As I've mentioned in previous blogs, I'm a huge history nerd, particularly ancient history. I graduated from the University of Iowa with an Ancient Civilizations degree which doesn't do me a huge ton of service in terms of a career but makes me a first round draft pick when it comes to bar trivia. I spent four years studying Latin and Ancient Greek, Classical and Near Eastern cultures, and I still get excited to watch old episodes of Rome or deconstruct movie turds like Pompeii (sorry, Jon Snow). A trip to ancient archaeological sites and cities that I'd studied has been a dream of mine since college, and two months ago I was finally able to realize it with a Mediterranean cruise to Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus.
Because Elliot's been traveling such a ridiculous amount for work, he racked up enough airline miles to pay for two roundtrip tickets to Istanbul. Around the same time, we found a Royal Caribbean cruise that hit all the "must visit" spots AND was running a "buy one, get one half off" special. Figuring there's no time like the present, we booked everything back in December and then had to patiently wait until the end of June for our trip. Trust me, it wasn't easy. As always, I do my best to chronicle our adventures in Turkey and Greece. I filled up two notebooks with observations and anecdotes, so I am going to structure this into chronological chapters for the reader's sake. I'll do my best to publish the posts relatively close to one another, but the school year is ramping up, and I'm about to be swamped with 150 eleventh graders. So let's do this shit...
Part 1: Istanbul
The cruise traveled round trip from Istanbul, so we decided to fly there a day early to get in some quality sightseeing. The flights to Istanbul weren't terrible, but I did have to contend with some annoying German girls who kept hitting the back of my chair. They were playing some game on the headrest TV, but it was still lame. Although Lufthansa is a solid airline in terms of service, the plane was crazy hot and made the transatlantic trip to Frankfurt a bit uncomfortable. Fortunately for us, we had some Warsteiner, chicken with dumplings, salad, and chocolate mousse to hold us over. I tried my best to get some sleep, but it was hard to get comfortable in the warmth and deal with the Frau-bitches sitting behind me. I slept maybe an hour before perusing what was On Demand for that flight. My friend Andrew had recommended that I check out Silicon Valley, and the first six episodes were offered on the flight. I probably should have watched them in the privacy of my own home, because it was so funny that I kept bursting out laughing. And when I burst out laughing, it's similar to a Nelson Muntz's "HA!" If you haven't seen the show before, and you have HBO, you seriously need to check it out. It's one of El and my favorite new shows, so it's well worth the time.
We landed in Duseldorf after a blueberry muffin and fruit Lufthansa breakfast around 9am German time and made a beeline to the first bar after passport control. Although we were jet lagged, and it was only 9am in Deutschland, we had to order a Schoffenhofer, wurst, bread, and mustard. It was only 12 euros, which wasn't too bad for two beers and a snack, especially since the euro is so currently weak. We finished up our German snack and went BACK through passport control (odd) and found the gate for our Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. The second we boarded, we both fell right to sleep, only awakening as we were towards the end of our flight. Elliot has grown a collection of eye masks (which makes him sound super bourgeois) from traveling so much in business class, so he lent me one for our flights. It blocked out the world visually but not the sounds and smells around me. I felt like I was already in the Grand Bazaar, as there was nonstop cacophony of phones ringing, babies crying, and a serious musk of someone's B.O. Even though there was so much going on around me, I slept like a (non-screaming) baby almost the entire flight.
When we landed at Istanbul Ataturk airport, it seemed to take forever to get to the baggage claim. First, we had to wait on the tarmac. Then, we had to wait on a bus on the tarmac (which included many pushy people). Finally, we had to wait at passport control. Once we were in the baggage claim area, it didn't take long for us to spot our luggage and hail a cab to downtown Istanbul. Our cabbie drove along the coast, past water and grassy parks filled with people enjoying the pleasant weather before sunset. To our left (the water was to our riggidy), we could see twin minarets dotting the city with stores that stacked on top of one another. Everything old world seemed to blend seamlessly with modern amenities, so the whole city took on a contrasting, yet somehow working, vibe.
We got to the Double Tree Istanbul about twenty minutes later and were greeted by the warm, chocolate chip cookie that they're known for. It had been awhile since I'd stayed at a Double Tree and was PSYCHED to get a cookie. I gulped that sucker down before we finished checking in, and the desk guy asked if I wanted another. I sheepishly said no, and we were given the keys to our harem apartment (aka hotel room). Our room had this giant wraparound balcony that you could rollerblade around and that seemed so unnecessary for a couple only staying there one night. BRING ON THE LUXURY!
Mustafa, whom I deemed my favorite bellhop, hailed us a cab after we'd cleaned up ourselves. It seemed like none of the cab drivers knew where the hell they were going, because they would always ask US for directions first. After we'd give our panicked "Uhh" faces, he'd consult his GPS. Don't you live there, guy? Once we were on our way, I felt like I had been transformed into a video game character in Crazy Taxi. We weaved down tiny alleys at 40 mph, made hairpin turns, and may have gone airborne once or twice. All while the driver was smoking a cigarette, talking on his phone, driving a stick shift, and weaving a rug (maybe not that last part). It was simultaneously one of the most impressive yet terrifying spectacles I'd ever partaken in.
We finally arrived at Sirkeci train station, where we had booked a Whirling Dervish performance that evening. We quickly figured out why he'd taken us all throughout Allah's green Earth on our trip, as he tried to ask us for a 30 lira fare. There are no meters in Turkish cabs, so you need to pre-negotiate a fare. Not already knowing this, we failed to do so, but Elliot got all spunky and refused to give him anything more than 20. He goes, "30 lira? Uh, no. 20." You'll fit in well in Istanbul, Grasshopper. The cab driver just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Okay" before taking our money. At the time of our trip, one US dollar was equivalent to about 2.7 lira, so we didn't get too bad of a swindle.
The cab driver didn't take us right to the train station, so we had to navigate the winding streets set on hills to reach our destination. The sidewalks were narrow and, since it was after sundown during Ramadan, packed with people bustling about. There were touristy shops filled with glass, hanging lamps, postcards, magnets, and other Turkish novelties with the shop's owner sitting at the entrance enticing people inside. There were the typical touristy restaurants whose primary purpose is to lure in foreign suckers (us, later on) to enjoy their jacked-up priced fare. One noticeable and interesting thing about some of these restaurants was that there would be an older woman in white sitting in the front window doing something with what looked like beans on a straw circle mat. We saw this in several restaurants, and we unfortunately didn't get any answers while we were there. Even after a little research back home, I could only find out that they were making bread. If anyone has any additional information, I'd love to find out more about this practice.
We arrived at the Sirkeci Train station, and gave our name to a couple guys standing around a Whirling Dervish podium/stand. They ushered us into an event hall and pointed our seats out to us. The seats were set up in a square and were three rows deep. We had scored front row seats, and a man shortly came around with a choice of either Turkish or apple tea in tulip shaped glasses. Like Morocco, it's impolite to refuse an offered beverage, so we took one of each. The glasses were nuclear hot, so we had to hold them by the lip to prevent burning our fingers. Once it had cooled down, the apple tea which I had was delicious. It was like a warm apple juice, and it went down oh so smoothly. The chairs gradually became filled with other tourists looking for the "15 minutes of dancing, 45 minutes of whirling" that was advertised. The space itself was open, with tall ceilings, and detailed features. There was a nice breeze, and you definitely felt like you'd been whisked away to a different time.
After all the seats had been filled, the musicians entered the room and took seats lined up along the window side of the hall. There were two men who played a drum with their fingers, one a sitar, another an instrument that looked like a violin with a long-neck like a banjo that sounded like the call to prayer (I have no idea what it was, so I did my best to write down observation notes), and a type of steel guitar. They started playing, and one guy sang for awhile. The music was hypnotic, rhythmic, and beautiful to surround yourself with.
After about ten minutes of music, a young man walked into the center of the space, bowing after every few steps, and placed a red shag rug on the ground. After doing so, he walked backwards the same way to the side room from where he came. It was at that time that the band left the hall and changed into robes and tubular (as in the shape, not radical) hats.
They started playing again, and four additional men came out wearing black robes with exceedingly long sleeves over a white shirt, short jacket, and long, weighted, white skirt. They initially lined up on our side of the square, bowing multiple times while doing so. They then commenced walking in a line, in a square formation, around the space, and bowed every few steps. Once they returned to where they had lined up earlier, they paused for about thirty seconds before repeating the ritual. This went on for a good five minutes. Finally, they resumed the straight line and kneeled to the ground. After kneeling for a spell, the music began to speed up and they stood and removed their black robes. Once they did this, they would step into the space, one at a time and begin whirling. They held their arms up, almost in what can be best described as a TD position, and their skirts seemed to float on the air. The four men whirled in a square formation, and they all had peaceful looks on their faces. The guy closest to us was by far the most graceful, and his skirt twirled as if someone was holding it up by invisible wires. It just danced on the air.
After whirling for a few minutes, they would stop, walk in the square formation, bowing multiple times, before repeating the process. It was almost hypnotic, and the dancing coupled with my jet lag left me fighting to stay awake. At one point, I felt like I was in that twilight phase between being awake and asleep, and I startled myself so not to miss the show. The show ended about as abruptly as it had started, and one by one the dancers and musicians filed off the stage. It was an incredible cultural experience, and I highly recommend booking a performance if you're in Istanbul.
(Editor's note: I'm working on uploading a video of the performance to YouTube. Once it's online, I'll post a link here)
After the performance, we emerged into an even more bustling Istanbul nightlife, and the streets actually seemed to be buzzing. We walked down by the water to take some pictures before heading over to the area of the Blue Mosque and Aye Sofia (Hagia Sofia). Both were all lit up and had people hanging out in the grassy areas in between them. They're directly across from one another, so it's like a face-off of awesome (besides this Face-Off of awesome).
We weaved our way throughout the streets, slowly making our way back to our hotel, and found ourselves in an alley of touristy restaurants. We were hungry by this point and not really interested in spending a ton of time looking for an authentic restaurant, so we picked one that looked like it had a decent menu. We sat outside in upholstered chairs that had rugs on the street ground, pictures on the walls, and colorful lanterns hanging above us. It made for great people watching and faux authenticity. We took down a basket of crispy crackers and pita bread that we topped with really good hummus. I had some tasteless mushroom soup, and El and I both got urfa kebab platters with fries and a cucumber, tomato, and onion salad. Urfa is a lamb kebab that is shaped like a turd. It's not the prettiest thing to eat, nor was it the tastiest thing in the world, but everything else was pretty good. Like Morocco, we were given hot sauce with our food and a minty yoghurt sauce to dab on our urfa. We each had an Efes pilsner beer, the Budweiser of Turkey and named the Turkish word for Ephesus.
The food was good, but the spectacles around us were great. We saw the cooking and presentation of a clay pot that's bottom was cut off with a sword after being roasted in fire by a waiter. The contents were then served to another patron of the restaurant. It was also entertaining to watch the host use a variety of tactics to get people into the restaurant. He pulled out everything from, "You look like you drink white wine" to "You must be the leader of the group" to passerby's. Slick.
We were pretty beat at that point of the night, so after dinner we weaved around people, past shop owners yelling, "Turkish Delight!" and ice cream guys who used long metal sticks to serve up their wares, to make our way back to our hotel. We crashed for the night, exhausted from our first day of adventure.
The next morning, after breakfast and showering, we walked about a mile to the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque). You don't walk directly into the mosque, but you go into a big courtyard. After crossing through the courtyard, you then get in a winding line to walk past a stand where they judged your attire to be appropriate or not. If you don't have your head, shoulders and legs (for the men) covered, you were given a wrap or scarf to enter the mosque. El had to get a wrap for his legs, but I had thought ahead and had my head, shoulders, and legs already covered. We grabbed a bag in which to put our shoes before walking barefoot into the mosque. The mosque itself was exquisitely detailed and beautiful, with hundreds of windows, six minarets (apparently the only six minaret mosque in Turkey), and detailed tiling. It was built by Sultan Ahmet in the years between 1609 and 1616 and is still an active mosque. It's part of a larger complex that included a Turkish bath, fountain, and hospital. The mosque was extremely crowded (we let out a sigh when we saw the line of tourist buses in front), so we only stayed a few minutes to snag some good pictures.
We left the mosque and were disappointed to find the tomb of Ahmet under construction. We walked around the perimeter of the complex and saw the Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Theodosius Obelisk, the Hippodrome, and what looked like a serpent spire. The outside area was much less crowded than the inside, so it was easier to walk around and take in the sights a bit more. We saw signs for the Basilica Cistern, another entry on my previously created Istanbul spreadsheet of sites. I had read Dan Brown's Inferno a few years ago, where part of the story took place in the Cistern, and I made a mental note to visit it once we took a trip to Istanbul. We entered through a small stone building and descended stairs to an underground cavern. It was like being transported to the Greek underworld (fortunately not encountering this guy). There are stone pillars, some Doric, others Ionic but most being Corinthian, that emerge from the shallow water of the cistern, and they're dimly lit to create an eerie environment. We were surprised to find that there were fish swimming in the cistern waters. The cistern is easily navigated by a series of bridges, so we moseyed through the area reading the signs that explained the purpose of the cistern and its notable features. We followed signs to the famous Medusa heads that are at the far corner of the cistern. According to the signs, one head is upside down and the other is on its side for unknown reasons. Medusa symbols are believed to be included in architecture to ward off evil spirits, but archaeologists are stumped as to why the heads were purposefully situated that way. I personally found it interesting that Medusa, a Greek mythological Gorgon, was included at all. Maybe because it was constructed during the time of the Emperor Justinian earlier in the first millennium? We spent a lot more time in the Cistern than we did the Mosque because it was far less crowded, and we could take our time reading up on its unique history. We both agreed that it was one of our favorite stops in Istanbul.
After emerging back into the bright day, we walked across the city to the Suleiman Mosque at the top of a hill overlooking the city. We walked past Istanbul University on the way and saw college kids bustling to classes. I can't even imagine what it would be like to go to school in such a historical city; there'd be so much to do all the time! But it's no Iowa City, Iowa :)
Much like the Blue Mosque, Suleiman Mosque is set in a complex that is surrounded with the tombs of Suleiman the Magnificent and his wives and children. Suleiman (also spelled Suleyman) was the longest reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and extended his territory into Egypt, Romania, and Persia. He's also credited with transforming the army and the judicial system and ushering in an era of city restoration and building. His tomb is massive, but we were unfortunately able to go inside because it was closed that day. We were, however, able to wander around the tombs of his family members, a slight consolation. There were some above-ground graves and many were marked with a thin, tall, stone stele. The complex overlooked the city, so we took in the scenery and relaxed a little bit before going into the mosque itself.
After ensuring we were properly attired and our shoes were removed, we took in the beauty of our second mosque in one day. It looked much like the Blue Mosque in that there were elaborate tiles, arches, and mosaics decorating the interior. There were groups of students sitting in circles talking about religion, which was interesting to see.
We walked back into the city center and tried to find a Hammam that was supposedly in the heart of the Grand Bazaar. We walked around the entirety of the area, even consulting Google Maps and calling for directions, but our efforts led us nowhere. We gave up and just found a kebab shop that was nearby. We each had a durum chicken wrap that came in a crispy tortilla and was garnished with chili sauce, parsley, tomato, and onion. It was almost a foot in length but narrow in diameter, so it was a good amount of food. The food was decent (I don't really like parsley), but the view was pretty awesome. We sat on the second floor in a richly decorated room that overlooked the Bazaar and the people walking past us. The opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of a place as buzzing as the Grand Bazaar was definitely worth the just average food.
We had to check out of our hotel room before heading to the pier, so we walked back and packed up our things. We had coupons for free drinks at the bar, so El got a Coke and I tried Turkish coffee just to say that I did. It was extremely bitter, and I immediately regretted not getting sugar with it. I choked it down and was pretty grossed out by the sludge at the bottom of the cup. It really wasn't my cup of tea (or coffee), but I'm sure some people enjoy it. As in the entire Turkish population.
We took another Crazy Taxi to the port and waited in line inside to check in for our cruise. It was a winding queue, but we were able to scope out the people who would be onboard Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas with us. It already looked like a younger crowd than our Holland America Baltic cruise, so we were kinda psyched about that. We overheard a variety of languages being spoken, and there was a group of Armenians who were congregating with a translator nearby. After getting our room keys and having our passports collected by people upon entering the ship (kinda shady), we made a vow to not take the elevator the entire cruise. There were ten floors, and we were on the fourth, but we still managed to go the entire time without the lift. Booyeah, health!
The ship itself was older and a little dated, but it still had very pretty features and rooms. Our stateroom was an ocean view and had a large big window above the bed. We unpacked our things and then went on the "scavenger hunt" tour around the ship. We took the spa tour, where we learned about all the services offered and got to see the gym with the intense Serbian trainer. I signed up for a yoga class that next morning but chose not to partake in the detox wrap that supposedly takes 800 inches off your body or something. We also checked out the beverage package options, but the cheapest alcohol one was still pretty pricey so we decided to not opt in. We collected stamps there and at the shore excursion desk and turned in our card to enter the ship's raffle. We got the day's signature drink, the Istanbul Sunset, and explored the ship, finding the dining room, the casino, the pool and lido deck area, and the different dining options we'd have available to us.
There weren't a ton of people on the ship yet, as it was still early, so we took a snooze before our emergency drill on the deck. Following the drill we went to a drawing for spa stuff (we didn't win) and did some serious people watching. We commented that we kept seeing the same people, including a couple that was standing in front of us in line at passport control. The cruise was about 2,000 people, so it wasn't massive, but that's still a lot of people to keep seeing the same ones.
