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20 May 2013

Trip of a Lifetime: Eastern Mediterranean (Greece, Egypt and Turkey)

I have a few quick things to say before I actually talk about our recent vacation.

First, this is going to be a very long post.  There is so much to share writing wise, and I had about 1000 pictures to sort through to find the ones I wanted to share.  I wanted to share some of my favorites, but also some of those that truly depict (as best as a picture can) the experiences we had while traveling.  There are probably around 100 photos in this post.  Don't feel obligated to read it all if you just want to see the photos, haha.

Second, we enjoyed the cruise, but not the cruise line.  In talking to many people on the boat itself, many people were disappointed with Holland America and the rules and restrictions, and lack of certain amenities and such that they had.  Especially in comparison with other cruises they had been on.  So, Adri and I will probably go on another cruise at some point (Alaska or Scandinavia area), but it will not be on Holland America.  As I don't want this to be a complaining post, this is all I am going to say about it.  If you want to know more, feel free to ask us any time.

Now, on with the adventure...

We flew out from JFK airport in New York on Friday night, taking the red-eye out to Rome, and then connecting there to Athens.  When we got to our gate, we sat and waited to board, and in that time an announcement came over the intercom asking that I approach the ticket counter.  I walked up thinking maybe something was wrong with our luggage, or seating or something.  Come to find out, they upgraded us.  Not to first/business class with the lay flat seats, but to Economy Premium.  Now, on an international flight, Economy Premium is basically what first class is when you fly domestic.  More space, more comfortable chairs, better food, more options for entertainment, better blankets and pillows, socks, eye covers, free newspapers, noise-cancelling headphones (that we weren't allowed to keep sadly) and other wonderful amenities.  I've never slept so well on a flight in my life!

We get into Rome with a time change, and now time is displayed everywhere in military time.  No big deal, right?  Wrong.  We miscalculated our timing, and though we had more than we did to get to our next flight.  We explored the airport a bit and sat in a quitter, more comfortable terminal. Time rolls around that we need to catch our flight.  We get to the gate and I notice that it says they are boarding, so we walk up to the gate to get on and they say we can't.  Apparently they had JUST closed the doors.  We missed our flight by 5 minutes.  Although we weren't excited about that, we knew we could get on another flight.  So we head to the ticket counter to rebook.  "This is a big problem, a very big problem," they say.  "We can't access your itinerary because you booked through Delta."  We did book through Delta, but they put us on an Alitalia flight.  They continue to tell us how big of a problem it is, tell us the Delta counter is closed, and that because we missed our connecting flight, our return flight home is now cancelled.  Starting to freak a bit, we ask what we can do.  They tell us we can either book a full-priced flight (330 Euro, EACH), or call Delta.  We ask for a number that we can use there in Italy and they give us one that doesn't work.  Not only that, but they tell us to use the pay phone (which is all in Italian and we can't read), and tell us they don't know how to use it, so they can't help us.  After an hour of trying to figure out the telephone, and figuring out the number they gave us doesn't work, we go back to the counter feeling defeated and decide to just buy the tickets to Athens.  Side note: I called Delta when we got home and Delta said that they get this complaint about European airlines all the time.  Truth is, they could have accessed our itinerary to rebook us with just our flight number and last name, but didn't want to.  So, I have to call a different hotline with Delta to get things straightened out, and was told that they will make any concessions that they can to help us out.  Again, apparently this happens all the time.  Lesson learned... don't miss your flight, avoid connections in European cities if possible, and have numbers that actually work before you travel.  Once we got to Athens at 1am Sunday morning, we hopped in a taxi and headed to our airport.  What was supposed to be a 30-40 minutes drive was a 15-20 minute drive!  Luckily at that hour, no one was on the road.  Off to bed we go, ready to start our true vacation only a couple hours later...

This was the view from our hotel of the Acropolis.

Wake up Sunday morning, head to the executive lounge for free breakfast and then down to talk with the concierge about the day.  Come to find out, it is their Easter, so other than the festivities going on out in the street, everything is basically closed.  Can't get into any sites, shops are closed, and people are sleeping in.  Only thing we can do is to explore and go to the local restaurants and hope some shops are open.  No problem, this gives us a chance to experience Greek culture, and hopefully the sites will be open Monday.

The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Quite impressive to watch!

Door of a church we randomly found in the middle of the city.

Me helping a guy roast a lamb for their Easter celebration.  In the time I did this, a camera crew from some local Greek TV station showed up and started to interview Adrienne!  It was a lot of fun!

