Back in Athens

Our disembarkation from the Queen Victoria was early, smooth and efficient. The Cunard folks really know how to move passengers off and on their ships with minimum perceived effort on their part and definitely on ours.

We left our bags out in the hallway the night before, and they were whisked off in minutes. We kept a small duffle with us for overnight and next day necessities like clothes and of course makeup.

Up early, we had to vacate our stateroom by 8 a.m. and proceed to the Royal Court Theatre to await our call to leave, which was one of the early ones at 8:30 a.m., since we were not on an organized tour or shuttle service. We claimed our bags and said good-bye as we walked off the Queen Victoria into the Athens port arrival terminal. Cabs were lined up right there to take us to the Hotel Intercontinental in Athens. Ironically, this is the same hotel Cunard had arranged for our fellow passengers who were extending their trips like us. I’ll bet we paid a lot less for our accommodations.

The hotel runs a very convenient shuttle van into the heart of Athens, which we gladly hailed for our excursion into town. Even though Intercontinental is located fairly near the central part of Athens, it is on a major thoroughfare that resembles Airline Highway and does not lend itself to walking. The shuttle is quicker, more direct and certainly more comfortable.

We stepped off the van at the intermediate stop in front of Hadrian’s Arch, the historic Greco-Roman ruin that looms over the street fronting a very picturesque park where more Greek ruins lay. Greek ruins are scattered all over Athens, as if the inhabitants of the last three millenia never bothered tossing out the trash.

Signage to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum is clear and easy to follow. Our objective was not the Acropolis itself but the Acropolis Museum, which holds most of the major sculptures salvaged from centuries of destruction of the Parthenon by various armies and the blatant looting of the place by the British Earl of Elgin in the very early 19th century. No less a contemporary than Lord Byron severely criticized Elgin’s rapacious plunder of the priceless ancient Greek art. To this day, Greece wants its art back, and it is hard to blame them. Harder still to recover it from the British Museum, which purchased the looted goods from Lord Elgin for 35,000 pounds in 1816. Good luck getting that back.

What is left is housed in the Acropolis Museum, opened only in 2009 to display some 4,000 artifacts from all ages of Greek antiquity going back well before the Acropolis was ever conceived in Athens.

The broad entrance to the Acropolis Museum displays archeological elements going back well before Athenian times.
The Parthenon and related buildings on the Acropolis loom over the museum in full view.

This is truly one of the great museums in the world, a must-see on the level of the Louvre, the Prado and the Accademia. The third floor is exactly the size and proportion of the nearby Parthenon and displays all four walls of friezes and reliefs from the building, some originals but many reproductions due to tragic loss over the last two thousand years since the Romans. All the pieces are situated where they were placed on the original building, but somewhat lower for ease of viewing. Forty-eight metal columns are spaced around the room in exactly the same location as they are in the Parthenon, which is visible outside through the glass walls of the museum all around .

The third floor recreates the pediment of the original Parthenon with a combination of original pieces and reconstructions, sometimes in the same panel.

The effect is stunning. It recreates the experience of the Parthenon with detailed explanations in English of the history, meaning and importance of all the pieces. And you don’t have to stumble through rubble on the ground.

On one end of the museum floor is a short very informative film about the destruction and degradation of the Parthenon after it was converted to a Catholic church by the Byzantine Christians, then a mosque by the conquering Turks and the subsequent bombing of the place by the Venetians in their eventually successful campaign to drive the Turks from Greece. Followed, of course, with a detailed description of Elgin’s looting binge.

The ceremonial changing of the guard each hour draws crowds so big the police have to set up barriers.

After two hours in this marvel of a museum, we were ready for a couple of cold ones with a simple lunch of pork souvlaki for me and moussaka for Lynn, who had been lusting after this classic Greek dish ever since we arrived in the islands. This restaurant’s version was meatless but no less filling. Moussaka is basically a Greek version of British shepherd’s pie, substituting eggplant for ground beef. This version also used bechemel sauce, which added to the richness of flavor and filling.

Sated with our simple but most filling lunch, we returned to the shuttle stop through the streets on our way to Syntagma Square and the Parliament building where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded by Greek soldiers with pom poms on their shoes standing at attention for an hour at a time.

Unfortunately, we could not get the shuttle to stop for us (we were standing in the wrong place, and the driver was forced to the other side of the street because of an obstruction), so we had to take a cab back for the princely sum of 3.67 euros. I tipped well.

