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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

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seabourn Quest- image courtesy of Seabourn

The Atlantic Coast Cruise on the Seabourn

Bar Harbor, Salem, Boston, Newport then Charleston, South Carolina and Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Many thanks to Seabourn for the aerial image of the Seabourn Quest by : Michel Verdure. Copyright Seabourn

The USA is one of our favourite destinations. Having visited the west coast numerous times, it was time to explore elsewhere. This time,we had the American Eastern seaboard and New England on our sights. Many travellers say that the east coast of America is at its best in autumn. It was a good excuse as any to see what the fuss is all about. To be honest, it was in fact a very good reason why we chose the Seabourn Atlantic Coast cruise to see this part of America.Having already experienced other cruises with the Seabourn in Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea, we were certain this voyage would be just as interesting and comfortable.

The cruise started in Montreal, then a stop in Quebec City and the rest of Canada’s eastern ports in the Atlantic Ocean. From St John New Brunswick in Canada, we reluctantly departed the beautiful and rugged Canadian Maritime Provinces and continued our journey on board the Seabourn Quest to head south along the eastern seaboard of America.

The next morning, we found ourselves anchored on Frenchman Bay in Bar Harbor Maine, the largest community in Mt Desert Island, home to Acadia national park and America’s millionaires’ row way back in the 19th century. From the deck, our first glimpse of Bar Harbor was a delightful scene to behold. Bar Harbor’s rock-strewn coastline, light houses, surrounding forest with beautiful autumn foliage of red, gold and orange hues, proved that autumn is indeed a good time to be in eastern USA. The sight that greeted us was spectacular.

Bar Harbor'srock-strewn coastline

Bar Harbor’srock-strewn coastline

Bar Harbor was New England’s premier summer resort in the 19th century

Bar Harbor was New England’s premier summer resort in the 19th century

Millionaire’s row of America dating back to the 19th century

Millionaire’s row of America dating back to the 19th century

We had a full day to explore the small town. There was so much to experience and we were told not to miss places such as the Acadia National Park, Thunder Hole, Jordan Pond House, the numerous islands on the Gulf of Maine and many more…but time was an issue. We instead chose to stroll through the quaint town to learn and appreciate why Bar Harbor was New England’s premier summer resort in the 19th century. Summer estates of America’s rich and famous – the Vanderbilts, Fords, Rockefellers you name it… were built in Bar Harbor. Although many of the palatial homes were burned down during a fire in 1947, there are still impressive houses along West Street.

shopping in Bar Harbor, Maine

shopping in Bar Harbor, Maine

If a visitor only had a day to visit, this walking map is a very useful guide to have. Shopping too was interesting. The bell shaped wind chime and warm jackets we purchased will always remind us of this gorgeous coastal town on Frenchman Bay.

Back on board the Seabourn Quest, we enjoyed the sunset from the Observation Bar (our favourite spot) where the bartender intuitively handed us our favourite cocktail- classic frozen margarita- the moment we walked in.
It was a great way to say goodbye to Bar Harbour, a place I wouldn’t mind going back to someday soon.

saying goodbye to Bar Harbor from the deck &watching the sunset

saying goodbye to Bar Harbor from the deck &watching the sunset

Some of the many things we like about the Seabourn are their open bars, the selection of fine wines and exceptional gourmet meals, designed to reflect the food and specialty of the destinations. The chef and his crew work on fresh ingredients sourced from the suppliers in the destinations where we anchor for the day. Sure enough, that evening, we dined sumptuously on lobsters and many other choices typical of New England fare. As always, the dining experience on the Seabourn was exquisite.

The Seabourn difference:All dining venues are complimentary, open bars and gourmet dining

The Seabourn difference:All dining venues are complimentary, open bars and gourmet dining

fresh seafood from our ports of call

fresh seafood from our ports of call

Food Glorious Food during the Seabourn Galley Day

Food Glorious Food during the Seabourn Galley Day

The next morning, we docked at Salem harbour, the very first of many cruise liners to do so. We had a quick glimpse of this small town in Massachusetts, known for the witchcraft trials in 1692 before boarding our tour bus to spend a day in Boston. Luckily, we were in Salem just days before the celebrated Halloween in America because this was very much in evidence in Salem. Although ‘witch’ themed walking tours are available all year round, we didn’t have time to go on one. However, as a consolation prize, from our bus, we were treated to sights of elaborate Halloween displays along the streets.

Within an hour, we arrived in Boston, capital of Massachusetts and the largest city of one of the oldest original colonies in the USA. It certainly is one of the most historic, where events leading to the American Revolution took place. Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Boston Tea Party, Boston massacre, the siege of Boston…all these underline Boston’s historic significance.

We planned our day to include the Freedom Trail, the 4-kilometre path within the heart of downtown Boston and stopped at the 16 locations that had significance and connections to the American Revolution. Next was at another iconic place in Boston, the Faneuil Hall marketplace, set in a promenade of cobblestones. Entertained by street performers, we soaked in the ambience of this bustling meeting place despite the freezing cold wind. Adjacent were North and South markets and Quincy market where we sampled Boston’s famous clam chowder and potpies at ‘Boston Chowda’. We still had time to walk around the Back Bay area to see the controversial John Hancock Tower which stands790 feet high and the tallest building in Boston.

