

So there you have it, we can now say we have just had a wonderful time at the Place of the Centre of the Moon.

Corinth Canal a maritime engineering feat

Ancient Corinth|Corinth Canal|Patmos|Santorini highlights Greek cruise

We made the most of the second stop at Piraeus (Athens) during our extended Aegean cruise with an excursion to Ancient Corinth and the Corinth Canal, compliments of the Seabourn. It was one of the highlights of our cruise. A one-hour bus ride from Piraeus port took us to the famous Corinth Canal. The canal regarded as a maritime engineering feat, was a short cut connecting the Ionian and Aegean seas. It is 4 miles long, 70 feet wide and has sloping sides 170 feet in height. The canal cuts through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth separating the Peloponnesian Peninsula from the Greek mainland, making the peninsula an island. Interestingly, the idea of building the canal was first conceived during the antiquity period, around 7th century BCE by the Corinth ruler, Periander. However, a warning from Pythia (priestess at the Oracle of Delphi) that a canal would incur the gods’ wrath made Periander abandon the idea and instead, went for a simpler alternative. Needles to say the difficulty of such undertaking would have been a good reason to just consider simpler options.

During the Roman period, Julius Caesar, Hadrian, Caligula all tried to find a solution but it was actually emperor Nero who made more progress in the construction of the canal. But, due to his macabre end, the project was once again aborted. Much later, the Greeks took up the idea when they became independent from the Ottoman Empire. As expected, funding was a big hurdle but eventually, construction began in 1890 and was completed in 1893. Amazingly, the construction plans of the Corinth Canal was almost identical to the one made by Nero, 2000 years earlier.

Awesome Corinth Canal

Awesome Corinth Canal

The next stop was a visit to Ancient Corinth. Due to its geographical location and the fertile plains and natural spring that surrounded Ancient Corinth, the city was always a target for occupation. It was first inhabited during the Neolithic period and evolved into a wealthy city. It was during the Roman era under Julius Caesar that Ancient Corinth flourished.

The ruins we saw were a mix of an ancient 6th century BC Greek city and a 44 BC Roman city, built after Julius Caesar founded a colony there. Corinth became the centre for early Christianity in Greece, thanks to the efforts of St Paul who was dedicated to convert the Corinthian citizens during 51 to 52 AD.

remains of a Roman City

remains of a Roman City

Prominent in the ruins were the Christian Basilica, the starting lines of a Greek racetrack, a sacred spring with its bronze lion’s head spouts and the Roman fountain of Peirine, the remains of a marketplace and most conspicuous of all was the Doric styled, Temple of Apollo. The remnants of the temple lie on a terrace, which is on the highest part of the city.

Doric Temple

Doric Temple

Roman statue

Roman statue

excavated Roman City- Ancient Corinth

excavated Roman City- Ancient Corinth

Famished after another exhilarating day of history, we were delighted to partake a simple but delicious meal of what I called a ‘Greek salad’ and grilled fish at a local restaurant nearby. Soon, it was time to board the bus for the port of Piraeus where we would sail off and complete the last week of our cruise.

simple and delicious Greek salad

simple and delicious Greek salad

simple and tasty grilled fish

simple and tasty grilled fish

The next stop from Ancient Corinth was Patmos, one of the Dodecanese islands in the Aegean. UNESCO designated its historic city centre and the Monastery of St John the Theologian as World Heritage sites in 1999. Historically, the Romans had used Patmos as a place of exile for the banished that preached Christianity. Among the notable exiles was St John the Divine (or Theologian), one of the 12 apostles of Christ. The Roman Emperor Domitian exiled him in Patmos for a period of 18 months around 95 A.D. The controversial Book of Revelation also known as the Book of Apocalypse was the final chapter of the New Testament and believed to have been written in Patmos. St John was said to have dictated these revelations to his disciple, Prochorus, while in Patmos during his mystical experiences with God in his cave dwelling in the mountains of Patmos. The cave now considered the most sacred place in the island became a place of pilgrimage for the Greek Orthodox.

view from St John’s monastery perched on the hillside of Chora

view from St John’s monastery perched on the hillside of Chora

The shore excursion we opted to take was a visit to the Monastery dedicated to St John, founded in the late 10th century. We arrived at the fortified Greek Orthodox monastery by bus and had to climb a few yards up to the gate entrance on foot. The first thing that caught my eye when we arrived at the courtyard was a round covered structure that looked like a well. We were told that in the earlier days, it was used to store wine but now contain holy water instead. On top of the cover of the well was a beautiful, well cared for cat sunning herself. Apparently she belonged to the monks, who, like most Greeks loved their cats.

cat on the ancient well or wine storage now used as water storage

cat on the ancient well
or wine storage now used as water storage

frescoe at courtyard

fresco at courtyard

St John’s monastery perched on the hillside of Chora was overwhelming not only because it resembled a Byzantine castle with walls that were thick and over 15 meters high, but also because it was a maze of different levels of interconnecting courtyards, chapels, and museum treasury. Founded in 1088 by Ossios Christodoulos following a grant by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I. Komnenos, this amazing edifice was built on the very grotto where St John found solace from the Romans during his exile.

Monastery resembled a Byzantine castle with walls that were thick and over 15 meters high

Monastery resembled a Byzantine castle with walls that were thick and over 15 meters high

We were taken to the Cave of the Apocalypse (the grotto) where St John received his God inspired revelations or messages, which he dictated to his disciple Prochorus who then faithfully recorded the words as the Book of Revelation. The dwelling, now a chapel was also where he slept. The stone or hollow that St John used as his pillow, then another hollow which he used to lever himself up as well as the ledge of rock used as a desk by his disciple were all intact and preserved. Despite the dimly lit cave, these were visible and easy to distinguish from the other objects in the cave.

thick walls and maze of different levels of interconnecting courtyards, chapels, and museum treasury

thick walls and maze of different levels of interconnecting courtyards, chapels, and museum treasury

On the left of the courtyard was the main chapel built in 1090. The adjoining chapel next to the main church was the chapel of The Virgin Mary. Both this and the main chapel have been decorated with frescoes that date back to the 12th century and onwards. In the forecourt was also a series of frescoes depicting the life of St John. To the right was the chapel of the founder, the Holy Christodoulos. Inside it were the skull of St Thomas, pieces of the Holy Cross and other religious relics.

11th century kneading trough

11th century kneading trough

fresco of the Virgin Mary

fresco of the Virgin Mary

The Byzantine characteristics of this monastery were manifested in the stunning icons, the relics and art that adorned the various chapels and museum. Unfortunately, photographing the chapels and icons were prohibited but we satisfied our senses with a visit to the museum or Treasury whose remarkable collection of Byzantine art, books, original manuscripts from the bible, the gold and silver thread ornamented vestments as well as jewels and relics were simply spectacular. Most notable was an unusual mosaic icon of Agios Nikolaos and the 11th-century parchment granting the island to Ossios Christodoulos. The visit to the monastery would be one of the many unexpected but exceptional highlights of our extended Aegean odyssey.

The closest we ever got to Turkey was the day we anchored in the shores of Megisti, an island in the easternmost edge of the Dodecanese Greece. A hidden little treasure, Megisti is a small and pretty village with a long history starting from the Neolithic period. We strolled up to the 14th century castle of the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John on Castello Rosso up the hill but a walk through the village and the harbour was a more charming experience. The water on the waterfront was so clear we could see the school of fish and turtles.

Megisti near Turkey

Megisti near Turkey

14th century castle of the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John on Castello Rosso up the hill

14th century castle of the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John on Castello Rosso up the hill

Megisti - a small and pretty village

Megisti – a small and pretty village

Water around Megisti is so clear one can see the turtle swimming near the harbour

Water around Megisti is so clear one can see the turtle swimming near the harbour

Who hasn’t heard of Santorini! The darling of photographers, Santorini, the most popular among the Cyclades group of islands is a very photogenic destination in many ways. Picturesque particularly at sunset, this gorgeous spot in Greece overlooking a wide expanse of the Aegean Sea should be in everyone’s bucket list. Located southeast from Athens and north of Crete, Santorini (officially named Thira.) is a C-shaped volcanic island with 300-meter towering cliffs on 3 sides. The centre of the caldera or crater is the half-moon-shaped bay of the island. Around 1650 BC, a volcanic eruption caused the centre of Santorini to sink leaving the signature Santorini caldera ( crater) with high cliffs.

The destructive volcanic eruption caused the sides of the island to collapse into the sea and is believed by many to be the reason why the early Minoan civilisation that inhabited the island vanished. Many also say that the discovered Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri in Santorini was the inspiration behind Plato’s legend of the lost city of Atlantis. Legend or not, the story gives credibility to the reason why the major volcanic eruption caused the annihilation of Santorini’s Bronze Age Minoans.

cruise ships and tenders on the waters around Fira

cruise ships and tenders on the waters around Fira

Cruise ships’ port of call at Santorini is Skala located at the bottom of the Caldera Cliffs in Fira, the island’s capital, west of the island. To get to the port, we were tendered from the Seabourn Odyssey by smaller boats. Santorini is a very popular and busy destination for good reason. During the height of the season ( northern hemisphere summer) as many as 5 big cruise liners anchor at the same time in the waters of Fira with thousands of passengers being tendered to the port. With that in mind, even though we were there late in the season, we took the tender right after breakfast to avoid the long queues of tourists who want to get to the top where the village of Fira is perched on the edge of the cliff. Our ship wasn’t going to sail off until late at night to allow us plenty of time to explore this mysterious and pretty island that promised so much.

To reach Fira at the top of the cliff (260 metres from sea level), there were three options:

  1. By cable car (daily, 6.30am-10pm, every 20 mins, €5 / $5.44),
  2. On a mule (the ride costs €8/$8.70)
  3. Taking the hike up 587 steps following the same path as the mules.

It was a no brainer; the cable won over the poor mules and there was no way we were going to climb the 587 steps up to Fira alongside the donkeys.

Once we were hoisted up to the bustling village of Fira, we made our way along narrow cobbled streets lined with shops, bars and restaurants. Most had breathtaking panoramic views of the black and red coloured cliffs exposing volcanic layers of rock and soil and the Aegean Sea. It was easy to appreciate why photographers love this island. Even I found so many photo opportunities of the landscape and Santorini’s gleaming white houses contrasted against the blue skies and sea.

From Fira, we wanted to visit the famous little village of Oia (pronounced ee-ah). We were told that we could either hire a taxi or be adventurous and use the local buses that ply the route to Oia every 15-20 minutes. The bus ride would take about 30 minutes with stops along the way. We chose the latter and cheaper alternative; cost is € 1.60 per person (one way).

Note: The central bus terminal in Fira is a 10-minute walk from the centre. Just turn right and follow the Golden Street, from the main shopping street. After a few minutes of easy walk, the Cathedral can be spotted on your left; continue a little further and just past the Cathedral, take a left with the road going down. Cross the intersection and a little further to the left is the bus terminal.

