John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our early sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. On this itinerary, I would be looking for flags from Israel and Egypt.
We enjoy both cruises and land tours; many of our trips combine the two. Many of our cruises have been in the Caribbean but we have also cruised to Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean/Greek Isles, Scandinavia/Russia, Hawaii, French Polynesia, South America/Antarctic Peninsula, the Far East, the North Atlantic (Greenland/Iceland), parts of the British Isles, the Norwegian Fjords, and the Galapagos Islands. We have taken land tours to the Netherlands, Canadian Rockies, Mexico (Cozumel), London, France (several wine regions and Paris), China, Argentina (Buenos Aires, Iguazu More
Falls, Mendoza wine region), Chile (Santiago, several wine regions) and to many parts of the continental USA.
On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving, or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves, or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles, and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view.
We are Elite members of Princess' Captain's Circle loyalty program, but have also sailed with Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Costa, Celebrity, and Commodore.
ABOUT THE REVIEW
Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, food, etc. Our reviews are not like that; they are primarily a journal of what we did in the various ports, including links to tourist sites and maps. We combined this cruise with the Pacific Princess' May 24 "Mediterranean Collection" cruise; I have written a separate review for that cruise.
"Mediterranean Cruise Ports," by Rick Steves (available on travelstore.ricksteves.com or www.amazon.com)
"Athens and the Peloponnese," by Rick Steves (available on travelstore.ricksteves.com or www.amazon.com)
"Europe 101," by Rick Steves (available on travelstore.ricksteves.com or www.amazon.com)
Haifa/Ashdod, Israel: Guided Tours Israel (part of the Top Day Tours Group Ltd), www.GuidedToursIsrael.com
Port Said/Alexandria, Egypt: Ramses Tours (Ramasside Private Tours), www.ramsestours.com
REVIEW OF THE CRUISE
09 MAY (WED) IN TRANSIT TO ATHENS
We flew to Athens three days before the cruise. Checking my e-mail prior to departing for RDU, I got an unwelcome jolt of adrenaline when someone from another CruiseCritic.com Holy Land roll call posted on our roll call that we would need pre-approval from Princess to depart the ship in Port Said and return in Alexandria for our private overnight tour in Egypt. In all my research about private overnight tours in Egypt, I had never read that a specific form needed to be filed with Princess prior to the cruise; every post/review I had read merely mentioned notifying the passenger Services Desk once onboard.
Fortunately, the necessary "Route Deviation Form" could be filled out over the telephone. Unfortunately, one couple in our group was already in Greece and another was departing for Athens on the same day as us. I sent an urgent e-mail to everyone in the group telling them to call Princess ASAP and fill out the form. Because the Princess call center is only open from 6 a.m. - 9 p.m. Pacific Time, I could not call Princess until we reached JFK. The Princess rep said the process for approving a route deviation took 3-5 business days and she was doubtful that I could be approved for the overnight so close to sailing. Despite her negativity, I received an e-mail approval before we even left JFK; the others in the group received similarly prompt approvals. Once on the ship, we found out that registering a contact telephone number and hotel information with the Passenger Services Desk after boarding would have been sufficient to overnight away from the ship.
Because we would have a long layover at JFK, we purchased a 30-day pass in RDU to the Delta lounges to have a more comfortable place to wait, internet access, light snacks and drinks. After the ordeal with the Princess rep, I needed a couple of glasses of wine to calm down!
10 MAY (THURS) PRECRUISE IN ATHENS
Although we left JFK over an hour late, we arrived on time in Athens. There was a long line at immigration, so the luggage was already coming out by the time we reached baggage claim. Fotis Kolliris (www.athensprivatetours.gr) was waiting for us with a sign just outside the baggage claim area and whisked us off to our hotel. On the way, he provided a running commentary on what we should expect while in Greece and discussed our touring plans with us. He also gifted us with books about Athens and Greece (and loaned us one about Delphi) to enhance our enjoyment of our time there.