After showers and cocktails, we were ready to head back out to the center of Athens for dinner. Saturday night is central Athens is wild, with throngs of people streaming through the pedestrianized streets off Syntagma Square.
We found a wine bar named the Black Mirror for a quick glass of the juice, then went forth in search of a restaurant that held to our dining standards.

As we walked around, a very distinguished looking older gentlemen approached Lynn and insisted on walking us to his favorite restaurant in all of Athens. It was located at the top of a small hotel with a picture window view of the Acropolis above. The Athens Status was serving at the early hour of 8:45 p.m., as we were not the first to sit down. We were gratified to see a group of six adult Greeks come in as well, validating that this is not purely a tourist destination.

As we waited for our order to arrive, we noticed that one of the bartenders from the wine bar on the street walked into the restaurant. Later, we realized that the Black Mirror bar is part of the F & B operation of hotel and we had walked right around the block in search of a place to eat.

As late as it was, we decided to order just one appetizer and one entree. Thank goodness. The grilled vegetable appetizer was a full dinner, with delicious roast peppers, eggplant, zucchini, a tomato and a large, sliced mushroom that tasted smoky and savory in a way we had never experienced in a mushroom before.

The shrimp and pasta plate was so huge we could not finish it between the two of us, but we gamely plowed through the huge pile of cheesy tagliotelli with a few well prepared if obviously frozen imported shrimp. After we surrendered, the waitress brought out a plate of what amounted to corn bread pudding on the house. Just what we needed. We sliced into the spicy squares swimming in a thick sugary sauce, declaring them delicious but way too much.

We waddled out, bound for the shuttle to return us to the hotel and caught it right on schedule and right on location this time. After two weeks on a ship, we would sleep on land.

 

Mykonos and the end of the cruise

A little bit of everything in Mykonos–whitewashed walls, blue dome, red door and brilliant sky. Note that a lot of the white mortar in the pavement is actually painted on.

Mykonos truly is as stunningly beautiful as the photos depict, a panorama of whitewashed walls and blue trim buildings perched along the arid rocky mountain overlooking the Mediterranean. Beneath the surface, Mykonos is one huge retail mall of tourist trinkets, clothes, food and drink.

We pulled up to the Mykonos cruise ship dock right on time in a honking 25+ knot breeze that would not lay down all day. Rather than take the free Cunard provided shuttle bus, we jumped on the two-euro harbor ferry that was promised to leave in 2-3 minutes. Some 20 to 30 minutes later we left, but only after loading up a truly scary number of passengers. I took a seat in the open bow, while Lynn stayed in the cabin, which filled to SRO. When the boat turned in the bay, it listed to one side but did not right; I was ready to hop over the large round fender in the bow and grab Lynn out of the cabin just in case we capsized.

Thankfully, I had the foresight to buy only one-way tickets, because there was no way we would ever return to the ship on that ferry.

The Mall of Mykonos.

We walked through the town and explored the Little Venice neighborhood of narrow winding streets (doesn’t that describe most of Europe?), all lined with retail shops displaying the customary wares. After poking our heads into a tiny church and taking a few photos of more white walls and blue (occasionally red) doors, shutters and domes, we felt satisfied we had seen enough of Mykonos. So we did what we do best—hunt for a small place off the main drag for a beer. That’s not so easy in tiny Mykonos, choked with tourists from our ship as well as several day ferries.

Beer so cold it froze inside the mugs.

But at last we found Maria’s Cafe and enjoyed some really cold, super cold Mythos beers under an unusual tree that was throwing off dozens of huge clumps of berries but for all the world appeared to be dead in its trunk. The proprietor said it was called an Easter Tree and indeed it was dead, he said. From our perspective, it looked very much alive, although the trunk may well be dying.

The display cases are cleverly designed so the descriptions pull out from the bottom like a drawer.

That bit of botanical interest behind us, we walked the length of the beach toward the shuttle buses but first stopped at the Mykonos Archeological Museum. This is a tiny gem of a museum of antiquity. The front room features creative displays of ancient jewelry dating back more than 5,000 years, all contained in several cases that are lined up in the front room with mirrors on either end, creating an impression of infinity.

Several larger pieces of architectural relics from ancient Greek ruins collected around the island are on display in a partially open space behind the main building. All this surrounds a central room of contemporary jewelry designs inspired by the ancient motifs. The combination of really old and really new is quite impressive for such a small museum.

Once we toured the museum, we figured we had seen enough of Mykonos and had no desire to hike all the way back to the commercial center in the howling wind to seek a restaurant for lunch. So we made the short walk back to the shuttle buses for a ride back to the ship and a late last free lunch aboard the Victoria.