We opted for a flexible dining plan, where we could eat when we wanted but wouldn't necessarily have the same table and waiter every night. We were pretty hungry after the drawing, so we immediately went to the main dining room for dinner. We were seated, much to our relief, at a table for just two and ordered a bottle of Kendall Jackson Cabernet to split. We each had a few sourdough rolls, and I had a spinach salad with tomatoes, mushrooms, toasted sunflower seeds, and creamy Italian dressing and this mojo-marinated pork chop with roasted sweet potatoes for my entree. Everything was really tasty, but I wasn't a huge fan of the chocolate almond cake I had for dessert. The ice cream tasted off for some reason. I suppose that I'm doing okay if the dessert was my only complaint. On a cruise. In the Mediterranean. Someone call the WAHHH-mbulance.
It was still early after we finished dinner, so we decided to do a little bar tour of the ship. We each had a beer in the not-as-cool-as-it-sounds Schooner Bar, walked through the Windjammer Cafe, and stopped by the Viking Lounge, the ship's late night dance club. While navigating the ship, we signed up for a wine tasting the next day and a Johnnie Walker tasting later in the cruise. There was some liquor tasting going on in the shops onboard, but we didn't partake because the liquor was kind of lame. Our next stop was the R Bar, conveniently on our floor, where there was a Filipino band putting out jams like "We Don't Need No Education". They asked for any requests, and some woman yelled, "The Monkees!" Oh. Kay. To their credit, they knew not one, but two, Monkees songs. They were really entertaining, but we apparently weren't as entertained as these two girls who were jamming out next to us. They were some serious groupies, and during their break the band went over to them and they all started singing to each other. Yes, singing to each other. It was gloriously entertaining.
We went to the casino for a bit, where I won $50 off a $5 slot bet, which is a million times better than I normally do in a casino. It was getting towards "night club time", so we went back to the Viking Lounge to see what was going on. It was still a little empty, but we had a Sierra Nevada beer and watched the people below us. The bar had a wall of windows that overlooked the outdoor pool below. There were a ton of people enjoying the weather, and there was a screen above the pool that was playing Up! Throughout the cruise they would play different movies at various points in the day, which was pretty cool. We finished our drinks and were a little buzzed at that point, so we went back to the room and ordered (free!) room service pepperoni pizza and fell into a hard and restful sleep...
Part Two: Ephesus
After our impromptu bar crawl at sea, we woke up at 8:15 the next morning en route to Ephesus. We couldn't feel the ship moving because, as we learned from our Captain's daily announcement we traveled only at a speed of 7 knots an hour. We glanced out our stateroom window and saw incredibly blue water and the island of Lesbos on our port side. We had the day at sea to relax, so I went to yoga class with the ship's Jean Claude Van Damme trainer, MJ. It was basically 45 minutes of stretching and some warrior poses peppered in, and I still had to work out afterwards, so it was basically a ripoff. Womp womp.
We decided to take it easy that day and took a snooze before doing some exploring of the ship. We had lunch at the Windjammer Cafe, which had lots of buffet options. Having a smorgasbord in front of me was too much for my willpower to handle, and I had a loaded salad, rolls, and a giant pile of mashed potatoes. The food wasn't anything overly incredible, but it was the perfect cure for a late night at sea. We waddled up to the deck and just sat in the sun looking out over the azure water. The water was so calm, and the sun so warm, that we felt like jet setters on a private yacht.... a private yacht filled with 2,000 of our Speedoed friends.
The spa was holding this "Ladies Pamper Party", which sounded like a "Wooo! Am I right, ladies??" type of event, but I decided to go anyway. It was exactly like I had expected: a plug for their services while we gave ourselves facials. The prices of the products were borderline blasphemous, so I decided not to partake. We went for a little walk around the ship's deck before going to a wine tasting in the dining room. We sat at a table with a great South African couple and two girls from Columbia and shared travel stories and plans for the next day's stop in Ephesus and made plans to get together at another point in the cruise. The wine tasting consisted of four glasses of wine from France and a variety of cheeses. We had a sauvignon blanc with an herb and garlic cheese, a merlot blend with chambard cheese, a richer cabernet with a nutty, English, blue cheese, and our favorite, a wine called Lafite Reserve Speciale Medoc. Our sommelier was the head of the dining room and kept saying, "Ladies and Gentlemen" with no real revelation following except why wines are stored the way they are. We didn't learn too much from the tasting, but the cheese alone was worth the $25 cost.
We were in a saucy mood after the tasting, so we partook in 2 for 1 Australian beer day and sat in the sun before going to the daily trivia at 5. Despite us only being a team of two, and other teams groups of eight, we still ended up coming in third place. Knowledge, yo! After trivia, we took another nap to rest up after a super long day of doing nothing at sea. We woke up in time for dinner, so we got all gussied up for formal night. We sat next to a honeymooner couple who had gotten married three days prior and kept peppering in the word "Babe" every few seconds. We ended up seeing them everywhere over the course of the cruise, so we naturally saddled them with the nickname "Honeymoon Couple". Yeah, we were really thinking outside of the box with that one. Since it was fancy night, we got a bottle of chardonnay to go with our chicken gnocchi...soup (false advertising), a Roman vignole salad with bacon, bacon vinaigrette, artichoke, peas, snow peas, cauliflower, and tomatoes, and an amazing artichoke and cheese crepe. We committed to having dessert every night of that damn cruise, so we got something called a chocolate sensation and went to the casino to work off our wallets. After dinner we changed out of our formal gear and went to the Centrum to have another 2 for 1 Aussie beer and watch the "Finish that lyric" trivia. We also got to partake in some awesome people watching: formal night edition There were tuxedos and slutty gowns galore, oh my! We tried to find the groupies from the previous night, but to no avail. In their place we discovered this Eastern European stereotype, Ooona, wearing what we lovingly refer to as a Russian dress. It was the perfect "sleepy time tonic" before hitting the hay in anticipation of Ephesus.
Chapter 3: A Letter from Courtney to the Ephesians
When we woke up the next morning, we were almost to Kusadasi, the closest port to Ephesus. The weather was once again beautiful, and the boat was buzzing with people ready to get to their first port stop. When the captain came on and signaled that we had arrived in Kusadasi, we headed straight for the gangplank to be one of the first on land. Since the cruise handled customs and passport control, we were able to just scan our cruise cards and walk straight through the port area. It was annoying to have our passports taken, but it did make for a swifter ship exit. We walked around a winding queue area and briefly through the port area filled with restaurants and shops to meet our tour guide for the day. We had done some research prior to the trip, and Elliot found an all day tour of Ephesus that cost only $10 more total than the three hour ones offered by the ship. The company had gotten great reviews on TripAdvisor, so we decided to make Ephesus one of the few stops that I didn't plan on my own.
Denis, our local tour guide, had a sign with El's name on it and greeted us warmly. He led us to the van that would take us around to all the different sites, and introduced us to our driver for the day. The van had four seats that faced each other, kind of like in a train car, and a decorative rug in the middle of the floor. It was ideal for getting information while we travelled. Denis explained to us his idea for the day's itinerary and asked if there were any other things we wanted to add. I wanted to tuck in the Ephesus Museum, because the actual Artemis fertility statues from the temple were on display there. Yes, I will pay museum admissions just to see one or two items. Hence why we spent about 220 euros on admission fees alone that cruise. Denis said that was no problem and began telling us about Ephesus's history.
Denis explained how there are two types of Muslim countries: practicing versus secular. He emphasized the difference between the two (an example of practicing would be Iran, Turkey is secular) and stressed how safe Turkey really is. He was very passionate about making sure that we knew that Turkish was NOT like Syria, and that the country was much more Western than people initially thought. We didn't need any convincing, but I'm sure that there are people who hesitate to go to Turkey because they think it's the Middle East. As we drove along a coast that reminded me so much of Andalucia (stark, winding hills and hints of water popping up every now and then), Denis told us about various Turkish customs and Ephesian facts. For example, he said that it's considered impolite if a guest refuses a beverage, but that it's also rude if a host asks if his/her guest is hungry. To discover if they need to feed their guest, the host brings them a tray of coffee and water. If the guest drinks the coffee, it means that he/she is full. If they take the water, that means that they are hungry and would like to be offered food. It's an unspoken system that the Turks apparently have. He also shared that there are actually three ancient cities of Ephesus, but the one most visited is the third and just recently was picked to be an UNESCO World Heritage Site. That should help further increase the area's tourism, booming as it already is. Supposedly there are about 95,000 residents in the winter; that number swells to over 500,000 come summertime. Business is a boomin'.
While we were driving to our first stop, the house of the Virgin Mary, we noticed what looked like white paint on the bottoms of trees. Denis explained to us that because it gets so hot in the summer, the farmers and people like to take naps in the middle of the day. The white paint (actually chalk) is toxic to snakes and scorpions, so the farmers are able to rest under it without fear of getting bitten or stung. The number of trees increased as we started to climb a large mountain to reach the house of Mary. On our way up, Denis told us how later in her life, Mary came with the Apostle John to Ephesus to spread Christianity in a pagan land. They made their way to the top of the mountain but found that there was no water to sustain them. The story goes that Mary and John prayed intensely, and an earthquake caused the ground to split and a spring to flow freely. The spring is still there, and I made sure to sprinkle some water on myself once we had arrived. Denis also told us stories about how Mary supposedly died on August 15, 49 AD and that John lived to 100. Not bad for ancient times.
As we neared, we saw what looked like hundreds of tour buses parked along the side of the narrow road. I started to get concerned that we'd be battling with thousands of other tourists to get inside the house. Denis, very strategic in his planning of the day, assured us that the tour boat excursions go earlier in the morning and that we would be arriving just as the first wave of people were departing. Sure enough, the crowds were not bad at all and we only stood in line five minutes before actually entering the house of Mary.
We pulled up to a gate that had a wooden sign in Turkish and English saying that we had reached the House of the Virgin Mary, and we paid a parking and entrance fee to the guy working the booth. Our driver pulled over the van, and Denis, Elliot, and I walked downhill a bit, through a parking lot filled with buses, towards a path that led to the house. In front of the house was a 6th century cistern, intentionally shaped like a key lock by Constantine the Great to show that Christianity is the key to heaven. Just past the cistern was the line that led to the house itself.
The only remaining part of the house was the bottom red area, but it was still a substantial part that had survived. The house was separated into two rooms, one that contained kneelers and candles, and one with an altar and statue of Mary in the hearth. The statue had no hands because the original one was burglarized as it had gold hands. There was a decree from Pope Benedict hanging on the wall and images of local saints. The stone kept the house cool, and we slowly processed throughout the house to the exit. While I don't know how much I believe that the Virgin Mary lived there, it still had a certain holiness about it.
As with many things Catholicism, there was a gift shop immediately after you exited the house, where I bought a few medals for my mom, aunt, and grandma. We walked down a stone ramp towards the spring (now powered by a faucet) and lit a candle next to it. I tore off some paper from my notebook, and Elliot and I both wrote a prayer/wish down and tied it to the wall that contained the prayers and pictures of hundreds who had visited before us. I said a quick prayer myself before we met back up with Denis to head to our next destination. As a Catholic woman, visiting the House of the Virgin Mary (as questionable a fact as that may be), was a pretty incredible experience.
Chapter 4: Pottery in our system and Celsies
Our next stop was a ceramic demonstration at a roadside shop at the foot of the mountain. The roads again reminded me of Andalucia, and the shop was like a little venta on the side of the road. We entered into the shop's open-air demonstration area, where we were greeted by a worker. We watched a sculptor shape the white, quartz filled, clay while another guy detailed the process to us in perfect English. The sculptor shaped a bowl and lid right in front of us, which was incredible. We moved to the artistry area where we saw a third guy drawing intricate flowers on the dried pottery. Our last stop before going into the "show room" as he called it was to see the woman who does the painting before the clay is fired. We were offered Turkish tea by the guy, which we accepted to not be rude, and El and I walked through room upon room of varying ceramics. I'm not even exaggerating when I say that there were thousands of things to purchase. We ended up with an aqua blue bowl and a wall ornament of a colorful whirling dervish, because we didn't get enough pottery in Spain or something...
Our next stop was the ancient city of Ephesus, which wasn't too far from the ceramic shop. Like the House of the Virgin Mary, there were a ton of tour buses, but the city itself didn't seem overwhelmingly crowded. The ancient city is massive and has so much still intact (or restored) that you feel like you're in ancient times walking down the promenade, expecting to be beckoned by people selling their wares on the sides of the street. It was the first place I've ever felt like I could see the ancient people going on with their days. It was kind of crazy.
We walked through the streets for almost two hours while Denis regaled us with little tidbits of history. We walked past the ruins of the hospital, where a statue of a Dr. Alexander was erected to commemorate his efforts to combat a plague. One of his "cures" was to burn arsenic, and that ended up killing him and many others in the end. A for effort?
The Grand Odeon, a 1,500 seat area that was used by Parliament, was nearby and we were able to walk and stand in the center of the "stage". Denis told us that St. Paul had preached here. Is that where he composed his letters to the Ephesians? At least it wasn't "love is patient, love is kind..."
There were hundreds of broken pillars and a few still standing. On the tops of several were statues that honored various Roman leaders, such as Titus, Domitian, and Domitian's wife. Everything was in amazing condition considering its age, and you could read the Latin on the different ruins of buildings. That, to me, was extremely exciting. Dork alert, y'all. We paid an extra fee to enter the archaeological site of the terraced houses, which Lonely Planet had said was a much do. Since we were in an active archaeological area, we had to walk on wooden walkways to get views around the houses. They were set on a hill, so that required us to climb numerous stairs to take everything in. There were many mosaics that I had recognized from my art history classes and several frescoes that were still in good condition. We also passed by several tables that contained broken fragments that the archaeologists were working on categorizing.
Upon exiting the terraced houses, we could see the Library of Celsius in the distance and the sea behind it. We climbed down the stairs and passed the Fountains of Trajan and Temple of Hadrian, and did a quick whip around the ancient latrines. Fun fact: the Romans used a common stick with an attached sponge to wipe themselves, so if you used the wrong end of the stick, you were basically getting splinters where the sun don't shine, hence the phrase "wrong end of the stick" (or short end, whatever) originated. I just get grossed out by how unsanitary that is. Blech.
The Library of Celsius was our next stop, and it was just as incredible as I had expected. The intact statues and intricate detailing of its entrance just blew me away, and I must
have taken a hundred pictures of the exact same thing because I was so in awe. One such picture was a selfie with the library, which I called my "Celsie" Rim shot! The library is attached to the ancient agora, designed like a grid for the different vendor stalls. Much like the Roman Forum, we were able to walk around the agora like it was a regular Sunday market. I loved the leniency here!
We continued down the pathway of the city to the Grand Theater which held a whopping 25,000 spectators. Recently restored, it looked incredible. Elliot climbed up to the top of the seats to get some pictures that would accurately capture how enormous the space is. Denis told us that lots of top performers put on shows there, and Elton John was one of
the more recent entertainers to visit. The Theatre was by the exit, next to which there was what I'd call a "pillar graveyard". I'm talking hundreds of toppled pillars and pillar pieces just laying in the grass. If I weren't such an asshole to people about not touching or sitting on ruins, I'd probably be able to run off with my own piece of Ephesus. Tempting...
We made the most of our visit to the city, but we were getting pretty hungry, so lunch was our next stop on the tour. Denis had asked us at the beginning of the day if there was a particular place that we wanted to eat or if we would like to go to a place that he recommended. Although we knew that probably meant it was a family member or friend, we said that we would just go to a place that he knew. The restaurant, Galatin, was part of a complex that included a carpet warehouse and had a beautiful outdoor terrace that was shaded by trees. We chose to sit outside and enjoy the pleasant Turkish weather.
Denis let us know that lunch was prearranged, and the server immediately brought out a plate of appetizers for each of us. There were these two fried cheese rolls (think a crispy taquito), a tomato and eggplant sauce, fresh bread, mint yoghurt, and a tomato, cucumber, and feta cheese salad. That alone would have been enough to satisfy us, and everything was just delicious. While we ate, Denis showed us pictures of his wife and baby daughter, and told Elliot that he had looked him up on Facebook to make sure he knew what he looked like that morning. He even pulled out his phone and showed El his profile, which made him a little nervous about his privacy settings. He didn't realize that people could search him that easily. Yikes.
Our main course arrived shortly after our appetizers and consisted of Turkish chicken, lamb and beef meatballs, rice, a chili pepper, and grilled tomato. Everything was, again, very good, and we were absolutely stuffed. Still, the waiter then brought out these giant pieces of watermelon for dessert, which Elliot and I took a few bites of to not be rude. If a tray of coffee and water had appeared at that point, I would have probably burnt my esophagus guzzling down that coffee.
Chapter 5: Magic Carpet Ride
We had another "family friend getting a cut on the side demonstration" right after lunch, and Denis (admittedly looking annoyed that he even had to do this) brought us to the carpet warehouse that was attached to the restaurant. We entered a workroom that was manned by young women and stood around for awhile until the proprietor arrived to greet us. The guy in charge, like the pottery narrator, spoke perfect English and was very welcoming in a "hoping to make a sale" kind of way. He first led us to the carpet demonstration area, where he explained the double knot process that the Turks use in making their rugs. He beckoned me to sit down on a bench at the loom next to a young woman who worked there. As he explained how each row of the carpet is made knot by knot, she nimbly demonstrated using the dyed wool, scissors, and clamp mechanism (for pushing the individual threads into the already woven part of the carpet) at her disposal. I watched her carefully, because I knew that the owner was going to have me try a sample. Americans must not pay attention to how it's done the first time, because he was very surprised that I was able to do it right the first time. Yay, Courtney! We learned that each 5x7 rug takes about six months to create, and that the project timeframe depends on the materials and number of knots being used. The higher the number of knots --> the longer the rug takes to complete. We also were taught that the most common types of rugs are wool, cotton, and a cotton/silk blend. He explained that there is no such thing as cashmere silk rugs, and that any carpet branded as such is a lie.
After trying my hand at carpet magic, we were ushered over to a large metal drum full of water and small white eggs. The guy told us that the eggs were silkworm cocoons and pointed to the small filaments that came from them that culminated in a thick white braid. When the silk was extracted, a worker takes a large bristle brush and just runs it over the top of the floating cocoons. The filaments attach to the bristles, and the workers gather them around a hook. They then use a foot pedal to pull out the filaments and attach them to the thread. We felt the silk and cocoons, and the whole process was so old world yet effective.