We spent two nights at the Athens Gate Hotel (www.athensgate.gr/index-eng.htm), which we booked with AAdvantage miles. This hotel is very conveniently located right across the street from Hadrian's Gate and the Olympeion (Temple of Olympian Zeus) and very near the new Acropolis Museum and the Acropolis itself. A good breakfast buffet with fried/scrambled eggs, bacon/sausage, cereal, bread/pastries, fruit, yoghurt, cold meats/cheese, coffee/tea/juice is served in the top-floor restaurant, which has outstanding views of the Acropolis and the Temple of Zeus. Our bedroom was on the traffic side of the hotel, with a view of the Temple of Zeus. John was slightly bothered by the traffic noise and needed ear plugs to sleep, but the noise did not disturb me. The room itself was modern and clean, with all the usual toilet items; there were cloth slippers but no robes.
After settling in at the hotel, we headed out to tour some of the sights of Athens. We find getting out in the sun and walking around a city really helps us to adjust to the jet lag. Our first stop was Hadrian's Gate (free), which is a park with good views of the Temple of Zeus. However, we planned to get an Acropolis combo ticket (odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh355.jsp?obj_id=2384), which is valid for 4 days and includes admission to the Acropolis and a number of other smaller sites. The combo ticket (12 euros pp, cash only) can be purchased at any of the sites; it has one section that is good for the Acropolis and 6 sections that are good at any of the remaining sites. We bought our combo tickets at the Temple of Zeus, where there was no line. Although we could have viewed it from outside, it was nice to walk all around the temple and see it up close.
After touring the Temple of Zeus, we walked down the pedestrian street (Dionysiou Areopagitou) that passes the Acropolis Museum on the way to the Acropolis. Fotis had warned us that some of the smaller sites would be closing at 3:00 p.m. or earlier due to under-staffing. Normally, more people are hired after May 1 to accommodate the summer crowds of tourists. However, Greece had not been able to form a government after the recent elections and these temporary positions would not be filled until that was accomplished. With this in mind, we decide to save the Acropolis and the museum for last because they would be staying open later.
When we reached the road that passes between the Acropolis and the Ancient Agora, we detoured for a hike up Philopappos Hill (free), named in honor of a popular Roman Consul. This hill was the location of the Venetian mortars that bombarded the Acropolis in 1687, causing major damage to the Parthenon (then being used as a Turkish armory). Today, the hill is a public park with many trails to the top; just keep heading uphill. At the top are the Philopappos Monument and fine views of the Acropolis and the rest of Athens. As we walked down Philopappos Hill, we passed the "Prison of Socrates," where the philosopher was supposedly held prior to his execution. This is a series of small caves that are gated to keep people out.
At the bottom of the hill, we continued around the base of the Acropolis to Mars Hill (free). This hill is a large rock outcrop and was formerly used as a platform for speakers (such as St. Paul) to address the crowds. Now it is generally crowded with tourists taking pictures of the Acropolis. Fortunately, hardly anyone was there on this day. There are stone steps carved into the side of Mars Hill, but we chose the safer metal staircase. Even on a dry day and wearing hiking boots, we found the rocks here and on the Acropolis treacherous --- be careful!
Descending Mars Hill, we continued along the Panathenaic Way that links the Ancient Agora (combo ticket) with the Acropolis. Instead of continuing around to the main entrance of the Agora, we walked through a public park (free) to a side entrance; the park also contains many remains of the ancient marketplace.
Rick Steves' Athens/Peloponnese book has a map and self-guided tour of the Agora; his website also offers a free audio tour. We had listened to the audio tour before leaving home, but found it awkward to use once we were actually at the site; we decided to stick with our printed copy of the map and tour. We walked up to the main entrance for an overview of the site and then visited the small museum in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, which displays important finds from the site. After that, we wandered through the ruins and followed the path up to the Temple of Hephaestus. This is the small temple that can be seen from the Acropolis and it is quite well-preserved for something that was built in the 5th century BC.