Actually, we have found the food in these islands to be good, simple and generally inexpensive but pretty much all the same, whether Crete or Rhodes or Mykonos. They are all Greek. So we chose to dine back aboard for the last time in the Lido buffet.

Our time on the Queen Victoria was coming to a close. We had just one more evening of views from our balcony as we watched our ship slowly move away from the dock and out to sea. We have watched this sight for 14 days and it never gets routine.

So cocktails on the balcony for our last evening aboard, followed by our last dinner in the Britannia, no great loss there. Tomorrow we disembark early in Athens and sleep on land for the first time in two weeks.

 

 

 

Rhodes

Cunard may have been saving the best for last. Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands and only about four miles off the coast of Turkey. Like most of these islands, civilization on Rhodes dates back at least to the 11th century BC.

It was independent until being conquered by the Romans in the fifth century BC and became well known as a center of the ancient academic world. Julius Caesar studied public speaking at Rhodes.

Later, Rhodes became part of the Byzantine Empire and in the 15th century was settled by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem after they were evicted from their last bit of territory in the Holy Lands following their last Crusade. The Knights held Rhodes until the Turks conquered the island in 1522 following a siege of 200,000 troops against St. John’s 600 knights. The Turks kept Rhodes until 1912, when the island was occupied by the Italians until WWII, then the Germans and the British during and after the war. Rhodes and its fellow Dodecanese Islands were finally united with Greece in 1948 as post-WWII reparations from Italy.

Rhodes city is clearly delineated into three parts—the ancient ruins, the medieval Old Town and the modern city on the northern tip. The non-HoHo tourist train carried us past many of the ancient ruins, including the temple of Apollo (the god of the sun was born here, according to mythology); the Greek stadium (pretty much along the lines of Athens but much smaller); and a number of other ruins that today are more tumbledown rubble than recognizable structures.

The new town on the point of the island is populated by dozens of contemporary hotels and perhaps 10,000 beach chairs. Even near the very end of the tourist season in early October, the beach was packed with sun bathers. We could only imagine what it is like during the summer when the northern Europeans descend to these shores for warmth and sunburn.

The Old Town is quite easy to recognize. The huge wall that was built to surround and protect the town remains intact, complete with bastions, moats and gates, now open to all visitors and invaders alike. The narrow streets are lined with shops selling every manner of tourist trinkets, including 2004 Athens Olympics caps. Could those really be left over from 13 years ago?

We wandered about all over Old Town’s narrow, winding streets, marveling at the cornucopia of crap for sale in every shop and stall. Again, the streets were choked with tourists, and again we wondered what this place must be like in the height of the summer season.

Working our restaurant magic, we persevered until we found a quiet side street and a small restaurant named Taverna Delphi. The young waiter spoke excellent English, and we took up simultaneous conversations with him and the Australian couple sitting at the table next to us. He explained that the season would end in about two weeks, when they would shut the restaurant down until March 20. He said he looks forward to the rests, because he also works as a croupier at the large casino located on the point of the island’s new town. He lives only 90 seconds away from the restaurant, but it’s hard to imagine when he ever gets time at home with that kind of schedule.

He gave us some insight into the insanity of Greek taxation system. If the government deems unilaterally that you cannot afford the automobile you own, because you don’t make enough money, then you are fined 2,500 euros every year that you own it. The twisted logic of that is part of what makes Greece the stepchild of the EU.

After some initial language difficulties with the old man who welcomed us into the restaurant, we were able to order glasses of wine and three dishes tapas style. Our waiter seemed to approve, and we learned why in just a few minutes.

Our baked feta topped with vegetables and the roasted stuffed peppers were splendid. The fried calamari was like no other we have ever tasted. They were lightly fried with a fresh taste of the sea that we had not experienced before. The wine was equally excellent, and our waiter explained they bring it in from the mainland so it is not available anywhere on Rhodes. I offered to buy some, and he said no—he would simply give us two 50 cl bottles. I offered again to pay, and he simply said no, so we paid our bill and merrily walked back to the ship with a liter of delicious wine in water bottles.

Life is good on Rhodes.

Heraklion

Some 400 miles later and all the way down the Ionian Sea, we put in at Heraklion, Crete’s capital and largest city. Heraklion is indeed a large city by island terms, some 100,000 and looks like any European metropolitan area: choking car and bus traffic, nondescript modern buildings, crowded narrow streets and a waterfront of large ferries and small fishing boats in water so blue it makes you cry. And of course, sprinkled throughout all this are a number of museums and historic sites dating back to the ancient Greeks and beyond.

