Our latest travel adventure has been fun so far. On Oct. 12 our friend Flo Palumbo drove us to the San Diego airport. We were there way too early, considering it was merely a “puddle jumper” flight to LAX, but they had told us to be there 3 hours early because our flights were international. At LAX we had no problems getting our British Air flight to Heathrow, which arrived at 10AM on the 13th. Then we had a short wait before the flight to Rome. Arriving at about 4PM, it took a while to get our one checked bag and get to the train. Had to take one train to Trastavere Station, which took about 30 minutes, and then catch a different train to Civitavecchia, which took 1 ¼ hours. So it was dark by the time we arrived. It was also a fairly warm evening. On the train we met Nobi and Brooke, a couple from San Francisco who were taking our cruise and also staying at the Villa Susanna with us. We all walked to the hotel, which was about 5 blocks away. It was a very clean, no-frills place where we were warmly welcomed by Luigi, given a map, and suggestions for dinner places. We four had a very welcome red wine and pizza at a local restaurant and got better acquainted. The shellfish spaghetti others were eating smelled and looked wonderful, but when we tried to order it, they were out, darn it. Maybe we can get some on our next day there – the 26th.
Villa Susanna was a nice quiet place, with everything we needed and at a good price, considering this is Europe. The next morning we had cold pizza for breakfast and hauled our luggage into the main part of town where we caught the free shuttle bus to the ship. It was like coming home to board the Mariner of the Seas, since this is the ship we took Around the Horn in 2009, a 46 day cruise, and in January of this year we took all our kids onboard for the last Mexican Riviera cruise the Mariner did before moving back to Florida. We had a happy reunion with David and Diane Wilson in the Windjammer buffet over lunch, and fell right back into the usual routine of having Happy Hour drinks in the Diamond Plus lounge. As usual, we have been seeing people we have met on other cruises.
Our first port day was in Naples, where Elaine and I have been before. That time we walked through the city to the train station and went to the ruins at Pompeii, the city which was covered during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79AD. This time we walked to the hydrofoil station and took a fast boat to the Isle of Capri. Thank goodness we weren't taking a regular boat because it was very windy and there were fairly high waves with whitecaps. Upon arriving on the island, we took the funicular to the town above the port area. There were tremendous views and the small town is full of boutique hotels and expensive stores. It was quite a charming place, and we enjoyed walking to the Gardens of Augustus. On the way we passed a place where there were old stills outside as part of the landscaping in front of a perfume factory and store. It is an industry that has been in effect here since the 1300's. The clifftop views from the gardens were incredible, as Capri has quite steep slopes. There is also a natural arch in a sea stack off another part of the coast, so we walked through another part of the town to see it. The fun of doing all these walks is to see the flowers, houses, streets, stores, restaurants, etc. on the way and see how the people here have lived for hundreds of years.
After 2 sea days, we arrived at Ashdod, Israel, which is the port nearest to Jerusalem. We had booked a tour through Guided Tours Israel so that we could explore in a smaller group than if we had done a shore excursion offered by Royal Caribbean. Our group had 16 and we were hauled around in a comfy Mercedes van by a very competent driver and an enthusiastic guide named Isaac. There was some trepidation about what might happen this day, because it was a holy day, and also the day when the big prisoner exchange was going to take place. Israel wanted one of their soldiers back, he had been kidnapped 5 years ago by the Palestinians, so in exchange, they released more than 1000 Palestinian prisoners, many of them terrorists. However, as we drove to Jerusalem, it became obvious that the holiday was working in our favor because traffic was lighter than usual. The streets are very narrow, hilly and winding and our driver was an expert at getting us to the sights.