After viewing all the highlights of the Ancient Agora, we headed to the nearby Roman Agora of Athens (combo ticket). This is a much smaller site and the main attractions are the entrance gate and the Tower of the Winds. The tower is octagonal and each face has a carving of its corresponding wind god. In ancient times, the tower was topped with a weathervane and had spikes that allowed it to serve as a sundial. It was probably used for other astronomical and meteorological purposes, but those are unknown. At this site we also saw archaeologists working to restore part of the ruins.
Exiting the ruins, we walked back to one of the entrances to the Acropolis. This entrance had electronic turnstiles, so we had to go to the ticket office and exchange the combo ticket section for a bar-coded ticket that would open the turnstile. On the way up to the top of the Acropolis, we decided to view the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. This was not a good idea because tourists normally exit that way and there was confusion at the gate when we headed back up. However, we showed the bar-coded ticket and were allowed to continue up without a problem.
Finally atop the Acropolis, we enjoyed the scenic views and the main sights: the Proplyaea, the Parthenon and the Erectheion. Even though we have seen them twice already, they are well-worth repeated visits. There seemed to be slightly less scaffolding around the Parthenon than on previous visits. In addition, there were far fewer tourists than we have encountered later in the summer. A pleasant breeze added to the enjoyment of these amazing sights. Both of the Rick Steves' books listed in the references have maps and self-guided tours of the Acropolis and there is an audio tour on his website; again, we decided to use simply the printed map and tour.
Descending from the Acropolis, we again took the path past the Odeon to the southern slope of the Acropolis. Although the southern slope is a site included in the combo ticket, we were never asked to surrender a ticket section to enter it. The path down also passes the Theater of Dionysius and we were able to view the ruins from both the top and the bottom. We wanted to exit through this site because we would end up right across the street from the Acropolis Museum. We thought we would have to back-track to another exit because the theater was closing at 3:00 p.m. and the gate was already closed at 2:30 p.m. However, the gate was not yet locked and the friendly attendants pulled it back to allow us to exit.
The Acropolis combo ticket does not include admission to the new Acropolis Museum (www.theacropolismuseum.gr/?pname=Home&la=2), which is 5 euros pp. The entrance ramp to the museum is transparent so that the excavated ruins below can be seen. The first two floors of the museum offer a chronological display of finds from the Acropolis area. However, the highlight of the visit is the top floor, which is a life-sized reproduction of the Parthenon friezes and metopes. Some of these artifacts are the originals from the Parthenon, while others are reproductions made from casts of the originals found in museums around the world. Now that Athens has such an excellent facility for displaying and preserving these treasures, Greece is hoping that some of them (especially the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum) will eventually be returned to their home city. We spent about 1-1/2 hours at this outstanding museum, which deserves much more time. However, we were starting to suffer the effects of jet lag and decided to return to the hotel for some rest.
Once we had recuperated somewhat, we headed for the Plaka in search of a light supper. We found a place that looked promising and ordered an entree with wine, followed by dessert. John had chicken souvlaki and I had squid stuffed with rice and tomatoes; we both had baklava for dessert. For such a touristy area, the food was OK and not too badly overpriced. We took a short stroll in the Plaka, returning to the hotel after picking up some bottled water for tomorrow's visit to Delphi. Back in our room, we managed to stay up until 9:30 p.m. before succumbing to the call of Morpheus.
11 MAY (FRI) PRECRUISE IN DELPHI
After a good night's sleep, hot showers and hearty breakfast, Fotis picked us up at 7:30 a.m. for a taxi tour of Delphi (www.athensprivatetours.gr/private-tours-in-greece/delphi-tours.htm), which included transportation and commentary along the way, but not actual guiding, admission fees or lunch. However, we again had a map and self-guided walking tour of the site from Steves' Athens/Peloponnese book.
Fotis had suggested that we leave early and this was a good call as we missed most of the Athens traffic. Even so, it is about a 2-hour drive to Delphi through the Greek countryside and into the mountains. As we passed through the ski resort village of Arachova, we imagined what the traffic jams would be like on the narrow, but 2-way, streets when the large tour buses began to converge on Delphi later in the day.