Statue of Paul Revere, Boston

Statue of Paul Revere, Boston

Beautiful Boston Public Garden, monuments, sculptures, close to Freedom Trail and the famous Hancock Tower

Beautiful Boston Public Garden, monuments, sculptures, close to Freedom Trail and the famous Hancock Tower

Our final excursion was to the Ivy League Harvard University in Cambridge Massachusetts, which was established in 1636 and named after its first benefactor, John Harvard. A quick walking tour to the notable landmarks made us appreciate why this influential and prestigious private university boasts of an endowment of USD 37.6 billion to date.

Harvard University, Cambridge Massachusetts

Harvard University, Cambridge Massachusetts

Harvard University campus, Cambridge Massachusetts

Harvard University campus, Cambridge Massachusetts

Excursion completed, most of us were eager to get back to our tour bus just to get away from the cold, freezing Boston weather. Personally, I was looking forward to a warm bath in the privacy of our suite on the Seabourn Quest followed by drinks at the Observation bar to wave goodbye to Salem and head down to Newport overnight. The locals and the media gave us a grand farewell as we started to sail away from the harbour of Salem. We were apparently the first cruise ship to dock in their port. The fireworks were an unexpected treat.

That evening we enjoyed another ‘regionally themed’ and sumptuous meal from the Seabourn’s galley; choices from the main dining room, the formal and intimate ‘Restaurant 2’, the cafe/bistro ambience of the Colonnade and even the casual Patio grill reflected the specialties of the places we called on. Delicious fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables was brought in daily ( except of course on sea days) to the ship.

The next port of call was Newport, Rhode Island, the ‘city by the sea’, its annual regattas and the America’s cup and last but not least, home of the massive summer mansions of the seriously wealthy industrialists. These were built in the 19th century during the ‘Gilded Age’ and became their playground. Newport was America’s first resort to the seriously wealthy, the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the Astors and Doris Duke. We anchored in the bay and were ferried across to the port. We were really looking forward to experience this resort town.

Rhode Island in fact plays an important role in America’s history, being one of the original 13 British colonies on the east coast of North America. It was the first British colony in America to formally declare its independence on May 4, 1776, although Newport itself was founded in 1639 by a group of first officers and English settlers. Because of its rich history there were many choices of things to do and see but given only a full day to see the sights, our priority was to visit a few of the 10 mansions owned and managed by ‘The Preservation Society of Newport County’ that used to belong to America’s well known magnates.

Stupendous, ostentatious and opulent came to mind when we did our tour of the mansions on Bellevue Avenue. The first one naturally was the grandest of them all; ‘ The Breakers ’ built in 1893 to 1895 at a cost of over 7 million dollars (equivalent to over $150 million today). This mansion was the summer cottage of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, favourite grandson of Commander Cornelius Vanderbilt, son of William Vanderbilt, the richest man in the world during his time. The Vanderbilts made their fortune on steamships and the New York Central railroad. Set on a 13 acre property, the 70 room mansion faces the ocean and is open daily except for Christmas and Thanksgiving Day.
For more information ,look up this link.

view from the terrace of The Breaker- Vanderbilt Mansion, Rhode Island

view from the terrace of The Breaker- Vanderbilt Mansion, Rhode Island

frontal view of The Breaker- Vanderbilt Mansion

frontal view of The Breaker- Vanderbilt Mansion

Having seen the places where the elite met to sleep and play, we went back to our own luxurious floating digs. It was a great day to remember and from this excursion alone, my husband and I now believe the trivia we once read that only 1% of America’s population own something like 40% of its assets. Hard to imagine but after seeing the mansions and imagining how the wealthy Americans lived, how can this not be true?

It took the Seabourn Quest two days at sea to reach the port of Charleston, South Carolina. A very good reason to enjoy the amenities on the Seabourn…a day at the Spa, a game of bridge, a session at the gym to work off the indulgences and last but not least, attend the informative lecture or ‘conversation’ nights from esteemed experts. The evenings in fact are never dull on the Seabourn. There are pre-dinner drinks at the deck where the casual dining Patio Grill is located or any bar venue of your choice. There are several options for dining and of course the entertainment right after dinner for those who want to party on.

a favourite for casual dining, Patio Grill, Seabourn

a favourite for casual dining, Patio Grill, Seabourn

Finally, we reached the port of Charleston and once again, we didn’t waste time. As soon as we were allowed to leave the ship, we set off. This port of call was how I imagined the oldest city in South Carolina to be. Think ‘Gone with the Wind’ and you will easily visualise the stately antebellum homes, plantations and beautifully maintained gardens, the cobblestoned streets, horse-drawn carriages in the French quarter and Battery street.

There was so much to see and explore in Charleston and thankfully we were given practically 14 hours to check out the places of interest. First up on our list was the tour to the Magnolia Gardens, Charleston’s most visited plantation. Founded in 1676 by the Drayton family, it was the Reverend John Drayton who turned the former cypress swamp into a lush garden that is now considered to be ‘America’s Last Large-scale Romantic-style Garden’. Only about 13 miles from downtown, the plantation is located on the Ashley River, across from North Charleston, South Carolina. On arrival, the first thing we did was to take a 45 minute guided stroll around the lush and beautifully maintained gardens with its variety of native plants and flowers such as Camellia, Hibiscus, Canna Lilies, Hydrangea, Impatiens and many more. Even in October there were so many species of flowers in bloom. The same family has owned the plantation for more than three centuries and with each generation, their own personal favourite plants have been added to the gardens. Whether one is a lover of plants and blooms, a garden enthusiast or an amateur botanist, it cannot be said that the Magnolia Gardens is ordinary. In fact we thought it was so beautiful and warranted the concept of ‘making you forget’ your worries in your day to day affairs…a notion associated with the creation of ‘romantic style gardens’.