We contributed to the congestion by boarding a HoHo bus at the port entrance after fending off the aggressive offers from taxi drivers who swore they charged the same price and would tour us through town as well as the buses. Apparently, the taxi union is so strong here in Heraklion that the ship’s shuttle buses can travel no father than the physical gates of the port. Once we alighted from the free shuttle, we were fair game for the hordes of taxi drivers.

We remained steadfast against the onslaught of offers and made our way straight to the red HoHo bus for our tour around Heraklion. Our primary objective was the ruins of Knossos, the main attraction of Heraklion and the capital of the ancient Minoan culture. Knossos covers some 20,000 square meters of a combination of ruins and reconstructions. British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans discovered Knossos in 1900 and spent the next 30 years of his life and most of his fortune uncovering and restoring the city of palaces, mazes, streets, storage buildings and courtyards.

The effect is an odd but compelling mixture of ancient ruins and contemporary restoration, as if Disney had taken a hand at the design. Some of the frescoes show off brilliant colors, obviously recreated in modern times and renewed regularly to maintain their appearance. Most of the sprawling area, however, is a complex of ruins that are easy to follow, thanks to a series of helpful signs in both Greek and English.

We arrived at peak tour group time, so we had to wind our way around dozens of tightly packed groups of tourists following faithfully behind their guides holding paddles and umbrellas high for identification. In fact, while waiting for Lynn to visit the loo, I learned that the tour guides are also unionized, a first in my experience.

Since we were on the clock, we showed back up for the HoHo a few minutes in advance of the pick-up time. Of course, this is Greece, so the bus was some 15 minutes late. We waited patiently in line at the front, figuring the driver would check our tickets, while a recently arrived horde of people simply entered from the rear door and occupied all the upstairs seats. So we were forced to take the last two seats in the back on the lower level, which happen to be the seats right over the engine. It was a warm ride back.

Back in town, we launched our daily quest for lunch off the tourist trail and sure enough found a little restaurant a block away that was staffed by an  earnest young man who turned out to be both the waiter and the chef. We ordered three dishes tapas style with some local Mythos beer.  It took a while to get the food, as our solitary proprietor cooked each dish from scratch. He brought the grilled sausages with fries and the baked eggplant with cheese and bacon first, then delivered our order of calamari and explained it was no good, so he would not serve it to us.  No need—the sausage and the eggplant were plenty. Good enough in fact, that we ordered another 50 cl Mythos, frosty, cold and tasty.

After locating and procuring a bottle of Cretan Cabernet Sauvignon, we returned to the Victoria in time for cocktails while viewing the ship departing from Crete. We just can’t see enough of embarkations and disembarkations. Each one is fascinating in its own way, and they never get old.

 

Last full day and night at sea

Our excursion to Sarande, Albania was fun and interesting for us, but I wonder how much it cost Cunard in fuel alone. Departing Athens, we circumnavigated the Peloponnesian peninsula to Sarande, a trip of some 400 miles, then retraced our course and sailed another 400 miles back to Heraklion, Crete, the same island we had visited a week ago.

I can only surmise that Albania made some deal to lure Cunard to its shores to promote its tourism industry. I do know we loaded fuel onboard for several smelly hours directly below our cabin before leaving Athens. However, we thoroughly enjoyed discovering Sarande, so I suppose it’s worth whatever someone paid for an 800-mile excursion.

By our standards, our last full day and night at sea was pretty active. We awoke to a gorgeous dawn looking over the Ionian Sea. Lynn went to the gym, and I walked the ship first thing so I could ping my GPS to the paper chart mounted near the bow of the 9th deck. Then it was off to breakfast so we could make a 10 a.m. lecture in the Royal Court Theatre, a short musical history of Roy Orbison by a longtime BBC Radio exec, Johnny Beerling.

We enjoyed listening to the music, and we learned about Orbison’s life, ending in his untimely death at 52 from a massive heart attack. Orbison was immensely popular in the UK, and we also learned that he was the first American for 18 months to top the UK charts in the early 60s during the height of the Beatles’ popularity.

After Johnny’s address, we walked the ship to catch the scene at sea. The outdoor pool decks were absolutely packed with sunbathers, mostly from the UK. Lynn’s analysis was that the Brits seem to have no regard for the danger of skin cancer, as they roast out in the Mediterranean sun without the first hint of sun screen. The decks were also filled with Germans and Australians, the former a country that gets little sun, and the latter a continent just coming out of winter. None seemed to be slathering with SPF 30 either.