Our first stop was the Delphi archaeological site. The combo ticket (12 euros pp, cash only) includes admission to both the archaeological site (odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh351.jsp?obj_id=2507) and the Archaeological Museum of Delphi. Fotis told us to take all the time we wanted at the site and museum; he would wait for us near the exit from the museum.
When we reached the site, it was relatively uncrowded: a group of Canadians, a group of French students and a few other independent tourists. Delphi is a dramatic site built on the slopes of Mount Parnassus with steep cliffs behind and a gorgeous view of the valley and mountains on the other side. The principal sites are the Temple of Apollo, the theater and the stadium. We noticed that some groups did not climb all the way to the stadium or even to the top of the theater, to their loss. The Greeks considered Delphi to be the navel of the world and there is a small cone-shaped monument (reproduction) marking the spot. We also saw the oracle stone featured in the movie "My Life in Ruins," which claims the oracle prophesied through the hole in it. Actually, the oracle sat on a tripod and breathed the intoxicating fumes that came up through the hole and inspired her prophecies. We spent about an hour admiring the ruins before heading over to the museum. By now the buses were starting to arrive in earnest.
There is a paved path from the site to the museum so that you do not have to walk along the street. The excellent museum is nicely laid out to showcase artifacts excavated at the site, including the original navel. There are some good diagrams showing how some of the larger monuments would have looked before they collapsed. After about an hour at the museum, we emerged to find Fotis looking for us, ready to be off to the next stop.
We were not very hungry, so we decided that a full lunch was not necessary. Fotis dropped us off at the top of Delphi Town so we could briefly check out the shops as we walked downhill and pick up a snack (ice cream --- mocha for John and pistachio for me) along the way. Fotis met us at the bottom of town and, after finishing the ice cream, we were off to see the final sites in Delphi. By now, tour buses were everywhere.
Part way down the mountain is the Castalian Spring (free), where Apollo vanquished the Python. While we were here, we briefly chatted with a Canadian couple who had had just come from Olympia and had the unexpected treat of witnessing the lighting of the Olympic Torch for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Fotis explained that we could cross the street after viewing the spring and climb down some stairs to the Gymnasium (free). We could then walk through the Gymnasium site to the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia (free) and climb the steps from there back to the taxi. Unfortunately, the gate to the Gymnasium was locked, although we could get some decent views as we walked down the road to the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is a small but attractive site that is mostly in ruins; the main buildings are the Tholos and two temples dedicated to Athena. When we arrived, we were the only people there. Like the other sites we visited on this cruise, wildflowers were blooming abundantly.
We took a different route back to Athens on some of the back roads. About halfway back to Athens, we stopped at the Osios Loukas monastery (6 euros pp, odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh3530.jsp?obj_id=8081). Set in the folds of Mount Helikon, it is situated on the top of a hill overlooking a beautiful valley. This Byzantine monastery dates to the 10th century AD and the church is richly decorated with gilded mosaics. Fotis gave us the background on this interesting place and also told us not to miss the frescos in the crypt.
As we talked with Fotis on the drive back to Athens, he became aware that we were interested in waterfalls. He took us on a slight detour to Levadia, a small town with a beautiful series of cascades in a little park. That's the kind of excellent, flexible service that he provided! A 3-way intersection in this town is the legendary site where Oedipus met and unknowingly killed his father.
Fotis provided an excellent recommendation for a restaurant (Elaia) in the Plaka and even drove us by the place so that we could find it later when we walked there from the hotel. Fotis recommended the lamb stew baked in a clay pot; I had that and John had lamb stuffed with cheese. Fotis also advised us to only order the house wine since Greeks are very particular about their wine and the house wine is always a great buy. He was definitely correct and the food was also outstanding. We sat in the rooftop dining area, which had a good view of the Acropolis. After dinner, we strolled through the Plaka before returning to the hotel.