We then hopped on the guided ‘nature train’ which lasted for 45 minutes. During this very interesting and informative tram tour around the Audubon Swamp Garden our guide pointed out all the wildlife including the alligators in their native habitats as well as the turtles, herons, egrets and many more who have made this planation their home in the south.

Magnolia Gardens, Charleston’s most visited plantation

Magnolia Gardens, Charleston’s most visited plantation

alligator basking in the sun, Audubon Swamp Garden, Charleston

alligator basking in the sun, Audubon Swamp Garden, Charleston

peacock and other bird species have made the Magnolia Gardens their home

peacock and other bird species have made the Magnolia Gardens their home

Finally, we made it to the stately Magnolia House, giving us a glimpse of what plantation life must have been like in the 19th century. The house features a collection of gorgeous early American antiques.

There was still plenty of time to see this elegant southern city so on our return back to Charleston we wandered about downtown. We strolled towards the bustling French Quarter and Battery areas to check out and admire the elegant townhouses built by wealthy planters and merchants in the 18th and 19th centuries.

typical colonial house seen in downtown Charleston, SC

typical colonial house seen in downtown Charleston, SC

Other historic landmarks that we were told not to miss included St Michael’s Episcopal Church, located at Broad and Meeting streets. Built between 1752 and 1761, it is known to be the oldest surviving religious structure in Charleston. Its bells have crossed the Atlantic seven times. There are quite a few churches of different denominations and because of this, Charleston has earned the moniker of ‘Holy City’.
Also of historic significance are the Old Exchange and the Provost Dungeon, (otherwise known as the Custom House) where the British held Revolutionary Prisoners captive during the Revolutionary War and Civil War. This beautiful building belies the fact that it was also where slaves and prisoners were chained to its dungeon walls, often sick with all kinds of horrible diseases.
Not to be missed is the Fireproof Building, also known as the County Records Building located at 100 Meeting Street. Built in 1827, it has the distinction of being designed by the same architect responsible for the Washington Monument. It is believed to be the oldest fire resistant building in America.

Finally, to end our day at Charleston we took a stroll through the Old City Market. This public market has been operational for more than 200 years. It occupies four city blocks from Market Street to East Bay Street. In its early days the market was a hub for farmers and plantation owners who sold their produce. It also served as a social place to catch up with friends and network with other merchants. When we were there the only disappointment was that most of the stalls were really geared up for tourists looking for souvenirs.

After going through the ‘must see’ list, we took our time to wander back to the ship, via the Battery promenade and Waterfront Park , both overlooking Charleston Harbour.

Charleston is indeed one of the most beautiful and historic cities in the American South and we appreciated the fact that we had all day to make a call on this town.

We then sailed forth towards Fort Lauderdale that evening and had another sumptuous selection of dishes inspired by the delicacies of South Carolina. On the menu that evening which I couldn’t resist were the shrimps and oysters. In South Carolina, oysters are aplenty from September and October, the months with the letter “R” in the name (much like the mud crab season in Queensland, Australia). This was really a decadent way to end our Seabourn Atlantic Coast Harbours cruise (from Montreal to Fort Lauderdale).

As they say, all good things must come to an end. The port of disembarkation of our glorious cruise was Fort Lauderdale . We arrived at the port early morning after spending another sea day from Charleston, South Carolina on the Seabourn Quest. The weather was just gorgeous; sunny yet with a cool, fresh crisp autumn breez and the sky was a vivid bright blue. My old school friend, now a resident of Fort Lauderdale met us and took us to our hotel. Sensing the need to spend time with a very dear friend whom I haven’t seen since high school days, my husband decided to venture downtown on his own. I on the other hand, spent quality time with Lani and reminisced many of the follies of our youth, over a typical Mexican inspired meal.

That evening, my husband and I discovered ‘Chart House’, just a few blocks away from our ocean front hotel, The Pelican Grand Beach Resort. This waterfront restaurant on 3000 Northeast 32nd Avenue, Fort Lauderdale Florida is also accessible by water taxis that ply through Fort Lauderdale’s canals. The menu boasts of creative seafood cuisine making use of local seafood catches. My husband had the Ahi tuna, grilled with olive oil and served with Furikake rice, wasabi cream & ginger soy and I couldn’t go past the Basil Citrus Grilled Mahi served with lemon scented sticky rice, green gazpacho relish, rich tomato coulis. Just delicious! Now I know why Ernst Hemingway loved Florida and would have wanted to go and visit his house in the Key West but we had planned to see Fort Lauderdale from the canals , via the water taxi, a fun and inexpensive way to explore the city.