Oia - the most popular village in Santorini

Oia – the most popular village in Santorini

Oia known to be the most popular village in Santorini was certainly the most beautiful, it took my breath away. Standing on the edge of the caldera we were afforded a spectacular view of Palia and Nea Kameni volcanoes as well as the island of Thirassia. But before we got to see this magic vista, we meandered through a maze of narrow lanes full of shops, galleries, restaurants and cafes. I found the hand crafted jewellery & art shops to be most interesting and if I had the foresight to pack my credit card in my little travel pouch that morning, I would have purchased a gorgeous byzantine styled cross pendant.

stunning views of the sea at Oia

stunning views of the sea at Oia

blued dome - a splash of colour amidst white washed buildings

blued dome – a splash of colour amidst white washed buildings

view and landscape that is uniquely Santorini

view and landscape that is uniquely Santorini

Oia stole my heart. The barrel vaulted houses and burst of colours from blossoms of bougainvillea trees made the landscape uniquely Santorini. White buildings, azure domed churches, hotels and bars, all with spectacular views from the edge of the caldera gave me plenty of reason to snap every image to fill my photo album folder of Greece and the wonderful memories the cruise.

azure domed church in Santorini

azure domed church in Santorini

For our final foray in Santorini we made our way to Akrotiri, known also as the Pompeii of Greece, situated in the southern part of the island. To get there, we had to return to Fira’s bus terminal to board another bus that headed south. Along the way, we saw some of the vineyards of Santorini, which the Greeks claim to be the world’s oldest. Interestingly, the vines we saw were grown straight from the ground and woven into continuous circles to form a basket. This method known as “koulara” is for the protection of the vines from the elements as the winds and sun in Santorini can be very strong and harsh. We were hoping to taste some of the famous Santorini wines before our departure.

Akrotiri is an excavation site of the Minoan Bronze Age settlement in Santorini. That it has an eerie similarity to the Roman excavation in Pompeii, Italy is due to the fact that ashes of the massive volcano eruptions preserved evidence and traces of life of these two civilisations. The volcanic eruption almost 4000 years ago that caused the centre of Santorini to sink also destroyed the Minoan settlement but fortunately, all was not lost. Local villagers found old artefacts at a quarry, which led to the early excavation of the site by French geologist F. Fouque in 1867. But the subsequent expeditions from 1967 were more extensive and showed the remains of the village, how the Minoans lived, the remains of buildings, city squares, shops, frescoes and other objects and artworks. It was a very interesting visit and my husband considered it the number one ’must see’ and experience in the Aegean. Santorini for us is most definitely a MUST in the bucket list.

Akrotiri- the Pompeii of Greece

Akrotiri- the Pompeii of Greece

Akrotiri is an excavation site of the Minoan Bronze Age settlement in Santorini

Akrotiri is an excavation site of the Minoan Bronze Age settlement in Santorini

remains of the village- what appears to be a dwelling of the Minoans

remains of the village- what appears to be a dwelling of the Minoans

the massive volcano eruption preserved evidence and traces of life of the Minoans

the massive volcano eruption preserved evidence and traces of life of the Minoans

We viewed the much touted sunset of Santorini from the Seabourn Odyssey’s Observation deck and toasted this thoroughly loved and memorable day.

Santorini sunset

Santorini sunset

Fira at Sunset

Fira at Sunset

Here’s a useful pocket guide to Santorini for those who want to explore the many delights of this alluring Greek destination.

Spetses was to be the last port for our extended Eastern Mediterranean cruises. Known as the island of the aromas (isola di spezzie), Spetses is located near Athens in the Saronic Gulf. We noted the big mansions and houses, the up market retail shops near the harbour and the yacht marina, which spoke of the affluence of the inhabitants. It was a relaxing day, promenading along the esplanade admiring the naval and marine influence of the town.

Spetses has a naval and maritime history

Spetses has a naval and maritime history

water taxis at Spetses

water taxis at Spetses

All good things must come to an end and we truly were sad and reluctant to leave our ship. Disembarking for the last time in Piraeus (Athens) we said our ‘au revoirs’ to the fantastic crew of the Seabourn Odyssey and made our way to the Royal Olympic Hotel in front of the famous Temple of Zeus and National Garden in Athens. Its proximity to the Pláka (the old historical neighbourhood of Athens) made us choose this hotel before our flight back home.

ruins of the Temple of Zeus and National Garden in Athens

ruins of the Temple of Zeus and National Garden in Athens

delicious Greek wine recommended by our attentive and intuitive waiter at the Royal Olympic hotel’s rooftop restaurant and bar, the Ioannis.

delicious Greek wine recommended by our attentive and intuitive waiter at the Royal Olympic hotel’s rooftop restaurant and bar, the Ioannis.

Temple of Zeus-view from the hotel's rooftop, the Ioannis

Temple of Zeus-view from the hotel’s rooftop, the Ioannis

Acropolis at night as seen from the rooftop restaurant of the hotel

Acropolis at night as seen from the rooftop restaurant of the hotel

We highly recommend the hotel’s rooftop restaurant and bar, the Ioannis. Superb view and service!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beautiful sites in Mykonos

The Aegean Treasures – Nafplion Crete Paphos Rhodes and Mykonos

Cruising the Aegean Sea to get to the next port was our recovery time from a heady day in Athens. This was all we needed to get back to the rhythm of our own Greek Odyssey. From Athens, we were headed for Nafplion whose Venetian small fortress the Bourtzi  (built in 1471) was visible even from the low seats of our Seabourn tender. There it was, standing on the rocky islet of Agioi Theodoroi, opposite the harbour. We docked at the old section of Nafplion (or Náfplio) in the gulf of Argos in eastern Peloponnese. Nafplion is actually on the Greek mainland and only a two-hour drive from Athens. Locals and tourists consider Nafplion as one of the most romantic and beautiful villages in mainland Greece, and known also for its rich history. Its early beginnings can be traced back to the Argonautic expedition and Trojan wars. For me though, the Greek mythology of its origins is more intriguing. It is said that Nafplion was founded by Náfplios, the son of Poseidon and Amymone, one of the fifty daughters of King Danaus (Danaida). The seduction of Amymone by Poseidon began when he found her while she was sent out to search for water in the parched land of Peloponnese. The legend is indeed a story of love at first sight. Poseidon was so enamoured with Amymone to the extent that he divulged to her the location of the coveted spring in Lerna .

Greek mythology aside, just like Monemvassia, Nafplion is a quaint medieval village whose architecture show influences of various cultures of people who have occupied this eastern Peloponnese (Argolis) town. The Venetians, Turks and Franks left their respective footprints and legacy in the town’s architecture, food and culture.

We were keen to explore Nafplion independently and followed our noses. From the pier, we headed straight to the Italian influenced Nafplion Syntagma Square, the hub of the old town. It was a good place to get one’s bearings to start an exploration of the old town. Historic buildings, mostly neoclassical, surrounded the beautiful square of polished marble floor. Most interesting were two Turkish mosques; one of them was the Trianon, operating as a theatre and the Archaeological Museum built in 1713 originally as a Venetian arsenal. We then proceeded to Megalos Dromos or the Main Road, to the left of the mosque, which went through the old town. Narrow alleys and Venetian style mansions adorned with flowers in their balconies, little shops selling handmade jewellery and artefacts caught our attention and having seen the beautifully handcrafted jewellery from the shops, I vowed to get a little ‘gift’ for myself on our way back. And perhaps, even enjoy a cup of coffee in one of the many cafes around the square before we return to the ship.

The next challenge was to get high up to the Palamidi Castle, 216 m above sea level and a climb of the 999 steps leading to it. The incentive was to view the stunning vista of the Argolic gulf and the Mycenaean plain from the Agios Andreas battlement built at the top of the Castle by Nafplion’s Venetian conquerors. The trick was to take it slowly to the stop. We soon discovered that it was easier said than done. The climb was indeed challenging. To make matters worse, this was also a frustrating day since I left my iPhone, doubling up as my camera on board the ship. One of the prettiest ports and I have no photos of my own! But for those who want to see good images, I found this site.

To compensate for this oversight, I bought myself a beautiful handmade jewellery from a very interesting craft shop in the square, a fitting reminder of the beautiful village.

Crete was our next port of call. The largest island in Greece, it has the distinction of being the seat of Minoan civilisation (the earliest known culture in Europe). Located on the Sea of Crete, this island is also rich in Greek mythology. For instance, the Ideon cave in Mt. Ida in Crete is said to have been the birthplace of the main Greek god, Zeus. Colourful legends and stories of the first king of Crete- King Minos, son of Zeus and Europa and the deadly Minotaur are set in Crete, as well as the adventures of Heracles (Hercules) also a son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene.

We docked at the port of Agios Nikolaos in Crete, fondly referred to by my husband as “Agnik”. Set on the beautiful bay of the Gulf of Mirabello, Agios Nikolaos is a picturesque fishing harbour and a small, bustling town. There were options for shore excursions to Heraklion and Knossos, considered the oldest city in Europe and the ancient capital of Minoan Crete. For those interested in the Minoan civilisation, we were informed that Iráklio (Heraklion) Archaeological Museum is a ‘must visit’ to see the world’s greatest collection of Minoan artefacts. The palace complex in Knossos is known to be the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on island of Crete. However, we wanted to explore the harbour town of Agios Nikolaos, and the tour to the museum was going to take 8 hours. We decided to give Knossos a miss.

the harbour of Agios Nikolaos in Crete

the harbour of Agios Nikolaos in Crete

Agios Nikolaos (Agnik) harbour

Agios Nikolaos (Agnik) harbour

At Agios Nikolaos, we actually wanted to see its inner harbour, Lake Voulismeni, which is in fact a lake, and a bottomless one according to legend. What’s more, it is said that the goddess Athena used to bathe in it. But, a spoilsport in the person of an English Admiral, determined in 1853 that the lake is 210 feet deep and therefore not bottomless. Regardless, the legend does make for an interesting story and it wasn’t difficult to be drawn to the lake, made more picturesque by the tavernas and cafes that surrounded it. Fishermen just coming in from their night fishing and the small fishing boats bobbing up and down the inner harbour completed the tableau.

inner harbour,Agios Nikolaos

inner harbour,Agios Nikolaos

fisherman's boat at 'Agnik'

fisherman’s boat at ‘Agnik’

Fishermen's catch- 'Agnik'

Fishermen’s catch- ‘Agnik’

Because “Agnik” is small, it was easy to wander from the lake and explore the town on our way to the Archaeological Museum, just a little up to the northwest from the town centre. Pausing to take in views of old mansions and beautiful houses on the hill, the breathtaking views of the harbour were a feast for the eyes. We noted that the Venetian architecture and Ottoman influence were also evident in this town.

view of inner harbour at 'Agnik'

view of inner harbour at ‘Agnik’

beautiful houses on the hill

beautiful houses on the hill

breathtaking views of the harbour

breathtaking views of the harbour

Though we thought the Archaeological Museum wasn’t far, it was nevertheless a good, long hike so our advice for those who want to visit the museum is to wear comfortable walking shoes.

The Archaeological Museum has a good display of recovered Minoan artefacts including the goddess of Myrtos, a drinking vessel shaped like a phallic from the head and neck with two breasts shaped into it, ostensibly used for fertility rituals in the Minoan period.

On our way back to the ship, we stopped to admire the bronze statue of Europe sitting on a bull. The mythology is just as fascinating as the art. According to legend, Europe the daughter of Agenor (a Phoenician king) and celebrated for her beauty caught the attention of Zeus. He then made it his mission to woo and conquer her heart. First, he turned himself into a bull with soft fur . One day, while Europe was playing with her friends, Zeus under cover by mingling with Agenor’s herd managed to win Europe’s trust. Once this happened, Europe enticed by the soft fur jumped on the neck of Zeus (the bull) and was whisked away to the Cretan coast. They later had three sons: Minos, Sarpedon and Rhadamanthus.

Europe on the bull ( Zeus in disguise)

Europe on the bull ( Zeus in disguise)

Paphos a coastal city in the southwest of Cyprus was our next port. In fact, due to the emergency situation in Turkey our intention to spend a full week in Istanbul and surrounds at the end of the first 14-day cruise was abandoned. Instead, we opted to extend our Seaborn cruise by a week. This meant coming back to Paphos 6 days later, after this first visit. Despite our frustration in missing out on Ephesus and Istanbul this seeming setback turned out to have numerous pleasurable surprises because it gave us so much more time to explore the other religious and historic sites in the village of Paphos.