Before lunch, Lynn and I engaged in a spirited game of paddle tennis, which she won pretty easily, since I don’t play tennis and she does. But I consoled my embarrassing loss by remembering that I had placed second in the putting contest the week before.

We ordered lunch on the pool deck at the Pavilion, which offers hamburgers and hot dogs that I just had to try. The cheeseburger was acceptable, but the hot dog was miserable. The dog consisted of more filling than meat and tasted as bland as the hard roll bun that held it. And no chili.

After a brief afternoon nap,  it was off to the Yacht Club bar, where morning speaker Johnny was scheduled to appear at a meet and greet to take questions about his earlier address on Roy Orbison. We walked in and ordered a couple of glasses of wine in eager expectation of our speaker’s entrance and a few words of introduction before the Q & A session would begin. Alas, not so much.

He simply walked into the bar and sat down in one of the overstuffed chairs to chat with a British patrons who sat down with him. One or two other fellow cruisers—all Brits—ambled over to his chair for a chat, but there was no public interaction or action at all, for that matter. Sensing the futility of our mission, we picked up our glasses of wine and discreetly walked out to the open deck to relax in the sun, feeling very conspicuous as the only passengers out there wearing long pants.

Tonight was a formal evening, despite what our original voyage planner had said. We didn’t have a problem with the formality of the evening, but it meant we had to eat in the Britannia Club for the third consecutive night. That is not at all what we had planned. The Britannia Club offers attentive service, elaborate food presentation but less choice and lower absolute quality of food than the more casual Lido Buffet. And we are forced to eat at 8:30 p.m., which ends our dining about 10 p.m., late for us Americans.

After eating meat of all species for nearly two weeks on the ship, I just had to try it—I ordered the grilled fish. What a pathetic failure. It was predictably lacking in texture, spice or flavor. It had obviously been frozen at some indefinable time past, and its days swimming in water were long before that. This may well be the last time we dine in the Britannia Club.

 

 

 

 

Sarande, Albania—quite the surprise

Well, well. Who would have thought? Sarande is quite the beautiful and booming town overlooking spectacular water on the south coast of Albania.

Yes, that Albania, the country that was occupied by the Romans, the Turks, the Greeks, the Venetians, the Nazis and after World War II, the Communists. In the Cold War years, Albania was considered to be a completely closed country, more allied with Communist China than with Soviet Russia before the collapse of the Iron Curtain in the late 80s and early 90s. Since independence, things have changed.

Tourism seems to be a relatively new industry in Albania. The Sarande harbor does not have a terminal large enough to accommodate a ship the size of the Queen Victoria, so we had to be ferried to shore on tenders, a first in our experience. Nothing like a ten-minute boat ride to shore during your two-week boat ride around the eastern Mediterranean.

However new to the game, Sarande has already developed the basics of the tourism trade—trinkets and t-shirts. The recently spiffed-up small harbor front was lined with dozens of souvenir sellers and a few beggars, some of whom included children under eight. Our first impression was not overwhelmingly positive.

The center of the little city may be fairly old and not terribly attractive. But the harbor itself displayed a row of recent sculptures overlooking beautiful clear waters. Just a block into town from the waterfront is an excavated Roman ruin with little explanation other than a sign on the street. Just a bit more development could make this a major attraction.

Beyond the nondescript center, however, today Sarande is a boom town. Right past the main city and especially heading south through the smaller town of Ksamil on the way to Butrint National Park, scores of apartment buildings are under construction. Dozens of new hotels on the hillsides overlook the crystal clear green–blue waters of the bay, just a mile across to Corfu.

Give this place another five years, and it will be a major resort.

We met up with a taxi driver who quoted us a fixed price of 40 euros to take us up to the Butrint ruins going back well before Julius Caesar’s time. It’s a short 20- kilometer drive along the coast offering views of the bays toward Corfu and the fields of agriculture on the landside toward the mountains. Once we arrived at Butrint, our driver waited for us in the parking lot with a number of other cabs and a few large tour buses so we could explore the extensive ruins on our own.

We spent nearly an hour walking past the Venetian fort just past the front gate, then up the Acropolis, and finally down to the Roman amphitheater that was expanded by Julius and Augustus Caesar themselves. The entire park is essentially an ancient city, so it is far more extensive than we could cover while our cab driver waited. Interestingly, it was discovered less than a century ago, between the two world wars, and developed as a tourist destination only since independence from Communism less than 20 years ago. Like the town of Sarande itself, in about five years or so, the future is bright for this historic attraction.