Much like the hop on-hop off buses in big cities, the water taxis take you along the waterways, to see the millionaires’ row and places of interest along the waterfront. This experience makes one appreciate why Fort Lauderdale has been given- the name, ‘Venice of America’. We spent a good part of the day enjoying the sights and stopping for lunch at the 15th street Fisheries. We chose to have our late lunch at their ‘dockside,’ a casual dining experience where we could also see and enjoy the vista of many of the yachts, fishing vessels and other boats either sailing past or anchored. My husband had a mouth watering light meal of Lauderdale Lobster, a salad Roll of Maine lobster salad with celery and mayo and avocado served on a brioche hoagie, served with his choice of a side- French fries, what else. I had the most delicious fresh mahi-mahi tacos- grilled mahi-mahi meat with mango pico de gallo, fresh summer slaw (with lime juice), cilantro, guacamole and chipotle sour cream on warm grilled flour tortillas. Washed down with frozen margarita, what else can one wish for?
The unexpected treat and surprise for the day was the visit to Bahia Mar Marina where the International Boat Show was held. My husband who has a keen interest on boats and fishing was like a little boy let loose in Disneyland. With yachts like these ( see images) you can understand why. The Fort Lauderdale International boat show is an annual event.

Fort Lauderdale Florida, best seen from the water . We took a water taxi to explore

Fort Lauderdale Florida, best seen from the water . We took a water taxi to explore

one of the many palatial homes in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

one of the many palatial homes in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

the bonus was the Boat Show- so many magnificent boats on display, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

the bonus was the Boat Show- so many magnificent boats on display, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

On our last day, we rented a car on my friend’s advice and drove to Sawgrass Mills, home of outlet stores and a very popular destination for those wanting some retail therapy.

Here is some useful information:

Phone:
(954) 846-2300
Address:
12801 W Sunrise Blvd, 33323-4020
Nearby Cities:
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Miami, FL
Palm Beach, FL
Location:
20 minutes west of Fort Lauderdale, 40 minutes north of Miami, 40 minutes south of Palm Beach
Stores :
This mall has 151 outlet stores
Regular Hours:
Sun:11:00 am-8:00 pm
Mon – Sat:10:00 am-9:30 pm

We shopped for really well priced quality items and thought that the day was well spent.
That evening, we were too tired to go out for our dinner so we happily had our last meal in Florida at our hotel’s casual lunge bar/restaurant, the O2K lounge.

A perfect way to end our Atlantic Coast sojourn.

Jamón Ibérico

Food and Travel -The story of the Jamón Ibérico

San Sebastian

Food defines our travels…well almost. I mean, who doesn’t like tasting, savouring and indulging on food while getting to know a destination? In fact we think food and travel go hand in hand. Travel broadens the mind and food gives an insight to a country’s people. Food offers tantalising glimpses of its culture and history. To paraphrase a review on the book ‘Food is Culture’ by Massimo Montanari, everything there is about food embodies layers of different cultural significance of a place and its people. Food explores connections and is a unifier between what is eaten and through cross-cultural connections. It tells a great story of the evolution of a destination.
(Massimo Montanari is a Professor of Medieval History at Bologna University, and one of the world’s leading experts in Food studies)

Take Spain for instance. Historians say that life began as early as 32,000 years ago in the area we now known as Spain. Archaeological findings point to settlements on the Iberian Peninsula by Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians, while the Celts settled in the north as can still be seen in Galicia in northern Spain. In 218 BC the Romans came and shaped the culture and religion of Spain, its language and legal system. But then the Moors came along and banished the Christians. For nearly 800 years Hispania came under Muslim control. With the exception of northern Spain, Moorish Spain became known as Al-Andalus. Some historians consider this period a very interesting time inasmuch as they reason that the Moors (Arabs) added a layer of complexity to the Spanish culture. For example the much-loved Paella, one of Spain’s signature dishes is a Moorish legacy to Spain and the world. Rice, saffron and spices that dominate this ubiquitous Spanish dish tells a story of their occupation of Spain. We can also blame the Moors for the Spaniard’s sweet tooth considering the Arabs brought sugar to Spain and used in many of their dishes- not just for desserts but sugar is also evident in the confluence of savoury and sweet flavours in the same dish on some of their favoured meals such as escabeche or even the polvoron.

Christian Spain on the other hand also tells a tale of ham and pigs. It is common knowledge that Spain is the world’s largest producer and consumer of air-dried-cured ham. The Spaniards (per person) consume an average of five kilograms of cured ham per year. Now, that’s a lot of ham! Ham is so ingrained in the Spanish culture and daily meals that even a Spanish art-house film, an allegory for Spain itself and the many contrasts of Spain and the passionate Spaniards including their erotic desires and their reverence for food was given the title Jamón – Jamón. In the film, food was frequently used in puns and metaphors. I clearly recall the finale because of the bizarre twist with the male protagonists tangled in a duel using legs of ham for weapons.jamon iberico

The history of Spain is steeped in tradition and religion. The consumption of ham and pork has religious connotations too because during the Moorish period in Spain, there was a noticeable absence of ham and pork dishes as eating pork was prohibited because it was a religious taboo amongst the Moors. Then when the Christians regained control of Spain, the Muslims either had to convert to Christianity (and by inference, eat pork and ham I suppose) or flee. So, once again, pork regained its popularity and back in the menu. A very good reason for Spaniards to qualify as the world’s leading ham eater!

So you see, food does tell a very interesting story about a place, its people and culture. There are many more examples we can later discuss such as the fact that the French like to do their shopping daily, the regional flavours of Chinese food, the influence of food on people who have migrated to different countries…the list goes on and on.