The carpets are made by a co-op that employs women all over Turkey, most of whom are widows or who don't have any family. They are allowed to work at their own pace and usually work from the comfort of their own home. It was much like the argan oil co-op I had visited in Morocco. I was glad to see that steps are being taken to empower women in various parts of the world.
The manager ushered us into one of the numerous showrooms and called in a worker to get us a drink. Although it was the last thing I wanted, I accepted his offer of Turkish sludge. Elliot declined, and the manager kept pressing him to get a drink. He kept refusing, and I kept trying to sneak him a look like "Let's not insult this guy". The Brouse man didn't budge though. Despite our cultural faux pas, we were still "treated" to a lesson in natural dyes (you can tell that a dye is natural by the way it changes color in different lights) and a showing of numerous types of rugs. Considering the smallest rug available was the size of a placemat and still cost $100, we declined to buy anything. The manager didn't seem too pleased by that, given the time he spent explaining and showing the carpets. Sorry, bruh; if your carpet isn't going to fly me past the Sphinx, I don't want it.
Chapter 6: A 500 Boob Bra
We piled back into the van after our demonstration and took a short drive to the city of Selçuk to visit the Ephesus (Efes) Museum. We paid a small entrance fee and walked through the museum at our own pace because there weren't many visitors there. The lighting of the place was spectacular: dim but with strategically placed spotlights highlighting each statue. There were hundreds of full sized statues, coins, glass artifacts, and medical instruments that were found at the hospital in the ancient city. Paging Dr. Alexander. There were numerous friezes and statues from the Temple of Artemis, and I giggled like a middle school kid upon seeing the famous statue of Priapus, the boner god. I'm glad I'm an adult. We walked through numerous rooms and to an outside area that housed temple pillar pieces and a large altar that was engraved with the images of Artemis and Apollo. Upon reentering the interior rooms, we saw the famous Artemis fertility statues standing opposite one another. There are several Roman copies of these statues that are housed at various museums, including the Vatican Museums. Although Artemis was a virginal goddess, she was still associated with fertility, and these statues are in celebration of that. The statues are of Artemis, standing with outstretched hands and covered from neck to foot in numerous breasts. The image is one of the most recognizable to scholars of ancient civilizations, and I got inexplicably excited upon seeing them.
We did a quick gift shop run where we bought our obligatory magnet, and I got a journal with the goddess Nike (my favorite) on it. We climbed back into the van for the last stop on our tour: The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. One of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, the Temple was recorded as being the most magnificent of the seven. It has a colorful history that included a fire set by a young man named Herostratus who was trying to make a name for himself. The temple quickly burned to the ground, and the locals, after torturing Herostratus to death, decreed that anyone speaking of his name should be put to death. Legend also said that Artemis was so busy with the birth of Alexander the Great that night that she was unable to save her own temple.
What's left of the temple is set on a green marshy swamp and is overlooked by a 6th century mosque and the 1st century AD Basilica of Saint John (also where he is buried), both set on a nearby hill. As Denis explained to us, it's a photo opportunity of three religions in one picture. We had to walk a short distance from the van to the swamp, but that was enough time to be hassled by numerous guys trying to sell us snake charming flutes (?) and calling us "my friend". It was pretty annoying, because we were trying to take in the majesty of the temple and not be bothered. All that's left of the temple is a single standing pillar and some pedestals; the rest was (shocker) commandeered by the British and is in the British Museum. The contrast of the white pillar against the green swamp was beautiful, and I couldn't get over the fact that I was in the presence of one of the Ancient Wonders of the World.
We said goodbye to Denis at the Port of Kusadasi and promised that we would write him a positive review on TripAdvisor (we did). We had some time to kill before we needed to be back on the boat, so we stopped in the Starbucks to use their wifi and connect with the world. After clearing what seemed like a 1,000 emails from our inbox, we walked along the turquoise water and through the port shops for awhile. There were a lot of people sunning themselves and numerous fishing boats that dotted the coast. We had been on the move since the early morning, so we passed through security and relaxed in our room on the ship for awhile. After a piña colada while walking around the deck, we changed for an early dinner. We had great window seats and were able to watch us pull away from Kusadasi while eating our beefsteak tomato salad and sliders and washed down our day with a bottle of wine. After making a mini-sundae at the Windjammer Cafe, we hit the casino and read in our stateroom before saying "Güle" to Ephesus...
Part Three: Halikarnassos
Chapter 7: Shipwrecked
We had one last stop in Turkey before heading to the Greek Islands, and I have to confess that I didn't know too much about Bodrum apart from it being the site of the ancient city of Halicarnassus and its famous Mausoleum. Most recently Bodrum has become known as a jet setter hot spot with marinas filled with yachts of the rich and famous. Our ship docked early in the morning, so after a room service breakfast we made our way to the gangplank to explore.
Our first impression of Bodrum was that of a place with crystal clear water and a pebble beached harbor filled with yachts and sailboats. There were small patches of sand which some savvy businessmen had scooped up and dotted with beach chairs to rent. Our ship had docked in the outer harbor, and everything that we wanted to see was located on the other side of the inner harbor leading to a bit of a walk along the water before doing any sightseeing. The pebbled road we took was also the main road through town and took us past numerous souvenir shops and cafes. It was still early in the morning, so the shopkeepers were busy hosing down the area in front of their shops and enjoying their tea and cigarette. They really weren't interested in drawing people into their shops just yet, so we were able to travel unmolested to the Museum of Underwater Archaeology.
The Museum was one of three historical sites that we wanted to see and was conveniently located IN another one, the Castle of St. Peter. The ticket that we purchased was for both sites, and we were able to get in just before a big tour group arrived behind us. We weren't as fortunate in Bodrum as we were in Ephesus to avoid tour groups, and we unfortunately had to navigate a number of them while making our way through the museum/castle. There were, however, enough twists and pathways to allow us to dodge them pretty easily. There were a number of incredible exhibits that were scattered throughout the rooms of the castle, and we were able to see hundreds of different amphorae from various time periods and locations. Considering Bodrum's location, the museum naturally had a number of ancient shipwreck artifacts to display. One of the more interesting exhibits included an "underwater" scene of the Uluburuk shipwreck, a
Bronze Age ship. The sheer number of artifacts from the ship, combined with its age, make it one of the wealthiest shipwrecks ever found. The exhibit design was incredible, and I was very impressed with the curators of the museum for the thought they put into it. In addition to the Uluburuk, we also saw the "glass shipwreck", a 1025 AD wreck named for its cargo and other treasures scooped up from the Mediterranean seabed.
The antiquity of the museum artifacts contrasted with the comparative "modernness" (aka Medieval Times...no, not that Medieval Times) of St. Peter's Castle. The castle itself was the brainchild of the Grand Master of the Knight's Hospitalier in the 14th century as an attempted stronghold against the Turks. It was built using the stones from the nearby Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, some of which were just scattered on the ground throughout the castle's pathways. There were typical castle rooms (including a lame dungeon) and towers designated for knights of the countries of France, Italy, Germany, and England. The English tower was our personal favorite because it had a very Arthurian feel to its decor: lots of stained glass, banners with different sigils, and heavy wooden furniture. The windows looked out onto the water, and the sunshine was the only lighting the room had.
We climbed the steps and pathways of the Castle for a few hours and took in the beautiful sea that lay before us. On our travels we passed a peacock just walking around and learned from a nearby tour group (Ugh, I guess they're somewhat useful) that peacocks scream when startled. To save themselves some sleep, the knights used them as a kind of Medieval security alarm. The more you know. We had seen about our fill of jars by this point, so we climbed down the stone steps to head to Halicarnassus.
Chapter 8: Uncle Fester's Second Wonder of the World
We consulted the map the ship had given us prior to our disembarking and found that the Mausoleum was located about a kilometer away, tucked into a neighborhood. We walked through the neighborhood before stumbling upon the museum that sits at the site of the ancient Mausoleum. It was very nondescript, and there were only one or two signs that led us to the location. We had included the site on our ticket purchase at the castle, so we were able to scan our tickets and walk right in. It was an outdoor museum that had a garden, the remains of the mausoleum, and a small room that had a video running that described the history of the site. There were a few panels that explained the tomb, its friezes and other elements of the museum, but it was hard to understand the English translation. It was much like a Google translation, and the syntax and grammar were pretty jumbled. Regardless, we were able to pick up a few tidbits about Mausolos and his people, so it was worth the deciphering effort. Much like Ephesus and basically any place in the world in the history of ever, many of the statues and actual artifacts are in the British Museum. The actual site of the mausoleum was a big grassy area that was covered with pillar fragments. You could somewhat make out the tomb and sacrifice areas, but there was hardly anything left to the once mighty site. Despite there not being much around, it was still incredible to be at a second ancient wonder in as many days.
After taking a few pictures, we back towards the harbor to try to find lunch. On our way we picked up our magnet and a nazar boncuk, the Turkish amulet for warding off the evil eye. We found a harbor side restaurant that had doner on the menu, and we took down our kebap with a view of the water. A taxi stand was next door, so we hailed a cab to a beach that Elliot had researched was one of the best in Bodrum, Bitez Beach. Our cabbie spoke to us in broken English while whipping around city hills and blasting Beyonce and Taylor Swift. It wasn't the Turkish music I was expecting, but it's hard to say no to Queen Bey. As if I wanted to. During our short ride to the beach, we drove through some touristy beach towns and I almost lost my shit when I saw an Uncle Fester's Restaurant. As in the Addams Family Uncle Fester, face on the restaurant sign and all! This is a fucking thing that actually exists! I guess it's an Italian place? I wonder what it was about Uncle Fester that screamed "Mangia!" to the owner?
Bitez Beach had several beachside bars, so we decided to get chairs at one called the Lemon Tree. When El asked a waiter if we could get some seats, the guy squeezed El's bicep and said, "Oh, big man!" He's no Uncle Fester, but I suppose he is, sir. He must've liked his guns because we got two chairs right on the water. The beach was pebbly, but the water was as clear as glass. When we dipped our toes in, however, we found that it was FREEZING cold. Like 55 degrees cold. Despite the frigidness of the water, there were still plenty of people swimming and playing this paddle ball game that all Europeans seem to love. We laid in the hot sun and enjoyed some cold drinks to celebrate being on vacation. I had this incredible iced coffee that tasted like a dessert. After a few more of them over the course of our trip I learned that "iced coffee" in the Mediterranean means "coffee ice cream with milk". Even though I felt myself getting chubbier with each sip, it tasted amazing and I di'in give a fuh. In between sips, we decided to brave the chill to say that we swam in the waters of Turkey. We didn't last too long because our body temperatures dropped within a matter of minutes of being in the sea.
After taking advantage of the Lemon Tree's free WiFi, we took a cab to see the Myndos Gate at the top of a hill overlooking the marina. The Myndos Gate is the only structural remains still standing from the time of Mausolus around 360 BCE. There's not much to it, but it was another opportunity to be surrounded by history. We obviously couldn't pass that up. We walked back towards the ship, past the same neighborhood in which lay the ruined Mausoleum, and we thought we were going in circles when we kept seeing the same mattress shop (strange, I know) multiple times. We also passed a bunch of seaside clubs already bumping with EDM, catering to the bourgeois class. It was such a contrast of worlds going from ancient structures like the Myndos Gate to bass thumping rave parties on the shores of the marina. Woo!!!!
When we were back on the boat, we went to trivia where we were surrounded by a huge group of drunk old people. The quiz was peppered with British questions, so we definitely didn't do so hot as our previous outings. Dinner after was comprised of a spinach, feta, and sundried tomato pie, caesar salad, and Steak Diane. We were once again fortunate enough to sit by the window and watched the sunset bounce off the Bodrum mountains while we ate our white chocolate mousse. We had a few hours to kill before the ship's "Red and White Party", so we went to a color-themed "name that tune" in the Viking Crown Lounge. We were the only team (aka partnership) to get "Fields of Gold" and "Black Balloon", so we had some bragging points despite not winning. Because obviously Goo Goo Dolls = bragging points. Despite our clear life successes, we were super distracted by the emcee. Gemma, the host of the trivia and one of the Activities Director, was wearing these white gauze pants in anticipation of the Red and White Party. She was conducting trivia by the window, and with the sun shining on those gauze pants, we could see her Halicarnassus and upper thigh tattoo. El and I felt super awkward and kept trying to avert our eyes when she was talking.
The party was a few hours later, so we relaxed a bit before heading to the pool deck at ten. "Free drinks" were promised in the daily newsletter, so we gladly took the glass of Greek wine and mixed drink that were offered to us. We were slightly taken aback when the worker asked for our stateroom card, aka the ship's form of payment. Supposedly "free drinks" on the ship meant A free drink that was RAFFLED OFF. It was an $18 lesson that Royal Caribbean was going to nickel and dime us. We watched the crowd performing the line dances learned at a class the day before and munched on some free Greek snacks that were presented. We once again saw the honeymoon couple, another couple that we always crossed paths with we referred to as "our couple", and the magnificent flower, Oona, wearing shorts that made Gemma's gauze pants look like a Mennonite favorite. It was great people watching, but we tore ourselves away to get some rest before our busy next day at Rhodes...
Part Four: Rhodes
Chapter 9: Rhodes? Where we're going, we don't need Rhodes..
Despite all the excitement from a rowdy Red and White party with the swan of our time, Oona, we still managed to wake up early to grab a quick breakfast at one of the cafes before heading out to Rhodes City. The ship was docked at the habour close to the medieval city walls that surround the city, so it was an easy five minute walk to the old town. The walls are in surprisingly great shape and encircle the medieval and ancient city of Rhodes, creating an outdated defense system. We passed through a large arched gate and emerged into a small city square spotted with stone statues of lions and 14th century stone archways.
Our first stop was the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes, which is set inside a 15th century hospital. The museum is comprised of two open-air floors set around a beautiful courtyard of gardens and stone figures. It was more like a castle than a museum and certainly didn't fail to impress. There was a guard, sometimes multiple guards, who sat at the doorway of every treasure room, watching the guests like a hawk. There were hardly any visitors in the museum, so the sheer number of staff members on duty seemed excessive. We also felt like we had to keep moving through the rooms to avoid the watching eyes of the guards, thus shortening our time at each exhibit. Despite being monitored by Cerberus, we still were able to admire beautiful red and black figure attic vase and amphorae, marble busts of Helios, Rhodes' patron deity, and numerous small stone stele collected from a nearby cemetery. The crowning piece of the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes was without a doubt the statue of Aphrodite Bathing. Its small stature is set in motion and is an exquisite example of Hellenistic sculpture. I naturally had to strike a pose.
We admired the mosaics set on the walls of the courtyard and walked through the gardens a bit before heading out to the harbor in search of the spot where the Colossus once stood. Once outside the city walls, we spotted a Greek flag set out on a lookout at the end of a stone jetty. We walked to its end, getting sprayed by water, and passed by hundreds of sailboats docked and bearing the flags of many nations. Much like the ancient city of Ephesus, it was easy to imagine the port bustling with ships delivering their wares and sailing through Colossus' spread eagle (if that indeed was how he was situated). Now, I may love myself some Stan's Donuts, but I'm no Colossus, so I had to settle for some stones in the water rather than pillars that straddle the mouth of the harbor. It's a small miracle that I didn't slip on the rocks, and I air high-fived Poseidon for not knocking me over with his trident.
After my third Wonder of the World photo op, we walked back into the city through St. Anthony's Gate and walked in the now empty moat that once flowed between the outer and inner walls of the city. We walked through some narrow roads to find the Palace of the Grand Master, erected in the 13th-15th centuries by the Knights Hospitaller of St. John to defend the city from the frequently invading Turks. The medieval architecture of the castle, much like the Archaeological Museum, consisted of two levels of open door rooms surrounding a large open-air courtyard. There are only twelve or so rooms accessible to the public, so our visit was relatively short. The castle houses a number of ancient and medieval artifacts, including a large number of Byzantine art on wooden boards. The number of tour guides was small, so we were able to navigate the rooms of the castle without delay. While we weaved in and out of the rooms, we spotted "our couple" walking around as well. We debated finally introducing ourselves for about two seconds before dismissing the idea like the other times in the days past.
The palace is set on the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Avenue of Knights, a medieval sloping street that has tall walls and coats of arms carved into the stones. The buildings on the street served as the residences of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John, hence the extraordinarily clever name of the street. It ends near the city wall by the harbor, at the ruins of the Temple of Aphrodite. There was an unassuming plaque that listed the site; without it, you would walk by not paying any particular attention to a giant pile of rocks.
It was still early in the day, so we decided to make the city's ancient acropolis our next stop. We had read about how well preserved the acropolis was, and that the view of the city below was incredible. We walked uphill through the city, past small shops and numerous city parks. The crowds thinned out the further away we got from Old Town, so we had a tranquil hike to the acropolis. Even early in the day, the sun was oppressive, and the entirety of the walk was uphill, so the trek was a sweaty one. An occasional breeze would come in off the water, giving us a respite from the heat, but there was none of that when we were in the neighborhoods. As we saw the city below become smaller and smaller, we spotted a sign in Greek that indicated that the acropolis was to the left. There was a parking lot with only a few tour buses, and there were hardly any people around the area. It was a marked contrast between the Turkish sites we had visited the days prior.
We cut across a grassy area and came upon the ancient stadium at the foot of the Acropolis hill. It looked like it was cut into the ground, and there were fifteen or so people hanging out on the seats. It was a hot day, and the natural thing for a Greek to do on a hot day is apparently sit on ancient ruins. Geeze, America is so NEW. Sigh. After doing an obligatory "ready, set..." pose on the track, we flexed our calve muscles and continued our trek uphill to the apex of the city. The Temple of Pythian Apollo iss the focal point of the Acropolis, and the view through its Doric columns of the city below was a breathtaking one that was worth the lung busting hike. We saw that the hill continued to climb and decided to see what was further up top. The ground ended
abruptly, and we were soon face to face with an incredible view of the sea below us. The water was a million different colors of blues and greens that popped against the land. There were a few benches set up to enjoy the view, so we took a few minutes to convince ourselves that what we were seeing wasn't actually a postcard. It was hard to tear ourselves away from the bench, but our stomachs were letting us know that our asses needed to get up and get some grub.