When we returned from the park, our driver rode us down the mountain and detoured down a barely concrete path into a restaurant on another beach overlooking the bay, where we sat down for local Korca beers and an energy drink for him. I offered to pay, but he refused, and without hesitation picked up the bill himself. This was intended to be part of his fare.

The view alone was worth a couple of beers. The water was beautifiul, and we were entertained by watching a young boy of about six or seven years climb around a small dinghy on the beach and take the cover off the outboard engine. Only problem was that he could not get the cover latched back on, so had to call out his dad on another boat in the tiny bay to help out. A woman, presumably his mother, walked out from the restaurant to shout out admonitions to both the boy and his dad before returning to her duties inside the establishment.

Once we returned to Sarande, our faithful driver turned away from town and took us up a narrow road to the Castle of Leukasis for even more spectacular views of the waters below on one side and the valleys and mountains of Albania on the other. By way of comparison, consider that Cunard was charging $47 a person just for the tour of Butrint in a big cumbersome bus. With no stops for beer along the way or excursions up the mountain.

During the tour, our driver explained that tourism in Sarande has boomed to the point that the town is too crowded in the summer starting in May, but then empties out for the winter, starting in about a month. So he leaves his car (a spotless Mercedes) in Sarande and crosses over the mountains to Greece to make a living driving around Athens during the winter.

By the time he deposited us back at his cab stand, we were ready for lunch, so following our rules of restaurant engagement in these towns, we walked up a block and found a little place that did not show photos of their food or have a waiter hawking us in from the door. As soon as we walked into the small dining room, we realized this is truly a local spot.

Having learned our lesson a few days ago about over-ordering, we maintained our discipline and ordered stuffed eggplant, which was actually sliced and cooked down with onions; a kebob, which was actually a stew of unidentifiable but tasty meat in a hearty sauce and a what they called a tomato salad, which turned out to be a huge green salad of tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers and olives. (The mixed pickle salad that I had originally ordered was out for the day.) The waitress also brought a basket of firm, coarse white bread to mop up all the gravy. It turned out to be just the right amount of food for a perfect excursion lunch.

And then the bill arrived—750 lekes, the local currency. That translates to six euros.

Stunned but thrilled by this bargain, we walked down the street to the Conad grocery to select a bottle of Albanian wine. Since the restaurant had given me a 500 leke bill as part of my change, I chose a 300 leke bottle to avoid currency exchange issues, because the next wine up was 550 lekes. We have not yet tasted the 300 leke wine, but if our Crete wine experience is any indicator, the Albania wine will be just fine, even at the price of $2.63 US.

We agreed that Sarande is worth a longer stay.

 

 

Piraeus-Athens

We awoke to see our ship moored at the cruise ship terminal in Piraeus along with the huge MSC Fantasia and a handful of large and small ferries. The HoHo buses were conveniently parked right in front of the arrival terminal, so we siply walked off the ship and boarded for the trip to Athens, the cradle of western civilization.

The road from Piraeus into Athens is Veterans Highway, a six-mile string of modern office buildings, retail stores, medical centers and a sprinkling of sex clubs. Athens seems more like Houston than New Orleans, where our clubs are for the most part clustered on Bourbon Street. Like Houston, the sex clubs in Piraeus and Athens are scattered all over.

The Piraeus HoHo took us straight to the Acropolis, where we transferred to the red line HoHo that would tour us through all of Athens. What we saw was a large metropolitan capital, choked with traffic, lined with mostly nondescript 20th century mid-rise buildings, a large sprawling market district selling every manner of goods and monuments and ruins from ancient Greek and Roman times, scattered around town.

The Acropolis has a separate admission of 20 euros a person, and we decided to take that tour when we return to Athens at the end of our voyage, because it is a long steep climb up the hill. We will also visit the market maze at Monastiriki Square, just because it is so colorful and chaotic.

The full bus roundabout takes about an hour and a half just for Athens, so we were fairly hungry when we returned to the starting point at the Acropolis. We wandered down the street to find a local taverna, and accepted the invitation from the owner to step in. I ordered a gyro, and Lynn asked for the spinach pie, both of which were heated up in a tiny toaster oven behind the counter. My gyro came out slathered with tzatziki sauce and flattened like a Cuban sandwich. Altogether our lunch was simple but tasty, especially washed down with a couple of large mugs of local Mythos beer.

