EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE


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Europe » Greece
June 10th 2004
Published: January 6th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

Mediterranean Cruise, May 30 - June 8, 2004 ---
Venice, Italy - Bari, Italy - Olympia, Greece - Greek Isles (Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes) - Dubrovnik, Croatia ---
Costa Cruises “Victoria” ---

Sunday & Monday, May 30 & 31, 2004
We departed Houston mid-afternoon on an air itinerary that was suspect from the beginning, but out of our control because it was arranged by Costa. They had us flying from Houston to Denver on United and then on Lufthansa to Frankfurt connecting to Venice. The problem was that there was only 45 minutes allowed in Denver to change planes, airlines, and terminals. Add to that a 30-minute delay in leaving Houston, and we had all of 15 minutes to literally run through the airport O.J.-style. Bill and I made it, but our 4 pieces of luggage didn’t, which we discovered upon landing in Venice mid-afternoon the next day. We made our lost luggage claim and then proceeded to the ship, which left port at 6 p.m.—without our bags. We had been given “emergency” kits by both Lufthansa and by Costa, containing toothpaste and brush, deodorant, razors, T-shirts, etc., but otherwise all we had with us was the clothing on our backs, plus our cameras, books, and two days of medication that we had packed in our carry-on. Our cabin was lovely, however, with a balcony, and we felt strangely stress-free with no bags to unpack and no decisions to make as to what to wear next. All we did was place our “emergency” kits on the bathroom vanity and our tee shirts in a drawer, and we were unpacked!

---Tuesday, June 1, 2004
Wearing the same clothes and no make-up the next day, we arrived at our first port, Bari, Italy. We took a tour of the city, which included the Piazza Mercanatile, the Basilica of St. Nicholas, dedicated to the patron saint of the city, and the Church of St. Gregory. We were treated to a pasta lunch of “ear-shaped” pasta and sauce, plus wine, before being taken to modern Bari for 40 minutes of much-needed shopping. Bill and I located a department store and quickly bought over $400 worth of underwear, clothing, and cosmetics. We had to guess at the European sizes and had no time to try anything on. Our bags had been delayed (or lost) for over 24 hours now, which activated the clause in our travel insurance that allowed each of us $500 for “necessities.” We also bought a few things in the shops on the ship later that evening, so we finally had a change of clothes and could send the ones we had been wearing for three days to the ship’s laundry--free of charge (a perk of losing one’s luggage).

---Wednesday, June 2, 2004
We docked at the small fishing village of Katakolon, Greece, from where we took a shore excursion to Olympia for a journey back in time to 776 BC and the first Olympic games. We first visited the monument dedicated to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the key person responsible for relaunching the modern-day Olympic games in 1896, and where the torch is lit at the start of each of the modern games. The archaeological ruins of ancient Olympia, set in a hilly landscape at the foot of Mount Kronos, included an imposing complex of monuments. The excavations were begun by the Germans in 1875 and are still in progress. During our tour of the site, we saw the famous stadium that could hold up to 40,000 spectators and where the athletes’ marble starting blocks can still be seen. It is here that the shotput competition will be held this summer as Athens hosts the 2004 summer games.
Our guide gave us many tidbits of information that we found interesting. First, the athletes participated in the nude, but only men participated and only men were allowed to be spectators. Women would be put to death if they tried to attend. In fact, we were told the story of the mother of an athlete who sneaked into the stadium wearing the clothes of a trainer and was discovered as she began screaming when her son won the competition. Her life was spared only because she was the daughter of a former Olympic champion. Next, the Olympics were not primarily a sporting competition, but actually a pagan religious ceremony dedicated to the god Zeus. We saw the remains of the Temple of Zeus, which once housed the huge gold and ivory statue that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Finally, the Olympic games were held for the last time in 393 AD, as pagan pagan (such as the Olympics) were banned by the ruling Christians.
Before returning to the port, we stopped off at the village of Katakolon for shopping. We bought a few more “necessities” and some 2004 Athens Olympics souvenirs.