More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203

Available at:  Barnes and Noble and Google Books

Ville de Québec

Québec and Eastern Canada- on board the Seabourn Quest

Feature image: Québec City Skyline
Copyright and credits: Ville de Québec

We set sail on board the Seabourn Quest from the port of Montreal on the St Lawrence River, Canada’s most important commercial waterway. This massive river was the route of earlier French and British explorers and the gateway to North America at the beginning of the 16th century. Seeing Montreal from the deck as we slowly sailed at dusk was a dreamlike experience. Montreal looked so pretty with twinkling lights from its historic and modern buildings and the autumn foliage dotting the landscape still visible in the soft glow of the setting sun.

Seabourn Quest
Our first port of call the next morning was Québec City in the province of Québec. Founded by French explorer Samuel de Champlain as a fur-trading base in 1608, Kebek in the language of the Hurons means “ the place where the river narrows”. (the Huron Indians were part of the Iroquoian people who were named Hurons by the French in the 17th century)
Set in one of the most stunning locations in North America , high up on Cap Diamant cliffs (Cape Diamond) and overlooking the St Lawrence River, Québec is Canada’s oldest and safest major city. We had a full day to discover this pretty and historic town, so quintessentially French. Its 400-year history is rich and exciting, palpable in its language, culture and old buildings.

The Seabourn Quest docked in the Vieux-Port de Québec (Old Port) right next to the historic city. Québec city is small and compact, about 7 square kilometres and therefore easy to explore on foot. It is divided into two parts; the Upper town (Haute Ville) and Lower town (Basse Ville).

As soon as we were allowed to disembark we promptly set off to discover this ‘European like’ city on foot with no itinerary in mind. We commenced our stroll from the pier and headed straight for the Upper Town, climbing the steep stairs that led to the top of the hill. It was a glorious autumn morning and the walk was invigorating. Admiring the view atop the hill overlooking the St Lawrence River below us and the Appalachians and Laurentian mountains to the south and north respectively, we reached Québec’s Fortifications, a defence system that surrounded Old Québec. It was built by the British two centuries ago and has earned Québec the distinction as North America’s only walled city north of Mexico. The fortifications surrounding Old Québec are close to 4.6 km in length enclosing three centuries of the city’s history, architecture and culture. This is one of the main reasons why UNESCO designated this area a world heritage site in 1985. Within the remains of the walls is a charming town with cobblestoned narrow streets littered with bistros, cafés and boutiques. The granite copper roofed houses, churches, parks and several museums and monuments speak volumes of the city’s interesting colonial past.

Dominating the quarter perched on top of Cape Diamond overlooking Dufferin Terrace and the St. Lawrence River is the iconic Chateau Frontenac (Le Château Frontenac). The Canadian and Pacific Railway built this grand and imposing building with its towers and spires reminiscent of France. It was actually conceived of in the 1800’s by William Van Horne, who was then the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He wanted to build castle like luxury hotels along the railway to entice discerning and well-heeled railway travellers to make these hotels their luxurious pied–à–terre. Le Château Frontenac was completed in 1892 and has hosted countless celebrities and royalty since then. A Fairmont hotel, the castle was named in honour of Louis de Buade, Compte de Frontenac who was governor of New France from 1672 to 1682 and 1689 to 1698.

Château Frontenac in Autumn Copyright and credits: Luc-Antoine Couturier

Château Frontenac in Autumn
Copyright and credits: Luc-Antoine Couturier

There are tours that begin at the Frontenac kiosk on Dufferin Terrace but we opted to do our own from the Dufferin Terrace to visit Artillery Park. We thought it interesting inasmuch as our walking exploration was a brief history lesson on the fight for supremacy between the British and the French. Of course we all know that the British ultimately gained control of this French colony but Québec city is unmistakably a reminder that the French were indeed its early occupants.

Dufferin Terrace and Château Frontenac Copyright and credits: Audet Photo/ Stephane Audet

Dufferin Terrace and Château Frontenac
Copyright and credits: Audet Photo/ Stephane Audet

Note: There is a tourism office Frontenac Kiosk, Dufferin Terrace that organises tours and sells guidebooks.

Frontenac

We continued our walk and headed down towards Quartier Petit-Champlain on the south edge of Old Québec. Known to be the oldest shopping district in North America, it was packed with little shops selling souvenirs, art galleries, antique shops and specialty boutiques.

Petit- Champlain Street at Christmas, Quartier Petit Champlain Copyright and credits: Ville de Québec

Petit- Champlain Street at Christmas, Quartier Petit Champlain
Copyright and credits: Ville de Québec

The narrow streets and sidewalk cafés crowded with tourists gave the neighbourhood a festive atmosphere. We ended our visit at the Place-Royale and at the square outside the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church, the oldest stone church in North America (1688) where our attention was captured by the display of Halloween decorations, pumpkins of all sizes and the like. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to venture to the Musée de la Civilisation and only caught a glimpse of the Old Port public market. It was time to head back to our ship where we bid goodbye to this historic, quaint and charming Canadian city with a French twist.

Halloween display at the Square
 

Halloween display at the Square

Halloween display at the Sqaure

La Fresque des Québécois Copyright and Credits: Jean- François Bergeron, Enviro Photo

La Fresque des Québécois
Copyright and Credits: Jean- François Bergeron, Enviro Photo

After a day at sea indulging on the Seabourn’s luxuriously appointed facilities, we were looking forward to visiting the Eastern Canadian harbour towns and Maritime provinces. The first stop was Cap-Aux-Meules (Grindstone), one of the dozen or so islands that comprise the archipelago of La Madeleine. Despite the cold, gusty wind, we traipsed along the small fishing village admiring the beautiful desolated coastline and visited the church of St. Pierre at Laverniere. This wooden church was constructed from the wreckage of ships that ran aground or from some that were found submerged on the offshore ridges. One can imagine how frightening it must have been to get blown off course and sunk or lost at sea. The wrecks found in the deep around these islands tell a lot of stories that keep maritime archaeologists occupied. Now of course, a lighthouse stands at Cap-Aux-Meules to guide all types of ships (regardless of their sophisticated radars and GPS).