For our first stop at Paphos, we took the excursion for a brief visit at Fyti Village in the mountainous village of Panagia and also where, west of the dense Pafos forest, set in beautiful surrounds was the Chrysoroyiatissa Monastery. A monk named Ignatios founded the monastery in 1152 A.D, which he dedicated to Our Lady of the Golden Pomegranate. It was said that Ignatios found a miraculous icon of the Virgin in the Moulia area of Pafos. St Luke the Evangelist, one of the Four Evangelists who authored the canonical Gospels was thought to have painted the image. St Luke was known to have accompanied St Paul during his missionary journeys around the Mediterranean and perhaps was an early Christian historian. The current building we visited dated back to 1770 and housed invaluable artefacts of the Ecclesiastical Treasury. The three entrances were adorned with beautiful frescoes and several icons were on display inside the monastery. Hard to miss were the silver and gold plated images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary that were believed to have been painted by St Luke the Evangelist. Like most museums, the Monastery prohibits taking photos of the interior and the icons. After our visit, we were treated to refreshments of delicious vintage wines from the monastery’s vineyards as well as delicacies of haloumi chees on freshly baked bread. While enjoying the local refreshment, we took in the amazing views seen from the terrace of the café just outside the entrance of the monastery.

Fyti Village

Fyti Village

the mountainous village of Panagia

the mountainous village of Panagia

Chrysoroyiatissa Monastery

Chrysoroyiatissa Monastery

serene ambience at the Chrysoroyiatissa Monastery

serene ambience at the Chrysoroyiatissa Monastery

Fast forward, six days later we were back at Paphos. This time, we were given a Seabourn complimentary UNESCO Walking Tour to visit the well-preserved ruins of the House of Dionysos and the Ayia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa Anglican Church also known as “The Church by St. Paul’s Pillar”. The former was our first stop, located at the Kato Paphos Archaeological Park, near the harbour.

Kato Paphos Archaeological Park

Kato Paphos Archaeological Park

Tombs of the Kings -Kato Paphos Archaeological Park

Tombs of the Kings -Kato Paphos Archaeological Park

This extensive UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site boasts of mosaics, all of which date from around the 2nd century AD. The archaeological park claims to have the most impressive Roman mosaics in the eastern Mediterranean, which were discovered, in four main houses. The largest of these is the House of Dionysos. It was constructed towards the end of the 2nd century AD, and architecturally designed in the Greco-Roman style with rooms surrounding a central court. Situated in a large area and occupying 2000 square metres, 556 meters of these are covered with mosaic floors adorned with mythological, vintage and hunting scenes. The colourful and well-preserved art form is the main attraction of the House of Dionysos and certainly gives an insight on life in Cyprus during the Roman period. As we know, Dionysos is the ancient Greek god of wine. The most memorable for me was a colourful series depicting Dionysos returning from India on a chariot drawn by two panthers. He is shown  to be counselling the nymph Akme who was drinking wine. Our guide said that it could be that he was perhaps warning her of the disastrous effects of binge‑drinking.

Mosaic Floors-House of Dionysos . Dionysos counselling the nymph Akme drinking wine

Mosaic Floors-House of Dionysos . Dionysos counselling the nymph Akme drinking wine

mosaic floors -House of Dionysus

mosaic floors -House of Dionysos

We were then taken on a short ride by van to the Ayia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa Church. This building was built around 1500 AD as a Latin Church on the same site of the old small church, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 59 AD. In 1570 it became the Byzantine Cathedral of Kato in lower Paphos. I was fascinated by the history of the church. According to what is written in the New Testament, St. Paul and St. Barnabas visited Cyprus in 45 AD and were responsible for the conversion of Sergius Paulus, the Roman governor to Christianity. He became the first Christian ruler in Cyprus. What was more interesting for me was seeing the pillar near the church, reputed to be where St Paul was scourged in Paphos during his preaching days.

the pillar where St Paul was scourged near the church

the pillar where St Paul was scourged near the church

Cyprus became the first Christian province of Rome, thanks to St Paul’s efforts. The visits to Cyprus and Paphos certainly made up for the otherwise disappointing diversion from Ephesus during this cruise.

(Although, I must confess, my husband and I still have the yearning to visit Ephesus and Istanbul as soon authorities deem it safe for travel)

Note for visitors: the Kato Paphos Archaeological Park daily April-Oct, 8am to 7.30pm, Nov-March 8am-5pm; €3.40/ £3

Rhodes, the largest island in the Dodecanese islands of Greece was once an important trading centre in the Eastern Mediterranean. On the northern tip of the island is Rhodes Town or Ródos. Held by the Greeks, the Knights, the Turks and the Italians through centuries, it is still considered to be the best-preserved medieval settlement in the world and therefore, steeped in history from the antiquity period to the present. Like Paphos, we were scheduled to visit Rhodes town on two different days so on our first stop, we decided to explore the Medieval City of Rhodes- the old town – another UNESCO World Heritage site (inscribed in 1988). As our ship made its way to the harbour, we could see the lines of the fortress walls, interrupted by towers, domes and ramparts. We couldn’t wait to get off the ship and discover the Island of the Knights.

from the ship-one can the lines of the fortress walls, interrupted by towers, domes and ramparts

from the ship-one can the lines of the fortress walls, interrupted by towers, domes and ramparts

UNESCO World Heritage site - Rhodes ,considered to be the best-preserved medieval settlement in the world

UNESCO World Heritage site – Rhodes ,considered to be the best-preserved medieval settlement in the world

Entry to the old town can be made through several gates (there are seven large ones and a few smaller ones around the 4 kilometre wall). From the port, we made our way to the major and most imposing gate, the Thalassini (Marine Gate also called St. Catherine’s Gate or Sea Gate), built by the knights in 1478, with two towers on the left and right.

the Thalassini (Marine Gate also called St. Catherine's Gate or Sea Gate), built by the knights in 1478

the Thalassini (Marine Gate also called St. Catherine’s Gate or Sea Gate), built by the knights in 1478

The heavily fortified old town so evocative of the Hospitaller monks (a military Catholic religious order) of the earlier crusades reminded me of the many scenes of the 1986 movie starring Sean Connery, called, ‘The Name of the Rose’. Though distinctly medieval, buildings, mosques, courtyards and domes in the old town showed evidence of Byzantine and Italian architectural influences. From 1309 to 1523, the Order of St John of Jerusalem (the Knights of St John of Jerusalem) occupied Rhodes until the Turks successfully seized the knights’ stronghold. The knights were then forced to flee and move their base to Malta. Italians followed the Turks and occupied Rhodes from 1912 until they agreed to return the island to Greece in 1947 after signing the Treaty of Peace, one of the Paris Peace Treaties. In 1948, Rhodes and the other islands in the Dodecanese were returned to Greece.

heavily fortified old town

heavily fortified old town

Walking through the massive Thalassini gate, we came across the Ippokratous or the Hippocrates Square and the fountain that was part of the 14th century structure of the Castellania built by the knights. Surrounding the square were many alfresco cafes, bars and dining establishments as well as souvenir shops catering to tourists. As it was early, the shops were just setting up so we continued through a maze of cobbled street to explore the many places of interests.

Hippocrates Square , Rhodes

Hippocrates Square , Rhodes

live parrots at the Hippocrates Square

live parrots at the Hippocrates Square

We meandered our way towards the long (200 meters) and straight  ‘Street of the Knights’ in the upper end of the old town where the knights lived, worked and trained. The Turks converted most of the churches to mosques but the Italians restored the many stone buildings along the street between 1913-1916. Today the edifices are back to their original medieval designs characterised by imposing Gothic arches.

alfresco restaurant at Rhodes Old Town

alfresco restaurant at Rhodes Old Town

Old Town Rhodes - remnants of destroyed old buildings and relics

Old Town Rhodes – remnants of destroyed old buildings and relics

On our way towards the Palace of the Grand Master at the end of the Street of the Knights we saw the inns or headquarters of the different nationalities, which comprised the Knights of Rhodes. Each inn was quaintly referred to by the spoken ‘tongue’ or language by the different groups of knights. The seven ‘tongues’ were England, France, Germany, Italy, Aragon, Auvergne and Provence. The inns were used as a club or hotel where the knights would meet and entertain official guests.

Street of the Knights-Rhodes Old Town

Street of the Knights-Rhodes Old Town

Inn of Spain Each inn was quaintly referred to by the spoken ‘tongue’ or language by the different groups of knights

Inn of Spain Each inn was quaintly referred to by the spoken ‘tongue’ or language by the different groups of knights

the long (200 meters) and straight ‘Street of the Knights’

the long (200 meters) and straight ‘Street of the Knights’

Finally, we reached the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, built in the 14th century as the residence of the governor. The palace was erected on the original foundations of the Temple of Helios (the sun god), an important and much revered figure in the antiquity period. The Ottomans then used the palace as a fortress when they captured Rhodes from the knights. Unfortunately, in 1856, an ammunition explosion destroyed most of the original palace. During the Italian occupation of Rhodes, the palace was rebuilt as a holiday home for Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and later for the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, whose name can still be seen on a large plaque near the entrance. The palace is now a history museum.

at the Palace of the Grand Master

at the Palace of the Grand Master

The palace was erected on the original foundations of the Temple of Helios (the sun god)

The palace was erected on the original foundations of the Temple of Helios (the sun god)

Ottoman influence

Ottoman influence

The Turks seized Rhodes from the Knights and occupied the town

The Turks seized Rhodes from the Knights and occupied the town

Ottoman influences are juxtaposed with the earlier Gothic buildings

Ottoman influences are juxtaposed with the earlier Gothic buildings

peaceful courtyard - Rhodes was occupied by the Turks

peaceful courtyard –
Rhodes was occupied by the Turks

We headed back to the Ippokratous square on our way back to the ship to check out the shops and cafes. By then, there was a palpable buzz in the square with many tourists wandering about or just ‘people watching’ while they sipped their espressos. What we thought was curious was the number of shops selling fur coats; not just in Rhodes but also in the other islands. The explanation from one of the shop owners was that these luxury goods were geared up towards the wealthy Russian tourists.

Tourists meandering around the Ippokratous square

Tourists meandering around the Ippokratous square

We would be going back to the town on our second stop and explore the other sites including a walk along the ramparts of the old town walls, the Castellania library located on the Ippokratous square, Temple of Aphrodite on Symi square in front of the Eleftherias Gate (dating back to the 3rd century), the Turkish baths and the beautiful and majestic 11th century church, the ‘Lady of the Castle Cathedral’. This building was first the Orthodox Cathedral of Rhodes before the Knights occupied the island. When the Turks took the island from the knights, they changed it to a mosque, the ‘mosque of Ederum’.

This pretty island is popular as a party place of the rich and famous

This pretty island is popular as a party place of the rich and famous

Mykonos, one of the Cyclades islands was the next stop. This pretty island is popular with the rich and famous as a party place in a similar vein as Ibiza and other fashionable islands of Croatia. It was first made trendy by Jacquie Kennedy Onassis (so we can really blame Mykonos’ notoriety on her). For the more sedate, the island’s beaches, windmills, shops and restaurants are beautiful diversions.

