From the Med to the Middle East - November, 2019

Middle East
November 30th 2019
Published: December 1st 2019
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The morning dawned bright and sunny but definitely chilly enough to classify as winter, as I boarded my shuttle for yet another airport departure. An uneventful crossing of the “Pond” on Delta with the only negative being my seat mate who I doubted had bathed in at least a week – his body odor would have choked a horse – I had to keep my face averted the entire 8-hour flight to Rome – bummer! Being a full flight, I didn’t have the luxury of moving to another area of the plane – ah yes, the joys of international travel. Touching down in the Eternal City around 9:30am it was cold, drizzling and dreary, but pretty much what I expected for Europe this late in the year. Here the good news began - we were the only international flight arriving at that time, allowing for an empty immigration hall staffed with multiple officers, to process the passenger load in record time – I was in baggage claim grabbing my bag just after 10am.

I had arranged a transfer with Celebrity for transport from Leonardo da Vinci to the cruise ship terminal in Civitavecchia, about an hour north of the city. The next scheduled bus was departing in just 10 minutes, so I dropped by bag with the staff in the arrivals hall and joined the ever-growing passenger group ready to leave. I was actually checking in at the ship terminal at noon – this was probably the fastest transport transfer from plane to ship I have ever taken. Once on board, it was drop everything in the cabin and get settled in. And which ship is graced with my presence this time, you ask? It’s the Constellation (“Connie” for short), a vessel I have sailed on previously and one I have always enjoyed immensely, being one of the smaller ships in the fleet. Connie was first launched in October 2001, and is one of the Millennium-class ships, along with her sister ships Infinity, Summit and Millennium. She is scheduled for the “revolutionized” major refit in May 2020. With a passenger capacity of 2,170 and a crew of 955, she has the more intimate look and feel of the older transatlantic passenger ships so popular back in the 1950’s and 60’s. However, with signs of mildew in the shower tile grouting, the shabbiness of carpeting and furniture, she is definitely looking a little tired and worn these days.

First evening on board is always the telltale for me and usually sets the tone for the remainder of the cruise. The weather was deteriorating fast with very dark clouds scudding across the heavens and a thick mist closing in on the port. The wind had risen and by sunset (no sunlight visual however), the skies opened, and a deluge began. Promptly at 5pm, Connie weighed anchor, slipped her mooring ropes and slid slowly from the pier, headed for the harbor entrance and out into the open Tyrrhenian Sea. The rain eased as we moved away from land, but the waves were still high enough to cause some difficulty walking – haven’t quite gotten my “sea legs” yet. After my last month’s experience in the main dining room, dinner was unfortunately yet another disappointment – yes folks, I actually did order the French Onion Soup again, and once again it didn’t meet expectations. Virtually no cheese topping and very little flavor. The classic Caesar salad had limp lettuce sections, tasteless dressing and none-existent Parmesan cheese…. I sent it back…. I’m batting a 1000 already and it’s only the first night – god help me for the next two weeks - this does not bode well for the culinary part of this cruise.

Our first port of call was scheduled for 2pm with the ship’s arrival in Catania, Sicily. For all the noise, chaos and scruffiness that hits a visitor at first glance, the city has a strong magnetic pull. This is Sicily at its most youthful. A city packed with cool and gritty bars, abundant energy and an earthy spirit in sharp contrast to Palermo’s aristocratic airs. Catania’s historic core is a UNESCO-listed wonder, where black and white palazzi tower over sweeping baroque piazzas. One minute you’re scanning the skyline from a dizzying dome, the next perusing contemporary art in an 18th century convent. Beneath it all, are the ancient ruins of a town with over 2,700 candles on its birthday cake. Indeed, food is another local forte. This is the home of Sicily’s iconic pasta alla Norma and the extraordinary La Pescheria market. Keeping a wary eye on it all, is Catania’s skyscraping frenemy, Mt. Etna, a powerful presence that adds another layer of intensity and beauty to Sicily’s second biggest city.

A little bit of history:

Around 729 BC, the ancient village of Katane was occupied by Chalcidian Greek settlers from nearby Naxos along the coast. The settlement’s acropolis was on the hill of Monte Vergine, a defensible hill immediately west of the current city center. The port of Catania appears to have been much frequented in ancient times and was the chief place of export for the corn of the rich neighboring plains. Also in ancient times, Catania was associated with the legend of Amphinomos and Anapias who, on the occasion of a great eruption of Mt. Etna, abandoned all their property and carried off their aged parents on their shoulders. The stream of lava itself was said to have parted and flowed aside so as not to harm them. Statues were erected in their honor and the place of their burial was known as the Campus Piorum. Catanaeans even introduced the figures of these youths on their coins and this legend soon became a favorite subject among Latin poets.