---Thursday, June 3, 2004
Our day began very early because we would be visiting two of the loveliest and best-known islands in the Mediterranean—Santorini and Mykonos, Greece. (Trivia: There are about 3,000 Greek islands, around 300 of which are inhabited.) Santorini is called the “spectacular jewel of the Aegean Sea” and is an island born out of a volcano eruption approximately 3500 years ago. We left the ship by motorboat and arrived on the west coast, which is characterized by dramatic steep cliffs plunging into the gorgeous crystalline sea. We were met by a guide and a bus that took us up the side of the cliffs via a steep, narrow, winding road to one of the prettiest spots on the island, the village of Oia. The cliffside village is a network of narrow, marble-paved alleys lined with the typical white or ochre houses and their characteristic blue dome-shaped roofs. We meandered among the inviting lanes, enjoying the charming shops and the extraordinary views of the sea. From there we continued along the Caldera, the rocky cliff that completely surrounds Santorini, to Thera, the main center of the island, for shopping. We had a choice of transportation back to the harbor down below (way down below) the cliff—by cable car or by donkey along a steep pathway. In the true spirit of our advancing years, we opted for the cable car, from which the views of the volcano crater and our ship anchored in the crystal blue waters were stunning.
When we returned to the ship, three of our four missing bags had been delivered to our cabin, but one of mine still had not been located. The missing one had my casual clothes and makeup in it, but I had already replaced those anyway, so it wasn’t a big problem for me.
Mykonos was only three hours away, and we arrived around 4 p.m. to this picturesque and popular island. The picture-postcard main town of Mykonos is a maze of narrow streets lined with dazzling white-washed houses and cube-shaped shops. We wandered for several hours through the tangled streets (built that way to defy the wind and the pirate raids) before stopping for a delicious dinner of Greek salads and baklava in “Restaurant Kostas,” a darling little outdoor café somewhere in the maze of the village. We finally got our bearings when we stumbled upon the waterfront and strolled back to the ship via the beautiful serenity of the waterside district’s trendy cafes and bars, watching the brilliant sunset over the Aegean. Across the harbor we could see the houses of “Little Venice” with their multicolored porches, windows, doors, and wooden balconies with the waves breaking under them. The Victoria didn’t pull out until 11 p.m. to allow those who wanted to experience the glitzy nightlife of the island. We preferred to forego the glitz and instead spent time on our cabin’s balcony overlooking the serene, moonlit waters.

---Friday, June 4, 2004
Our early morning arrival was impressive as we approached the medieval walled city dominating the port of Rhodes, the fourth largest of the Greek islands and one of the most historically rich. In ancient Greece, Rhodes was at one time almost equal in influence to Athens, due to its strategic position and commercial power, and the culture was flourishing culturally and intellectually. During this period (c. 305 BC) the magnificent Colossus, another one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was built, a 40-meter high bronze statue of the sun god Helios at the entrance to Rhodes harbor. The Colossus was toppled and destroyed when a massive earthquake hit the island in 227 BC and ended the period of grandeur. Frequent invasions by Turks and Arabs and lengthy periods of their rule were eventually followed in the early 20th century by Italian settlement, whose occupation lasted until the end of World War II. During this time, considerable renovations took place under the dictatorship of Mussolini.
Our tour took us via the new city, which lies outside the original walls, to Mount Smith (named after a British admiral during the Napoleonic wars) to enjoy a splendid panoramic view of the city and surrounding Rhodes countryside and to view the massive pillars of the temple of Athena on the Acropolis of ancient Rhodes. Continuing on foot, we toured the Palace of the Grand Masters, the medieval citadel which was built over the ancient remains of the city in 1309 as the final line of defense—a fortress within a fortress. We visited the museum inside the castle and viewed dozens of rooms with priceless mosaic floors and a courtyard paved with colorful geometric marble tiles and decorated with Roman statues.
Passing through the Amboise Gate, we followed the steep and narrow Old Knights’ Road with its cobbled surface, flanked by the beautiful “hostels” in which the Knights used to lodge when they gathered for meetings. The medieval buildings, towers, and richly ornamented facades, arched windows, and terraced roofs on this late-Gothic street are among the town’s most famous sights.
After the tour concluded, Bill and I lunched at a delightful outdoor restaurant near St. Catherine’s Gate (delicious Greek salads again). We then spent a wonderful afternoon ambling through the bazaar, browsing, shopping, and checking messages at the Internet Café before returning to the ship, which was about a 5-minute walk away, late in the afternoon.