Pretty Mykonos and harbour view

Pretty Mykonos and harbour view

windmill at Mykonos

windmill at Mykonos

We decided to discover the many charms of Mykonos on foot, making our way to the heart of the small village trudging up and down the winding lanes, cutting past little steps next to pretty whitewashed houses which were in stark contrast to the splashes of colours from bougainvillea blossoms. We were warned that the intricate layout of the town would be somewhat confusing, resembling a labyrinth. This was apparently deliberately designed in this manner in order to ward off attacks from pirates of earlier times.

shops in little alleys Mykonos

shops in little alleys Mykonos

houses in the little alleyways- Mykonos

houses in the little alleyways- Mykonos

windy and steep alleyways winding up to another level

windy and steep alleyways winding up to another level

The shops and cafés were most interesting but it was far too early to have a sip of ouzo at one of the cafés as suggested earlier by the guide stationed at the Seabourn Square.

Art Gallery at Mykonos

Art Gallery at Mykonos

more interesting art-Mykonos

more interesting art-Mykonos

Church at the top of the hill

Church at the top of the hill

We made our way towards the windmills to take in the famous emblem that is synonymous to Mykonos. The windmills can be seen as one approaches the island from the sea and from each vantage point in the village. Discovering Mykonos was undeniably a feast for the senses.

fresh seafood for Greek cuisine on the Seabourn Odyssey

fresh seafood for Greek cuisine on the Seabourn Odyssey

on the Seabourn we feasted on Greek food

on the Seabourn we feasted on Greek food

After enjoying a sumptuous meal and entertainment on board  that evening , we were all set to discover more enchanting Greek isles for our last seven island hopping days .

 

 

Monemvassia, Greece

Adriatic Cruise Croatia and the Greek Isles

 Primosten Croatia, Dubrovnik Croatia, Corfu Greece, Nydri Greece, Katakolon Greece, Monemvassia Greece, Piraeus ( Athens) Greece

Croatia:

We awoke to a beautiful day on the first day of our Eastern Mediterranean Cruise. With restrained enthusiasm , we set to shore as soon as the first tender was available. Primošten in Croatia, is a small town in the coast of the Adriatic known for its vineyards and unspoilt coastline. Primošten was an island but when the Turks invaded it in 1542, walls and towers were built to fortify the island from future invasions. To allow access to the mainland for the villagers, a drawbridge was used to connect Primošten to the mainland. Much later when the Turks retreated, a causeway was built to replace the bridge. On our shore excursion we found Primošten to be a charming fishing village that still had a medieval feel to it. Our main focus while there was to stroll through the narrow winding streets that led up to St. Juraj (St George) parish church. This old church was built in 1485 on the highest point of the island. We took our time to go up to the top of the hill to see the church and then slowly meandered down the promenade along the beach. It was the end of the season so fortunately for us; there wasn’t much competition for choice spots in the pristine beaches.

the beach - Primosten Croatia, Seabourn odyssey anchored nearby

the beach – Primosten Croatia, Seabourn odyssey anchored nearby

Bronze sculpture of Fisherman- Primosten Croatia

Bronze sculpture of Fisherman- Primosten Croatia

The next port of call the following day was the UNESCO World Heritage listed medieval town of Dubrovnik, in southern Croatia on the Adriatic Sea. Despite the destruction of the walled city during the Yugoslav army siege in 1991-92, the city was rebuilt and has retained its charm. The best way to get a feel of Dubrovnik is to see the sights on foot. We wandered through the ‘Old Town’ encircled by the 16th century high stonewalls that was built to protect the town’s citizens from invasion. Despite the threatening rainclouds, we joined the hundreds of tourists to admire the baroque church of St Blaise, the Assumption Cathedral, the Renaissance influenced Sponza Palace and the Gothic Rector’s Palace. Not to be missed in Dubrovnik is the imposing 13th century Dominican Monastery in the eastern side of the city which houses treasures and books that any art lover would die for. The rich art collection includes the altarpiece of St Magdalene by Tizian, the painted crucifix by the noted 14th century Venetian painter Paolo Veneziano and of course Dubrovnik artists masterpieces by Nikola Božidarević, Lovro Dobričević and Mihajlo Hamzić. The old town’s appeal for me was the Strada or main shopping area lined with shops, art galleries, coffee bars, bistros and restaurants. We then wandered down to see where the location of King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, of the popular TV series Game of Thrones was filmed. A dramatic setting indeed!

Stradun Dubrovnik Placa

Stradun Dubrovnik Placa

shopping area lined with shops, art galleries, coffee bars, bistros and restaurants- Dubrovnik

shopping area lined with shops, art galleries, coffee bars, bistros and restaurants- Dubrovnik

King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms-Game of Thrones

King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms-Game of Thrones

UNESCO World Heritage listed medieval town of Dubrovnik

UNESCO World Heritage listed medieval town of Dubrovnik

As the wind picked up, the rain started pelting down and we decided to call it a day and went back to the comfort of the Seabourn Odyssey and enjoy its first class amenities.

Spa and relaxation area on the Seabourn Odyssey

Spa and relaxation area on the Seabourn Odyssey

Gym and Training area

Gym and Training area

On the Seabourn that evening, I was hoping Peka would be on the menu. A friend who just spent a week slumming it around Croatia mentioned this traditional Croatian dish from the Dalmatian region. Meat, specifically lamb and vegetables drizzled with olive oil, wine, herbs and garlic is slowly baked to perfection under a bell-like dome, or ispod čripnje. Unfortunately, food wasn’t Croatian ‘themed’ that evening but the chef’s offerings from the Thomas Keller for Seabourn menu more than made up for my hankering for a taste of Peka.

Thomas Keller cuisine on the Seabourn Odyssey

Thomas Keller cuisine on the Seabourn Odyssey

We left the rainy shores of Dubrovnik, Croatia for the Greek Isles and looked forward to the ‘promise’ of sunshine, idyllic beaches, clear turquoise waters and antiquities. In the next 3 weeks, we were to cruise and explore choice islands of the Adriatic, Ionian, Mediterranean, Aegean Seas and the Sea of Crete.

Our Greek odyssey began from the isle of Corfu or Kerkyra, the second largest island in the Ionian, first settled by the Corcyrans in the 8th century. Corfu is known to be the most lush and green island in Greece due to its heavy winter rainfall which apparently rivals that of London. Corfu has a very European and cosmopolitan feel to it. The Old Town with its narrow cobbled medieval streets, steep stairways and arched alleys was given a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2007. With almost 500 years history of Venetian, French and British rule, Corfu has a lot to offer its visitors.

We joined a shore excursion that took us from the port straight to Paleokastritsa famous for its wooded hills and sheltered fine beaches. It is also where the Paleokastritsa monastery, founded in 1226, is situated. Unfortunately on arrival, we were turned back due to big rocks that blocked the narrow windy road caused by landslide the day before. Apparently the famous heavy winter rain started a little bit early. Much to our disappointment, we were unable to reach the monastery and had to detour. Instead, we spent considerable time exploring the pretty beaches and headed for Kanoni where the old cannons still stood. It was also a good vantage point to admire the view across the bay of the convent of Viacherna and Mouse Island.

village life in Paleokastritsa Corfu

village life in Paleokastritsa Corfu

convent of Viacherna and Mouse Island.

convent of Viacherna and Mouse Island

wooded hills and sheltered fine beaches -Paleokastritsa

wooded hills and sheltered fine beaches -Paleokastritsa

On our way back we were given time to sightsee in Corfu Town noted for its two imposing 400-year-old forts designed by Venetian engineers. They were built to protect the Adriatic from invasions of the Ottomans. The Old town was easy to explore on foot. The labyrinth of narrow alleys led us to its two celebrated churches; the 16th century basilica of Agios Spyridon ( St Spyridon) housing the remains of the island’s patron saint in a silver casket and the Agia Theodora Mitropolis Orthodox Cathedral, which interestingly also has the remains of  Saint Theodora, who was a Byzantine Empress. Revered by the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is said that her remains were brought back to Corfu (Kerkyra) in 1456. In a story of drawn-out twists and turns, somehow, the remains found its way in the Mitropolis Orthodox Cathedral. Her head is covered because she was a nun when she died but this covered head brought about a rumour that her body was headless. Apparently, this myth was simply just a misunderstanding.

Old Town Corfu

Old Town Corfu

Old Town-Corfu

Old Town-Corfu

Old Town Corfu

Old Town Corfu

The Venetians ruled Corfu for more than 400 years and there is much evidence of Venetian influence in Corfu town, from the Old Fort to the ‘Spaniatha’ or Esplanade, the narrow streets and the tucked away small squares, the coffee houses and pastries, the ambience and architecture in Corfu are distinctly Venetian. ‘Spaniatha’ or the Esplanade, a green area between the town and opposite the old fort was created and completed during the brief French Occupation of the Napoleonic Wars. Just across, on the west side of the Esplanade is the arcade known as ‘Liston’ noticeable for its French style architecture, similar to the style of arcaded buildings in the Rue de Rivoli (located in the right bank of Paris). But what caught our attention was the cricket ground; a legacy of British rule which took over Corfu right after the French left. Also from the British, in the north end of the Esplanade is the Royal Palace of Corfu or the Palace of St Michael and St George, built in 1820 under the stewardship of Army General Whitmore. It is now the Museum of Asiatic Arts, the Historical Archive and the Classic Relics Authority of Corfu.

400-year-old forts designed by Venetian engineers

400-year-old forts designed by Venetian engineers

The stroll around town was interrupted by rain and our guide along with everyone else thought it was a good idea to go back to the port where we once again sought the comfort of  our floating hotel, the Seabourn Odyssey.

The following morning we found ourselves in Nydri in the Ionian island of Lefkas (Lefkada). Of late, Nydri has become trendy among European holidaymakers due to its proximity to the Greek mainland and its fine beaches. The highlight for us was the walk along the small seaside village and through the trail that brought us to the waterfalls. I preferred a swim on the Seabourn pool so we went back to the ship, had a fabulous lunch as usual at the Patio Grill  and a relaxing afternoon by the pool.

The Olympic games as everyone knows, originated in Greece so with a lot of enthusiasm, we joined another shore excursion the next morning to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic games. From the port of Katakolon, our bus took us through hills and olive groves to reach the archaeological site and museum. Situated in a wide valley where the rivers Alpheios and Kladeo meet, at the foot of the Kronion Hill is Altis , an important sanctuary to the gods dating back from the 10th century BC to the 4th century AD. The ancient Greeks worshipped their 2 principal deities and constructed the Sanctuary and altar of Zeus where today the ruins of the temples of these ancient Greek gods Zeus and Hera remain. From the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, this was the site for the Pan- Hellenic or Olympic games, held every four years. This important event set the standard for the competition showcasing the prowess of bodies and minds among the athletes of nations. In awe of our surrounds, while walking through the ruins, baths and temples, my imagination drifted to an era when the Greek gods and athletes reigned supreme. I was rudely brought back to the ‘now’ with an interesting trivia told by our guide. It would seem that the ancient Greeks liked the physique of the male body so much that they were known to unashamedly walk around and train in the nude. The Olympic ideal of excellence in physical strength and a strong mind were only for male athletes, and guess what? They competed in the nude! Mind you, she also said that some athletes were known to wear some contraption or restraint to protect their genitals. Imagine running, wrestling, discus throwing and whatever else in the nude! Alas, the spoilers of this great competition were the Roman Christians who in 393 AD conquered Greece. Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great banned the games saying it was a pagan ritual. The games did not happen until its revival in 1896. Of course these days, we know that Olympia is still important to contemporary athletes as the torch for the modern Olympic games is ceremoniously lit there, where it all began. Runners carry it on a relay to the site of the games, wherever that host country may be.