The cruise aimed to show us the breathtaking beauty of these parts of Canada. It also provided the travellers brief lessons in Canada’s maritime history. What was advantageous for us was the fact that it was an easy way to catch glimpses of the cluster of peninsulas and islands that form what is collectively known as the Canadian Maritime provinces, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. The Seaborn Quest took us to the town of Sydney in Nova Scotia affording us amazing views of the rugged coastline, hills and the picture perfect valleys of Nova Scotia and a day later to the busy port of St John, New Brunswick for a day of excursion.

At St John’s we acquainted ourselves with the many delights of this harbour town, notably the Market Square and the New Brunswick museum. The city is distinctly more British than French although about 30% of the population still speak Quebec French or français québécois. The highlight of our short excursion was witnessing a unique phenomenon known as the Reversing Rapids of New Brunswick, best seen from Reversing Falls Bridge. The reversing rapids are a result of the great rise and fall of the tides of the Bay of Fundy. The 28-foot tide change in the Bay of Fundy to the St. John’s River which flows right through town actually reverses direction for a few hours at high tide.

The Maritime Provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island was the second region in Canada to be occupied by the Europeans after Newfoundland. Vikings were thought to have also settled there but the French still has the distinction of being ‘the colonisers’ of these parts of Canada. In fact it was known then as Acadie or Acadia. The British of course forcibly removed the Acadians during the French and Indian War in 1755–1764. Many fled to Louisiana USA while others were deported back to France.

We made our way towards the US eastern ports, sailing across the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean and southeast of Newfoundland on the North American continental shelf. Found in this area is a group of underwater plateaus known as Grand Banks. Discovered by the English explorer John Cabot during his transatlantic voyage in 1497, the Grand Banks turned out to be one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Home to dolphins, whales, Atlantic cod, swordfish, haddock, capelin, scallops and lobsters, the waters were plundered and exploited by fishing vessels from Europe, Russia and South America. The consequence of 500 years of overfishing was devastating to the marine life. Due to this, the Canadian government declared a ‘moratorium ‘ on fishing in 1992. Unfortunately, this move resulted to an economic catastrophe for the Newfoundland northeastern Canadian fishing industry.

Food glorious food…Food on board the Seabourn never disappoints. Spoilt for choice, the traveller can choose to dine in any of the Seabourn’s several restaurants. Award-winning cuisines guaranteed to be made from fresh ingredients purchased in every port stop is a delight and a boon for passengers. Whether one has a hankering for fine dining or conversely, a laid back casual meal, the meticulously thought of menus designed by Seabourn chefs are regionally themed in all of it’s restaurants. The open bars serve a huge variety of very good wine and other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. This particular cruise indulged the ‘inner foodie’ in us on the array of seafood from the waters of Newfoundland but my carnivore husband was not neglected, as the best quality meats were always sure to be tender, juicy and tasty.

Note: Saveur magazine (gourmet, food, wine, and travel magazine) recognised the Seabourn as the Best Culinary Cruise Line in 2013 and 2014 for their premier Culinary Travel Awards

One of the many appeals of experiencing the Seabourn Atlantic Coast Harbour Cruise was the ease of being transported from port to port in luxurious comfort and relative tranquility. No connecting ferries, trains or airplanes to worry about and most of all, the traveller gets to unpack and pack only once. In isolated locations that are otherwise difficult to reach like Eastern Canada, for us, the Seabourn Atlantic Coast Harbours was the way to go.

Many thanks to Québec City Tourism for allowing us to use professional images featured above.

6088G

Montreal

Feature Image: Mary Queen of the World Cathedral and 1000 de La Gauchetière/ Downtown
Credit : © Tourisme Montréal, Stéphan Poulin

It was the end of our sojourn in New York and time to depart for the ‘land at the top’. New York to Montreal is approximately 381 miles (613.6 km) and 11 hours on the train, not that far really. Ever since our first Amtrak train journey on the California Zephyr we had the Adirondack on our sights. Destination Montreal was the perfect excuse to board the Adirondack train from NYC Penn station, a daily service operated by Amtrak. Looking forward to simply taking our time to get to Montreal, we were content to take this 11 hour journey and indulge in the gradual change of scenery going north, along the Hudson River Valley to Albany and slowly up to Schenectady and Saratoga Springs, in the foothills of the Adirondack mountain range. Friends who have done this trip warned us of delays so we were pleasantly surprised it didn’t happen. However, we were somewhat disappointed that this much-touted scenic train route did not have the dramatic sceneries we saw while on the California Zephyr or the Rocky Mountaineer trains. Nevertheless, it was a delightful way to see the outskirts of New York and beyond plus the spectacular autumn foliage.