I made my usual beeline for the Captain’s Club cocktail party that evening (held each night from 5 to 7pm), where I was delighted to learn my two favorite Celebrity personnel were onboard: Graeme the CC host and Manuel the cruise director, both friends from prior trips. They make a world of difference to onboard life. The evening theatre production was a Beatles tribute band (I’ve heard better ones) which passed a pleasant hour before dinner…..two days in and so far, so good.

Our final port of call in Europe was Greece, where we docked at 6am the next morning in the port of Piraeus. Located within the Athens urban area and just six miles from the city center, Piraeus is one of the most important and ancient commercial-cum-leading ports in the Mediterranean. The city, who’s name roughly translates as “the place over the passage”, has been inhabited since the 26th century BC. With the amount of cruise ships visiting this port on an annual basis, there is no shortage of available tours and sightseeing buses to be had, right outside the terminal building. And if all you want is a ride into Athens, just go to the nearest metro station and take Line #1 – a direct shot from the port to the city center at dirt-cheap ticket prices. Of course I’m planning on my favorite way to sightsee – HOHO bus – and after checking with Celebrity for their ticket price ($30 per person for Grayline Tours), I made my way to the tour bus parking lot where I had my choice of three different bus companies. I do prefer the Red Bus aka City Sightseeing, which is found in most cities around the world and with whom I always bargain. Only took 3 minutes of discussion to secure a 3-route, frequent-guest ticket at the discounted cost of $15…. I do so enjoy getting a deal!

Red Bus Company has the Red Route (Athens Line), the Green Route (Piraeus Line) and the Orange Route (Beach and Riviera Line), with a grand total of 44 stops. It does require a bus change at stops at A5 and A7 to access the three different routes. I have visited this region on previous occasions but have never had the opportunity to explore the port city itself. The Piraeus route starts from the cruise terminal, and for the next hour I was enjoying weaving thru the narrow city streets lined with fruit-laden orange trees, until we reached the coast highway. Paralleling the beach we passed marinas with incredible yachts and sailing vessels moored in orderly slips, easily worth in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and probably into the millions. Turning inland we arrived at the Athens city limits and the wall graffiti, for which the city is so famous, fast became evident – it’s everywhere. Without a doubt this ancient city supports its artist colony, even those sporting spray cans. Most of it is quite creative, talented and certainly colorful. Considering that art has been fostered here for at least 3,000 years, I shouldn’t be surprised that it continues. Changing at the Acropolis (bus stop A7) to the Athens Line, I spent the next two hours reacquainting myself with this glorious city, photographing its timeless monuments, its markets, its sidewalks and people.

A “must see” event for any visitor is the Changing of the Guard ceremony which takes place at the Presidential Mansion and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Evezones accompanied by a military band, march from their barracks just behind the Parliament Building, along the Vasilissis Sofias Avenue to the Tomb of the Unknown soldier every Sunday at 11:00. The Evezones provide a 24-hour honor guard with hourly sentry change carried out in slow motion, that many people believe is to allow the troops circulation to resume after standing absolutely motionless for their 60-minute guard duty. The Evezones do not blink or move until ordered to do so. People smile when they see the black pompoms attached to the guards boots but make no mistake, these men are part of an elite light infantry unit. Their discipline was best portrayed by an incident in 2001, when a Molotov cocktail was thrown at one of the sentry boxes. This ceremonial guard change provides an ideal opportunity to see the 3 official uniforms of the Evezones.

Fun Factoid:

The traditional white costume (which I tend to think resembles a ballerina’s tutu), has a history spanning some 2,800 years originating from the warriors at the time of Homer and culminating in the guerrillas at the time of the Turkish Occupation. They are all handmade by specialized tailors, due to the complicated procedures required. It can take up to 80 days and 95’ of white cloth to construct just one uniform. Gives a whole new meaning to “loving a man in uniform” …..LOL

Athens prides itself on some of the most outstanding bakeries and coffee houses of any major world capital. While sitting on the open-air top deck of the tour bus, these delicious aromas wafted across my face at almost every city block as we slowly fought our way thru crazy city traffic. It was close to lunchtime and I couldn’t resist temptation any longer, so hopping off the bus close to Monastiraki Square, I entered the nearest coffee shop and for a measly 2 euros ($2.21), devoured a hot fresh-baked croissant and a cup of thick black coffee loaded with chicory – I had died and gone to culinary heaven. With a mandatory “back onboard” time of 3:30pm and my watch showing a few minutes after 2pm, it was time to make my way back to the cruise terminal and bring this incredible day to a close. I bid a fond adieu to Europe and begin the journey south to the Egyptian Delta.