Temple of Zeus at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Olympia

Temple of Zeus at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Olympia

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

Archea Olympia

Archea Olympia

The stadium at the archaeological site of Olympia, Greece

The stadium at the archaeological site of Olympia, Greece

Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic games

Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic games

There was a lot to take in. For the imaginative, it’s not difficult to conjure images of these ancient athletes as one goes along remains of the temples and grounds. One of the interesting places in the site is the Archaeological Museum of Ancient Olympia where artefacts from the days of antiquities are on display. Notable among these statues is the one of Hermes, attributed to Praxiteles the most renowned Attic sculptor of the 4th century BC and was said to be the first to sculpt the nude female form in a life-size statue.

After the awesomeness of Olympia, we didn’t expect to have another day of yet more amazing discoveries. But at the next port, looking out from our tender, we saw a nondescript island, more like a towering massive rugged rock. Nothing spectacular about it we thought , but the surprise that awaited us would prove us so wrong.

The island of Monemvassia (in the Greek language, the name literally means ‘single entrance’) off the east coast of the Peloponnese is linked to the mainland by a short causeway. Founded in the 6th century most likely by the Spartans, Monemvassia was fortified during attempts by the Slavs to invade this island. Regardless, in years to come, the Franks, Venetians and the Turks also held Monemvassia. Architecture and art that hint of these various cultures were later evident during our stroll through the old fortified village.

From the pier, we decided to walk along the causeway, 200 meters long to reach the fortress wall, whose  impressive, massive spiked door was a legacy of the island’s fortification.

clear water on the beach as we strolled along the causeway to the fortress

clear water on the beach as we strolled along the causeway to the fortress

spiked door at the entrance of the fortress in old Monemvassia

spiked door at the entrance of the fortress in old Monemvassia

Shuttle buses to transport visitors from the pier to the gate were in fact available but it was such a glorious day, we decided to walk off the excesses of meals we’ve had on the Seabourn. It was an easy stroll. In under half an hour after many stops to admire the clear turquoise waters surrounding the island, we reached the entrance of the very old gate. Our aim was to meander through the cobblestone (meant only for pedestrians) and walk right up to the Kastro or citadel. The experience that was Monemvassia was enhanced by the enchanting narrow alleyways and arches, flower bedecked tall, slim stone houses and bougainvillea trees in bloom. Quaint little shops selling handcrafted wares as well as little Greek tavernas (with spectacular views of the sea) lined the alleyways.

enchanting narrow alleyways and arches, flower bedecked bougainvillea trees in bloom - Monemvassia, Greece

enchanting narrow alleyways and arches, flower bedecked bougainvillea trees in bloom – Monemvassia, Greece

Midway up the main street was a little square (the main square) we saw an old ship cannon, the 13th century Christ Elkomenos Cathedral (Christ Drawn to His Passion or Christ in Chains) built by the Byzantines and restored by the Venetians, and the bell tower looming next to it. The Cathedral noted for its Byzantine bas -relief of peacocks also houses an ancient icon masterpiece from the 14th century. In contrast, the Archaeological Museum across the square was in an impressive 16th century Turkish mosque. It exhibits artefacts, architectural sculptures and ceramic objects from the early Christian period to Byzantine times. These were found and unearthed within the fortress walls.

 

13th century Christ Elkomenos Cathedral -main square Monemvassia

13th century Christ Elkomenos Cathedral -main square Monemvassia

 At the Main square midway up the Old Town Monemvassia

At the Main square midway up the Old Town Monemvassia

Undaunted by what seemed to be a steeper climb up to the abandoned upper town, we gingerly made our way the seemingly vertical and not too easy climb path. On the way, we saw ruins of very old buildings until we reached the beautiful and preserved 12th century Byzantine church, the Aghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) also named Panagia Hodegetria. This building, an octagonal domed church is a faithful copy (albeit a small version) of the Aghia Sophia in Istanbul. Seeing its beautiful sculptured decoration dating back to the 12th century, its sculptured door, marble reliefs and frescoes also dating to late 12th and early 13th century made the experience  well worth the challenging climb up. We were told later that the highest peak of the town is about 656 feet above sea level. We were thrilled that we were able to get close to the top. Not bad for a morning walk.

12th century Byzantine church, the Aghia Sophia

12th century Byzantine church, the Aghia Sophia

frescoes dating to late 12th and early 13th century inside the Aghia Sophia

frescoes dating to late 12th and early 13th century inside the Aghia Sophia

sculptures and icons dating back to the 12th century

sculptures and icons dating back to the 12th century

If the climb up was a trial, the way down, descending and avoiding slippery stones was even more intimidating. I would not recommend this for the faint hearted but if one is adventurous, just make sure to wear good, sturdy walking shoes. Still, the upside really was the breath taking views of the Myrtoan (or Mirtoan) Sea, the water so clear, we could see the rocks in the bottom of sea even from high up where we stood.

breath taking views of the Myrtoan Sea from the highest point of Old Monemvassia

breath taking views of the Myrtoan Sea from the highest point of Old Monemvassia

The hidden gem that is Monemvassia was indeed an unexpected and pleasant surprise. One that for me, was the most stunning place we have visited during this Greek island hopping cruise on board the Seabourn Odyssey.

We reached the port of Piraeus* the next morning where we disembarked to join an excursion to discover Athens. This first exploration would be to the Acropolis, inscribed in 1987 as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Athens is a major embarkation and disembarkation port for the Seabourn cruises around the Mediterranean. Due to the emergency situation in Turkey, our 21-day cruise would take us to Athens 3 times in lieu of Istanbul. By this time, we have overcome our disappointment thanks to the efforts made by Seabourn to make this cruise another one to remember. (The second stop in Athens would be an excursion to the Corinth canal courtesy of Seabourn)

*The Port of Piraeus is the largest Greek seaport and one of the biggest in the Mediterranean Sea. The Port of Piraeus served as the port of Athens since the ancient times- source: wikipedia

Athens is regarded as one of the greatest and oldest cities in the world and has been inhabited for as long as 5,000 years. While Athens is the capital city of Modern Greece, it was also the leading city in Ancient Greece and the seat of western civilisation. The city was named after Athena, the goddess of wisdom, war and crafts and the favourite daughter of Zeus, the principal deity or king of the Olympian gods. The state or city is so well positioned that even the gods duelled to have the honour to have it named after them. According to legend, Zeus tried to make the competition friendly between the 2 leading contenders, Poseidon and Athena by asking them to offer a gift to the people of Athens. The people of Athens were to choose which gift they would accept and from this, the winner would be determined. Poseidon (who happens to be the brother of Zeus and uncle of Athena) struck the rock of the Acropolis, opening a spring of water (signifying success in land war and at sea) whereas Athena dropped a seed to the ground that immediately grew into an olive tree symbolising peace, wisdom and prosperity. The citizens of Athens accepted the latter and the city was named after her.

As we gathered on the foot of the *Acropolis which stood 230 feet above the city, we were glad that we were in this open air museum of Greek antiquity and culture in October and not during the height of the summer season when the complex is normally swarming with crowds of tourists and students. Even then during our visit, there were already lots of people queuing to enter the Acropolis.

(*Acropolis means a citadel built on a high hill; from the Greek words Akro, high or extreme and Polis or city)

We wasted no time to make our way to the top at the Parthenon, the largest Doric Greek temple and one of the most important religious sites in ancient Athens. In terms of architecture, the Parthenon is in fact considered innovative because it represents the two architectural styles of Doric and the newer Ionic. Built between 447 and 432 BCE the temple measured 30.88 m by 69.5 m and was constructed using a 4:9 ratio in several aspects

mock up of what the ancient city of Athens on the acropolis

mock up of what the ancient city of Athens on the acropolis looked like

the Parthenon in Athens

the Parthenon in Athens

Statues, some well preserved and others that are replicas (most were brought to the new Acropolis museum in Athens) were of the Greek gods. Since the city is dedicated to its patron, Athena, we could only appreciate Homer’s poems, the Iliad and Odyssey, both fascinating sources of information about Greek gods and mythology.

Thanks to general and statesman Pericles, during the Golden Age of Athens (480 BC-404 BC) the city flourished culturally and economically with a powerful city-state government that had its laws, army and navy. Despite the defeat of Athens to Sparta during the Peloponnese War, the best of Greek culture and achievements were preserved.

For more detailed description of the Acropolis, I recommend this site:

https://www.athensguide.com/acropolis.html)

The next major stop was at the New Acropolis Museum, below the Acropolis and situated at the Pláka or the old historical district of Athens. We marvelled at the exhibition of varied treasures of the Acropolis, the highlight being the Parthenon Frieze, located on the top floor.

at the New Acropolis Museum

Alexander the Great, plaster copy at the New Acropolis Museum

We were then taken on a scenic drive through Athens, seeing the Syntagma Square or Constitution Square, the heart of modern Athens. It is symbolic of contemporary Greece. Lined with luxury hotels, commercial buildings, banks, bustling cafes and restaurants and al fresco dining venues the square was an interesting image. Through the drive we saw the Parliament building, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the stadium for the modern Olympics. A heady day full of iconic landmarks of ancient and classic civilisation and history, Athens is indeed a fascinating city of the old and the cosmopolitan new.

We sailed away saying au revoir to Athens to visit more Greek isles on our second week; this time to the Aegean Sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Venice- embarkation point for the cruise

Eastern Mediterranean Cruise from Venice to the Greek Isles

Venice, Croatia and numerous Greek Isles – from the Adriatic to the Aegean Sea on the Seabourn Odyssey

 Long before Rick Stein released his TV series and cookbook ‘From Venice to Istanbul’, my husband and I have discussed a similar travel itinerary. We’ve always wanted to check out the Byzantine route from Venice either by sea or rail and along the way, explore ruins, taste local cuisine and learn about the people, art and culture of early western civilisation.

We chose to travel by sea. What really motivated us to take the plunge and book a Seabourn cruise from Venice to Istanbul was the signature event at Ephesus exclusive to Seabourn guests. The blurb read something like this: “Evening at Ephesus… you can spend an exclusive evening in this ancient city, sipping champagne and admiring the torch-lit ruins as classical musicians serenade you with a private concert”.

Wouldn’t that be an experience? I had my sights on an early autumn (northern hemisphere) departure from Venice then spend a week or so in Istanbul and venture to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Spice market and also and perhaps land tours to Cappadocia, Turkey. But not everything goes according to plan. Just when our trip was confirmed, an “emergency” situation was declared in Istanbul and all cruises and flights to Istanbul were cancelled. To make matters worse and to our dismay, Ephesus as a port of call was cancelled.

Due to the gravity of the situation in Turkey, Seabourn had no choice but to make changes and the motto ‘safety first’ was expressed in communications we received. Even our travel insurance provider warned us of non-coverage in Turkey. We had no safe option other than to wait and see what alternatives were to be provided. Seabourn bent over backwards and offered numerous replacements for the Ephesus and Istanbul ports. The ‘off the beaten track’ smaller Greek islands were the substitutes, hidden gems that only small intimate Seabourn ships can access. In defiance of the so-called “emergency”, and as we could no longer go to Turkey, we extended what was to be a 14-day cruise to another 7 days to include more ports in the Aegean Sea. Why not? And so, off we went to our port of embarkation, Venice.