12 MAY (SAT) ATHENS (PIRAEUS), GREECE (DEPART 7:00PM)
On Saturday morning, we slept in a bit. After breakfast, we walked to the Parliament Building for the hourly changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The honor guards wear traditional Greek uniforms and use a stylized marching step. The entire ceremony takes only a few minutes, so try to arrive about 5 minutes ahead. Later in the day, the crowds gathered to see the ceremony can be quite large, but when we went (9:00 a.m.), there were only about a dozen people.
After the changing of the guard, we strolled through the National Botanical Gardens for about a half hour on our way to the Panathenaic Stadium. We had stopped at the stadium for a photo op on a previous city tour, but this time we decided to tour the stadium (3 euros pp, includes audio guide). The audio tour takes you around the central track, explaining the history of the stadium and pointing out significant features. About halfway around the track, you can walk up (and back down) the tunnel through which both ancient and modern athletes entered the stadium. At the end of the tunnel is a small exhibition room with torches used in previous Olympic opening ceremonies. Back at the track, you continue around to row 21, where you can climb up to the top of the stadium for a great view of the Acropolis. There is also a view of the hill next to the stadium, which was the site of the Temple of Fortuna and where ancient athletes could offer sacrifices to seek good luck in their events. Although I was initially a bit skeptical, this turned out to be an interesting and enjoyable sight to visit.
Walking back to the hotel past the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian's Gate, we heard the sirens of about 20 two-man police motorcycles. As we approached the hotel, we saw flashing lights and ambulances. From our room's balcony, we could see two people being taken away in the ambulances. It turned out that they were motorcycle policemen whose motorcycle had been hit by an automobile. The accident occurred at a major intersection, so there was a huge traffic tie-up while the damaged motorcycle was cleared away and sand was spread in the street to soak up leaking oil and gas.
After that, we checked out of the hotel and Fotis arrived just before noon to take us to the National Archaeological Museum (7 euros pp, www.namuseum.gr/wellcome-en.html). There was a special exhibition showcasing finds from a shipwreck that occurred off Antikythera in 60-50 BC and was excavated in 1900-1901. In addition to works normally housed in different parts of the museum, it had pieces of the ship and the remains of "The Mechanism" --- thought to be the earliest preserved portable astronomical calculator. This was a busy day for Fotis since he was picking up passengers from cruises and providing tours and transfers. This was never an issue since he also has two nephews who work closely with him. After two hours at the museum, Fotis' nephew, Chris, picked us up and drove us to Pireaus to board the Pacific Princess. The total cost for Fotis' services was 320 euros: airport transfer (55 euros), Delphi tour (230 euros), port transfer (35 euros). His service and knowledge made this well worth the expense. He also provides the added benefit of promptly responding to emails.
Because of the small number of sea days on this cruise, we decided to book the lowest-priced, unobstructed outside cabin (Category L), which has only portholes, rather than our usual balcony cabin. However, we were fortunate to be upgraded to a BD balcony cabin on the port side aft. There were no check-in lines when we arrived at the dock; Princess collected our passports and we were given passport receipts. We were soon aboard the ship and settling into our cabin to relax awhile before our late seating (8:15 p. m.) dinner. Although we had requested a table for two, we were seated at an 8-top. However, only one other couple was seated at the table with us. They had also requested a table for two because they were celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary on this cruise. There are always far more requests for 2-tops than can be accommodated, but after the chaos of the first night, table assignments were rearranged. They got their 2-top while we kept the 8-top to ourselves --- making everyone happy. We noticed that a number of parties of two were seated alone at 4-, 6- and 8-tops, which shows how much less popular late seating is compared to early.