The walk downhill was much more pleasant than our journey upwards, and we cut through a shaded neighborhood to get back to the Old Town. Much like Bodrum, Rhodes reminded us of the Spanish neighborhoods in Andalucia: white stone buildings with colorful window blinds and doors. We were surprised to see that Greek license plates used Roman letter characters rather than the Greek alphabet. Maybe they use the Roman ones to stay consistent with the rest of the Eurozone?
Old Town was bustling at full force by the time we reached the city center, and we passed by numerous cafes where the hosts tried to beckon us inside with fifty page menus. We spotted one called Venus that had a 2.50 euro gyro special, so we sat down at an outside table ready to chow down. We were given said fifty page menus by an old guy who we presumed to be the owner. Maybe I had Windex on the brain, but every old Greek guy made me think of the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This guy was no exception, but with the addition of a ponytail and a subtraction of a
Windex bottle. We each ordered a chicken gyro, and I ordered a Greek salad that came topped with seasoned feta, tomato, cucumber, pitted olives, green pepper, and red onion. We both had 4 euro Cokes that were worth every penny because we were so damn thirsty and were in the middle of enjoying our meal when a ruckus erupted behind us. There was an old guy (not Greek, so no Windex for him) having lunch with his wife, drinking a beer boot (not sure why that was even an option here) when the beer boot suddenly shattered in his hand. Nothing hit it, and he didn't drop it; the boot just self-combusted in his hand. He got beer all over his shirt, and instead of just letting it air dry in the hot sun like a normal person, he took his shirt off. He and the owner started yelling at each other in their respective languages, with the shirtless guy hollering, "No malda!" (no clue what that means) and the taverna owner responding with "Just relax!" It was a hilarious sight, but we didn't dare laugh because they both were so pissed. It was like two cream puffs getting into a rumble. "Police" was mentioned a few times before the two men agreed to disagree and the fighting stopped as suddenly as it had started. The whole debacle left me super giddy with amusement, and Elliot and I just kept saying, "What the hell was THAT about?!?" to one another.
After getting our fill of feta and the Peloponnesian War, we went down the Hora Streets of the Old Town to do a little shopping. I decided that I wanted to get some Greek goddess dresses, but so many of the shops were trying to sell them for 40 euros. Keep in mind these things probably cost 2 euros to make, so it was pretty annoying to see them marked so high. We passed by souvenir shops that sold those colorful bags with the city name on them, jewelry shops, olive oil stores, crappy t-shirt stands, and a few guys hawking a cabbage shredder. They'd just stand there going nuts on heads of cabbage, and lettuce confetti littered the street they stood upon.
We stopped in a side alley shop that had the gauzy goddess dresses for only 20 euros (still overpriced but not as bad as 40), so we stopped inside to take a look. The owner was a very nice big Greek man who spoke enough English to explain to us that his wife has a son in Ohio, and that they want to visit but never have time. I tried on two dresses which I ended up buying (one red and in the Artemis style and another that was more Hera like) and El chatted with the owner about how busy Rhodes gets in the summer. The owner, much like the waiter at Bitez Beach, squeezed El's arm and said, "Big man! You must work out!" That's my Viking for ya. His wife gave me a gauzy scarf as a gift for visiting their shop, and we thanked them for their hospitality before leaving.
We sat in a nearby coffee shop in a busy square to do some relaxing. El got a Mythos beer (like the Greek Budweiser) that was served in a boot (thankfully no explosions), and I ordered an iced coffee aka melted coffee ice cream. We weren't able to really relax because Rhodesian pigeons are way more aggressive than American pigeons. They kept jumping on our table to get at the free table snacks we were given. You'd think Elliot was the pigeon lady from Home Alone 2 the way these winged bitches kept approaching him. Despite our feathered foes, we enjoyed the people watching the square offered and the different vendors set up there. There were more cabbage shredders and a guy who made oil paintings of Game of Thrones characters. They were pretty impressive, but it might be taking my obsession a little far if I hang a Jon Snow painting in our house. A calendar is another story...
We walked back to the boat and worked out in the empty gym before showering and heading to the Trivia at 5. Since our next destination was Santorini, we named our team the "Santo-wienies" and made a pact that we would finally introduce ourselves to "our couple" if they were at trivia. Of course they weren't there. And we only got 11 out of 20 answers correct, so it was kind of a bust. Dinner followed and consisted of cream of potato soup and a tasteless basil pesto tagliatelle pasta. We decided to check out the Windjammer for dessert, and we weren't disappointed. They had peanut butter cake and vanilla mousse, which we inhaled. I mean, we worked out AFTER hiking, so that's gotta count for something. We had signed up for a Johnnie Walker tasting that night, so we relaxed after dinner until that started at 8. The daily guide said that it started at 8:00 SHARP (all caps and all), so we made sure to get there at least ten minutes early.
The tasting was in a small conference room and was led by a whiskey connoisseur dressed in full Scottish garb. He was assisted by a few cruise workers who helped pour and pass the various tastings. It was a good thing that we got there early, because he locked the door right at 8:00 and got started. Twice people knocked and tried to get in, but he refused to admit them. He said that you can't start a whiskey tasting in the middle and that they should've been on time. They must've complained to Guest Services because he got a few phone calls asking why he didn't let in the guests. He stuck to his guns though, so good for him.
I took detailed notes that got sloppier as the tasting went on, and we learned many different facts about Johnnie Walker. let's do this bullet point style:
- Johnnie Walker was a farmer in 1806 in Kilmarnick
- Back then it was illegal to blend Scotch whiskey, so he blended teas instead
- His sons were the ones who started the company
- The walking man logo came from a drunken lunch in London
- You can only use caramel, water, and malted barley to make Scotch
- You can play around with the amount of peat used in the distilling process which creates the different flavors
- Alex Walker (the son) is credited with making the brand a success because he convened ship captains to sell JW around the world
- Whiskey sales tanked in the 1980's and many distilleries ended up closing. As a result, experts predict a major aged whiskey shortage in the near future. In fact, some companies subtly have stopped including ages on their bottles because that would be false advertisement.
- There's no more Johnnie Walker Green; they ran out
- JW Blue is only going to continue to increase in price because one of its blends comes from a distillery that's no longer in existence
We were given tastings of the JW Black, Double Black, Red, Spice Road, Gold Route, Royal Route, Blue, Platinum and Double Platinum. We also were given a taste of a 19 year old Glen Fiddich Valley of the Deer. It was cool to try all these different types of Scotch, and we were definitely feeling warm and fuzzy by the end of the hour (yes it was only an hour, and we did that many shots). I decided that Double Black was my favorite, and I made a mental note to be classy and relax from time to time with a glass of Scotch. Relax on my chaiiiiissssse. Feeling some liquid courage, we went to the "If you know it, dance it!" game show that took place after, and I sweat out all the Scotch because I was dancing the entire hour. The show ended with Gangnam Style, and with that, my dignity also ended. Exhausted and still a little buzzed, we did a walking man back to our stateroom and were spirited away to lala land...
Part Five: Santorini
I'm going to claim that we woke up late the morning after a Johnnie Walker tasting because our phones didn't update the time zone, but it's probably because we had double digit "tastes" of Scotch the night before. We had grand plans to wake up early to catch the first tender to Santorini, so when we didn't wake up until 9:30, we were in a panic. We quickly got ready and grabbed a quick breakfast at the Park Cafe onboard before heading to the gangplank. There isn't a large port area near where we had dropped anchor, so everyone needed to take a tender (small boat) to get to the island. The cliffs of Santorini just don't lend themselves to easy docking. The underwater volcanoes clearly didn't think ahead.
The water around Santorini is this deep ink blue, and it looks like someone dumped a bunch of food coloring into the water. Chicagoans will recognize the color as being almost identical to the crystal clear waters of the Chicago River....Ummm sure. Anyway, we quickly glided across the sea and pulled up next to an unassuming wooden pier where we disembarked. For being such a tourist hot spot, it still had a small island feel to the culture.
We were at the bottom of a cliff, and there were three options for getting to the top where all the towns are: take a gondola, ride a donkey up this staircase, or walk said steps. Elliot and I were feeling really ambitious that morning and made a pledge that we would take the stairs; we didn't really trust the gondola, and we both needed the Fitbit steps. For the first fifty feet, we were beckoned by old men to take a donkey ride uphill. I'm sure there are plenty more, but it was still relatively early and I guess many of them were getting their morning coffee. We politely declined while we weaved through their donkey trains to climb the stone steps. There were so many donkeys on this fifteen feet wide pathway, that it seemed that we were hearing the tinkling of bells and have to yield to some ass every few minutes. The donkeys were pretty good about pulling their fair share and moving out of the way as well. There was one thing, however, that we couldn't escape: the smell of donkey shit that surrounded us. The climb uphill was absolutely lung-busting, only made worse by the fact that I had to breathe through my mouth. I was also breathing irregularly because I had to quickly tiptoe around piles of ass droppings. Within minutes, sweat was pouring down my face and back. The path seemed never ending, and I was getting so pissed with every donkey turd I plie'd over. By the time we (slowly) reached the top, I was cursing donkeys with every wheeze. Now, I'm in pretty good shape, and I love hiking, but the way the steps curved around really made the trek difficult.
We had anchored close to the town of Fira (sometimes spelled Thira depending where you look), and we emerged from the staircase onto a stone street that snaked through shops and houses that were painted a brilliant white. Most of them were still closed for business, and we saw a few people sitting on their shop's doorstep drinking coffee and chatting with friends. After we regained our composure (I say "we", but I really mean only me), we used Elliot's phone to determine the direction of the town of Oia, our final destination. All we had heard and read about when researching Santorini was how beautiful Oia was; all of those blue domed images that come to mind when you think of Santorini are set in Oia, so it was a must visit in our minds. After determining that we needed to walk to our left, we made our way out of the narrow streets of Fira, the whole time passed by fellow cruise goers who had rented motorbikes for the day. We went nuts when we saw both "our couple" AND the honeymoon couple zip by on them. These people seriously needed to stop following us.
We walked about a mile down a stone and gravel path to a town that had stark white buildings topped with blue domes, and we were relieved to finally be in Oia after climbing all those stairs and hiking for a mile. Our joy was short-lived, however, when Elliot looked at his phone and said, "Uh, we're not in Oia. THAT'S Oia." as he pointed to a cluster of white buildings at the very end of the island. "And it's six more miles away." F**k. A. Duck. With no other way to get to the town besides walking, we bought an extra large water from an open convenience shop and started walking in the direction of the real Oia.
The pathway to Oia is along the top of the cliff and varied in its terrains throughout our two hour hike. We climbed up and down the stone, gravel, red gravel, and rocky rocks, baking in the heat that radiated from the steadily rising sun. Since we were at the top of a cliff, there was no shade, but on a few rare occasions we got a strong breeze that cooled us off for a brief moment. Hiking along the top of the island was beautiful beyond description, and the contrast of the red clay cliffs against the deep ink-blue water took our breath away. Or maybe that was the 5,000 burned calories talking. Save for a few sporadic people, we had the entire pathway to ourselves and could take our time on our Oia adventure. Every mile or so, we would come across some hotels and apartments, all with water views and tranquility pools out front. Even though it was still early, there were a few people already soaking up the sun by having their breakfast al fresco. We also passed several fruit stands and what appeared to be abandoned churches, all stark white with cerulean blue domes. Even though the terrain was rough, we both agreed that the two hour hike along the top of the island was a unique experience that we doubted many fellow cruise goers undertook.
It was lunch time when we reached Oia's "downtown" area, and we stopped in the first restaurant that wasn't crowded and didn't have someone out front trying to coax us in. Skala had a covered outdoor dining area that gave us a view of the water and the white profile of the town ahead of us. The view itself was worth stopping in the restaurant, and the food was even more impressive. We each ordered a Coke and water and were so thirsty that we needed refills within five minutes. We also had crusty bread, this fried salty cheese that contained olives, and I had a delicious moussaka. That lunch started my love affair with moussaka (a layered eggplant, potato, meat, tomato sauce, and béchamel sauce dish baked in a clay pot), and I had it for lunch the next two days as well. I don't know if it was the food itself, the view, the respite from hiking, or a combination of all three, but the meal was one of the most satisfying either of us had ever had. It was hard to tear ourselves away to see the rest of the town.
The number of people seemed to have doubled by the time we finished lunch, and we found ourselves squeezing past the crowds to reach the other end of the croissant shaped Santorini. On the way, I spotted a cool necklace in a shop window, so we had to make a pitstop so I could get some Greek jewelry to add to my recently acquired Greek dresses. We made our way to the lookout point on the cape of the island and got to see Oia from a new vantage point. To say everything was breathtaking would be an understatement; I really can't describe with words how beautiful everything was.
It was still pretty early in the day, so we decided to head back to the town center to hail a cab to one of Santorini's famous black sand beaches. On our way back, we passed the famous Atlantis bookstore, numerous luxury jewelry stores, and a crowded table that was hosting a liquor tasting. We managed to find one cab amidst a sea of motorcycle and ATV rental shops, and paid 30 euros (ugh) to take a Crazy Taxi ride down a winding mountain road to Monolithos Beach. After releasing our terrified grip from our taxi armrests, we took in the unique look of the black sand beach before us. Because of its location against the mountain, it was very windy, and the black sand started sticking to us almost as soon as we exited the cab. We rented an umbrella and chairs from a cute little kid who was hustling them to clueless tourists (see: us). We relaxed in the sun for awhile and even fell asleep for a spell. It was the perfect end to our Santorini day.
We tried to get some of the sand off our legs before heading back to the ship, but the task was fruitless. Every time we would get our legs clear, the wind would pick up and we'd be back at square one. We had to accept that we were going to have Pirates of the Caribbean legs until we got back to our stateroom. The beach was in the middle of nowhere, and there was only a small strip made up of a few small taverns and tacky souvenir shops nearby. There were no cabs in sight, so we asked a tavern owner if he could call us one. He didn't speak much English, so he directed us to the souvenir shop next door. The girl running the shop was an American and tried calling a cab for us. She told us that there weren't any available, and that she was going to try again in ten minutes. We sat at one of the bars and got a soda while we waited. There was this drunk Scottish guy who sat next to us and kept telling Elliot that he had "sand in his ears". I'm sure he did, but it was still an odd and awkward thing to say. We sat in uncomfortable silence before our cab came screeching up to the tavern.
We bought a magnet from the woman who called us a cab and climbed into yet another crazy taxi. It was a slightly greasy young guy driving us, and he almost made me sick with the way he kept zipping around corners and making multiple turns. We had wanted to check out the Santorini Brewing Company, but our cabbie said that we wouldn't make it back to our ship in time if we went there first. Disappointed, we decided to try one of their brews at a bar instead. We somehow made it back to Oia (pronounced Ee-uh) in one piece and went into the first bar that we saw. Two Brothers Bar was definitely a party bar that catered to a young crowd, and we sat amongst signs that advertised "Barman's Sperm" shots for just two euros. Only two euros, guys! What a steal. A bar girl wearing a neck brace welcomed us and got us two of Santorini Brewing Company's beers, the Yellow Donkey and Red Donkey. Each was 14 euros, but we swallowed the price with our brew just to say we had a Greek craft beer. Even though we weren't the least bit hungry, we snacked on cucumber slices soaked in vinegar that the bartender gave us and used the free Wifi to sync our Fitbits and let our parents know we were still alive.
We decided to take a cab back to Fira rather than do another two hour hike, and we arrived back where we started: at the donkey shit stairs. It was just as difficult to go down the stairs as it was to climb them, and the donkeys seemed to have multiplied since the morning. There were more that we needed to avoid, which meant we had more donkey shit that we needed to dance around. It was miraculous that we avoided getting any feces on our shoes, and we took a big gulp of fresh air upon reaching the bottom.
We took a rocky tender back to the ship and, despite being sandy and gross, made it to the Quiz at 5 with Gemma just in time. We got 14/20 with team name "Pull up your pants, I can see your Crete", so we felt pretty satisfied with ourselves. After a shower and drink (Purple Haze for Elliot, Green Goddess for me) at the R Bar, we took our famished selves to dinner. I had a crispy calimari Caesar salad that was so small the waiter gave me two to start with, a tiny tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad, and a pinot grigio to wash it down. None of the desserts looked that interesting, so we went to the Windjammer and got crepes with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and white chocolate chips. Hey, we hiked a shit ton that day and earned it. No judgement. After dinner, we went to the Viking Crown Lounge for a beer to make us sleepy and planned out our next day in Athens. That was the big one.
Santorini was absolutely stunning and, despite our busy day, we both agreed that the best way to see the island was to hike it like we did. We vowed that we would return, and next time we would hike the entire island. But maybe take a gondola ride to the top instead...
Part Six: Athens
It’s not hyperbole to say that the Iliad changed my life. I’ve written about this before, but I took a class called “Greek Civilization” the spring semester of my freshman year at Iowa. There was no class description, but I needed a Humanities credit and it fit my already packed schedule. I was hesitant to add it, but I was encouraged by my mom to do so because I loved reading Greek myths when I was younger. In hindsight, that encouragement was one of the most significant turning points in my life. The first assignment was to read the first two books of the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem that we were going to cover over the course of two months. I was so drawn into the world of the gods, Hector’s heartbreaking death, and the vastness of Achilles’ rage that I finished the entire poem in less than two weeks. The class only got better from there; I had a professor who connected Greek myths to society today, and a TA who was funny, informative, and best of all, an incredible teacher. I was so invested in that class that I earned an A+ and signed up for another Humanities class the following semester…followed by another the next semester…followed by a Classical Mythology summer class that was taught by no other than my Greek Civ TA. At the end of that summer course, I wrote on my class survey, “This was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Because of you and this class, I’m changing my major to Ancient Civilizations.” Since the first day I read, “Sing for me, Muses…”, I’ve been mentally planning out a trip to the birthplace of democracy and the epicenter of the Greek world, Athens. I was finally able to realize that dream on this cruise. Even though we only were docked at Piraeus for eleven hours, I meticulously planned out our day so that we wouldn’t miss a second. I even went as far as buying and marking a map of the city with the “must visit” spots ahead of time. You might say that I'm a planner...