Venice in October is busy. But isn’t it always? The last time we were in Venice was with our sons just a few years ago. It was in the summer and the crowd, heat and chaos took away the magic of being in Venice. So never again! This time, we opted to fly into Venice airport instead of arriving by train. My husband, a rail aficionado normally prefers trains when commuting in and around Europe. This was a good call. To get to our hotel, we took the water taxi, which in itself was a fun experience. For me there is always something seductive about the water and approaching our hotel weaving our way through the canals by water taxi set the tone of what would be one of our most relaxing holidays.

the pontoon where we were to get on our water taxi in Venice

the pontoon where we were to get on our water taxi in Venice

gliding through the canals of Venice on the water taxi

gliding through the canals of Venice on the water taxi

on way to the hotel, glimpses of this fabulous city

on way to the hotel, glimpses of this fabulous city

canal view from our hotel window

canal view from our hotel window

Getting around Venice lugging heavy suitcases is not easy so in anticipation of our embarkation on the Seabourn Odyssey at the port of Venice, we chose a hotel within walking distance to the People Mover(The People Mover is an elevated tramway system), the hotel Arlecchino on the Fondamenta delle Burchielle across one bridge from the Piazzale Roma. There are 2 cruise terminals in Venice, the main one for bigger ships is the Marittima and the San Basilio Pier for smaller ships. As it turned out later, due to some glitch, our ship docked in the smaller port of San Basilio, a short land taxi ride from our hotel. There is a lot of information on how to get to either cruise terminals on this site.

serene and tranquil , canal from our hotel room window

serene and tranquil , canal from our hotel room window

But first, our favourite subject.. Food! Proximity of Venice to the sea means many Venetian cuisine is seafood based. The highlight for us was dinner in Trattoria la Rosa dei Venti near the hotel. I ordered the squid ink pasta (which I just adored!) with scallops, shrimps and chilli cooked in garlic and olive oil and my husband had the grilled scampi. Delicious!

one of my favourites, the squid ink pasta

one of my favourites, the squid ink pasta

grilled scampi- simple but delicious

grilled scampi- simple but delicious

Food in Venice is an attraction in itself and other than the usual places of interests and museums to visit; when in Venice we always make time for the Rialto Food Market where Venetians have purchased their daily food supply since 1097. This bustling market has everything from seafood, meat, poultry fresh produce and gelato and sweet stores in nearby shops.

how can one say no to a gelato treat? Venice Gelato shop beckons

how can one say no to a gelato treat? Venice Gelato shop beckons

ripe, juicy, tomatoes at the Rialto Market in Venice

ripe, juicy, tomatoes at the Rialto Market in Venice

 Erberia-vegetable market at the Rialto in Venice

Erberia-vegetable market at the Rialto in Venice

Rialto's seafood offering at the Pescheria section

Rialto’s seafood offering at the Pescheria section

The Rialto is open daily from 7 am to 1pm except for the Pescheria (fish market) and Erberia (vegetable market), which close on Mondays, open from Tuesdays to Saturdays. Be sure to be there early with the locals, preferably before lunchtime even if just to soak in the ambience and a chance to witness the locals in action.

cured sausages (salami) at the Rialto market.

cured sausages (salami) at the Rialto market.

Locals and tourists enjoying the offering at the wine bar, Rialto market

Locals and tourists enjoying the offering at the wine bar, Rialto market

variety of poultry and meat at the Rialto market

variety of poultry and meat at the Rialto market

It’s easy to find: located alongside the Grand Canal, to the north-west of the Rialto Bridge in the district of San Polo, one can get there on a Vaporetto on the Grand Canal stop at Rialto, on the left bank of the Grand Canal.

Campo San Giacomo, Venice Veneto, Italy

Campo San Giacomo, Venice Veneto, Italy

gorgeous artisanal shop in Venice

gorgeous artisanal shop in Venice

interesting masks, dolls, arts and crafts et al in Venice

interesting masks, dolls, arts and crafts et al in Venice

View from the Rialto of the Grand Canal

View from the Rialto of the Grand Canal

Iconic Venetian gondola

Iconic Venetian gondola

at one of the districts in Venice, an oasis:Venezia Sestiere Cannaregio

at one of the districts in Venice, an oasis:Venezia Sestiere Cannaregio

the impressive Grand Canal, Venice

the impressive Grand Canal, Venice

water water everywhere- the busy Grand Canal,Venice

water water everywhere- the busy Grand Canal,Venice

All too soon it was embarkation day and we proceeded to the San Basilio terminal and check in. The Seabourn Odyssey would be our floating hotel for 3 weeks. The Seabourn greet and meet ritual is always impressive and we were anticipating a fun ‘sail away’ party that evening. Recalling valuable advice from a gentleman we met on our first Seabourn cruise we went out to the deck. He advised that if we ever do a Seabourn cruise that sets sail from Venice, we must be sure to be up on deck, secure a good position with our cameras on the port side as this was where we would have the views of Venice.  He wasn’t wrong. Saying arrivederci to Venice with Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of Puccini’s famous aria Nessun dorma providing the ambience, the Seabourn Odyssey slowly gliding through the Adriatic Sea was indeed a ‘goose bump’ moment.For me it was one of the more spectacular ‘sail away’ events on the Seabourn seeing iconic Venetian buildings from a height in the dusk.

Seabourn sail away from Venice , patio and pool all lit up and music from Pavarotti providing the ambience

Seabourn sail away from Venice , patio and pool all lit up and music from Pavarotti providing the ambience

Basilica di San Marco from the upper deck of the Seabourn during sail away

Basilica di San Marco from the upper deck of the Seabourn during sail away

Piazza San Marco as seen from the deck of the Seabourn Odyssey

Piazza San Marco as seen from the deck of the Seabourn Odyssey

View of Venice as we sailed away into the Adriatic Sea

View of Venice as we sailed away into the Adriatic Sea

Arrivederci Venezia

Arrivederci Venezia

The next adventure has began….next stop , Croatia.

 

often referred to as the "true" Grand Canyon, the south rim entrance is popular among visitors

Santa Fe to Grand Canyon South Rim

Last leg- Santa Fe, Flagstaff, South Rim Grand Canyon and Sedona.

It wasn’t a good day to drive anywhere, especially down to New Mexico. At Cortez, we could see dark clouds on the horizon and rain was a certainty. So instead of taking US-160E and US 84-E as planned, we took the advice from the friendly young man at the hotel reception and headed south using a direct but scenic route to Santa Fe. The route he suggested was US 550-S then 1-25N/Old Pecos Trail in Santa Fe County. This was an estimated 278 miles and 4.5 to 5 hours drive on a good day.

route we took from Cortez to Santa Fe

route we took from Cortez to Santa Fe

As soon as it was possible, we started our journey to Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico. However, a couple of hours into the drive, the heavens opened with such ferocity that it affected our visibility. We needed to slow down to 30 miles an hour but we weren’t alone. We saw a few of our fellow road travellers on their Harley Davidsons soaked to their skin and some sensible ones took shelter at petrol/gas stations. Lucky our caddy was waterproof!

The rain was relentless. It didn’t get any better when we finally reached historic Santa Fe a few hours later. The heavy downpour seemed to follow us from a few hours back and it somewhat spoiled our plans to explore the town proper that evening. We wanted to head straight to the heart of the city and its renowned Plaza to soak in its distinctly old world Spanish ambience but the rain was a real spoiler. Fortunately, the intimate Santa Fe Motel and Inn was a lovely and delightful refuge from the rain. The staff were efficient and friendly and suggested we try the Italian restaurant, Andiamo, just next to the motel. We really didn’t want to drive in the rain to search for a good meal so this was a welcome option. We weren’t disappointed. The menu featured some of our favourite Italian classics and the restaurant’s atmosphere lent a unique Santa Fe twist to the whole dining experience.

delicious Italian meal at Andiamo restaurant, Santa Fe, New Mexico

delicious Italian meal at Andiamo restaurant, Santa Fe, New Mexico

But in fact, the evening was also made more interesting by an encounter with a lone English traveller dining by himself. Seated at a table next to us, we noted the bottle of red wine he was enjoying while perusing a USA road trip travel book (as one does when travelling solo). To break the ice, my husband enquired whether he would recommend the wine he was having… the rest of the evening was a pleasant exchange of travel stories, opinions and suggestions. It turned out our new acquaintance was a fan of American music and earlier in his youth, was inspired to see America by road, on a Mustang to visit towns and cities he has heard in pop tunes. He was pretty much exploring the south west as we were doing but stopping also at places like Wichita (from the well known tune sang by Glen Campbell -Wichita Lineman) , San Francisco ( Scott Mackenzie’s If you’re going to San Francisco) Lodi ( Credence Clearwater Revival) Las Vegas ( Viva Las Vegas by Elvis Presley) San Jose ( Do you know the way to San Jose) and the list went on. He said, growing up, he had a map of the USA on his wall with different coloured pins so he could plot a route for an adventure he swore he would experience one day. It was to be a trip of a lifetime with a friend who shared the same wish. Unfortunately his friend died unexpectedly. What a wake up call! His sympathetic wife didn’t want to travel but nevertheless urged him to realise the dream on his own. So here he was, seeing and experiencing America on his rented Mustang with the American tunes he downloaded on his iPod, blaring away. The next day after breakfast, my husband showed off our rented caddy and in turn was invited by the Englishman to take his rented Mustang for a spin. Men and their toys! And you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that there will be another American road trip for us down the track on a Mustang.

We only had half a day to have a slice of the Santa Fe experience, so after breakfast we headed straight to the Plaza. What we saw of this picturesque and conspicuously Spanish –Mexican influenced town was so impressive; we earmarked it for a longer visit in the near future.

delicious, freshly baked rolls at theSanta Fe Motel and Inn .

delicious, freshly baked rolls at theSanta Fe Motel and Inn .

On the road again taking 1-40 W, this time we were going to head straight to Flagstaff for a couple of nights where we were going to visit the south entrance of the Grand Canyon and a day trip to Sedona. The afternoon trip was more pleasant than the drive to Santa Fe the day before and traversing the 384 miles took us only a good 6 hours.

After a long drive, once settled in Flagstaff, we didn’t want to venture too far from our motel for dinner. We ended up going to Buffalo Wild Wings across the road at 2700 S Woodlands Village Blvd. A lively and noisy venue for sports enthusiasts, the bar/restaurant boasts of more than 30 large flat screen TVs tuned to various sports games. The menu was typical of American bar food and we naturally tried the wings (which they are famous for) and shared a plate of fries and chicken quesadilla. I’m sure the wings would have pleased my palate had it not been smothered with their legendary sauce but apparently that’s how the local patrons like it. Hmmm…

Finally, the last major sight to visit transpired the next day. The 80-mile drive to the South rim Grand Canyon from Flagstaff was pretty and took approximately 2 hours (via route I-40 W then highway 64 N). This entrance to the Grand Canyon is open all year round and very popular among families and overseas visitors. On arrival at the park gate we drove to the parking area (be sure to come early specially at the height of the summer season as the four parking areas can get crowded) and made the Visitor Centre our first stop. While there, we watched a 20-minute movie of the Grand Canyon rim and river, called Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder. It was engrossing and educational.