A little bit of history:

The first canal in the Delta was thought to have been dug around 1850 BC, when an irrigation channel navigable at flood period, was constructed into a dry river valley east of the Nile. Known as the Canal of the Pharaohs, this channel was later extended by the Ptolemies via the Bitter Lakes, as far as the Red Sea. Further extended by the Romans (who named it Trajan’s Canal), neglected by the Byzantines and then reopened by early Arabs, that canal was deliberately filled in by the Caliphs for military reasons in 775 AD. Throughout this entire period, the reason for these changes appear to have been to facilitate trade from the Delta to the Red Sea, rather than provide any passage to the Mediterranean.

Venetians in the 15th century and then the French in both the 17th and 18th centuries, speculated on the possibility of making a canal through the Isthmus of Suez. A canal there would make it possible for ships of their respective nations to sail directly from the Med to the Indian Ocean, and so dispute the monopoly of the East Indian trade that had been won first by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch and finally by the English, all of whom used the route around the Cape of Good Hope. Those schemes all came to nothing.

The Canal stretches approximately 120 miles from Port Said on the Mediterranean to the City of Suez, located on the northern shores of the Gulf of Suez. The canal separates the bulk of Egypt from the Sinai Peninsula. It took 10 years to build with an estimated 1.5 million laborers, beginning on April 25, 1859 and was officially opened on November 17, 1869. The approximate cost was $100 million. Currently an average of 50 ships navigate the canal daily, carrying more than 300 million tons of goods every year.

Our ship approached Port Said and the mouth of the Delta in preparation for our transit of the Suez Canal, which will take the next two days. For many on board, this is their first experience of Egypt and/or the Middle East, with some hoping for glimpses of Bedouins atop camels ambling across the burning desert sands – for me, it’s like coming home. I can remember trips from Cairo to the Sinai, which involved crossing the canal via an elevated road, and watching cruise ships and tankers sail by with only their superstructures visible above the sand banks which line each side of this waterway.

After breakfast, I headed upstairs to the Reflections Lounge on Deck 11 and settled myself into a large window seat to watch our passage thru this wondrous canal. Much construction is now evident along the mainland bank of the waterway, and to on the Sinai side, work continues to widen the canal to allow two-way passage of ships. It was a brilliant sunlit day, cool temps and ever-changing desert vistas…..I’m homesick for this land! With each passing nautical mile, I reaffirmed my long-standing connection to Egypt, like I had never been absent.

Early morning Sunday and we dock in Aqaba – Jordan’s only port – a city which carries the relaxed small-town atmosphere of a popular local getaway. It offers a sociable stopover enroute to the diving and snorkeling clubs to the south, and the big destinations of Wadi Rum and Petra to the north. It’s also an obvious place to break a journey to or from Israel, the Palestinian Territories or Egypt. In winter it rarely dips below 68f and is quite often quite a few degrees warmer. In summer the weather only has a one-word description – HOT. Daytime temperatures frequently jump above 95f, but thankfully the sea breezes keep it bearable. It helps to follow the traditional siesta here: everything shuts down around 2pm and reopens after the afternoon nap, around 6pm (except of course when the tourist hordes arrive via cruise ship!).

A little bit of history:

In the 10th century, a Muslim traveler described Aqaba as “a great city” and a meeting place for pilgrims enroute to and from Mecca. Indeed, from as early as the 10th to 5th centuries BC, it was at the heart of ancient trade routes transporting copper ore, smelted from mines in Wadi Araba, and transported by King Solomon’s fleets to far-flung destinations. Ceramics from China and coins from Ethiopia highlight the cosmopolitan nature of the port throughout its early history. Later the Egyptians, Nabataeans and Romans all found their uses for “Ayla” as it came to be known, and the discovery of a late-3rd century purpose-built church – one of the oldest in the world – suggests a prosperous community, embracing of change.

In 1068 AD, the town’s fortunes changed when a huge earthquake split the old city of Ayla in two. The shifting of trade routes to Baghdad in the middle of the 16th century led to the final eclipse of the port, which dwindled to an insignificant fishing village for the next 500 years. Aqaba returned to the spotlight during the Arab Revolt in the early 20th century when Ottoman forces were ousted after a raid by the Arabs (does the name T.E. Lawrence ring any bells?) in 1917. Thereafter the British used the town as a supply center from Egypt, to support the assault on Damascus.