13 MAY (SUN) KUSADASI, TURKEY (ARRIVE 8:00AM DEPART 5:00PM)
John and I had already visited Kusadasi twice. In 1998, we took the ship's shore excursion to Ephesus, the Virgin Mary House, and St. John's Basilica. In 2008, we toured with Ekol Tours (www.ekoltravel.com/Shore-Excursions/Gateway-Kusadasi-Port-Private-Ephesus-Tours-from-55-USD/View-details.html); we added the Terrace Houses to the standard tour of Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis. For those who have never been to Kusadasi, we highly recommend a tour of Ephesus and the Terrace Houses. The Temple of Artemis is only a few bits of columns, but still it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; most other people would not feel they had missed anything by skipping it.
For this visit, we wanted to do something different, so we took a shared tour to the ruins of Priene, Miletos, and Didyma (www.kusadasitours.com/priene.html). Two members of the roll call had also booked this tour and it turned out that they were the only other people on the tour. We met our tour guide, Tugrul Sokmen, at 8:30 a.m. just outside the cruise terminal. As we walked to his van, Tugrul pointed out several of the sights of Kusadasi, such as the caravansary and the old city walls. Then we headed south to visit the ruins.
Our first stop was at Priene, which was formerly a port city with walls that reached around the town and up to its acropolis; it is notable for being the first city laid out in a grid pattern. The site is now surrounded by vast fields of cotton growing on land formed by the silting of the Meander River. The modern entrance is a fairly steep ramp that leads to stairs near the east gate that climb up to the ruins. This is a fairly large site, but only a few parts remain standing or have been partially restored. The main sights are the Senate House, the Temple of Athena and the theater. We also saw the road that led up from the former port to the west gate, the Temple of Zeus, and the Temple of Dionysius, which had been converted into a Byzantine church at one time.Then we headed further south to Miletus, where our first stop was a short visit to the new museum that displays finds from both Miletus and Priene. Although small, the museum is impressive, with well-planned exhibits and good signage in English. Miletus was also a port city doomed by the silting of the Meander River and there is a nice series of diagrams that illustrates the changes in the landscape over time as well as a large aerial photograph of the current landscape that puts the site into perspective. Of special interest are a statue of Poseidon from the Baths of Faustina and sphinxes that once lined the 20 km Royal Road from Miletus to Didyma (our final stop).
Exiting the museum, we stopped at a mosque complex that is currently being restored. A noteworthy feature is the sayings from the Koran, which are carved in stone, rather than being painted on banners. The mosque also features an early use of a central dome.
Continuing on, we visited the ruins of the baths and then climbed up to the theater. Before entering the theater, Tugrul pointed out other ruined buildings and monuments that now lie in a marshy area, which makes them difficult to access. It was much easier to visualize the former city after having seen the photo in the museum. Above the theater are the remains of a Byzantine fort, but there was not enough time to climb up to it. Instead, we proceeded to the theater, which is in a remarkable state of preservation. The theater is on three levels; we entered by the ramp to the second level and then walked around to the other side through covered passageways. On that side was a ramp leading up to the third level; John and I climbed up for a great view of the entire area. We exited the theater through the stage area, giving us more great views of this impressive structure.
Finally, we headed to our last stop, ancient Didyma inside the modern city of Didim. We stopped for a light lunch at a restaurant overlooking the Temple of Apollo. There was a nice selection of marinated and stuffed vegetables for appetizers, followed by excellent grilled gilthead sea bream and fresh sliced strawberries for dessert. Lunch was included in the tour, but not beverages; John and I tried the local beer Efes (3 euros/bottle). On the way back to the ship, we would pass through the fishing village of Akkoy, where the fish had been caught that morning.
The Temple of Apollo is really all that remains of the ancient city; the rest is buried under the modern city. However, the ruins of the unfinished temple, which was twice the size of the Parthenon, are well worth a visit. A number of the columns are still standing and the site contains a huge number of fallen column drums. Also standing are many of the interior walls, which are no longer present in other Greek temples we have visited. Another great aspect of this site is that you can not only walk around the temple but you also can enter it and see where the oracle delivered her prophecies. There are many interesting carvings on the bases of the pillars and the sides of the temple. In many places there are protrusions in the stone bearing the marks of the stone carvers. Tugrul explained that those protrusions would have been chiseled off once the carvers were paid; their presence indicates that the carvers were not paid. There are also many carvings of Medusa's head, which adorned the upper part of the temple.