---Saturday, June 5, 2004
Today we were at sea, and we spent most of the morning reading in the Concorde Lounge, after which I spent the afternoon sleeping off a queasy stomach. We didn’t miss anything, however, as there were not many daytime activities scheduled on the ship. In this regard, Costa was disappointing, as it also was in the area of evening entertainment. The food and table service were also only adequate, but our dinner-tablemates were great. Jen and Jenny (granddaughter and grandmother) from Virginia, Rita and Homer from Tennessee, and Dahlia and Steve from England were all delightful and interesting conversationalists. Jenny had worked for the government as an auditor and had given the cruise to Jen for her high school graduation; Rita was a nurse at an STD clinic, while Homer marketed NASCAR products; and Dahlia and Steve were adorable young newlyweds expecting their first child in December. We looked forward to and enjoyed the company of all of them at dinner every evening.

---Sunday, June 6, 2004
I had particularly looked forward to today’s port—Dubrovnik, Croatia, population only 50,000—for several reasons. As part of the former Yugoslavia and an area rifled by turmoil and heavy bombing during the Balkan hostilities in the 90’s, one might wonder, “Why are we going there?” Yet, travel journal after journal raved about its charm and beauty, calling it “the prettiest town in Europe,” “one of the most attractive destinations on the Adriatic Riviera,” and “the Pearl of the Adriatic.” George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Those who seek Paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik.”
Our scenic arrival into Dubrovnik’s bay quickly verified the raves of the travelogues. It is a charming port on the Dalmatian coast, set in front of a picturesque hillside. It has been extensively restored since the hostilities, when almost 2,000 bombs fell on the city, destroying or damaging 885 buildings and virtually every street, and now is said to be more beautiful than ever.
One of the most attractive sections of Dubrovnik is the Old City, or Stari Grad, which is lined with cobbled streets, fountains, museums, and churches. The mighty fortified system of impressive, 14th-century marble walls that circle the Old City is largely intact and among the most beautiful and best preserved in the Mediterranean.
Our tour was divided into two parts, a walking tour of the Old City and a panoramic tour by bus. The bus tour began on a steep, narrow road that wound its way up to the top of the hillside for a breathtaking view of Dubrovnik and its Riviera. Next, we were off to the Pile Gate of the city wall to the beginning of the main street, the Stradum, for a guided tour of the inspiring cloisters of the Franciscan Monastery, which is also home of the oldest working pharmacy in Europe, opened in 1317. We then visited the Dominican Monastery, where we viewed a fine collection of Renaissance paintings, and the 15th century Rector’s Palace, which was the former seat of government. Finally, we visited the Cathedral, the Church of Saint Blaise (patron saint of the city), and Onofriou’s Fountain. We then had free time to wander and explore the quaint little town on our own. This has been our favorite port so far!
We sailed out of the bay in the early afternoon and continued along the Croatian coast in the beautiful strait of Korcula. Bill and I sat out on our balcony for hours and thoroughly enjoyed the passing dramatic coastline dotted with villages and farms and the exquisite azure waters around us.