Not sure of the monument.  But it was one of the few things we could see on Sunday.

Olympic Stadium

Adri's attempt at being a Greek statue.

My attempt.

After a long day of walking around through Athens, we went back to hotel for food and sleep.  We talked to the concierge to be sure that the Acropolis would be open on Monday because we had read that it usually isn't.  They said that because it was closed for Easter it should be, but to check back in the morning.

We got up early Monday in hopes of running out to see the Acropolis before we had to get to our cruise ship.  We were lucky because it was open.  The museum was not, but that's ok because we didn't want to see that, we wanted to see the Parthenon itself.  Ran out the door, hoped on the metro and headed out to the Acropolis.  After some bad directions from a local causing a slight detour, we finally arrived at about 9am.  Good thing too because as we were leaving later there was a MASSIVE line of people all showing up.  We wouldn't have gotten in with any time to see anything had we not shown up early.

Having an opportunity to walk around in such an ancient place was breathtaking, and inspiring.

The Erechtheion with the famous statues of female figures known as caryatids.

One of the caryatids.

Adri and I outside the Parthenon.  You can see in the background they have scaffolding and cranes to do restoration work to the Parthenon, so it was difficult to get a photo without that stuff in it.

After exploring the Acropolis for a bit we noticed some other ruins just down the hill to the northwest.  So, looking at our watches, we thought we might venture.  It was a great decision.  Agora was almost empty, and much more open to exploration.  You could walk around the ruins a lot more without having ropes and chains everywhere, which was incredible.

Church in Agora.

The Athinon (another temple) in Agora.

After a couple hours in the ruins, we rushed back to the hotel, finished packing up, jumped in a cab and headed to our boat.  The largest boat I personally have ever seen!

Our first port of call was in Crete, Iraklion to be exact.  We didn't purchase an excursion. We just got off the boat, walked into town and enjoyed the local scenery.  Walked through the market, explored some churches and just enjoyed being somewhere we've never been.  One of the churches we explored, St. Minas, was so impressive.  I dot think I've been into a Church more decorated and ornate than that one.  I've been into some famous churches too, but nothing like that... And just on the little island of Crete.  Apparently, Crete is the home of the fabled Minotaur and the birthplace of Zeus.  We had heard that the labyrinth wasn't worth it because it was all reconstructed to what they thought it was like, so we didn't go out there.

St. Minas Cathedral

Interior shot.  The paintings on the ceiling were incredibly detailed.

Chandelier in St. Minas.

After Crete, we had a day at sea.  Those are nice days because you basically sleep in, lay by the pool, eat some, then repeat.  It was quite relaxing.  We needed all the rest we could get this day because we were about to have a long day in Egypt.

What a day in Egypt it was too.  Definitely an experience of a lifetime.  Up at 5am to get ready, and off the boat to meet our tour guide by 6:50am. On a bus and off to Cairo we went.  It was quite interesting to see the Egyptian countryside and just get a glimpse of what every day Egyptian life is like.  After about 3 hours or so of driving, weaving through some crazy traffic (our guide said to be good, you just have to play a lot of Playstation), we arrived at the Cairo museum.  Driving through Cairo we got a glimpse of Egyptian life.  Apparently they don't finish any of their buildings.  Reason being, if they do, then they have to start paying taxes on them, so they just leave the outside unfinished.  It was just building after building of concrete with exposed brick, holes, half completed rooms, and everything you could imagine.  This picture doesn't do it justice even a little.

We did enjoy museum, yes, but I could have passed it up to spend more time at the pyramids and sphinx.  Regardless, we got to see some pretty impressive things.  Things like King Tutankhamen's mask and many of the relics from his tomb.  The only thing we really didn't see was the mummy itself, but it was pretty cool.  On our way out of the museum, we saw a building that looked like it had been burned out.  It was one that was lit on fire by the rebels during all of the riots with Mubarak.  Apparently we were only a couple blocks from Tahrir Square where all of the rioting actually happened.  And, there were more riots and protests the day after we left Egypt... crazy!

Building next door to the Cairo Museum burned by the rebels during Mubarak's reign.

After the museum we headed to a local restaurant on the way to the pyramids (which you could see from the road.  i had no idea they were so close to the city).  It was a ton of food they served us, and really good fresh stuff.  It was all cooked right there around the corner that we could see as we walked by.  So yummy!