This was a very full day and we arrived back at the port with only about 15 minutes to spare before "all aboard time." In retrospect, it would have been better to have started the tour at 8:00 a.m. to allow a more time in case of traffic difficulties. Tugrul was excellent guide --- very interesting and informative --- and he speaks very clear English. His van was quite comfortable for our group of four, but the air conditioning was a little anemic. Also, although the tour price increased after I had booked, Tugrul not only honored the original price but also generously extended that price to the other two members of the roll call who booked much later. We paid $65 pp (including all admission fees and lunch); the new price is $75 pp.
14 MAY (MON) SANTORINI, GREECE (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 6:00PM) TENDER
We had visited Santorini on a Greek Isles cruise on the Emerald Princess in 2008. On that cruise, we tendered to Skala (Old Port of Fira) and rode the donkeys up to Fira at the top of the caldera. After a short exploration of Fira, we caught a local bus to Oia. Oia is the picture-postcard town on Santorini, with white houses spilling down the slopes of the crater and many blue-domed churches. After enjoying the sights there, we found a nice restaurant with amazing views of the crater and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying wine and pizza. Finally, we returned to Fira on the bus and rode the cable car down to the waiting tenders.
This time it was very difficult to decide what to do --- take a tasting tour of Santorini wineries, visit the newly-reopened archaeological site at Akrotiri, or hike along the caldera rim to Skaros rock (recommended by Cruise Critic friend, coo359a2). Ultimately, we decided to follow the advice of another Cruise Critic friend (BobTroll) and take a boat tour of the islands in the caldera.
There are several versions of the boat tour, which can easily be booked in the Old Port after you disembark your tender. One version visits only the volcano (15 euros pp), the second version adds a visit to the hot springs (20 euros pp) and the third version also visits Thirasia (28 euros pp). In addition to the tour price, there is a 2 euros pp entrance fee to the volcano.
We chose the longest tour, which lasts from 10:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. We started out in a traditional sailing boat (calique), which already was carrying many passengers who had boarded in Oia. Unfortunately, the boat used its motors, not its sails, to proceed to the youngest island in the caldera, Nea Kameni, which only began forming 425 years ago. Once at the Nea Kameni volcano, we started the nominally 20-minute hike to the top. The hike is made in several stages, with periodic stops to allow the stragglers to catch up. The trail is fairly steep and the path surface ranges from fine gravel to egg-sized and larger stones. Our guide, "Momma Joy," set off at a brisk pace that was a struggle for many in the group. However, everyone managed to make it to the top (even a gentleman using a cane). There we could see the twin craters from the most recent eruption (1950); feel the heat, see the steam and smell the sulphur odor from the vents; and observe the lava flows from the 1950 eruption. We had about 20 minutes of free time at the top to climb to the highest point and enjoy the spectacular views. On the way back down, John and I took an alternate path just for the variety and to be away from the crowd.
Back at the dock, the passengers who had boarded in Fira continued on in another boat, the Captain Yanni, to Palea Kameni. There we had the opportunity to swim in the "hot springs" for about 20 minutes. The boat anchored about 100 yards from the hot springs; only seven of us decided to make the swim to the springs, which lie behind a small church. The sea water was rather cold, but I warmed up quickly with the effort of swimming. As we got closer to the springs, we encountered pockets and fingers of warmer water; there tended to be a warmer layer at the surface. Even when we reached the spot where we could see streams of bubbles as gases emerged from the sea floor, the water was never more than tepid. The minerals in the water are supposed to have healing properties. My skin did seem somewhat smoother after my swim. Who needs those expensive treatments at the Lotus Spa?