After WWI, the border between Trans-Jordan and Saudi Arabia had not been defined, so Britain arbitrarily drew a line a few miles south of Aqaba. The Saudis disputed the claim but took no action. As the port of Aqaba grew, the limited coastline proved insufficient, so in 1965 King Hussein traded 2,300 square miles of Jordanian desert for another 5 miles of coastline with Saudi Arabia. Today, with the value of tourism to the gross national product, that has proven to be a very foresighted deal.

Leaving the ship with the tour group and boarding the bus, first thing I noticed was the cleared area immediately adjacent to the pier. Apparently this is slated for construction of an entire tourist marina in the near future, with a price tag of close to $1B US Dollars and will be handled by companies from the UAE. Should be something to see in the coming years. Having visited Petra in the past, I opted to spend the day in Wadi Rum, aka Valley of the Moon, which is a valley cut into the sandstone and granite rock, located approximately 37 miles to the east of Aqaba. It is the largest wadi in Jordan.

First it was a guided tour of the actual city of Aqaba (old and new towns) without getting off the bus – this took an hour. Having been here previous, nothing new for me to see – just more new apartment buildings spreading out towards the mountain range behind the docks. The downtown section could comfortably fit inside any other Arab village and be right at home. Then it was off and out into the wild desert environment for our ride to Wadi Rum.

Enroute we stopped to view one of the original steam trains used by the Ottoman Turks to supply their troops during the Battle of Aqaba (July 6, 1917). The attacking Arab forces were eventually victorious.

A little bit of history:

People have lived in Wadi Rum for thousands of years, struggling to survive in its harsh environment. They have been hunters, pastoralists, farmers and traders, as Rum is close to national borders. Even the famous Nabateans once occupied Rum, leaving behind several structures, including a temple. Local people gained notoriety more recently when they joined the Arab revolt forces under the leadership of King Faisal and fought along with Lawrence of Arabia during the Arab Revolt (1917/18) to fight the occupying Turkish and German armies. Lawrence himself makes many references to Wadi Rum in his book “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, a title apparently inspired by one of Wadi Rum’s imposing mountains. The exploits of Lawrence have become part of local folklore, and some popular tourist sites are named after him, although whether he used these exact sites is open to debate.

Virtually all the people living in and around Wadi Rum today are of Bedouin origin and until recently led nomadic lives, relying on their goat herds. They are resourceful, hospitable people who are largely responsible for developing Wadi Rum as a tourist destination.

Recognizing the unique natural and cultural history of Wadi Rum and the vital importance of tourism to the local economy, the government of Jordan declared Wadi Rum a protected area in 1998. With support from the World Bank, they commissioned the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, a national NGO, to prepare a conservation plan and build a team of local people to manage the area. This team is now under the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority and is pioneering ways to restore and safeguard Rum’s sensitive desert habitats from ever-increasing human pressure.

Arriving at the Wadi Rum Visitor’s Center, we were given a 25-minute stop to do a little shopping, gaze out from the Panorama viewing station and use the refreshment center as needed. It’s here tickets are purchased for entrance into the Protected Area (or national park as we would know it). Only 1 Jordanian Dollar for citizens and permanent residents – 5 for all other foreigners. Returning to the tour bus, I expected we would enter the park and begin exploration of this fascinating landscape – was I ever shocked to find we were turning around and heading out to lunch in a so-called “Bedouin Camp”. How anyone can imagine a short stop at a visitor’s center to be the focal point of a ship’s shore excursion is totally beyond me, and especially at the individual ticket price of $119 per adult! This requires filing a formal complaint with the ship and see what happens.

Arriving a short time later at the Captain’s Club Bedouin Camp, we were herded like cattle into a large tented structure where we were seated on low chairs and couches, before lining up to fit our plates with prepared food from a central cooking area. This also proved to be a disappointment – gone are the days of pleasant small tents surrounded by endless desert sands…. it’s nothing but a commercial venture and one that is poorly organized and maintained. This has been the first ship-sponsored excursion I have taken in many years – I seriously doubt I will ever take another. A 90-minute drive back to the pier had me back onboard around 2:30pm…. I considered my sightseeing day to be a total waste of time and money – such is the life of an obsessed traveler. I’m only thankful that I have visited this region previously and already know just how beautiful the scenery is – too bad the majority of this cruise ship’s passengers didn’t get to see it. But all’s well that ends well. Within a matter of hours, I had resolution of my excursion disappointment and received a refund from Celebrity.