Our first stop was at the Mount of Olives, where there are thousands of graves because the Jews believe that at the second coming, anyone buried there gets raised from the dead. A grave there today costs about a million dollars. Suddenly there was lots of gunfire, which our guide said signaled the successful prisoner exchange and everyone's joy that the Israeli soldier had been returned alive. We went to the very beautiful church towards the bottom of the hill with an ancient olive grove. Then we walked through the Zion Gate through the old city walls and into the heart of Jerusalem. Here we spent hours exploring the Jewish and Christian quarters, Church of Holy Sepulcher, the Via Dolorosa (the walk that Jesus did with the cross, so the stations of the cross are marked), tried a Jerusalem bagel, walked across some roofs for a good view back at the Dome of the Rock and Mount of Olives, and shuffled our way through the Shuk, or marketplace, full of small stalls and very much like the convoluted streets and bazaars called souks in Morocco, Turkey, and Syria. Then we went to the Western Wall, also called the Wailing Wall, which was VERY crowded, due to the holy day. Our guide gave each of us a small piece of paper, told us to write a wish on it, and then we were supposed to roll it up and put it into a crack in the wall. The papers are eventually collected and buried in a holy place. There is a men's section of the wall and a women's section. The wall is supposed to be holy because it was part of the original temple.
After a visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, we dropped off our guide and crossed into the Palestinian Territory to see Bethlehem and the church of the Nativity. Israeli citizens are not allowed in Palestine, so we had a different guide there. At the end of that, we were taken to a big shop which sold nice jewelry, and lots of religious items. Shopping is required for all tours in Palestine because their economy is so depressed. We didn't buy anything.
The next day we were in Haifa, which is in the north. It is a hilly city, like San Francisco. The world center for the Baha'i faith is there and the gardens and buildings which stretch all the way up to the highest street are the most incredible we have ever seen. The gentle Baha'i faith believes in the unity of all the major faiths, tolerance, peace and justice. The sounds like a great philosophy to us! From there we headed out of the city to see Nazareth and the Annunciation Church (largest in the Middle East), Capernaum, Tabgha, Sea of Galilee, a kibbutz, a baptismal site at the Jordan River, and the Mount of the Beatitudes. Going on this tour was the best way to see the countryside which is much greener than near Jerusalem, and where most agricultural pursuits are taking place. The Sea of Galilee was a lot bigger than we expected and towering over the eastern slope were the Golan Heights. We now have a better understanding of the topography and some of the difficulties the Israelis have been facing since 1948.
Yesterday we were in Rhodes, which is one of the most interesting walled cities we have ever been in. It is a Greek island, but only a few miles from Turkey. In its long history, it has been held by a wide variety of countries, (Italy, Turkey, Germany, Greece), and also the Knights of the Order of St. John, which have all contributed to its charm. So there is quite a variety of ruins, churches, mosques, minarets, etc. here, and wonderfully convoluted streets within the old city walls. Of course, shops, stalls, boutiques and restaurants have all taken over the best spots along the main walkways. There is a nice promenade along the waterfront, and we had a beautiful day to explore on our own, with David & Diane. We tried to follow a walking tour I had downloaded, but it was impossible so we just wandered around and got lost and it was delightful.
Today we were in Kusadasi, Turkey, which is about 10 miles from the ruins at Ephesus. We all had been there before, so we skipped the tours and wandered around the town on our own. It is mostly about shopping and the streets are clean and pedestrianized with nice shops and restaurants all over. We walked through the old part of the city where the buildings are distinctly dilapidated, the streets are dirtier, and clearly where the local people live. Most of the cities we have been walking around are infested with cats of every age and condition, probably because they can find food and shelter easier than dogs. One of the Turkish carpet sellers got us into his place and gave us a lesson about the different qualities, materials, and prices. David & Diane were interested in getting a carpet for their bedroom, so we looked in a couple of other places too. At the end of our excursion, they went back to the first guy to see if they could bargain for one that had caught their eye there.
Tomorrow we will dock in Piraeus, the port for Athens. There is some question as to whether we will be able to go into the city, because of all the strikes, protests, and outright rioting that have been taking place there, especially in Syntagma Square, one of the tourist areas. We would like to see the changing of the guard at the Parliament Building and also visit the Acropolis and the Plaka, since we have never been to Athens before. We are hoping that it will be calm tomorrow for our excursion.
Elaine has picked up a cold and is taking it easy this afternoon so that she will have some energy for tomorrow.
Internet minutes are costly on the ship and I haven't been taking my netbook off the ship to find WiFi places, so I have not included any pictures with this report. Once we have a chance to add pictures at a later date, I will share them with you.