Montreal
Montreal
Montreal
Montreal

Montreal, the biggest city in Quebec province, certainly one of the most historic in North America, and the seat of bilingualism and culture in Canada was cold when we arrived in the evening. A sophisticated city juxtaposing distinct Franco features with Anglo characteristics, despite the rain and cold weather, Montreal stood with its bright lights, waiting to be explored.

I’ve always associated Montreal with the international jazz festival, Quebec French or Québécois French and the Québecoise (French-speaking native of Quebec) . The glorious food we have heard so much about at Au Pied de Cochon was another feature. Montreal is in fact more than these.

Festival International de Jazz de Montréal Credit : © Canadian Tourism Commission

Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
Credit : © Canadian Tourism Commission

Long before the Europeans settled in Montreal and Quebec, First Nations native people (aboriginal natives of Canada) the Hurons, Algonquins and Iroquois were its inhabitants. Sooner than later, seafaring European explorers reached the shores of eastern Canada. In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier came across a large settlement, called the Hochelaga (it is an Iroquoian fortified village) on the St Lawrence River and Stadacona, another fortified Iroquoian village near present day Quebec City. In a few decades, French navigator Samuel de Champlain established a fur trading post there, hence is credited for founding ‘New France’ and the French settlements.

As we know, the British began its colonisation of the ‘New World’ (the Americas) in 1607 and was considered a serious threat by the early French colonisers. Without delving into the various skirmishes and struggles for supremacy among the colonists during that era,the British won in 1673 and Canada was integrated into the British colonial system in North America. Despite the British rule, to this very day, colonial French influence is clearly stamped in Montreal’s culture, architecture and language.

As an avid Francophile myself, I was looking forward to hearing the charming and old-fashioned lilt of français québécois. It is said that it still sounds like the French language spoken 300 years ago apparently because when the British took Quebec, the French settlers were cut off from France and the French language used at the time, didn’t evolve to its modern day form.(Though written French and grammar is exactly the same as standard French). Despite British rule, French prevailed and is still widely spoken in Montreal with 56.9% of its population speaking French at home. Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. In fact, French was named the official language of Quebec province after Bill 101 or the Charter of the French Language was passed in 1977.

We opted to stay in the historic and restored district of Vieux-Montréal (Old Montreal) for many reasons; one of them was its proximity to the cruise terminal on the Alexandra Pier (we were going to embark on the Seabourn Quest from Montreal for our Eastern Canada and New England, USA cruise). We chose to stay at Le Petit hotel, a hip and chic boutique hotel in a century old building. It came highly recommended and is well situated in the oldest street in Montreal, the Rue Saint Paul Ouest. This street is the heart of the art and food scene. Some of the buildings date back to the 17th century.

Old Montreal

Old Montreal, Credit : © Orlando G. Cerocchi

hotel

We didn’t waste time. After checking in, notwithstanding the light rain and freezing cold weather we walked down the cobbled stones of the narrow streets, to explore the food scene. We happened upon Bocata and Barroco restaurants.

Buzzing and lively, image courtesy of Tourisme Montréal

Buzzing and lively, image courtesy of Tourisme Montréal

Barroco Restaurants, image courtesy of Tourisme Montréal

Barroco Restaurants, image courtesy of Tourisme Montréal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the name suggests, we expected Italian food on the menu. We were pleasantly surprised however with the varied selection of modern fusion food and an extensive wine list, some served by the glass. It was crowded and having made no reservations, we sat right up at the bar and sampled various plates from the specials board and the menu. The restaurant had great ambience and a rustic décor but somehow managed to exude a very cool, funky feel, thanks to the trendy looking waiters and waitresses and young patrons. It was busy and vibrant. We enjoyed the whole experience so much we thought we would try another meal here before our departure.

Having no fixed itinerary nor a booked tour we planned to indulge our interest in architecture and visit some of the old buildings that date as far back as the 16th century as well as check out the other cultural attractions in Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal). The district is so compact, about one square km (or 0.4 square mile) that we thought we would explore it on foot. The original quarter (known as Ville Marie) is bordered by Rue Saint-Antoine, the St. Lawrence River, Rue Berri and Rue McGil and can be explored with ease within a day. A self-guided tour map can be obtained from the tourist bureau located at 174 Notre-Dame St. East – corner of Place Jacques-Cartie.
So, the next day, armed with this information and useful advice from the helpful hotel concierge, for our first ‘must see’, we set off to visit the square known as Place d’Armes and the Notre Dame Basilica.

This beautiful church, the Notre Dame, is for me one of the focal points in the neighbourhood. Architecture, craftsmanship, history and religious heritage are evident upon entering this big church. Designed after the Sainte-Chapelle church in Paris, this Gothic inspired revival features beautiful stained glass windows by Quebec artist Jean-Baptiste Lagacé. Commissioned in 1929 for the Basilica’s centenary celebration, the windows depict the history of the early settlement of Ville Marie. The blue and gold colours dominating the altar and glass are stunning. The craftsmanship of the pulpit, statues and other pieces deserved closer inspection. We went back later in the evening to see the multimedia ‘Let there be light’ show, a brief history of the church and the settlement.