This is how the Grand Canyon looks like as explained by and courtesy of the Visitor Centre

This is how the Grand Canyon looks like as explained by and courtesy of the Visitor Centre

We then took the free shuttle bus to the overlooks and walked along Mather Point and Yavapai Point. Needless to say, the views were spectacular and from this vantage point, we could clearly see and feel the difference between the north and south rims.

breathtaking views from Mather Point

breathtaking views from Mather Point

overlooking the south rim from Mather Point

overlooking the south rim from Mather Point

another vantage point to admire the Grand Canyon south

another vantage point to admire the Grand Canyon south

As we have earlier visited the north during our stay at Kanab we were somewhat more knowledgeable about the geology of the Grand Canyon. Regardless we made an effort to visit the Yavapai geology museum which is situated at Yavapai Point overlook. There we had a more thorough orientation on how the almighty 1,450-mile-long (2,330 km) Colorado River and nature sculpted the Grand Canyon. It is highly recommended to visit this museum, if not for the views one can see through the panoramic windows. At the end of this exploration, I personally felt so privileged to have seen the staggering beauty of the Grand Canyon and the many natural attractions within the Colorado Plateau. Everything we saw was spectacular but I still somewhat favour Grand Canyon North overall as it really was a very peaceful spiritual place and I felt connected to nature and God. A truly humbling experience.

unique and spectacular vista of the Grand Canyon- south

unique and spectacular vista of the Grand Canyon- south

Since we had an extra day at Flagstaff, we decided to enjoy our stop here with a day trip to Sedona. It wasn’t far to drive, about an hour and a few minutes to traverse the 30-mile distance on AZ 89-A. But my husband who was driving the wide caddy didn’t like the winding road at all and took a little bit of care and time to take us to our destination. Surrounded by pine forests, red buttes and canyons, the pretty little town resembled a village out of a fairy tale book cover. The main street was lined with interesting little shops selling arty things, gemstones, galleries and restaurants. The town had a ‘New Age’ feel to it which reminded us somewhat of Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia and Noosa , north of Brisbane, Queensland Australia. We enjoyed the day just meandering and leisurely taking in the town’s views and character while fossicking and perusing the various shops. Though we liked the pretty town, it was a bit anti-climactic and felt that seeing the various places within the Colorado Plateau, unfairly made us accustomed to the beauty around us. In the outskirts of the village there are camping and picnic grounds for families, most notable being Red Rock State Park.

Soon it was time to pack and move on to make our way to California and visit my family. We were also scheduled to return the caddy there. Having finally completed and crossed off one of the things we wanted to experience before we get too old, I can guarantee that the road trip was one big awesome experience and confirms what Stephen Fry said… that America is a beautiful, vast, country and interesting in its diversity. It is definitely God’s country !

 

 

 

 

iconic Monument Valley

Monument Valley to Canyon de Chelly

Monument Valley- Kayenta, Mexican Hat, Bluff and Canyon de Chelly

Our brief sojourn at Lake Powell Resort was very pleasant. Stephen Fry will be happy to know that thanks to him, our USA road trip with Lake Powell as the incentive was due to his fascinating TV series on America. We would have liked to linger for a few more days but unfortunately we had to continue this fabulous American southwest road trip and make our way to Monument Valley via highway 160. We estimated approximately 3 hours of continuous driving to cover the 126 miles (203 km) distance between Page, Arizona and Monument Valley.

Thanks to John Wayne and iconic western (cowboy) movies, Monument Valley is recognisable due to its various landscape used as the setting for many Western films. Located within the Navajo Tribal Park, Monument Valley is 5,564 ft. above sea level and lies on the border between southeastern Utah and northeastern Arizona. Driving into what is seemingly desolate flat land, the red rock formations of buttes and mesas, route 160 took us to the heart of well known images of the valley, that of stark red cliffs and the mesas at Monument Pass .
Our guidebook suggested to head towards the valley (on the Arizona and Utah border) from the north as it apparently provides a spectacular and dramatic image of the Southwest area. One drives through a long and flat road for miles and miles to the crimson desert towards the 1,000 foot cliffs. Cutting through the sealed road towards the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the Visitor centre is easy to spot. The centre complex has the usual gift shop and amenities as well as an area to view the stunning landscape, the Lookout Point. Here, one can clearly see the identifiable group of red cliffs and buttes.

Monument Valley

rugged landscape Monument Valley

For a closer look at these rock formations, the park’s scenic road or Valley Drive takes visitors deep into the impressive landscape. We made a choice not to go through Valley Drive, as this road is unpaved. What would it do to our rented ‘caddy’ then? It wasn’t an option at all so we stayed near and around the complex using sealed roads. Regardless, we saw everything we wanted to see from the lookout and had time to explore the visor complex, which had an informative exhibit of the Navajo Tribe.

Some handy tips:

1. Find out when daylight saving is inasmuch as Navajo Nation observes daylight saving. So depending on the time of year one wants to travel, when daylight saving kicks in, there will be a time change from the southern routes such as Page Arizona, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas to Monument Valley.

2. There is so much to see along Valley Drive and if one is adventurous and want to really explore, options include horse rental, a basic tour of the valley, and more involved but expensive tours that are off the beaten track.

Having had our fill of the magnificent panorama, we headed north, using route 163-N towards Mexican Hat and eventually Bluff where we had previously arranged lodgings at the Desert Rose Inn. Mexican Hat is actually a small town on the San Juan River on the northern edge of the Navajo Nations’ borders in south-central San Juan County, Utah. It is named after the strange rock formation that resembles a Mexican hat

Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat

The Dessert Inn at Bluff was a very welcome respite from the drive. It somewhat took us by surprise, albeit a pleasant one. The expanded guesthouse seemed like an oasis in the midst of the rugged country. After settling in our beautiful and comfortable suite, I went for a swim in the well-appointed indoor pool while my husband chatted up a group of middle-aged German men as they parked their great big motorbikes in the driveway. It would seem that as Harley Davidson enthusiasts, high on their bucket list was to explore America on their rented Harleys. What fun! Come to think of it, we noted that all throughout our drive in the southwest, there were indeed quite a few of these legendary bikes but the interesting thing was the motorcycle drivers didn’t ‘speed’ like they do in Australia. Instead, they took their time and roared through the interstate highways while maintaining a speed limit slower than what I would do, if I were to get on a powerful motorbike. Note that I say ‘roar’. This is because the distinctive sound of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine is recognisable. It is such a distinguishing feature of the Harley Davidson engine that the company tried to file a ‘sound trademark’ on February 1, 1994. This resulted to an outcry from its competitors and litigations followed, which in turn made Harley Davidson drop their trademark application in the year 2000.

Soon, it was time to sample the cuisine this small town founded by early Mormon settlers had to offer. After a quick drive around Bluff, we settled for a table and a meal at the Twin Rocks Café. We were fleetingly reminded that we were indeed back in Mormon country and Utah’s restrictive liquor laws. We nevertheless indulged in a glass of wine and one of Utah’s boutique beers, ‘Polygamy Porter’ but it had to be consumed with our meal of a serve of classic buffalo chicken wings and marinated gilled sirloin steak. Delicious and inexpensive!

Twin Rocks Cafe was named after this Twin Rock

Twin Rocks Cafe was named after this Twin Rock

Polygamy Porter

interesting label of Polygamy Porter beer

Utah beer

deliciousPolygamy Porter Beer

The next day, we intended to head straight to Cortez in Colorado but got side tracked. We were told that another nearby attraction, the lesser known Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shay) National Monument, owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation is an easy drive from Bluff . Situated about 98 miles (158 Km) south of Bluff, we travelled via highway 191, approximately 2 hours to Chinle (Apache county in Arizona) a community that serves as a gateway to Canyon de Chelly.

Navajo Indian Hogan at Chinle

Navajo Indian Hogan at Chinle

This change of plan meant delaying our arrival at Cortez by half a day but it was well worth the detour. The scenery along the way was simply exquisite.

At Canyon de Chelly archaeologists found numerous evidence that this area was occupied as early as 5,000 years ago and home to many American Indian tribes as well as the *Ancestral Puebloans.( also referred to as Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning “ancient ones.”)

*an ancient Native American culture in the area of southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado.

The recognisable features of this park are the 1,000 foot steep sandstone walls, one called by the Dine Indian (Navajo) Tribe as Spider Rock, images on the cliff walls and well-preserved Anasazi pueblo ruins on the canyon walls and prehistoric rock art.

Canyon de Chelly washome to many American Indian tribes as early as 5,000 years ago

Canyon de Chelly was home to many American Indian tribes as early as 5,000 years ago

Spider Rock

spider rock spectacular red sandstone monolith formed 280 million years ago, standing 800 foot high

Canyon de Chelly

steep sandstone walls, images on the cliff walls and well-preserved Anasazi pueblo ruins on the canyon walls

steep sandstone walls, images on the cliff walls and well-preserved Anasazi pueblo ruins on the canyon walls and prehistoric rock art

steep sandstone walls, images on the cliff walls and well-preserved Anasazi pueblo ruins on the canyon walls and prehistoric rock art

The few hours it took to explore the different sites at Canyon de Chelly were enchanting. In fact the experience was awesome! Once more, a delightful discovery of one of the most sacred lands in the Navajo Nation cemented the indelible fascination my husband has for America. Alas, it was time to head north to Cortez in Colorado.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The American southwest- the Colorado Plateau region by car

An amazing discovery of the mystery and awesomeness of the Colorado Plateau created by nature billions of years ago… stunning canyons, buttes, vibrant colours and many hidden secrets of the natural beauty of the American Southwest.

Las Vegas, Valley of Fire, Zion Park and Kanab:

Many non- Americans are fascinated by the American Interstate Highway not only because of the impressive modern engineering marvel that it is but also the fact that it was a catalyst for economic progress and changes in American cultural expression. In fact it was President Dwight Eisenhower, 34th president of the USA who made it his mission to have the major arteries of America built and improved for security reasons. He signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which initiated the largest public works program in American history. Since then the longest and most modern system of highways in the world brought America closer together but paradoxically also widened its differences in culture and living conditions.

The highway was also a result of America’s car culture, thanks to the introduction of Henry Ford’s ‘Model T’ in 1908. To underline this phenomenon, in recent times it is estimated that the USA has over 250 million cars and trucks plying the roads and sophisticated interstate network either for work, play and adventure. It is this ‘mythical romance’ attributed to the American highway system that brought us back to our wish list of exploring America by car. So when a planned surprise visit to our son in Vancouver didn’t happen, my Yankeephile husband thought it wasn’t a big deal. We would still go to North America and explore the region that is considered one of the most beautiful in the USA and the world… and this time, by car. The drive would roughly cover the Colorado Plateaus, which is actually the physiographic province that comprises southwestern United States, the southeastern half of Utah, the extreme western and southwestern parts of Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and the northern half of Arizona.

The Colorado Plateau

a large and uplifted region covering areas of Central Utah, Northern Arizona and parts of Colorado and New Mexico.

It was the perfect excuse to realise his ‘wish’ to hire and drive the quintessential American Cadillac. With this in mind we flew to LAX then on to Las Vegas where we spent a couple of days to get over the jet lag, re-visit ‘ The Strip’ and pick up the hired caddy. It was also a chance to check out Rick Harrison and his mates at the world famous Gold and Silver Pawnshop, located in the ‘seedy’ side of town.

Gold and Silver Pawnshop Las Vegas

Rick Harrison ( wax) at the Gold and Silver Pawnshop

Gold andSilver Pawnshop Las Vegas

Rick (the wax) and Bob at the Gold and Silver Pawnshop

Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert is the most populous city in Nevada with 583,756 inhabitants. Vegas is known though for its glitzy ‘strip’, gambling casinos and resorts. In 2015, it welcomed 42,312,216 visitors, 16% of which were from overseas and reported gambling revenue of US$6.3 Billion. Impressive? Perhaps, but a few months before our visit to Las Vegas, we were in Macau, also known as the Las Vegas of Asia. This small peninsula in China reported gambling revenue of 360 billion patacas or US$45 billion in the year 2013. This clearly makes this tiny enclave in the Chinese territories the undisputed winner in the gambling industry. More recently though, there was a dramatic decline in earnings due to a crackdown from the Chinese government on corruption associated with the industry and a ban on smoking in the casinos. But back to Vegas…

We took our sons to see the Grand Canyon when they were young in tandem with stops in LA to visit family and Disneyland. Las Vegas was our base enroute to attractions nearby. At the time, we witnessed the makeover of the city to be equally family friendly and not just a destination for conventions, gambling and all sorts of hedonistic pursuits associated with gambling. Back then ‘The Strip’ was already interesting, its bright neon lights providing an aura of glamour and magic to visitors who wandered around.