After further explortation, we discovered a little shop selling wine, so we stocked up our stores with a bottle of Chardonnay and two bottles of red, all from Crete. Later that evening back aboard the ship, we deemed both the red and the white acceptable if not outstanding. (They all tend to be a bit on the sweet side around here.) But at 6.50 euros, it’s hard to go wrong.

 

Souda Bay & Chania, Crete

This port must have been wedged into the itinerary to fill out one more day of the trip. Souda Bay itself is a large NATO base, and we could see a few naval vessels moored on the other side of us from the cruise ship terminal.

Mercifully, we were the only cruise ship on the port, which is clearly an industrial facility, not a tourist destination. However, Chania kindly provided extra city buses for the 20-minute ride into the main city for 1.70 euros per person each way.

The bus dropped us off at a square in the middle of the bustling, noisy and mostly unattractive town of Chania, Crete’s second largest. We could hear the sounds of loud speeches coming from the market across the street.

The HoHo agent approached us immediately, offering tickets for the tour of Chania, and we asked her what the commotion was about. She explained that the people were demonstrating and speaking against all the cutbacks in the country. Greek citizens have lost their free books, their free schools, their free health care, their free pensions. In short, they are not at all happy about losing all the free shit bestowed on them for generations by the government. In Greece, tax evasion is a national participatory sport, second (maybe) only to soccer, and the country is broke. As Margaret Thatcher once said, socialism is great until you run out of someone else’s money to spend.

We crossed the street to view the demonstration up close before walking into the central Agora market. The market is an amalgam of tourist trinket shops, a couple of restaurants, two seafood stalls, a number of olive oil and fragrance stores and several meat stalls. Lynn was horrified and I was fascinated by the meat selections on display—they leave the furry feet on the whole rabbits, the head and feet on the chickens, the tuft of hair on the tail of the pigs.

Lynn found some small bottles of Cretan olive oil, while I shopped for local wine, which turned out later to be pretty good. One of the featured items in the trinket store was an entire free-standing spinning rack of wooden bottle openers in the shape of a penis. They varied in size and decoration, some painted in patterns, some plain polished wood, hundreds of them hanging from their circular rack right next to the display of children’s clothes. You just don’t see that in the U.S.

We had purchased tickets on the HoHo fro the young man selling them at the counter on the street. He said the next bus would have a problem with their English commentary, so suggested we wait about 30 minutes for the second bus to arrive that had a working English commentary. An hour later, our bus finally showed up. Then waited at the stop for nearly 15 minutes while the riders steamed and expressed their protest. We finally started off when threats of mutiny and refunds started to be expressed by several passengers, including Lynn, who was now starting to feel the early pangs of hunger.

Finally we started off on our tour of Chania, after basically waiting and wasting an hour and a half. Turned out it was no great loss. Besides the Agora market, Chania has the requisite monasteries, churches, museums, restaurants and shops, none of which seemed all that interesting to us.

What was interesting when we returned, however, was a little grocer who sold wine, so we invested 4.04 euros on a bottle of vin de Crete. Why it was priced at 4.04 I could not tell, because some of the others were priced at 3.76, 4.22 and similar odd numbers. It turned out to be fairly light but opened up a bit in the bottle and was quite nice before dinner.

More on this another time, but we chose to dine in the Lido Buffett, which offers a larger assortment of dishes in a far more informal setting that lets us determine our own timetable rather than having to wait until 8:30 p.m. to be seated. By 9 p.m. we had enjoyed quite a respectable dinner of duck confit and escargot (me) and onion soup with coc au vin (Lynn), all accompanied by two glasses of Portuguese Douro, which is not available by the glass in the Britannia.

Then we repaired to the tiny casino on the second deck to be utterly wiped out at the blackjack table. Actually, Lynn won a bit and I borrowed for her to get wiped out. We walked away with $20. That’s one way of ensuring an early bedtime for the voyage across the Aegean Sea to Athens, the seat of democracy and Western civilization as we know it.

 

 

 

A day at sea

We are spending the entire day at sea, bound for Souda Bay, Crete at the leisurely pace of about nine knots. Sea is all but dead calm, sky is perfectly blue, temperature is mid-70s.

The Ionian Sea is more than 10,000 feet deep here, so the water is darkest indigo blue, with shafts of sunlight streaming down, converging to an undetermined point far beyond sight. It reminds me of the water in the Gulf Stream when we crossed many years ago on our way to the Abacos.

I finish second in the putting contest.