Finally, the crown jewel... The pyramids.  They were incredible.  Just being there was worth every moment.  A little about the camels.  The Great Pyramid is actually the one that looks like it is the second largest, when in act it is the largest.  It is the one that does not have a cap on it.  Apparently the Pharaoh that built the second one was the son of the one that built the first.  He wanted a larger pyramid than his father, but also wanted to show respect and not have it larger.  So, he built one smaller, but put it on higher ground so that it looked larger.  We got some great pictures, rode camels and had a dandy time.  Unfortunately I think we got a little taken on the camel ride, $70.  But, we really enjoyed it and so we'll live with it.  We've never ridden a camel before and so it was an awesome experience to have.  Adri's camel's name was Michael Jackson and I was riding Moses.  Moses seemed rather grumpy because he just kept making noise and grumbling at the other camels.

As we were leaving I went to take some pictures of Adri. As I was doing so, this kid walks up and tells Adri where to stand and where I should be to take the picture.  I was already figuring that out and took the picture. Then suddenly, this guy takes the camera from Adri, starts kind of forcefully posing her and taking the pictures.  He took 3 pictures and then held my camera and asked me to pay.  I told him to give me my camera and he says, "I am an honest man, please, give me something." At that point I got a bit forceful and told him to give me my camera back right away and then I just took it.  He then proceeds to tell me that I need to pay for the pictures.  I told him I did not ask him to take the pictures and that I wasn't going to pay. This is when it turns sour. He gets up in my face and starts pointing at me yelling, "You have to pay." I'm trying to get by him and go to the bus but he keeps stepping in front of me demanding that I pay him some money.  By this time Adri has called over our security guard to help us get out of there.  He comes over and starts talking to the guy.  It was all in Arabic, so I didn't understand a word of it.  But then, our security guard flashed his gun in his jacket, a machine gun I might add, and the guy left us completely alone.  Thank heavens for the security guard.

After the pyramids we drove down the road to the sphinx and spent some time there as well.  With the pyramids in the background, the scene was breathtaking. Again, the people were relentless with trying to help you take pictures, or get you to buy things.

After the pyramids and sphinx we stopped at a couple shops and then headed back to the bus.  As time moved on we realized that we may not make it back to the bus before boarding time of 7:30pm.  We got to the bus just after 8:00pm, literally minutes before it left port.  We made some friends on this excursion, Colin and Sarah Jones, and ended up hanging out with them and Colin's mother (Lynn) and step-father (Preston) the rest of the time.

We still had a second day in Egypt, this time in Alexandria.  I've never been to a place so dirty in my life.  We wandered through the city a bit and realized it probably wasn't going to be fruitful because no streets were labelled and we didn't want to get lost.  After some time we grabbed a minibus and the driver said he knew where to go, but instead of taking us to the catacombs, he took us back to the port.  After some negotiation of price because he wouldn't take coins, we set our bearings and then tried to figure out where to go next.

Just an idea of the amount of trash everywhere.  There were piles taller than me all over.

We negotiated with a guy who had a horse-drawn carriage.  Somehow we fit 7 people on that thing for almost 5 hours.  In talking with him, we talked him down to 20 euro for all of us for an hour.  Well, our trip turned out to be almost 5 hours and he said it was 20 an hour.  I think we ended up giving him 100 Egyptian Pounds, which worked out to about $20 US, so less than the original price he talked to us about.  But, we were all over Alexandria.  He seriously crossed the city too many times to count.  Instead of going in a nice easy circle, he just zig-zagged all over.  We saw a few of the same things at least 3 times.  He was totally taking his sweet time to try to get as much money out of us as he could.  Plus, it rained on us.  Apparently it only rains 6 times a year, and it just so happened to downpour on us today while in a carriage.  Luckily we had a thing covering part of the carriage and the other two had a hat and rain jacket.  When it stopped though, it warmed up quite quickly and felt really good. During the ride we did see a lot of things that we were looking for anyway, and it was fun to ride around the streets of Alexandria.  People honking at everyone, teenagers blasting their music on their mopeds, everyone wanting to waive at the Americans... It was just a very interesting, humbling, different experience.

We've since talked to a couple people about the experience, and everything we've heard is that our experiences in Egypt with people trying to scam you for your money is just the way they are.  "Never trust an Egyptian," they say.  Well, we learned that for sure.  We really enjoyed our trip, and had a great time there, but I think that is the only time we will visit Egypt.  One of those, great while you are there, but only need to do it once type trips.  Apparently it is a good thing we left Egypt when we did by the way.  Mubarak was let out of jail the day after we left for trial, and there were riots and "demonstrations" in Egypt, not too far from where we were.  