Basilica

We then headed east on Notre Dame Street for the next stop, which was the Place Jacques-Cartier. Wandering down, on the way, we stopped to admire the town hall, built between 1872 and 1878 in the ‘Second Empire ‘ style. Though it was a cold day, the walk was made interesting by the surrounding buildings and shops (art galleries caught our eye). On reaching Place Jacques Cartier we needed to quench our thirst and were feeling a bit peckish so we had a light lunch at one of the cafés, dining al fresco albeit, in the somewhat fresh weather. ‘People watching’ was called for. Just like most squares, Place Jacques-Cartier is the heart of the old district where locals and tourists hang out. The cobbled square is closed to traffic but made lively by various street performers, the flower market and other touristy shops. Before the ‘Place’ was built in 1804, the Château de Vaudreuil was located there. For many years, the Place Jacques-Cartier was used as a public market and was restored in 1998.

Artists' Row

Artists’ Row, Credit : © Canadian Tourism Commission

Revived from our pit stop, we proceeded down towards the edge of the road and found Marché Bonsecours (Bonsecours Market) at 350 rue Saint Paul. The Palladian style domed two-storey building was built in 1847 and was a public market for over 100 years. Specialty boutiques, art and craft shops and restaurants lure the tourists. An hour of browsing and a brief visit to the adjacent Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours(Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel – or Our Lady of Good Help) was next on the agenda. Walking further down towards Rue de la Commune, we could see the old port and the Pavilion Jacques Cartier.

We intended to have dinner at Au Pied de Cochon, (Address: 536 Avenue Duluth E, Montréal, QC H2L 1A9, Canada) which was highly recommended by my cousin (another foodie who lives in Toronto) but Dolcetto and Co nearby from our hotel looked so appealing with its nautical décor and scrumptious menu of light fare. An Italian bistro serving share plates and antipastos, the bar was well stocked and the service friendly and efficient. Anticipating 14 days of fine dining on board the Seabourn Quest in a couple of days, we thought we would go easy on our meals while in Montreal. My husband and I shared several small plates but the capresse è burrata, fig and foie gras flatbread stood out, washed with a nice bottle of Pinot Grigio. Delizioso (delicious)!

To market to market… Next on our list was the Marché Jean-Talon (Jean-Talon Market) at 7070, Henri-Julien St, south of Jean-Talon St in the Little Italy district. The next morning, we took the metro blue line toward Saint-Michel and got off at Jean-Talon station then walked a few yards heading west. (The compass app on my iPhone helped us get our bearings) We easily found one of Montréal’s farmers market. This market was opened in 1933 and is well patronised by the locals. It was crowded when we got there as this market has also become popular among tourists although it was not intended to be a tourist destination. In fact this is where chefs purchase their produce and ingredients. It is a covered market with a diverse selection of fresh produce, meat, fish fruit and vegetables. Merchants and vendors of cheese, bulk food, food stands, spices and imported goods are also found inside the covered area. Specialty shops such as La Boite Aux Huitres (seafood shop), Havre aux Glaces (ice cream and sorbet shop), Boulangerie Première Moisson (artisanal bakery with lots of delicious pastries and quiches on offer) make the market even more interesting. Having said that, what really caught our attention were the giant pumpkins on display for the Halloween pumpkin competition. As we were there in October jut a few weeks away from Halloween, the theme was evidently those of witches and ghouls, pumpkin lanterns that made the market all the more festive. After taking lots of photos, we purchased a variety of snack food of diverse origin and had those for lunch. There were in fact tables made available for people who wanted to eat their take out right there.Great way to soak in the ambience while tasting the influences of various ethnic groups that make up modern Montreal.

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Jean-Talot

If food tells a story about a culture, its people and history, then one can indeed get a glimpse of Montreal’s interesting past right at the Jean Talon market. The French influence layered with the British is evident in the array of food and produce available. Canada’s immigrants from all over the world also take credit for the evolution of dishes with its layers and layers of complex tastes and ingredients. Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, Spanish, middle eastern food…you name it, Montreal has it.

A good 3 hours later, we headed back to the subway and took the train for downtown to the Underground city, known to the locals as the RÉSO. Well not exactly true, as it is not a city underground because it is in actual fact a réseau (network) of multilevel tunnels and stairs connected to metro stations and sheltered pedestrian complex of shopping malls, offices, hotels, metro stations, concert halls. This city started from the interconnected tunnels of the subway system. Completed in 1966, it was really built to make shopping and getting around the city a bit more bearable during the harsh winters of Quebec.
It didn’t take long to satisfy our curiosity with this ‘must see’ place in Montreal as historic Old Montréal was waiting to be re-visited.

Underground City

That evening we went to browse a few of the art galleries at Rue St Paul Ouest and nearly bought a beautiful (small) sculpture from the Galerie Le Luxart(66 Rue Saint Paul O, Montréal, QC H2Y 1Y8, Canada). Unfortunately, it would have meant carting this around for the next leg of our journey and to have it shipped was not practical due to the weight. So we didn’t buy it. Pity!

Because we loved the atmosphere so much, that evening we returned to Bocata for our final meal in Montreal. This time, we had a heartier main course of the milk fed veal chop with gnocchi for me, and the maple roasted duck magret for my husband- Italian and French fusion. This is what food in Montreal is all about. Fusion! It was a night to remember, a truly great way to end our stay in Montreal. Loved it!

The next day, we meandered around some parts of the old town again before rolling our suitcases (literally) from our hotel down the cobbled narrow street leading to the cruise terminal where we were to embark on the Seabourn Quest for a 14 day cruise of eastern Canada, New England USA, South Carolina and Florida.

Cruises

Cruises, Credit : © Tourisme Montréal, Stéphan Poulin

Many thanks to Tourisme Montréal for allowing us to use these beautiful professional images