A little extra excitement has been added to this itinerary. For the past few years, ships passing thru the Gulf of Aden have been subject to problems with Somalian pirates. Now as a precaution, cruise ships basically “lock down” their vessels by closing off all outdoor decks to guests at sunset and remains so until sunrise the next morning. Also the majority of outside lights are turned off, all public areas with windows are covered via drapes/curtains, and passengers are required to keep exterior windows covered after dark and switching off all balcony lights. Anything to confuse the pirates I guess, should we encounter any. This starts this evening as we exit the Red Sea and make a left turn at Aden, progressing along the Yemen coast before turning north into the Arabian Sea, enroute to the Emirates. Being in lock down will last for the next 4 nights, and considering how great the evenings have been, it’s really a shame we can’t enjoy being out under the stars in the warm darkness – but such is life these days!

Halfway thru the cruise and with 6 consecutive “at sea” days, I’ve really settled into a pleasant and relaxing daily routine. It’s during this quiet time that it’s easy to see how a cruise ship represents a microcosm of our society. Groupings have been formed by like-minded individuals and the “herd instinct” has kicked in. Many of the single/solo travelers have gravitated towards those groups who have welcomed them, and they move throughout the ship, attending various events and eating together – a social experiment for sure. For those brand new cruisers by the second or third at-sea day, its very obvious that for some, this experience of being a captive audience and being surrounded by nothing but water, is not exactly what they thought it would be. They are incapable of relaxation and display various degrees of nervousness and/or distress which can only be assuaged by docking at the nearest port. I would sum it up as going “ape shit” for these hapless passengers – such is life onboard!

Land is finally in sight. We have cruised parallel to the Omani coast for the past 2 days and have made a sharp left heading north and will transit the Straits of Hormuz around dinner time this evening. We dock tomorrow morning for a full day in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Probably not the best day to arrive as two major events are taking place: first, the final Formula One race for 2019 is being held around 5pm, and second, the UAE celebrates 48 years of independence – I can only imagine the chaos and crowds on the streets – I’m staying put onboard. The temperature is expected in the low to mid 80’s with humidity to match, but as many of the guests have purchased very expensive tickets to attend the race, climate is definitely not going to be a deterrent. Being the first point of entry for the UAE, everyone is required to disembark into the port terminal for a face-to-face with Emirati immigration officials – what a joke that turned out to be. Having never sailed into Abu Dhabi before, I went with prior experience when flying in and expected the usual time-consuming hassle – nothing could have been further from the truth. It was a simple matter of walking into the terminal, handing my passport to the official, he stamped a blank page and filed the document into a nearby box. Not a word was spoken by either of us and within five minutes, I was back out on the pier headed back onboard. What a farce. Why these same officials couldn’t have just collected all our passports from the ship when we docked, is beyond me. But it’s their country and their rules – idiotic as they may seem. But at least when we disembark later in Dubai, we only have to clear customs with our luggage.

It’s the beginning of December and the staff have begun to decorate the ship in holiday regalia. There’s Christmas trees in the Grand Foyer, decorations next to the elevators and no doubt in the next couple of days greenery and garlands will deck the halls, putting everyone in a festive mood. Wonder if eggnog will be served at the evening cocktail party? Only time will tell. It has been a great cruise, met some fantastic people who only added to my enjoyment of the past couple of weeks. Now I’m ready to finish my packing and prepare for the next phase of this journey in the Persian Gulf…..stay tuned.

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1st December 2019

Linda this is a great travelogue pity your air travel was not more comfortable.As for the passenger travelling next to you hope he did not move about too much if his body odour was so offensive. Ugh! Just as well he did not dress Commando Style. I do not believe it you ordered Onion Soup again on Connie following our joint recent experience on Silhouette. On your next voyage suggest you see the Maitre D and offer him a can of Baxter’s Onion Soup to do the taste comparison.Hmmm! What about the public toilets in Catania eg There are not any ! Unless of course you visit a cafe or coffee shop to relieve the discomfort caused. However they may have improved the situation since my last visit. I enjoyed reading the historic background and insight into your detailed description on the various places. I am surprised that Celebrity did not provide AK 47 rifles to the passengers for shooting at the Somali Pirates in the Gulf of Aden a real life adventure interactive better than being in lockdown for several evenings when at sea..As for Abu Dhabi the Customs procedure last we were on Constellation it was a real nightmare being her maiden return voyage from Abu Dhabi to India. Egypt .....Fabulous U.K. CAA has now as you may know approved flights back to the Red Sea Resort of Sharm El Sheikh. with immediate affect Terence Bartlett

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