We woke up early the morning we docked and were the second people off the gangplank at 6:00am. The halls were quiet, and we were surprised that more people weren’t getting off the ship. Then we realized that not everyone is as crazy as we are. After passing through the port authority, we were accosted by about 20 cabbies trying to offer us a ride. We saw that the train to Athens was only a mile away, so we decided to walk over and save our euros. Piraeus was as dead as the ship, and the buildings were covered with graffiti and had an overall sketchy appearance. We walked on a road along the water and through this random pop-up flea market that was being set up in an alley we had mistepped into. We got some curious looks from the vendors and awkwardly passed through rows of socks, hand me down clothes, tools, and paper towels. It was like we were Pee-Wee Herman in a biker bar or something.
The train ride only required one transfer and cost less than 2 euros a ticket, so it was definitely the best way to get to the city center. After only a 20 minute ride, we disembarked at the Akropoli stop to hit the Acropolis before it got too crowded. Every guidebook I had read said in the summer it’s best to get there right when it opens to avoid massive crowds and the hot Athenian sun. We bought a multi-venue ticket (a must purchase if you’re planning on visiting multiple stops in Athens) and started our climb up the south slope of the Acropolis. Since this was a back entrance, it wasn’t very crowded and we were able to take in the Theater of Dionysus (supposedly where Athena planted her olive tree gift to the citizens) and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The Odeon was under construction, so it was hard to (literally) look past the cranes and scaffolding that obstructed the conserved marble.
As we ascended the hill (Acropolis means tip of the city in ancient Greek), the crowds started to thicken, and by the time we reached the entrance stairs we were squeezing around tour guides that were trying to herd their clueless mass of selfie sticks. As we climbed the large marble stairs, the first glimpse of the Parthenon came into view. We were filled with a rush that was quickly punctured by the realization that the entire west facing side was covered with scaffolding. To add salt on the wound, archaeologists and conservationists had disassembled several columns for preservation, so there were gaping holes in the temple. I took a deep breath, said, “Courtney, you more than most tourists know the importance of preservation; this has to happen”, before going into Donald Duck mode and lamenting to Elliot, “Why the fuck does this have to happen when I finally get here?!?!” Now, we don’t allow ourselves pity parties, so even though we were disappointed to not experience the full majesty of the Parthenon, we still were on vacation in Greece, and that’s just incredible in itself.
We walked around the Parthenon and were delighted to find that the east side was not covered in scaffolding. We took a number of pictures before heading to the highest peak of the hill to look out over the city below. Both of us commented how absolutely massive Athens is; we didn’t realize just how far out the city spreads. It was pretty awesome in the jaw-dropping sense.
The rest of the Parthenon is scattered with stones and rocks, and we were able to see the Temple of Artemis, the Erechtheion with its famous Caryatid portico (although the real ones were in the Acropolis Museum), the spot where the Athena Promachus stood, and the Temple of Augustus. We couldn’t find the spot where Poseidon marked his trident and opened up a spring for the citizens of the city. Before you intervene with, “Uh, Courtney, about the Greek gods…”, yes, I know that myths aren’t real. I was looking for the spot that the ancient GREEKS thought Poseidon had struck.
We had taken in our fill of culture, and the crowds were starting to thicken, so we climbed down the first set of marble stairs to head down the hill. As we were leaving, I looked up to my left and saw the one temple that I was really excited to see: that of Athena Nike. It’s a tiny little guy that’s been reconstructed, and it sits on this stone jetty-like area inaccessible to people. Nike is my favorite goddess, so I struck a flying pose to commemorate my visit. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, bitches…
As we were leaving, I broke my cardinal rule of “Don’t touch the old shit!” and reached out to touch the Monument to Agrippa, one of my favorite Romans to study. Once we got to the bottom of the hill, we stopped for a cold drink and sat in the shade for a spell. Multiple tour buses were starting to show up, and we were glad that we had braved the 5am alarm to make it here at the opening.
While on top of the Acropolis, we saw a monument on a nearby hill that peaked our curiosity. There weren’t any signs, but we surmised that it was the Shrine to the Muses that was marked on our map. Even though we had just climbed up to the Acropolis (really not a bad climb at all), we decided to hoof it up the gravelly tree-lined path to the top of that hill.
Our next stop after the shrine was the Acropolis Museum, just a stone’s throw away down the Dionysian Way (an actual street name). as you approach the museum, you walk on plexi glass that lets viewers look onto the ongoing archaeological dig below the museum. Archaeologists had uncovered a 9th-5th century BCE city, and the dig has almost been completed. It’s pretty incredible how civilizations just build on top of one another.
The Acropolis Museum wasn’t covered on our multi-venue ticket for some reason, so we had to cough up some more euro to visit another one of my “must see” spots. The museum has a very open layout with rooms dedicated to the various time periods of Greek art. There are also rooms with models of the pediments and frieze pieces that now are in the British Museum. As we wandered from room to room, I came face to face with statues that I had studied while in college. The museum had an extensive collection of Archaic Korai women, including the famous “Youth Bearing Calf”. Also on display were the friezes from the Temple of Athena Nike, and I finally got to recreate the “Nike adjusting her sandal” frieze right next to the original. We also were able to see the incredibly preserved Caryatids from the Erechtheion in the Parthenon. The detail was just incredible, but we kept getting mixed signals when it came to taking pictures. For certain statues, there was a no photography rule, while others had a “You can take photos but not pose” rule. So Elliot had to forego his planned “duck face and the Caryatids” photo op. We took a look at the empty spaces where the British Museum parts of the pediment, friezes, and metopes would have been on the Parthenon; you gotta love that the Acropolis Museum is sticking it to the Brits when it comes to THEIR property. The statues are pretty impressive and depict the Gigantomachy, birth of Athena, Trojan War, Amazonomachy, and the contest between Poseidon and Athena for the city. Spoiler alert: Athena won.
It was only around 11:00 by the time we finished with the museum, so we chose to walk to the Temple of Olympian Zeus rather than take the subway. We had vowed that the day in Athens was going to be our 30,000 step day, and there was no way we weren’t going to hit it. We walked south through the city, all the while completely surrounded by the massive amounts of graffiti on the buildings. I’m not exaggerating when I say there was barely any building that wasn’t covered in tags. While some were amusing (Fack the polis stands out in my mind), it gave the city a grimy feel and didn’t look nearly as pristine as I had envisioned.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch are right next to one another, so we were able to kill two birds with one stone. In fact, to get to the temple you have to go through Hadrian’s Arch. Hadrian was a Roman Emperor obsessed with Greek culture and erected the arch to separate Greece from Roman occupied Greece. What a swell guy.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus was the largest temple of the ancient world, and up close it’s absolutely mammoth. There are still standing pillars that make us look like ants in comparison. Even the fallen pillar slabs were almost as tall as us. With a view of the Acropolis in the background, it was the ultimate photo op, and every angle of the temple seemed better than the last. Once again, we saw the honeymoon couple following in our footsteps. To tell you the truth, I was impressed that they thought to venture to this site as it’s not at the forefront of most people’s travel itineraries.
From the temple, the Panathenaic Stadium was only a hop, skip, and jump away. The stadium is where the first modern Olympics of 1896 were held, and even though it’s 119 years old, it looked so modern in comparison with everything we had seen that morning. It’s crazy how your sense of time changes when you travel outside of the United States, a baby in the world scene.
We backtracked toward the Acropolis and walked through the lively Plaka where lively Athenians were having coffee in tavernas that were somehow stuffed onto narrow cobblestone streets. It was a Sunday, so friends and families had gathered to share a meal and a drink. Despite the quaintness of the streets, its beauty was tainted by the graffiti and soot that also covered the buildings. Now, I’m no anti-graffiti prude, but the amount of it in Athens just seemed excessive. There is such a thing as “too much of a good thing”.
We got turned around a bit and ended up in several little squares before finally emerging onto the Ancient Agora by accident. Much like the Roman Forum, the grass was scattered with pillar remnants but unlike the Roman Forum had very few standing structures. Also unlike the Forum, there were ropes and barriers around the antiquities. Boo! Despite the lack of structures, however, it was still pretty bad ass to walk down the Panathenaic Way. This path leads up to the Acropolis and was the road that the procession to Athena would travel down. It was easy to picture all the animals and people celebrating thousands of years ago on that very same road.
After forgetting to say something smart in front of the School of Athens, we walked up another hill to see the remarkably well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus. I mean, this thing was pristine in comparison to everything else we’d seen that day. We were flabbergasted as to why it isn’t written about more in travel guides. It’s nestled in some trees at the top of a small hill and is accessible by a few stone stairs. It was the most well-preserved ancient temple I’ve ever seen, and it had a few feathery residents who lived on its roof.
It was getting to be lunch time after we finished up at the temple, so we used Elliot’s phone to find one of the restaurants Lonely Planet had recommended. I had read that it was difficult to find because it was in the middle of a big flea market, but that the search would be worth our efforts. Sure enough, we went through a labyrinth of crappy antique shops, souvenir stands set up in garage-like spaces, and trying to dodge people walking at a snail’s pace. Since it was a Sunday, no one besides us was in a hurry and were taking their time looking at all the wares being peddled in the streets. To Americans, it would seem chaotic, but to those in the Mediterranean, the snaking alleys made complete sense. It’s a very different way of life, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
We finally found our destination, the Avisinnia Cafe, hidden in a square across from an antiques dealer. Since the Greeks eat their meals later like the Spanish, the restaurant was virtually empty except for one other small table. It was still way too early for the Greeks to have their main meal of the day, so we were able to choose our seats. I had read that there was a great view of the Acropolis on the second floor, so we parked ourselves by a window to take in the sights while we dined. The restaurant itself felt like a house, and every room was filled with knick-knacks and paintings that looked to be acquired from the nearby antique shops.
Because we were the only ones on the second floor, we had three different people waiting on us; I guess they had nothing else to do. Elliot got a Greek salad with fresh feta cheese and green peppers. I ordered a tomato and cucumber salad with vinegar, olive oil, and oregano that was much bigger than anticipated. I couldn’t finish it all because it was so big, but that didn’t stop me from mopping up the excess dressing with the crusty bread on the table. For his main course, Elliot ordered these bbq pork skewers that came with a sauce that was the color of buffalo sauce and tasted delicious. I had spinach moussaka that was sliced and served to me by a young kid. It was absolutely amazing, and I begrudgingly had to listen to my gut and not eat the whole thing. I was so full already, and eating any more food would have made me feel sick the rest of the day. Everything was fantastic: the food, the view, the decor, and the service. Avisinnia Cafe is a must visit for anyone looking for an authentic and cozy Greek meal.
We grabbed a cab after lunch to our last tourist stop, the National Archaeology Museum. We were in the car for about ten minutes, but our cab only ended up being three euros. We were surprised by how reasonable our transportation was, especially considering how much we had to pay for cabs in Santorini the day before. Score!
The museum is actually pretty modern despite the classical pillars that dot its entranceway. The museum is huge and confusing in its setup; there really didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to its configuration. We spent a big chunk of our time just trying to figure out where we were on the museum map. On our travels, we enjoyed the museum’s extensive collection of Archaic Korai, amphorae, and Egyptian art. A few statues that made me especially excited were the Diadoumenos (Fillet Binder), the Artemis of the Sea, Perseus holding Medusa’s head, and the bronze spear thrower that I recognized from my ancient Greek college textbook. There were also Panathenaic amphorae (from the processions I mentioned earlier) in addition to victory amphorae from the early Olympic games. The majority of them were black attic vases with depictions of various sport scenes, and it was pretty awesome to see the original "gold medals" of the games.
Despite all the treasures that we saw while in the museum, the crown jewel was definitely the so-called Mask of Agamemnon discovered by Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann was a German archaeologist obsessed with the Trojan War and, according to him at least, “discovered” Troy in Turkey. Although I don’t believe that there was a mythical Troy, archaeologists have proven that a series of cities existed in the area Schliemann discovered, and there was a war at one point. One with gods and sea serpents and a giant wooden horse? Not so much. In addition to the Mask of Agamemnon were several thinly hammered gold death masks and swords from the Bronze Age of Mycenae. Much like the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes, the one in Athens had workers sitting at every door watching people as they walked through the rooms. We figured that the museum has to be funded by the state, and given the country’s dire financial situation, they probably could have saved a ton of money not having all those workers. I’m not heartless or anything, and I know that those people need a job, but it was insane how many people were employed there.
We finished up with the museum and walked back towards the Acropolis. Almost all of the shops and restaurants were closed, and there were hardly any people walking around the streets. We tried to find a beer hall to kill some time, but but the one Elliot had looked up ahead of time, Barley and Cargo, was closed like the other places we had passed.
The closer we got to the Acropolis, the more crowded the streets became. Everything was much livelier than earlier in the morning, and there were plenty of shops that were now open. We stopped in an olive wood shop to browse, but everything was too expensive to justify buying. instead we picked up our Athens magnet before walking back to the metro to head back to the boat. Back on the ship, we rested our legs for a bit (we ended up hitting 32,000 steps that day) and had some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream from the Cafe Lattetudes (see what they did there?).
We watched the ship pulling away from Piraeus, and it became even clearer how far Athens spreads out. It is just a massive city and its sheer size was even more apparent from a distance. We walked around the pool track for awhile and listened to a terrible calypso version of “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” by the pool band. We went to dinner shortly after and had a good marinated pork shoulder with provolone potatoes, veggies, and brown sugar. Dessert in the dining room didn’t look too fantastic, so we got some tiramisu and chocolate bread pudding in the Windjammer Cafe. We grabbed some 2 for 1 Australian beers and hung out in the hot tub and watched Inception on the screen above the outdoor pool. It felt good to rest our tired muscles after moving nonstop for the past nine hours.
We finished the movie in our room and turned on CNN to see what was going on in the world. Imagine our surprise when all the news reports were about how the Prime Minister of Greece declared bank closures and rejected the bailout deal that day. We were glad we got the hell out of Athens in time, because the news showed long ATM lines and people protesting in the street. It’s insane how the government was in upheaval only hours after we had walked the country’s capital streets. The same damn thing happened when we were in Rome four years earlier. We were walking around, and cars started driving by with honking horns and people cheering out of them. We found out from a local news source that Silvio Berlusconi had stepped down that day as Prime Minister, and that’s why the streets were alive with celebration. Maybe we have anarchist dust trailing behind us when we visit Mediterranean ancient cities? We also saw that police had violently disrupted the gay pride parade that took place that day in Istanbul, another city we had been in just days prior. Brouses = masters of destruction.
Although Athens wasn’t as pristine as I had imagined for the past twelve years, it was still a once in a lifetime experience to see the ruins, statues, and stories that I had studied and come to love. Elliot was an absolute champ going with me to all these sites, not complaining or questioning why I wanted to go to a museum just to see one statue. He realized how important our day in Athens was to me, and he, like every trip we’ve been on, was the best travel buddy I could ask for. Now that we had experienced the history of Athens, it was time to bring on the party in Mykonos...
Part Seven: Mykonos
Despite what college pictures might tell you, I'm not much of a party gal. Now that I'm 31, I much prefer brunch and a good beer during a college football game to getting all decked out and "WOO!ing" until four in the morning. Some might call me boring; others, old. I call myself smart as hell because I'm not depending on the grease from McDonald's breakfast for my next day survival. So when we booked our cruise and saw that Mykonos was one of the stops, we weren't exactly fist pumping and raving around our house. It was more of a "Sweet, lazy beach time" reaction. No Speedo side planks with Ricky Martin for us!
The morning after Athens, we were still sore from our 32K step day, but I forced my dead body to go to the gym in the morning anyway. We were determined not to gain the “average 1-2 pounds a day” that Serbian Hercules (gym trainer) told us about. We had breakfast at our little Park Cafe by the indoor pool, though the food quality seemed to go down every day that we had eaten there. I had a grilled zucchini, onion, egg, and cheese ciabatta (really white bread) sandwich, and Elliot stuck with his McMuffin deal. Meh.
There were a lot of early departures to take the tender to Mykonos, but we were in no rush to head to the island. We saw that there would be no ferries to the ancient island of Delos on Monday (the day we were there), and there really weren't many sights on Mykonos that I wanted to see, so there was no rush to head over. While we waited for tender #7, we hung out in the casino where we heard a little boy excitedly say to his sister, “It’s like a video game bar for grown ups!” Yeah, a bar of shattered hopes and dreams, kid.
The tender over to Mykonos was choppy but only took three minutes, and we were wandering the pristine streets of Mykonos Town in no time. Once we got off the boat, we saw that there were in fact ferries that were running routes to Delos, and I was pissed that every website I had viewed said otherwise. Delos is the island birthplace of Artemis and Apollo and has no full-time residents. The only people on the island are the antiquities staff and the workers in their handful of cafes that cater to the tourists. When the last ferry leaves at night, the island is uninhabited save for the ancient ruins and the ghosts of the people who once lived there. It’s said that the ruins are like no other on account of being saved from the everyday hazards of people and pollution. Even though we knew we could now go over to Delos, we still decided to have a relaxing Mykonos day instead. Elliot had been such a good sport with my Athenian sightseeing that we needed to spend a day doing something he wanted, and that was relaxing on the beach.
Mykonos Town is just steps away from where the tenders dock and its white buildings were so pristine that they were almost blinding. They enveloped narrow cobblestone streets and practically reflected the sun; its cleanliness was a welcome departure from our day in Athens. The number of upscale stores like Louis Vuitton was also unlike anything we had seen on our previous islands.