Our next stop on the itinerary was Rhodes, back in the Greek Islands essentially.  It was the first place where we just got off the ship and walked into the city and were instantly in the mix of everything.  It was like 5 minutes, and that was really just time to get from the boat, through the port and across the street.  It is a really cool island.  There is an old fortress and wall surrounding a lot of the city, and it just adds a flavor and style all it's own.  We walked around up on the wall, ate some yummy gyros, walked along stone streets, and just enjoyed the feel of being back in a more civilized civilized country.

The streets were like this all over the place.  Carefully placed stones in wonderful designs.

Lynn, Adri, Sarah

Door and window (below) in a little Greek cafe we ate at.

This is apparently the street where the Crusaders lived during that time in history.

You can see the wall still used that surrounds the old city.

Next stop on the cruise was Ephasus.  This was actually my second time in Turkey and Ephesus.  You can read about that experience and see those pictures by clicking here if you so desire.    It was great to be back here in such an incredible place, but this time to share that with Adri.  I think this was her favorite place of everywhere we went. Because of where we went into port we had to take a tour guide to Ephesus because the taxi's were too expensive.  She really struggled.  First, she didn't speak very good English so it was really hard to understand here, and even harder to pay attention.  Eventually everyone ditched her and just met back up at the appointed time.

First stop was the Virgin Mary house, which we didn't go into.  They only speculate that is the place because for the following reasons: Mary would have wanted to live close to a city, and this house was close to Ephesus at the time.  She would have been able to hike up a hill at her age, and this house was up a hill.  A nun had a vision of the house at some point, but no one wrote it down until after she died, but the say that is the house she saw in her vision, and lastly, three different Popes have visited it and blessed it.  So, it must be it.

Next was the best part of Ephesus, the ruins/city itself.  Pictures don't even come close to the true awe that this place is.  But, I'll just let you decide for yourself.

Detail of the road that used to exist all over the city.

Library at Celsus, the main attraction.  Kind of a mini Petra (the city carved into the mountains in Indiana Jones).

After Ephesus we were supposed to go to St. John's Basilica, but our guide told us it was closed and that we were going to a leather shop.  No one was happy about that, and she almost had a mutiny on her hands.  She begged us to go to the leather shop, and we talked her into driving by the Basilica at least and we would give her 5 minutes in the leather shop.  As we drove by the Basilica we saw people inside, so we asked her about it and she said, "Well, it is closed, so they shouldn't be in there."  Lies.

Mykonos was next, one of two Greek Islands I wanted to see (the other being Santorini, which we will see some day).  This place probably provided some of the coolest photos of our entire trip.  We decided to rent ATVs and drive around the island so we wouldn't be limited to the main tourist sites.  What a great decision that was.

Adri, Colin and Sarah, Lynn and Preston on our ATVs

Getting sun and wind burnt.

Little Venice

The famous white-washed church of Mykonos, Paraportiani.

The pelican is the island mascot essentially.  This one was pinkish with a beautiful beak that had different colors on it.  I just didn't dare get close enough to get bit.

Super Paradise Beach that we randomly found while exploring.  The most beautiful water I have ever seen.  It was pretty cold though, so we didn't do much more than just wade in it.

The windmills, which are the other draw to this island.

Our last stop was Istanbul.  Unforunately we only had one day here before we had to catch our flight.  But, we saw quite a bit in that one day.  Istandbul is one place I would love to return to.  I've always enjoyed in there (in the now 2 times I've been), and having Adri there made it even better.  We had to be picky about what we saw because we only had a day, but that just gives us all that much more reason to go back.

Inside the Spice Bazaar, probably Adri's favorite place.

Hagia (Aya) Sofia

View of the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sofia

Inside the Blue Mosque.

My favorite place in Turkey.  I found this wall of graffiti on my first trip and hoped that I would be able to find it again.  When I did, I had a flashback of walking up the street and finding it for the first time.  When I pointed it out to Adri she just squealed because she has always loved that picture that I printed out and hangs in our living room.  Upon finding it I went around the corner and found a new piece to print and frame (below). 

So, there you have it, our trip to the Eastern Mediterranean.  It was an incredible trip and one that we would recommend, at least parts of it.  We experienced a lot, learned a lot, and just can't truly describe it all.  But, we hope you've enjoyed it vicariously through us.  And, if you ever get the chance to go, we'd love to give you tips and tricks and everything we can to help out.  Thanks for sharing it with us!

The final sunset before he got on a plane the next morning.

1 people had something to say:

Kerri and K.L. said...

Speechless...really amazing photos and stories...maybe someday!