Dress code for the evening is formal, so out comes the tuxedo.

And that is a day at sea.

 

Argostoli, Cephalonia

So far, this has been the highlight of the voyage.

Ours was the only cruise ship to pull up to the small terminal, so we would not overwhelm the small town of Argostoli, the capital of Cephalonia, one of the seven and the largest of the Ionian islands off the Greek coast.

We had signed up for the natural wonders tour, because it warned of a high level of activity and we figured most of the older passengers would choose a more sedate leisurely tour. We were wrong—a total of four full size buses were filled to capacity for the trip. Our tour guide spoke fine English, since she was born in Montreal, and she pattered on with a historical survey of the island and the wonders we were about to witness.

Our first stop was the Dragorati Cave at the village of Sami. To reach the cavern, you have to walk down more than 100 steps, and early indications were that some of our fellow passengers would never make it back up. The cave is spiked with thousands of stalactites and stalagmites which display the subtle colorations of the minerals in the waters that form them at the rate of one centimeter every century.

After about an hour in and out of the cave, just long enough for everyone to gingerly step down and slowly crawl back up to the surface, our bus took off for Melissani Lake.

After more stairs and ramps down to the sunken lake, we alighted at a small landing where row boats met us for a quick tour of the tiny body of water. What makes Melissani worth seeing is that it is underground, with a shaft of light streaming from above where the ceiling collapsed some thousands of years ago. Scientists have since determined that the waters from Lake Melissani flow from one side of Cephalonia to the other—underground.

The effect inside the little lake is stunning as we floated across the clear deep water through the sunlit section, then along a small stream where the water shallows to about 10 inches before it leads to a sealed cave. The effect is not unlike the Indians in British Virgin Islands. The cavern here, however, is home to thousands of bats that sleep during the day in the ceiling and feed at night. We were not interested in staying around to watch them wake up.

Later in the trip, our guide slowed the bus down to show us where the waters that feed the lake drain out on the other side of Cephalonia. She also pointed out spectacular beaches that rival anything in the Caribbean, particularly Myrtos Beach on the northwest peninsula of the island.

Near the end of the tour, our guide gave us an emotional account of the slaughter of thousands of Italian soldiers by the Nazis during WWII and showed us the cliff where many of the former allied forces were gunned down by the Germans to fall into the abyss below. The incident was made into a movie starring Nicolas Cage based on a popular book that uncovered the gruesome story of treachery and savagery among enemy factions who started the war on the same side.

With that bit of cheery commentary, our guide followed up with a few stories of virgins who plunged to their deaths rather than being raped and sold into slavery by Barbarossa working for the Turkish ruler Suleiman the Great.

By the time the tour ended and we disembarked our bus, we needed a drink.

We also needed lunch, so we wandered along the waterfront street looking a block inward hoping to spy a welcoming establishment. But Argistoli’s commercial district is strung only along the waterfront at the port, so we settled for a nicely appointed restaurant named the Captain’s Table overlooking the Red Train central desk and the bay beyond.

The menu at the Captain’s Table features an entire page of appetizers and tastings. Against our better judgment, we ordered five—stuffed vine (grape) leaves, grilled sausage with fries, fried zucchini and eggplant, spinach pie and sautéed mussels. And bread.

Three of these would have been plenty. Four would have been piggish. Five were just sinful, stupid gluttony.

We washed all this down with a small 187 ml bottle of white wine for Lynn and a 500 ml pichet of red for us to share. The total bill was 35.50 euros. If not for our gluttony, the bill would have been about 25 euros.

We staggered out of the Captain’s Table and walked a short distance down the street to catch the ferry across the bay to the port city of Lixouri, about a 30 minute boat ride away. By now, the sea breeze had filled in quite briskly, and I reckoned it hit 20 knots, since we could see whitecaps on the back of the waves. Since our ferry was steaming ahead at 10 knots VMG, the apparent wind was a good 30 knots before we turned into the basin at Lixouri. Quite a boat ride for 5.60 euros. The trip back was downwind and a lot calmer, but still 5.60 euros.

Although our ship would not leave port until after 9 p.m., we concluded we had enjoyed enough adventure for the day. So we walked back down the cruise terminal but not before stopping at the 160-foot mega-yacht named Prana. I chatted with the crew for a minute, as the deck officer pointed out that the name on the boom was written in Sanscrit, so it was not likely we would ever decipher it. I should have asked but forgot, where they were off to, because I suspect the Caribbean is not likely to be on their winter cruise this year.