The cafes were busy with passengers from our cruise and a Princess cruise liner that had anchored nearby. Mykonos Town was infinitely more chill than Athens, and we enjoyed strolling the streets while it was still relatively quiet. We didn’t have much planned for our Mykonos stay, so we hailed a nearby cab to go to one of the more popular beach destinations on the island, Super Paradise Beach. Our trip took us down winding mountain roads reminiscent of Santorini and were almost barren save for the occasional dotting of houses that reminded us of Cabo de Gata in southeastern Spain. Mykonos’s population is only a scant 11,000 people year round and swells to almost 50,000 when all the summer holiday travelers and jet-setters come to play. You may have heard Mykonos’s name mentioned in magazines or on TMZ in connection with celebrity visitors; Ricky Martin is a frequent visitor for example. It’s where he was planking on the beach in a Speedo (see above). Because of course he was. Because of its party reputation, the island has become a haven for the rich and fabulous seeking overpriced drinks and insanely fit human beings.
Super Paradise Beach was similar to Bitez Beach that we visited when we were in Bodrum (another jet-setter’s paradise), in that the beach chairs went right up to the water, and there was an outdoor bar to get your drink on. It’s tucked into a cove, immediately adjacent to Jackie O Beach (Yep, a real thing) and is only accessible by the mountain road that we had traveled on and the occasional speedboat that drove right up onto the sand to deliver hordes of young people looking for a good time. You had to pay 18 euros to get a “premium” spot by the water (second row of chairs), so we coughed up the dough and settled into our island paradise for a few hours. The sand was more pebbly than anticipated, but the water was like glass; you could see all the way to the bottom even when swimming in water that was 30 feet deep. The water was a moderate temperature but dropped off in depth pretty soon after the shoreline ends. There were a ton of Americans sitting around us, and everyone had a drink in their hand despite it being only 10 in the morning. Work hard, play hard, y’all.
Chill house music was coming from the bar behind us and quickly lulled us to sleep in the hot sun. We really felt like we were in paradise, and it was the perfect relaxation balm to our hectic schedule the day before in Athens. We got a few zzz’s and a swim in and got a mojito at the bar with a bartender that looked exactly like my cousin, Sean. The people watching was just fantastic, and more than once we saw scantily clad women with zero body fat hanging all over older men that I can describe as “NOT in shape”. There were no misconceptions as to what those relationships entailed, and it made for some epic observation chatter between me and Elliot.
It was starting to get packed, and we were getting hungry, so we boarded the party shuttle bus to head back to Mykonos town. We were the only two heading back to the city, so we got to be dropped off at the location of our choosing. Elliot and the bus driver bonded over electronic jazz music, a genre that I didn’t realize Elliot was so knowledgeable in (?) and talked about the recent Greek financial crisis. The driver, a young Greek guy in his twenties, didn’t seem too worried about it having an adverse effect on the Mykonian residents. They rely on tourism for their livelihood, and the majority of the tourists come from outside of Greece. It was interesting to get the perspective of someone who is directly affected by the government’s actions in Athens.
The guy dropped us off in Mykonos Town, which was much busier than earlier in the day. The streets were starting to swell with crowds, and people had to squeeze down the streets that reminded us of Santorini: stark white buildings with royal blue shutters. We found a restaurant called La Casa that had outdoor seating and settled in for lunch. I once again ordered moussaka but mixed it up with a tabouli salad, while Elliot got chicken souvlaki and awesome fried potatoes. We also tried the Mykonian sausage, a very fatty meat that packed a lot of flavor (probably because it was so fatty). We washed everything down with some Alpha beers and watched as a tricycle truck (think pickup truck but with only three wheels) attempt to squeeze down the street. The whole spectacle was reminiscent of the tomato trucks at Tomatina in Bunol years earlier. Only this time we didn’t get nailed in the eyeball with projectile pre-ketchup.
Much like the other Greek cities we had visited, the streets were lined with souvenir shops (including one that sold Hard Rock Mykonos shirts for a Hard Rock that didn’t actually exist), and expensive art stores. We ducked into one to buy a magnet and a miniature replica attic vase for my growing travel knick-knack collection at home. Every store worker requested cash for payment, and it was obvious that people were feeling the squeeze from the 60 euro a day ATM limit the government had imposed.
After lunch, we found a loungey, house music playing bar nearby and sat outside for a drink. There was an excessive amount of staff members for the few number of customers, and the ratio of pierced noses to unpierced was staggeringly towards the pierced side. It was like it was a requirement to work at Ode (the name of the bar). I ordered a low calorie mimosa and Elliot had something called a Mediterranean Fizz. The bar is located on a busy street, so we were able to take in some quality people watching while pretending to be fancy. The strangest incident was when a gust of wind knocked over this Asian woman to the ground. She let out a squeal and just laid there while the two people who we thought were her husband and son just stood there staring at her. We were about to get up and help her when her friends rushed up and helped her to her feet. Apparently the two guys weren’t her husband and son and were just two asshole strangers whose idea of helping is staring at people lying on the ground. Once we saw that the woman was okay, we had to stifle our laughter at the whole situation. The gust of wind that knocked her over was more like a breeze, and it was totally something that would happen to me. I sympathize, lady.
We walked back towards where we pick up the tender to the ship and bought a mini bottle of Greek white wine and a beer. We sat on a stone sea wall and took in our last bit of Mykonos with an adult beverage. I mean, how many times can you say that you drank Greek wine while sitting on a sea wall on a Greek island? I can now say that I have at least once. It’s so choice; I highly recommend it if you have the means.
On the tender back, we saw Gemma (of “I can see your Halicarnassus” fame) cozying up to Alex, one of the other entertainment workers on the ship. Elliot and I were so pumped up and thought that we had unearthed some ship scandal. We had had a working theory that those two were hooking up and were way more excited than we should have been at seeing our theory confirmed. It was like we were middle school girls gossiping.
We took a walk around the boat upon our return and showered up for dinner in the dining room. Up until that point, we had been sitting at a two person table by ourselves, being all sorts of anti-social and creepy with our observations and running theories of other people’s lives. That night was busier than most, presumably due to the earlier ship departure time, and there wasn’t a two person table available. We agreed to be seated at a table with other diners, and had such a great time talking with everyone that we were at dinner for over two hours! At our table was a couple from San Francisco, a Latin/Ancient cultures enthusiast and teacher from Finland named Marja-Liisa, and two young Australian girls from Sydney, Hannah and Kat. I sat next to Marilisa and enjoyed discussing how different our two countries are in terms of education and also shared our favorite archaeological sights we had taken in on the trip thus far. She had gone to the island of Delos that day and said that it was as spectacular as I had imagined. Sigh. I guess that means a return trip to Mykonos…
Hannah was a Museum Studies major, and we were entertained by her stories of volunteering in the coin room in the British Museum and how fucked up the Cairo Museum is. When she was there, the basement was flooded and ancient papyrus scrolls (papyri?) were just floating on top of the water. There were also wooden sarcophagi placed in direct sunlight, which even a layman knows is a huge no-no when it comes to preservation. My mind was blown when I heard this. Her and Kat were very well travelled and had all sorts of advice to share about what to expect from different museums. She said that the next day’s stop, Crete, had the Heraklion Museum, which she considered the best one she has ever visited. She and Kat also shared how they, much like us, had been speculating about different people on the ship. Gotta love creepin’! We had such a great time eating with everyone that we decided to get a drink together at the Viking Crown Lounge. While there, we met another couple, Gabriel and Shannon, who were from Austin and a couple from Plymouth that was on their honeymoon. We were all excited that we had met people our own age and were flabbergasted as to how we hadn’t run into each other before that night. It became even more mind-blowing when we realized that we were ALL on lifeboat 7 and had been squeezed in like sardines only days prior at the emergency drill meeting. How had we not talked to people when that was happening???? Elliot and I shared how there was a ship organized bar crawl on our Baltic cruise and that we were surprised Royal Caribbean didn’t do something similar, especially because the average age on this trip was significantly lower than the average age of 70 on our Baltic cruise. Instead of making Mohammed go to the mountain, we decided to make the mountain come to Mohammed and planned our own bar crawl for the following night. We agreed to meet at the R Bar on the fourth level at 8:00 and to bring anyone else that we thought might want to join in. After a few drinks and lots more laughs, we went back to our stateroom to prep for our early rise in Crete the next morning....
Part Eight: Crete
If you've ever seen Role Models with Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott, then you probably read the title of this post in the same voice their energy drink truck does: MINOTAUR! TASTE THE BEAST! If you haven't seen the movie, then it's a must-do on your holiday vacation plan list. It's seriously underrated, and you'll start referring to your best friends as your P.I.C. Trust me; you'll thank your whispering eye that you did.
The next stop on our trip was the fabled island of Crete, home of the infamous Minotaur (hence my random intro). As an Ancient Civilizations major, I'm well-versed with the story of Theseus fighting King Minos' stepson (stepbeast?), the Minotaur, and how the ancients believed that the location of the famous labyrinth was at the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. For those of you who didn't shell out $20K a year to know this shit, here's a brief rundown of the myth:
King Minos angered the gods by being a hubristic ass, so Zeus hypnotized Minos's wife, Pasiphae, and made her fall in love with a bull that he had sent to her. The Minoans viewed the bulls as sacred, so it wasn't too hard for her to see red around one. She had sex with the taurus and later gave birth to a half-man/half-bull creature, known as the Minotaur (Minos + taurus (bull) = Minotaur). Minos was embarrassed by his wife's indiscretion, so he built an elaborate maze on his palace grounds and hid the horrible beast inside it. Time goes by, Minos gets mad at Athens for a reason I don't remember (Sorry for wasting that tuition money, mom and dad), and then required that Athens pay him a tribute of seven virgin men and women every few years during the Panathenaic Games. The youth were forced into the labyrinth and ultimately got eaten by the Minotaur. The maze was designed to be so confusing that no one could find their way out once inside. This happens for awhile until a Greek hero named Theseus, with the aid of Minos's daughter Ariadne, cunningly kills the Minotaur and finds his way out of the maze. Athens is saved! Huzzah!
I had been looking forward to seeing the famed palace of Minos (known as the Palace of Knossos) since studying it in school. I was also particularly interested because it was a hotbed of controversy in the archaeology community. It was partially restored, and professionals were divided over whether or not that should have happened. The original frescoes and antiquities are in the Museum of Heraklion on Crete, and there are many purists who believe that the conservationists shouldn't have put copies in the originals' places. What's done is done though, and I couldn't wait to see an ancient restored palace while visiting.
We had to get an early start that morning, as we had to meet our tour guide, Vasilis, outside of the pier as soon as we had anchored. The palace was over two and a half hours away, so the only logical thing to do to see the palace was to book a tour with the cruise line. Since it was a 7:30am meet for the bus, we reclined our seats to take a snooze once we got settled in for our 2.5 hour tour. Vasilis had a different agenda, however, and proceeded to chat over the course of the bus ride. Although we were slightly annoyed by the disturbance in our slumber, he did provide some really interesting tidbits of information. For example, we learned that "Kalimeras" means good morning in Greek while "Kaliseras" means goodnight. We also learned that tour guides in Greece need to attend a tourism school for two and a half years before they are issued a license. The Greeks take their tourism very seriously, and they know that to keep the drachma flowing they need some seriously kick-ass guides. Vasilis talked a whole bunch about olive oil facts about which neither of us cared, but our ears did perk up when he pointed out a mountain by Heraklion that has the face of Zeus. This was the mountain where the king of the gods was born and hidden from his child-eating father, Kronos, and he left his mark on the mountain where he was saved. Our tour guide also kept repeating, "We are at the slope of a hill" throughout our trip to Knossos, whatever the hell that means.
We arrived at the archaeological site's parking lot, already crowded with other tour buses, and walked down a paved street to the entrance of the site. While Vasilis got our tickets, I got in already long ass line for the bathroom. The women in front of us started panicking as we got closer to the entrance because there was a sign that said 50 euro cents. I started getting pissed (not literally) that a museum was charging for the bathroom but then quickly surmised that it was just the bathroom cleaning lady posing as an "attendant" and charging the 50 cents for herself. The only service that she provided was handing us paper towels that were already next to the sink. Kind of a dick move, lady, to make it seem like people had to pay the 50 cents to use the loo.
The palace site was by far the most crowded that we'd encountered on our cruise, and there was a multitude of tour groups that were already in line to tour the site. There were a ton of people representing different nationalities, but the most interesting couple was one that included a jacked guy wearing a mesh tank top and a girl wearing a sports bra, belly chain, and sun tattoo around her belly button. I know that when I think "touring ancient cities", I think belly chains and mesh tanks. Style fo' life.
I don't know what I was expecting, but the site itself was very underwhelming. It was basically a series of stone walkways with a few small rooms that were scattered throughout the complex. The replica frescoes were very vivid in color, and it was pretty cool to see them in their rightful homes, even if they were just copies. The majority of frescoes depicted bulls, the most famous of which being the bull jumping fresco. It was believed that the Minoans, as part of their religious ceremonies and celebrations, would do somersaults over the backs of live bulls. Given how my experience with a bull took a turn down shit alley, I'm even more impressed with the agility and cajones of the Minoan people.
There was no separate maze, but the complex itself was like a labyrinth. Vasilis also shared with us that the word labyrinth is a form of the Greek word for "double axe". The Minoans, particularly those that lived in this part of Crete, in addition to their penchant for bull artifacts, used this special form of an axe. In fact, hundreds of them have been excavated from this site. Given the twists and turns of the palace complex, it isn't surprising that the word labyrinth got associated with a maze.
After hearing some more stories about the excavations of the site, and about 75 minutes after we arrived, we boarded the bus to head to the capital city of Heraklion for an hour of free time. While we drove there, Vasilis played "authentic Cretan music" which was pretty entertaining but then killed the vibe by following it up with this brutal elevator music with the lyrics "...found love around the bend in the gardens of Sampson and Beasley". Believe it or not, I found the name of the band; it's by a band called Pink Martini, and you can sweeten your eardrums here.
Heraklion was only about an hour away from the Palace of Knossos, and we unloaded the bus in the center of the city. We were told to meet by the statue of this famous Cretan politician at 1:00. Since we only had an hour to see the Museum of Heraklion and eat lunch, we had to practically sprint off the bus to make the most of our time. We had to power walk through the museum at lightning speed and barely had any time to appreciate the impressive museum setup and artifacts that were excavated from the island. While there, we got to see the original frescoes from Knossos, the famous bull head statue, the snake goddess statues, and a reconstructed model of the palace that really impressed Elliot. We both commented how cool it would have been if the complex was actually set up like the model; it definitely would have made our visit a lot more exciting. Honestly, it's pretty tough to not impress me in an ancient city; it's not like I'm just shitting on the site because "there was nothing to do". I appreciate a good empty site, so it's probably telling that I wasn't wholly impressed by the palace.
After zipping through the museum, we passed by a strip of cafes that each had a host trying to entice tourists to eat in his place. We had only twenty minutes before needing to be back on the bus, so we asked one of them if we would have our food very quickly because we were in a rush. The guy guaranteed that we'd be in and out in no time, so we sat down and had a glass of water while we waited for our food. Fifteen minutes had passed, and we still hadn't gotten our food, so we started nagging the host to get it to us ASAP. When five additional minutes had passed, and there still was no food, we demanded our food to go because we didn't want to be the ones holding people up. Once we got our pitas and chips, we sprinted to our bus only to find out that we couldn't bring food on it. Vasilis told us not to worry, and to eat our food outside, because we were still waiting for people to show up. We scarfed down only about half of our lunch before boarding...only to sit there for an additional fifteen minutes while we waited for one last couple. I guess it was a Spanish couple who didn't understand the hard deadline of one hour, and they strolled up not caring that they had inconvenienced everyone else on the tour. They even shrugged and laughed when reminded by Vasilis that we only had an hour. Ugh. Mediterranean Europeans aren't exactly the most punctual.
When we got back to the ship, we worked out before deciding to have a pig out night at the Windjammer. We had been so good about not gaining weight on this trip, but we needed to just have one night where all bets were off and all waistlines were expanding. I had a big salad from the salad bar, some rolls, beef mongolian barbecue, and two desserts before waving my white surrender flag to the chefs. We still had a bar crawl to make room for after all.
We had some time to kill before the bar crawl "officially" started at 8:00, so we went down to the R Bar a little early to grab a pre-game drink. Elliot had a Knob Creek on the rocks, and I had some froo-froo drink called "Let's Get Fizzical". We listened to violinists play thess interesting tunes that I could best describe as "Romanian peasant music". The kind of thing you'd find at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. Before long, we were joined by Marja-Liisa, Hannah, Kat, Gabriel, Shannon, and a couple from Liverpool that they had befriended and convinced to come on our crazy little crawl. Isabel and Conal are in their early twenties and hilarious, so we gladly welcomed them to the group.
The R Bar wasn't the most ideal space for socializing, so we went to the Shall We Dance Lounge (actual name) and started playing Higher/Lower and King's Cup. We recruited another drinker, a fun Australian named Ben, and everyone was practically in tears laughing throughout the games. Marja-Liisa was particularly memorable with her straightforward way of "giving" drinks during King's Cup; she would look at the person she was gifting and just said, "You will drink." Yes, ma'am! A performance was about to start in the lounge, so we had to move to the connecting Schooner Bar. We were just in time for the Piano Man who kept singing louder and louder to drown out our laughter (not at him). This guy's voice was incredibly warbly, and his concentrated efforts to sound soulful kept distracting us from our game of King's Cup. Can't Billy Joel see that there's a bar crawl ongoing? Sheesh...