The Strip

The Strip, Las Vegas

The Strip Las Vegas

The older hotels and casinos in Las Vegas

Bellagio, Las Vegas

The dancing water fountains Bellagio, Las Vegas

Magic in Las Vegas

‘Magic’ on sidewalk at The Strip, Las Vegas

The Strip, Las Vegas

The Strip, Las Vegas

For this visit without kids, we explored the newer hotels and resorts that have mushroomed through the years. Over the 2 evenings, we delighted ourselves with the bright lights along ‘The Strip’ and sampled a few of Las Vegas’ bars and restaurants. Like most destinations that rely on tourists’ dollars, cuisine from all over the world was available and cocktails of various influences aplenty. While we had no gastronomic expectations on this road trip, we thoroughly enjoyed the meals in Vegas.

international cuisine

gourmet sushi meal in Las Vegas

On our third day in America and having regained our equilibrium, it was time to leave Las Vegas and pick the infamous ‘Caddy’ on my husband’s ‘bucket list.’ We had a schedule to follow for the next 12 days. Roughly we were to follow this route, encompassing what many refer to as the Grand Circle and beyond:
Las Vegas to Valley of Fire to Zion Park to Kanab(our base for 4 nights) where we were to explore Bryce Canyon, North Rim Grand Canyon Coral Sand Dunes, Grand Escalante; and then move on to Lake Powell ( Page, Arizona), Monument Valley, Bluff, Cortez-Mesa Verde , Santa Fe, Flagstaff for the South Grand Canyon and Sedona. The last leg was to slowly drive back to California to visit family. This ‘road trip’ would roughly cover almost 2,000 miles.

Roadtrip to discover the American Southwest encompassing the Colorado Plateau

Roadtrip to discover the American Southwest encompassing the Colorado Plateau

In mapping out this itinerary, we were really keen to see Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend in East Grand Canyon. Inspired by Stephen Fry (British actor, writer, comic, author and TV host) we wanted to visit and explore what he called the True West; episode 5 of the six part BBC series ‘ Stephen Fry in America’. This fascinating 2008 program in which he travelled all 50 states of America driving his black London Cab featured the magnificent mesas and buttes of Arizona and New Mexico and the spectacular beauty of Lake Powell. The series by the way is so interesting; it should be compulsory viewing for both American and non- American audience.

Our rented Cadillac was not as exotic as Fry’s London Cab but my husband couldn’t wait to try out his rented ‘toy’. As soon as we were satisfied that the GPS and everything else in the Cadillac worked, we hit the road using route I-15 N to make our way to our first stop, the Valley of Fire State Park about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Las Vegas. Considered the oldest state park in Nevada, USA, Valley of Fire covers an area of about 36,000 acres of red and crimson sand and rocks.

Black Caddy

Black Caddy

On arrival, the sight of red sandstone formations, rocks of various shapes and sizes, greeted us. Over 150 million years ago, Mother Nature crafted the odd shaped rock formations through a shift in the earth’s crust, faulting and also effect of erosion by wind and water. It was a virtual ‘sea of red’ of fossilised sandstone and sand dunes in the middle of the dessert interrupted only by vegetation of cactus, yucca, mesquite tree, prickly pear and beaver tail.

Valley of Fire, Nevada

Valley of Fire, Nevada

Valley of Fire, Nevada

Valley of Fire, Nevada

From Valley of Fire, we continued northeast to southwestern Utah and stopped at the town of Springdale within the Zion Park. This Utah Park formed 250 million years ago is right along the edge of the Colorado Plateau. Armed with a map and information obtained from the Visitor Centre (located at the South entrance of the park in Springdale) we hopped on the free shuttle in Springdale for a drive up Zion Canyon and to catch glimpses of the park’s highlights. Zion Park is accessible to many visitors and attracts approximately 3 million visitors each year.

Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

on our way to Kanab from Zion Park, Utah

on our way to Kanab from Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

To Kanab from Zion Park, Utah

To Kanab from Zion Park, Utah

The breath taking natural beauty of the 2 parks we just visited was a refreshing change to the bright lights of Las Vegas. Soaking in the wondrous splendour of these geological formations, we slowly drove to Kanab where we stayed for four nights. Kanab is the ideal base for those who want to explore southhwestern America’s park heartland due to its central location to major places of interest. On our ‘must see’ list nearby were the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park (very close to Kanab), Zion Park of course, and the Vermillon Cliffs National Monument( in Arizona but so close to Kanab and located south of the Utah and Arizona border). After the four-day stop, we would make our way to Page and Lake Powell.

Kanab is centrally located and an ideal base to visit and explore Zion Park, Bryce, North Rim Grand Canyon and Lake Powell

Kanab is centrally located and an ideal base to visit and explore Zion Park, Bryce, North Rim Grand Canyon and Lake Powell

Kanab is situated on the western Colorado Plateau in the county seat of Kane in South Utah, just north of the Arizona border. Long before the Mormons came, Native Americans settled Kanab for thousands of years. Then in 1776, the Spanish explorers led by Franciscan missionary Silvestre ‘lez de Escalante discovered the region. About 100 years later, the Mormon pioneers followed the Spaniards in waves of migration between 1850 and 1870. However, the more interesting transient occupants were from tinsel town. In the early 1920’s, 40’s and 50’s, location scouters of Hollywood favoured the authentic natural Western Frontier setting of the Kanab area for Western movies. Consequently, more than 100 movies and TV shows were filmed in Kanab with the likes of John Wayne starring on ‘Stagecoach’ , Robert Taylor in ‘Billy the Kid’, Clint Eastwood in The ‘Outlaw Josey Wales’ and many more, filming in the region thus making Kanab earn the moniker of ‘Little Hollywood’ .

Driving all day works up quite a thirst. On arrival at our lodging, the first thing we were hankering for was a nice cold alcoholic beverage. Knowing my husband’s ‘cocktail hour’ habit, I knew he was looking forward to a cold drink. “A cold beer would really go down well” …he would say; but surprise, surpise! Not a bar or pub as we know it in Australia was in sight. Our friendly hotel receptionist informed us that liquor laws in the state of Utah is a bit different from the rest of America. We later found out that this was an understatement. In fact the liquor law in Utah is quite restricted…to say the least. It is, in our opinion, heavily regulated and a bit complex. It sets a limit of 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (4 percent by volume) in beer sold at supermarkets or convenience stores and higher alcohol content beer are only available in bottles or something to that effect. Cocktails also have a pre-determined limit to the proportion and amount of alcohol that can be used with mixers while all types of liquor including wine and strong beer can be purchased only at state run stores that have very limited trading times. One can have alcoholic beverages at restaurants that have licenses to serve these drinks but food must be on the table first. By the time we worked out how and where we could have our aperitif, we gave up on the ‘pub search’ and headed straight to the restaurant recommended by everyone to try; the Rocking V Café . This was a pleasant dining experience despite the wait for our wine and beer (remember we had to have the meal on the table first). As I said, we designed this trip to discover the natural beauty of south-western America and didn’t harbour exigent culinary standards but some of the restaurants specially the Rocking V Café were satisfying discoveries. For four evenings, we tried some of the eclectic mix of dining establishments at Kanab. Mexican at Escobar’s ( NO Margaritas and tequilas though to my dismay) Chinese at Luo’s Café and in fact on our last evening in Kanab, we uncovered a ‘western themed’ saloon restaurant with a full service bar. Their unique selling proposition (USP)? “ Iron Horse Restaurant and Saloon- Kanab’s only full service bar where you can drink without having to eat. “ Now, why didn’t we find this place earlier on?

On our stroll back to the lodge, we saw an outdoor advertising billboard for family dining with a message that said:
“Were history and culture meet ” …

Let’s see if you can spot the error.

The next day, after a full breakfast at the rustic and well-situated Canyons Lodge, we drove off and made our way to Bryce Canyon National Park.

USA

Discovering Gods country by train boat plane and an awesome road trip

A person who is fond of France, or has a great affinity to things French is called a Francophile. So what does one call a person who loves the USA and everything Americana? Perhaps a word has not yet been officially coined but it seems that Yankeephile or Yancophile followed by Americanophile are the top most Google searched word for this.

Regardless of what is acceptable, either one of these words is what I would call my husband. His fondness for America,this beautiful and vast country started when as a child, he lived in San Francisco with his parents and spent considerable time with the locals. Since then over the years, trips to the West Coast of America to visit relatives and friends or feeble excuses of ‘business trips’ to New York were not unheard of. His interest in America centres on food; specifically ribs and cherry pie. And there is also the quintessential 50’s icon… ‘Elvis the king’ and his music. Among many other things are his obsession of American cars, with America’s luxury car the Cadillac (caddy for short) and Mustang heading the list.

Soon after our sons ‘flew the coop’, we decided to re-visit our list of globe trotting adventures. Between us, the joke was to do as much as we possibly can… while we can. Getting into the spirit of travel, the ‘inner foodie’ in us also wanted to infuse our intended nomadic adventures with food… to taste and eat our way through every destination we visit, so to speak. And so, when Qantas announced the launch of their non-stop Sydney to Dallas route which is a 13, 804 km distance between Sydney and Dallas Fort Worth, and almost 16-hours of non stop flying, we were tempted. Despite the fact that this route is considered to be the world’s longest flying distance, landing somewhere near the centre of America was appealing in the sense that Dallas was going to be an efficient connecting point to any part of the United Sates. Yankeephile won over common sense and the distance didn’t deter us from taking advantage of the specials Qantas had on offer. With no particular American destination in mind we booked our Qantas return tickets allowing a month to explore good ole United States of America.

How do we fill in a month in the heart of America? Well, considering Dallas Fort Worth is the major hub for American Airlines we figured connecting to many destinations within the USA was not going to be a problem. Furthermore, if flying in and out of cities in America wasn’t going to work, there is always Amtrak, the passenger train service partially owned by the government with the (US) National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Having just experienced once more the fun of train travel across northern Spain, my husband, an avid train traveller wanted to try out America’s train service. Mindful of the decline in popularity and numbers of train travel in the USA since the latter part of the 20th century, (partially due to the car or auto cult that has taken over American’s mode of travel), we were curious about what Amtrak had to offer. We wanted to see America without worrying too much about speed limits and driving on ‘the other side’ of the road. Plus… the idea of zipping across various destinations by plane and having to go through the necessary stringent security controls at US airports turned us off plane travel within the USA completely.

Amtrak has over 500 destinations within 46 states in the USA and 3 provinces in Canada. It covers 34,000 km of track with 300 plus trains operating each day. Surely, with the time we have, we should be able to see more of America than we ever had during our past visits?

One service we always wanted to try is the California Zephyr between Chicago, Illinois and Emeryville, California ( close to San Francisco). California Zephyr goes through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado Utah and Nevada. Considered one of the prettiest and scenic Amtrak routes, it covers a total of 3,924 km as it goes through the plains and valleys of mid-America and climbs through the Rocky mountains and the Sierra Nevadas( also called Sierra Nevada). The scenery should be stunning to say the least.

Undaunted by the mixed feedback on Amtrak trains we sought the advice of Vacations by Rail USA, one of America’s train travel experts. Being looked after by Efi of Vacations by Rail made planning this trip so easy. Not only did she propose an itinerary that was adventurous and fun but it also allowed us to explore America at a very leisurely pace, in comfort and value for money. They call it a customised Amtrak Independent package. Vacations by Rail took over where Qantas left us at Dallas Forth Worth international airport. They booked all our hotels and train routes to make our first train adventure in America an experience to talk about and remember.

Amtrak