---Monday, June 7, 2004
Our arrival into Venice was breathtakingly beautiful, as we slowly sailed the various canals in our approach to the port. We were eating breakfast on the deck as we passed the fortress of St. Andrea, the green island of Saint Elena, and the beautiful Piazza San Marco. Venice is built on an archipelago of 118 small islands separated by a network of 150 canals crossed by approximately 400 bridges, once wooden and now stone.
We disembarked the ship and were taken by bus to our hotel, the Laguna Plaza, where we checked in and rested for about an hour. Here we were given the good news that our final piece of luggage had been located and would be delivered sometime today to the hotel. About twelve of us from the cruise, all from the States, boarded the hotel’s boat at 11:30 a.m. for the 50-minute ride via the lagoon and the Grand Canal to the Rialto. The Grand Canal is the main thoroughfare through Venice, and it is lined with magnificent palaces, each one more beautiful than the next.
All the picture books in the world didn’t prepare me for the city’s exotic landmarks. The Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge) across the Grand Canal was a fabulous spot for observing one of the city’s most famous views: the Grand Canal full of gondolas and boats. From there, the side paths took us through a delightful maze of canals, bridges, and shops that snaked through the San Marco sestiere (district) where most of the sights—and tourists—are located. It only took us about 10 minutes to reach the heart and international symbol of Venice, St. Mark’s Square.
Politically and culturally, Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) has always been a very important and strategic area in Venice. There are a great number of beautiful and historical monuments located there—some dating back to the 9th century—and of course, the square is “covered” with tourists and its famous pigeons, which are an integral part of the site. But the real jewel is the Basilica di San Marco. The opulent church is laid out in the form of a Greek cross topped off with five plump domes. It was inaugurated in 1094 as the resting place of St. Mark the Evangelist and is famous for its 43,055 richly decorated square feet of carvings, marble, and stunning mosaics. The soft light shimmering against the tiny gold tiles, each mounted at a slight angle to enhance this effect, is nothing short of magical. Some of the mosaics date back to the 11th century.
The Piazza (Square) is gigantic, constructed of stone and is itself an architectural gem. It is bordered by the Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the clock tower, Campanile (the famous brick bell- & watch-tower, 325 feet tall plus the angel), and surrounded by elegant cafes and boutiques.
Of course, no trip to Venice would be complete without a gondola ride! We hired this luxury form of transport just off the Piazza for 80 euro, or about $100 American, for 45 delightful and romantic minutes. We sat back and relaxed and enjoyed all the sights and sounds of Venice as our gondolier, Marco, guided us down the narrow canals, under the bridges, and around tight corners. It may sound like a touristy thing to do, but it was an unforgettable experience.
After truly falling in love with Venice on the gondola, we continued to browse the myriad shops around the Piazza before stopping at the famous Café Florian for two of the most expensive cups of coffee we’ve ever had—but oh, what ambience! The Café Florian was opened in 1720 and has since been the meeting place of artists, writers, and politicians. We chose a table outside from where we sipped our coffee, listened to the live music of the open-air orchestra, and basked in the unique and charming atmosphere of the Square for over an hour. By the way, the two cups of coffee—one latte and one espresso—cost $22.50 Euro, or the equivalent of $28 American. But, it was worth it—both for the opportunity to rest and for the view!
Totally rested and invigorated, we left the Square and got off the beaten path to wander and get lost in the zigzagging streets. We happened upon a showroom of traditional Murano glass for which Venice is famous. It has been made on the island of Murano since the 13th century, and we spent quite some time browsing before settling on some jewelry to purchase. We also stopped for some delicious Italian ice cream and at a local grocery store before window-shopping at many of the interesting and unusual shops along the way. We wound our way back toward the Rialto and stumbled upon a real treasure, the Church of San Salvador (The Savior). A modest façade on the outside, the interior of this parish church was majestic with large paintings, sculptures, and frescoes from the 15th and 16th centuries depicting the Transfiguration, Annunciation, Last Supper, and other significant events. We marveled as long as we dared before returning to the Rialto Bridge to catch our boat back to the hotel at 7. What a fabulous day! Venice has worked its charm , and this has now become my favorite port of the cruise, with Dubrovnik second.
When we arrived back at the hotel, guess what? Still no luggage! We inquired at the desk, and they called us about an hour later to say it had arrived!! Hooray—9 hours before returning home. We didn’t even open it, just left it sealed with the half dozen different security tags intact.

---Tuesday, June 8, 2004
We awakened at 4 a.m. and were taken to Marco Polo Airport for our 6:30 flight from Venice to Frankfurt, where we connected to a direct flight on Lufthansa to Houston. Frankfurt security was tight, and I almost got into some trouble. We had over an hour until boarding, and I wanted to get some coffee for Bill and myself while we waited. As I left the gate area, the gate attendant insisted on taking my boarding pass (ostensibly so that the plane wouldn’t leave without me). After finding some coffee in the terminal, I began walking back to the gate, when a security official stopped me and said I needed to show him my boarding pass. We became involved in a circular argument: “I don’t have a boarding pass because the gate agent kept it.” “Well, you can’t return without a boarding pass.” “How can I give you my boarding pass if the gate agent kept my boarding pass?” Obviously, airline policy and security policy had not been communicating with each other. Finally, I said, “This is getting nowhere. I don’t have my boarding pass and you won’t let me proceed without it. What shall we do?” At that point, he grudgingly relented, “Just go on, but next time don’t leave the gate without it,” and I replied, “Then you’d better inform the airlines not to take them from passengers when they leave the gate,” and I ran to my gate before he could change his mind!
In general, the cruise was good. The itinerary was great, our cabin was lovely, and the ship was fine, but I don’t think we’ll take Costa again. They have been bought by Carnival and have become too much like them in their scheduling, procedures, and entertainment. There were no daytime activities, and the evening shows were only mediocre. We also didn’t enjoy the camaraderie of the other passengers as much as we usually do because very few spoke English. We were told that about 50% of the passengers would be American, with the rest being European. However, the purser told us that only 84 of the 2,200 passengers were American, 1,100 were Italian, 300+ were French, 400+ were German, 150 or so were Spanish, and the remaining 200 were other nationalities. Overall, however, it was an interesting experience, and we’re happy we had it!


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