Sensing that our welcome was wearing out, we decided to check out the ship's Island Party on the pool deck. A calypso band was in full force, and people were dancing and already three sheets in by the time we arrived. We beelined to the bar and recruited another great couple, Roland and Veronica from Boston, to join us. We initiated the honeymooners with a shot of vanilla vodka and danced to the band's classically cheesy version of island jams. The group decided to take this crawl to the next level and conga-lined (not really, but when in Rome) to the Viking Crown Lounge for late night drinks. Within minutes, the place was packed with people, and we saw some familiar faces from the people we had stalked throughout the trip. Oona, our graceful Eastern European flower, was out with her entourage (Let's be honest; I totally would've been in her posse), as well as this woman who looked like Laura Dern and danced like a cage dancer. It was impressive how well she stayed within a three square foot space. We also saw the Colombian women who sat by us at the wine tasting earlier in the trip. Ben's parents joined us, and together we all danced and drank in the increasingly more crowded Viking Crown Lounge. We were apparently the only ones who didn't buy a beverage package, but we didn't go wanting as Conal and Isabel graciously fed us drinks off their unlimited option. Everyone danced, drank, and laughed before El and I headed back to get room service at 2:45 in the morning and fall asleep. We started the day with bulls, and it was only fitting that we end it with steak sandwiches. Sorry, Minotaur...
Part Nine: Istanbul Revisited
It's impossible to do Istanbul in just one day, even when you travel the way Elliot and I do, so we thanked Zeus that our cruise ended with an overnight stay in the city. After a day at sea that included a crap ton of mojitos and even more laughs with our bar crawl friends (what happens on the Rhapsody of the Seas, stays on the Rhapsody of the Seas), we overslept our 6am alarm to wake up panicked at 8:30. My phone, for some strange reason, had gone back three hours and still said that it was 5:30. I had no clue why it did that, because we were going back only one timezone, not three. Regardless, we had to scarf down a mustard and egg sandwich (it was as gross as it sounds) and get ready to make the most of our day in Istanbul.
We had already seen the Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, and a Whirling Dervish show at the beginning of our vacation, so we decided to make our first stop the famed Hagia Sophia. It's also referred to the Aye or Aya Sofya, but I stick with the spelling my Art History professor used. It was his class, after all, that I became familiar with the different mosaics of the Byzantine empire, in particular the Christ Panocrator one. Maybe because it was on my final exam...
The streets were still pretty quiet despite what I considered a late start to the day, yet the fishermen were out in full effect, lining the long bridge that we crossed from the new town to the old with their poles and coolers. The bridge, as you can imagine, had quite the pungent smell from all the freshly caught fish that decorated its surface. Street peddlers joined our finned friends in beckoning the tourists that crossed the bridge, only the peddlers had plastic geometric shapes to offer rather than a seafood taste. It was a long walk from the port to the Hagia Sophia, but it was pleasant without the Mediterranean sun out yet in full force.
The Hagia Sophia is probably the best known of Istanbul's architectural treasures and is usually synonymous with the Byzantine empire. The original building was constructed between the years 525 and 567 (Isn't it weird to think that was almost 1,500 years ago?!?) and was originally used as a church under the reign of the Emperor Justinian I. Interestingly, the church was dedicated to the Wisdom of God (the Logos) rather than a particular saint or prophet. It wasn't until 1484 that under the order of Sultan Mahmed it was converted into a mosque. In 1935, the Hagia Sophia retired from religion to serve as a museum; in fact, it's one of the most visited museums in the world. It's famed dome, mosaics, and galleries, and minarets are a sight for architectural and laymen's eyes alike, but I could easily see how any Byzantine architecture enthusiast (because there are so many?) would just lose his/her shit walking into the church/mosque/museum.
The line to purchase tickets (which were beautiful themselves) wasn't too long, but the number of tour groups inside was rather annoying. I completely understand the appeal of booking a tour, because you get interesting tidbits of information from your guide, but Elliot and I aren't huge fans of being told what we are going to see. That was a bit of a problem two days prior in Crete when we had to keep getting called back to our group by Vasilis. I guess the masses aren't as interested in specific obscure objects as I am. NERD ALERT. The first thing I noticed when walking into the narthex was the smell of Hagia Sophia. I obviously can't describe it, but it had a smell that I can best describe as "historical". Anyone else would probably call it "musty old stones". I dunno, ever since seeing that scene in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams says, "But I bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistene Chapel..", I've paid extra attention to the smells of archaeological sites and historical treasures. Maybe it's because, unlike my pictures and blogs, I don't have to share that experience with anyone else.
Despite the amazing display of tourist fannypacks and selfie sticks, we were blown away by the well-preserved and colorful mosaics that covered the walls and ceilings of the former church/mosque (chosque?). The colors, coupled with the gold leaf that overlay on surfaces, made for a dazzling display, one that I can't liken with anything else I've ever seen. Equally impressive were the massive disks (best way I can describe them) that contained Islamic symbols and Arabic text. After taking in the main domed area of the chosque (I can't get myself to call it a museum), we walked upstairs to the upper galleries. Not only were were able to get a birds eye view of the domed area below, but we were able to take in the Constantine mosaic and the Mary with Justinian and Constantine mosaic without crowds of people around us. I also got to see my Christ Pantocrator mosaic, although it took some searching and required me asking the secretary of the museum curator where it was located. Totally worth the effort.
It didn't take us that long to go through the main parts of the Hagia Sophia, especially since the tombs were temporarily closed, so we made the short walk to the famed Topkapi Palace. Located directly behind our first stop, the Topkapi Palace was, you guessed it, the home of the sultans, their families, harems, and workers until the mid-19th century. It is a massive complex area that stands on what was the Eastern Roman Acropolis, and construction was finished in 1478. In addition to the sultan's apartments, there are three courtyards, the harem apartments, tombs, a treasury and jewel hall, and a throne room. To access all of the sights, it was 45 lira a person, which ended up being around $30 for the two of us. We started off in the sultan's audience chamber, which looked very Arabian Nights with its lounging couches and opulent decor. The three courtyards were beautifully manicured and had large, shady trees, colorful flowers, and an extravagant fountain. The sun was starting to get hot at this point, so the fountain was tempting us to jump in. Can't say the workers would be too happy with us doing so though.
There was a long ass line for the Treasury and Jewel Room, so we hydrated while we waited the thirty minutes or so to enter the darkened room. All of the treasures are in cases embedded into the walls, so the tourists moved along the perimeter of the room like an assembly line. Some of the more notable pieces in the collection were Suleiman (also spelled Suleyman) the Magnificent's (this guy's turban is like a magnificent giant onion) ivory mirror, a solid gold cradle, a giant diamond, a rock crystal chess set, a bridal brooch that was lain at the tomb of Fatima, the Prophet Mohammed's daughter, the Topkapi Dagger, and a gold box just full of emeralds and gems. It was almost as opulent as having a miniature giraffe at your disposal. The adjoining room had blue, white, and green tiles much like the Alhambra in Granada. This room contained swords attributed to the comrades of Mohammed.
Our next stop was the Throne Room, where I needed to cover my shoulders and legs to enter. This is due to the fact that there are many holy relics attributed to the Prophet; in addition, no photography was allowed in the space to protect the sanctity of the treasures. Among the various pieces on display, we were able to see pieces of Mohammed's beard (?!), a bowl from which he drank, and his footprint (!). We were nearing the time for prayer, and we walked by the Imam whose voice was being broadcast over the loudspeaker. He was reading from an OLD (like 1400's old) Quran, and it was pretty fascinating to see the "man behind the curtain" after hearing the call to prayer so many times throughout our travels.
The nearby Harem Apartments were almost bigger than the sultan's apartments and had a separate space for the women's eunuchs. I'm fascinated by that part of history and vowed to read up more on the lives of women and children in the sultan's harem. The apartments were more modestly decorated but still contained beautiful colors and mosaic pieces. The more impressive rooms belonged, understandably so, to the Queen Mother (the mother of the sultan's heir) and the Crown Prince. The Crown Prince actually had two apartments, referred to as the Twin Kiosks, and they are considered to be the most stunning of all the spaces in the Palace. The Sultan's own space wasn't as lavish as that of his son which tells you the importance placed on his firstborn.
It was getting later in the afternoon, and we still had quite a bit to see, so we walked about a half mile to the Grand Bazaar in search of a doner place that Lonely Planet had recommended. When we got there, they only had lamb kabob, so we sat down at another kebab stop that was right around the corner. Doner Deniz had a really tasty chicken durum kebab that was topped with a chili sauce, and it was light enough that we weren't in a food coma. While eating, we saw Veronica and Roland walking around and chatted with them for a bit. We recommended that they check out the Basilica Cistern since they were heading in that direction. Despite all the incredible things we had seen in the city, El and I both agreed that that had been our favorite Istanbul sight thus far.
We finished lunch and walked through the famous Grand Bazaar. The word "massive" doesn't even do this place justice; it's divided into sections and you need a map to navigate it. The Grand Bazaar has more permanence to it and less chaos than the one Krystal and I had experienced in Morocco; it almost felt like you were in a tented shopping mall. The only thing that we had really planned on purchasing was a leather belt for Elliot; so when we were approached by a guy asking if he could help us find anything, that was what he told him. He led us to the leather section of the Bazaar and introduced us to a guy who sold leather belts. The ones he sold weren't what he was looking for, as they were a couple hundred dollars and had really fancy belt buckles. I can't really picture Elliot wearing something like this. We thanked him for his time before going off in search of belts ourselves. We found a stall that had a wall of just leather belts, so we started perusing a bit. The stall owner's son, only about 12 years old, started haggling with Elliot over the prices and offering deals if he bought more than one. Elliot decided to make this a business learning experience and kept trying to negotiate a better deal for himself. The kid was a pretty good little haggler and was hilarious to listen to. After Elliot would propose a price, the kid would then excuse himself to consult with his father; it was cute because he was clearly an apprentice learning the trade. When Elliot asked for a bigger size in the belts, the kid poked his belly and said "Too many Turkish kebabs!" I about died laughing and wanted to buy ALL THE BELTS just for that kid saying that. Elliot finally decided on three brown "leather" belts (because everyone needs three brown belts?) and gave the kid five liras for his "commission". Well played, kid.
Armed with our legion of belts, our next stop was the nearby Spice Bazaar. Set up like its sister Bazaar, the area was overwhelmingly pungent with the scents of various spices and herbs. Each stall had small mountains of spices from which people could bag what they wanted. The bright yellows and deep reds added to the sensory effect, and I felt like I was in Wonderland for a bit. We stopped at a stall that advertised fair prices, and a very nice man helped us choose some spices to take home. He explained the difference between Indian saffron (not actually saffron) and Turkish saffron (a mix of actual saffron and sunflower) and helped scoop some spices into bags for us. In addition to the spices, he also sold a variety of tea leaves and had bins of nuts and types of Turkish Delight which, by the way, was advertised EVERYWHERE. We got some spices for my mom and actual saffron strands and Tandoori spice before making our exit of Wonderland.
We had our fill for the day, so we decided to make our way back to the boat. We got lost on the way and ended up in a flower bazaar and then a pet bazaar, which I didn't even know existed. There was a shit ton of birds everywhere which made for a shit ton of shit, and the space was even louder than the Grand Bazaar. We were absolutely beat by the time we got back to the ship, so we stopped to have a Coke in the R Bar before packing our stuff for the next morning's departure. We rested a bit before heading back to the R Bar, where the night before we had all agreed to meet to get dinner in Istanbul. Everyone but the Aussies showed up (Ben was still on a ship tour with his parents), so we once again ventured into Istanbul for another Turkish adventure. Hannah, one of the girls from Sydney, had told us the night before about a good place to eat called the Araf Cafe, so we took two cabs to the area in which it was located in Old Town. **Author's note: I'm not sure if I had mentioned it in my previous post, but Istanbul is divided into the Old and New Cities. Almost everything to see is in the Old City, but the ship was docked in the New.**
Despite Elliot using Google Maps, and the smart brains assembled in our group, we weren't able to find the Araf Cafe. None of our cell phones worked, so we ducked into an Irish pub (because there's an Irish pub in every city in the world), the James Joyce, to grab a drink and use their free WiFi to contact Ben. He and his parents had just gotten back from their tour, and it was unlikely that he would be joining us in the city. We agreed to meet up later that night on the ship for one last hurrah. The James Joyce Irish Pub had a decent selection of booze but had a funky smell to it (I told you that I'm on a smell kick) and wasn't the classiest joint in the world. It apparently has a hotel above it, and the enticing slogan they used to get customers was "You can stay at our hotel." Thanks for the enthusiasm, guys. The group (us, Shannon, Gabriel, Conal, Isabel, Veronica, and Roland) took advantage of the free WiFi to all become Facebook and Instagram friends. We got some group pictures using the mini tripod that Veronica happened to have with her, and shared life and travel stories. Pamplona somehow came up, and Conal told us that the real race to see was the annual Cheese Roll in Gloucester. He said his explanation wasn't doing it justice, so he pulled up a video of it on YouTube to prove its gloriousness. It's hysterical, especially when you see how little the wheel of cheese actually is. Definitely worth a look or ten.
We finished up our Carlsbergs before walking down Istanbul's version of Barcelona's Las Ramblas. We surmised that this was the big shopping area of the city, and the street was lined with brand names like the Gap and H&M. It was so Western European that it made us forget where we were for a minute. The group decided that food was definitely in order, but there were so many cafes that it was difficult to choose. Almost all of them were tourist traps, not surprising considering the area of town we were in, and the hosts of places tried to entice our big group to dine with them. Elliot pitted two cafes against each other for our business, and a place called Montreal won when they promised us two free rounds of drinks. Gabe quipped it wasn't exactly normal for 8 Americans (the majority of whom are Atheists) to walk into an Irish pub and later a Canadian bar in a Muslim country. We certainly mixed things up.
We all ordered rounds of the Turkish version of Miller Lite, Efe, and the host, now our waiter, tried to conveniently forget that he had promised us TWO rounds of free drinks. He claimed that he only said one, but the 8 witnesses to his earlier statement proved that to be a lie pretty quickly. He admitted defeat and brought us our second round on the house. The menu of Montreal was extensive, but the food was kinda shitty. Conal and I both ordered cheeseburgers (because why not add to the variety of that night?), and it had to have been the tiniest cheeseburger patty I've ever seen. It was like a silver dollar pancake. I was so kabob'ed out at this point though that I wasn't overly concerned. The bill for all 8 of us ended up only being 180 lira ($60) which was insanely cheap. Gotta love that exchange rate. We had a great time at dinner and all lamented the fact that we had met at the end of the cruise. Poor timing, us.
After dinner, Elliot used Google Maps on his phone to navigate us back to the ship, taking us down some sketchy looking streets while doing so. The running joke that night was that Elliot was actually in the CIA, and that the McDonald's story was all a ruse. That was the only possible explanation for why he'd have a working phone. I guess that would also explain why we've been moving every few years... Hmmm....
Once back on the ship, we met up with Ben and his parents in the Viking Crown Lounge. I chatted with his mom for a bit as she's a school administrator in Sydney. I loved learning more about the Australian education system, much like I had enjoyed learning about the Finnish system with Marja-Liisa two days earlier. Dominic, a young guy from Arlington that we had met the night prior, joined us in the VCL, and we all sat, drank, and talked to enjoy our last night together. The VCL was dead for awhile, so we were actually able to enjoy conversation with one another. Every person was so much fun, and the personalities in our group just happened to click. It definitely made for a hilarious last few nights of the cruise. Case in point: when "Land Down Under" came on, I asked Ben if that was the song his alarm clock played, and he quickly quipped that he throws his boomerang at it to turn it off. Touche, sir.
After a few more drinks, laughs, and a walk around the mostly deserted ship, Elliot and I said goodbye to our new friends and turned in early. We once again lamented that we had met so late in the trip and agreed to keep in touch (Author's note: A few months later we had brunch and drinks in Boston with Veronica and Roland). We could have stayed out later, but El and I had a 5:30am departure time, and we needed to get ready for the next leg of our journey. The cruise itself was a lot of fun, and we really made the most out of all of our ports of call, but we weren't ready to be done with our Mediterranean adventure just yet. Next stop: Aphrodite's birthplace....
Part Ten: Cyprus
If you’ve ever been on a cruise, you know what a clusterfuck the disembarkation process can be: lots of waiting in long lines for baggage that you could have easily taken off the boat yourself. Royal Caribbean, however, conveniently gave its guests a choice as to how they would disembark. There were different times from which you could choose as well as an early self-departure option in which you would have your luggage with you at all times. Since we didn’t have much luggage to begin with (Traveling on RyanAir makes you much more condensed travelers), we decided to take that option. The only drawback was the mandatory 5:30am disembarkation time. Our flight wasn’t until 11 something, so after a very, very quick trip through the Istanbul port, we spent four hours at the Ataturk airport waiting for our flight to Cyprus. In addition, per European air travel, we had to kill two hours before even being able to check in. We sat at a small airport café and people watched before getting the all-clear to go through security. Our original flight was much later in the day, so we called the airline to get an earlier one; it was a little too easy and cheap ($15) to do, so we were naturally concerned that the change didn’t actually happen. Imagine our surprise when the ticket counter actually printed our tickets without a hassle; way to go Cypriot airlines!
After a little more waiting at the airport, we said Inshallah to Istanbul and made our way to the island of Cyprus. The flight was only about an hour and a half, and I was fortunately able to get some sleep on the way over there. The majority of the people on the flight were from Cyprus, and I was immediately taken with how striking Cypriot women are with their thick, black, and curly hair and wide light-colored eyes. No wonder there are so many women from that area portrayed on ancient artifacts!
Once we landed, it only took fifteen minutes until we had our luggage in hand and were out the door. Since we had to cancel our previous car reservation due to our earlier flight, Elliot called the Hilton to arrange for a cab to pick us up. We found our guy, piled our stuff into the trunk, and I promptly burned my ass on the hot leather seats. Cyprus gets HOT, ya’ll. Like 100+ degrees hot. I kept reading in guidebooks how miserably hot Greece and Turkey would be during our vacation timeframe and was pleasantly surprised that we never felt uncomfortable with the heat (minus our impromptu seven mile hike in Santorini).
Our cab driver then took us on a crazy, 60-euro cab ride on all these winding roads. The landscape of Cyprus (at least that part), much like Andalucia, is very sparse and dry with rolling hills and small mountains. The houses that we passed were more like villas and had these massive water tanks on their roofs. There weren’t a whole lot of buildings or billboards that dotted the roads, just pockets of subdivisions. Again, much like Andalucia. After driving for a bit, we pulled up to a UN buffer zone armed with guards and the cab driver asked us for our passports. Since we were traveling from Turkish controlled Cyprus in Northern Nicosia (also known as Lefkosa) to the Greek controlled South where our hotel was located. After giving our passports a careful glance, the Turkish guards let us pass with a curt wave. Our time with border guards wasn’t yet over, however, as we then approached the GREEK border guards. When they saw our American passports, they didn’t even get up from their chairs to look through them. We got waved through and back on the road to our hotel. It was definitely a “What the fuck was that about?” moment.
So what’s the deal with Cyprus, anyway? It’s really not mentioned in the news all too often, with the exception of their recent financial troubles and supposed fame for being a pitstop for Syrian refugees on their way to Greece, so we weren’t all too familiar with its political landscape. We decided to visit because A) It’s the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite B) It has incredible ancient archaeological sites and C) It had the cheapest roundtrip flights to/from Istanbul at only $70 a person. Thank you, Skyscanner (again)!
A British colony until 1960, Cyprus is technically an independent nation, at least according to the UN. After the overthrow of British rule, the Greek Cypriot majority and Turkish Cypriot minority began butting heads. After several outbreaks of violence, it was in 1974 that the Turkish invaded and took over the northern third of the island, declaring it the Turkish Republic of Cyprus. They have their own flag and everything, but Turkey is the only country in the world that recognizes North Cyprus as being Turkish. The southern part of the island (except for the British controlled base in the far south) is Greek controlled, where they speak the language and use the euro. The two countries agreed to a truce, which is why the UN buffer zone exists. Talks between the two "republics" have been ongoing throughout the years, and as recently as a day ago it appears that they're nearing a solution. To add further confusion to a visitor's experience, there are still remnants of the British present with voltage 220 electrical voltage and everyone driving on the left side of the road. That’s a lot of “huh?” in one paragraph.
We checked into the Hilton Cyprus (huzzah, points!) where the service was just fantastic. The resort was actually a huge complex with a big pool, a spa, several shops, and a tennis court. The guy at the front desk helped us secure a rental car that would make our tour of the island much easier. There really isn’t a public transportation system in Cyprus, and the things that we wanted to see were spread across the north and south, making renting a car a necessity. Then the bellhop who brought our things to the room cheerfully explained all the amenities of the hotel and helped us get settled. Once we got to the room, we were so beat and hungry that we just ordered a chicken Caesar salad and a sandwich from room service. The incredible service continued with the guy who brought us our food. When he found out that we were American, he told us about his family in Silver Spring (of all places!) and how he used to live there. He then said, “I’m going to bring you some fruit!” When we came back from sightseeing later, true to his word, there was a basket of fruit and a locally made sweet peanut pie (actually a bar). It was so damn sweet of him to do that!
After a short nap, we went down to the front desk to ask for information about the ancient city of Salamis. We couldn’t find a closing time online, and didn’t want to make the trek out there if it wouldn’t be open. When I asked the concierge, he just curtly replied, “I don’t know. It’s on the Turkish side” and left it at that. I clearly ruffled some feathers with that question. Wounds are still fresh, I guess.
We decided to take a gamble on the off chance that it was still open (it was almost 3 at this point) and make the hour and twenty minute drive to the site. When we approached the buffer zone, we whizzed past the Greek guards without stopping, but the Turkish ones made us purchase Turkish car insurance for 20 euros. What a scam. Once through, we drove along the bare mountains, past petrol stations manned by gas attendants, and through a busy tourist town that had signs advertising southern fried chicken and English pubs.
We pulled up to the entrance to Salamis, which happened to share a parking lot with a hopping place called Bedi’s Beach Bar. There were a ton of people playing sand volleyball and blasting music, so it seemed like it was a good representation of my friend who shares the same name. There was a sign pointing to Salamis and two old guys sitting in plastic lawn chairs by the “entrance” (more like a gate to an abandoned ranch). They apparently were the ticket guys and ushered us in after we paid them for entry. That was the extent of our guided welcome to Salamis. Salamis is an ancient Bronze Age city that has been inhabited since the 11th century BCE. It was a thriving Cypriot metropolis, and was the first missionary stop of St. Paul. It, like many ancient cities, was leveled by an earthquake in the first century CE and lay forgotten until the 1950’s. Excavations uncovered an ancient gymnasium, forum, baths, and agora, but came to a halt with the Turkish invasion of 1974. The excavations have not been resumed since, so the majority of Salamis is unexcavated. You could, in theory, walk around and stumble upon some undiscovered treasure. It’s been done before.
The site was completely deserted, and we only saw four other people the entire time that we were there. Granted, it was late afternoon and the sun was showing no mercy, but we anticipated there being more of a crowd at such a significant archaeological find. Nada. When you first enter the site, there is a “room” of headless statues that greet you. They’re just standing there; it’s kind of insane actually. The open-air gymnasium is adjacent to the head room and still has massive Corinthian pillars still standing. It was impressive how mostly intact everything was. The excavated city was from the Roman age, and since excavations were stalled, we don’t have much information on the earlier societies that inhabited Salamis. The ancients would simply build cities one on top of another, similar to Heinrich Schliemann’s “Troy”.
In addition to the gymnasium, there were partially excavated latrines, a Roman bath, and an intact aqueduct whose drainage “pipe” we actually walked on to get around. We walked down a colonnaded path to the amphitheater where St. Paul preached but didn’t go too far into the tall grass for fear of what was living there. I didn’t need to make an archeological name for myself at the sake of losing a limb. There was a fully excavated theatre next to the amphitheatre that had modern speakers and stuff set up for a festival. There were flyers and pallets of bottled water, but there weren’t any people actually manning the stuff. It was really bizarre; like a festival had just gotten abandoned or something. It was a little too Roanoke colony for my taste. Just past the theatre was the Temple of Zeus, which like the amphitheatre was only partially excavated. Supposedly there were inscriptions dedicated to Caesar Augustus’s wife Livia, but we weren’t able to find them. Livia is one badass ancient bitch, and a topic of fascination for me, so that would have been cool to see those dedication. We were able to spot some pieces of ancient graffiti though, which was pretty cool. Overall, Salamis was a much cooler experience than Knossos, especially since we essentially had the whole place to ourselves. No mesh shirts and belly chains to hassle us.
Salamis was really the only thing that we wanted to see in North Cyprus, although it’s certainly not the only thing to do. There are 49 more in fact! According to a brochure that I picked up at the airport, titled "50 Things to Do in Cyprus", Cyprus is a pretty badass place. Not only are there impressive churches and historic houses, but there were several medieval castles on the island, including one captured by Richard the Lionheart in 1191. There’s also a mosque open since 1326, one castle named the Othello Castle (named for the play in which part took place in Cyprus), another which inspired Walt Disney for Snow White, St. Hilarion Castle, and a Monastery dedicated to St. Barnabus, a resident of the city of Salamis. Besides the noted historical sites, there are unspoilt beaches where Loggerhead sea turtles come to nest and various flora and fauna that call Cyprus home. The most noted animal native to Cyprus is the Cyprus donkey, and they’re the symbol of the island. There are 2,000 monumental olive trees that scientists believe prove that Cyprus was the source in spreading the olive tree all around the Mediterranean. The brochure also highlighted aspects of the island’s flavor, such as the Cyprus potato, Baf chewing gum, and Hellim, a white cheese made from sheep or goats milk. The island is also a mecca for golfing, yachting, and diving, none of which we had time for on this trip. Maybe next time.
After leaving Salamis, we stopped in one of the tourist towns and grabbed some cold drinks. Unlike the other Mediterranean countries we had visited, there seemed to be a gym or a fitness center on every other corner. This area of the Med is apparently the health conscious one; maybe because it’s always beach weather? We bought some Fantas from a super jacked Turkish guy before heading back over the border to the Greek controlled side. We got hassled a bit by the Turkish guard; apparently it looks suspicious when you are only on one side of the border for a few hours. He asked us if we had any alcohol or tobacco in the trunk and wanted to look to confirm. Even though we had neither on our person, I was still super nervous and probably looked hella suspicious. I get weird about stuff like that; even though I have nothing to hide, I still feel like I’m gonna get busted when TSA or bar doormen check my ID.
After passing through the checkpoint, we drove along the Lakarna Coast just as the sun was setting. It was beautiful seeing the sun hit the water, and the night was just starting to come alive with tourists having dinner at the McDonald’s and Pizza Hut that were set up on the beach. After re-reading that last sentence, I realized just how unromantic it sounded. There were quite the crowds walking on the boardwalk and weaving through medieval streets to meet their friends. We even drove past a medieval castle and an Old Tudor Pub that looked creepy as hell but super tempting to stop in and have a pint. Unfortunately, there was zero parking in the area, so we decided to head back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.
Much like the rest of Greece, Cyprus has a beautiful evening temperature: cooler but still warm enough to wear a sleeveless shirt. We changed into non-sweat soaked clothes and drove to the heart of Nicosia to get dinner at a place that Elliot had found online. We were sick of kebab at this point, so we decided to get dinner at a well-reviewed Italian restaurant called Jenny’s il Forno. The city was pretty quiet, and there were a lot of restaurants and shops already closed at this point (9:30pm). There were also a number of abandoned buildings that we assumed lost funding during Cyprus’s recent financial crisis.
Despite the apparent lack of people out, there was very little parking, and we ended up parking in a taxi zone. After dinner, we got yelled at by some Greek cab driver so we pretended that we couldn’t read the sign (even though it was in English) and didn’t know we couldn't park there. Score one for the asshole tourists. There were groups of teenagers hanging around the central square of the city, which had side streets branching out from it. There were a number of restaurants that were already filled with people dining al fresco in the temperate night. Jenny’s was only a two minute walk from the square, and you could smell the brick oven pizza as you approached it. We grabbed a table outside and laughed that the tv was showing Back to the Future. I ordered a Cypriot beer, Keo, and had a REALLY good arrabiatta spaghetti with olive oil, tomatoes, chilies, and olives. It was a huge portion but was absolutely delicious. 1.21 gigawatts delicious. Cyprus was so much more island relaxation-esque, and the weather was so pleasant that we really felt like we were on an island paradise. Definitely a perfect way to end our first day on Cyprus.
Thanks to Elliot’s Hilton status, we had breakfast included with our room price. We had the typical buffet breakfast foods as well as a flaky Cyprus breakfast pastry that had a delicious cinnamon taste to it. We weren’t in any rush to get out that morning, so we didn’t leave until 11:00 to head to Pathos for a beach day. On the way, we passed Mt. Olympos, the tallest mountain on the island. We also drove through mountains that had really interesting cliff faces while we listened to traditional Turkish music on the radio.
We drove through the town of Pathos to get to the beach and parked on a side street by one of the numerous hotels that lined the water. There were only pockets of sand, and most of the tourists were parked on lounge chairs on the nearby grass and rocks. Since this was a resort area, there were several kiosks that advertised water sports (not those water sports) and boat rentals. We set up our towels on the sand near a little inlet of water and tried to catch some rays. It was so hot though that we didn’t last too long; it felt like we were turkeys roasting in our own juices. We needed to cool off and promptly burned the hell out of our feet our way to the water. We didn't get much of a respite, however, because the water was warmer than in Halikarnassos and Mykonos. It was also nowhere near as clear, and we had to avoid seaweed attacking us from every angle. Not that impressed with our Cypriot beach experience, we decided to dry up and head to the birthplace of Aphrodite, Petra Tou Rominou.
There are several myths related around the birth of Aphrodite, but the most famous of which involves Ouranos (Uranus), the grandfather of Zeus. He was castrated and his genitals were thrown into the sea. The sea started foaming, and from the foam onto the rocks rose the goddess Aphrodite. The rock on which she was born is supposedly Petra Tou Rominou in the southwest corner of Cyprus. It wasn’t that far of a drive from Pathos and was relatively easy to find with all the posted signs that pointed us in the right direction. We parked in a lot across from the rock (in the foot of a mountain) and walked along the solid pebble beach towards the rocks of Aphrodite’s birth. The pebbles were very smooth, but it definitely wasn’t a place where you’d go for a beach day, despite a few people’s best efforts. There were signs warning people not to climb the rock, as it’s massive, and I’m surprised that there weren’t people who actually tried to do so. The water around the rocks was a stunning turquoise and blue combination, made only brighter by the white and gray of the beach’s pebbles. I took a non-nudey “Birth of Venus” pic and grabbed a smooth gray and white stone to take home with me.
After taking the requisite cheesy lovey-dovey pictures (it's the goddess of love, people!), we got into the car and headed off in the direction of the ancient city of Kourion. It is located on a sovereign base, so it was technically on UK soil, so we once again drove through towns that catered to the holiday crowd. We grabbed some McDonald’s on the way because we were looking for something familiar to eat; we were definitely souvlaki’d out. There was no actual exit for Kourion, so we got off at the Episkopas stop, the biggest city near the site. We followed street signs and drove up and down through neighborhood streets, much like we did when we were in Australia. We drove until we ran out of road, which was coincidentally where we stumbled upon a hopping stretch of beach packed with vacationers in seaside bars. Resisting the urge to grab a drink, we backtracked to a highway before finally reaching Kourion. The site sits on top of a cliff and actually overlooks the beach bars we had discovered earlier. The water faded into this mist that looked like it merged with the clouds and created this eerie, yet beautiful, scene with the cliff sides.
Kourion was primarily a Roman city built in the 1st century AD. It’s rather spread out, and you’re only able to access the various parts on foot. After buying our tickets from some park rangers, we grabbed a map and headed to the nearest place of note: The Epistolys house. There was a tarp overhead, shading us from the ever-brutal sun. There are several mosaics scattered throughout the various rooms of the house, the most interesting and intact of which was the one of creation personified. We also saw a mosaic that was constructed later with Christian symbols. We strolled through the nearby forum to the House of the Gladiators, named for the mosaics inside it. The floors are beautifully preserved and depict fights between various types of gladiators and their actual names. There are several types of gladiators, some that fight against animals (a bestiarius), others that fight with a net and trident (a retiarius), some that chase down their opponents to tire them out (a secutor), and the most commonly recognized, the Thracian, who fought with a short sword. The house itself was very spread out and clearly used to be in the possession of some wealthy Roman. After a quick trip through the nearby House of Achilles, named for the mosaic that shows the scene from mythology where Odysseus recognizes Achilles dressed like a woman to avoid fighting in the Trojan War, we got back in the car for more sightseeing.
After leaving Kourion, we drove to the nearby Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates where there is a completely reconstructed temple dedicated to the god. Even though we were JUST at another nearby site, and should have gotten in with our Kourion ticket, we still had to pay to enter this newest site. There wasn’t a ton to it, and we were getting a little bit jaded by ruins at this point. After a stroll through the agora ruins, and a few pictures with the temple, we got back in the car and headed back to the hotel.
It was after showering that I noticed the spots where I missed putting on sunscreen: on part of my forehead and along my hairline, giving myself a sweet unibrow and headband sunburn. Sexy, thy name is Courtney. Despite my new Anthony Davis look, we were starting to get hungry and wanted to get some grub. It was happy hour, so we took advantage of Elliot’s access to the Executive Lounge and got some drinks and apps. We had really good gazpacho, these mini chicken kebabs, Koufka with pork, penne pasta with tomato, and chips. The food was pretty tasty, and the lady running the joint kept coming over and pouring me glasses of wine and giving Elliot beers. Even though we kept saying that we didn’t want anymore to drink, she insisted, saying “Ahh have one more; I’m leaving soon” as she was already pouring our drinks. This woman was on a mission to satiate our thirst. While we were being bam-booze-ld, a bride came in to take wedding pictures in the lounge. Elliot and I exchanged a look, because there wasn’t exactly a view, but I guess the photographer wanted some of the knick-knacks stored in the glass cases to be in the shots. She looked incredibly glamorous, and we started to see people from the wedding party arriving at the hotel, so we decided to get closer to the action to people watch.
We sat at the bar by the pool and watched these beautiful, glamorous people arrive in expensive suits and designer gowns. Someone clearly important was getting married, and all of high society Cyprus was there for the occasion. While we creeped on everyone, I had a glass of Cypriot red wine and Elliot looked classy with a scotch. I had also brought down the sweet peanut pie that our room service guy had given me. The atmosphere was so dreamy, and the peanut pie and drinks so good, that we once again felt like we were in paradise. Hooray for sweet peanut pie!
Unfortunately for me and my bedmate later that night, we both learned that sweet peanut pie should really be called “sour butt surprise”. I don’t know what the hell was in that thing (ingredients were all in Greek), but my stomach mutinied against it and made my and Elliot's night miserable. The whole night. We had to get up super early in the AM to catch our flight, but that wasn’t a problem because my evaporated sweet peanut pie was scary enough to wake the dead. A rotten egg would've been offended by the smell. Damn you, sweet peanut pie!
Even though we had a night from hell, we still managed to wake up in time for our early flight from Ercan to Ataturk back in Istanbul. While at the airport, we were behind some little kid and his family. My stomach was killing me as it was, and this butterball is standing there wolfing down a foot long sandwich in 30 seconds flat. If I didn't have such a stomachache, I would've been impressed. To make things worse, he took a picture of himself doing so with his selfie stick. It was definitely an “Ugh. People.” type of moment.
Despite the late night farts, interrogations from border patrol guards, and witnessing footlong sandwich guzzling, Cyprus was a beautiful and underrated place to spend a vacation. The weather was perfect, there were archaeological sites galore, and food that was a fusion of Greek and Italian cuisines was delicious. If someone hands you a sweet peanut pie, however, make sure that you politely decline…
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