Our third stop was on the only inhabited island in the caldera, Thirasia. Most of the group stayed at the shore and followed Momma Joy to Captain John's for lunch. Naturally, John and I did not follow the crowd; we headed up the donkey path to the island's largest town, Manolas. After a 20-minute climb, we were greeted by the owner of the Panorama Restaurant, which has a deck that projects out over the caldera. We told him we would be back and went off to explore the town. Thirasia is like the rest of Santorini was before it was discovered by tourists. We enjoyed walking the street along the caldera rim to the edge of town and then back along a different road. Manolas has the typical whitewashed buildings and blue-domed churches of Oia, but it is not yet gentrified. Back at the Panorama, we enjoyed beer (Fix Hellas), a couple of fried ripe tomato slices, and the glorious views of the caldera. A few other people from the boat also made it up to the Panorama, some by foot and others by donkey. Soon it was time to hike back down to re-board the Captain Yanni.
Our last stop was at Ammoudi, the port for Oia, where people who were staying on Santorini could leave the boat, watch the sunset in Oia and return to Fira on their own by bus or taxi. Alas, we needed to tender back to the Pacific Princess by 5:30 p.m., so we stayed aboard as the Captain Yanni sailed back to Fira, enjoying close-up views of the crater walls and Skaros Rock along the way. We returned to Fira earlier than expected, a little after 4:00 p.m., and shortly after that tendered back to the ship.
Once back aboard, we checked the dinner menu and decided this might be a good night to try Sabatini's Trattoria. This is an extra-price ($20 pp) specialty restaurant. We each enjoyed a soft-shelled crab appetizer and a small serving of the Chef's special pasta (with a red seafood sauce). John also had a seared tuna appetizer and I had an artichoke souffle. The entrees were a veal chop with Marsala sauce for John and duck with fava beans for me. We had a small cheese plate for dessert and John also had a chocolate creme brulee. We finished up with cappuccino --- a very satisfying meal!
15 MAY (TUE) PATMOS, GREECE (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 6:00PM) TENDER
This was John's port to research; he planned a hike to the Cave of the Apocalypse and from there to St. John's Monastery, returning by another trail. These are the two sites he used: www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=1254912 and www.foxysislandwalks.com/Patmos-Walks.html.
The ship tenders passengers into the Port of Skala. With our backs to the harbor, we turned right and walked to the main square. From there, we walked along the right side of the square into the town, passing a church. We kept going until the road curved to the left and eventually intersected the main road to Chora. Across the road, we could see the wide cobblestone path leading up and a sign posted on a tree with an arrow and the word "Chora;" if there were other signs before this, we did not see them. DO NOT try to walk up from town along the main road to Chora; there is heavy traffic and no sidewalks.
After climbing awhile on the cobblestone path, we came to the turnoff to the Cave of the Apocalypse. The turnoff is marked by a wooden sign bearing a stick-figure hiker and an estimate of the remaining distance (0.2 km) and time (5'). The Cave of the Apocalypse (2 euros pp) is actually a group of small churches built over a recess where John slept and wrote; there is also a crack in the ceiling reputedly caused by the Voice of God and a silver outline of the place where John rested his head while receiving the revelations. As at all the Christian religious sites we visited, both men and women must be modestly dressed (no bare knees or shoulders) and hats must be removed.
Instead of backtracking, we took a shortcut back to the trail by walking past the open-air theater to the stairs beside the Ecclesiastical School. We continued up the path to St. John's Monastery (4 euros pp). There is a church and several chapels inside the monastery, all richly decorated with interesting murals and frescoes. However, the most impressive section of the monastery is the museum. Among many other valuable works, it contains a Gospel of St. Mark on parchment (dating to the end of the 5th century or start of the 6th century) and the homilies of St. Gregory of Naziarzus (dating from 941). The museum also exhibits many liturgical vestments, sacramental objects, relics and icons. There are good views from the outside of the monastery.
After touring the monastery, we continued along the road in the direction of the three windmills. Within a short distance, there was a footpath sign on the left. We walked back to Skala along this trail, which was very overgrown but passable. The path ends in town at the Captain's House Hotel. A nearby tree had two wooden trail signs indicating that the name of the trail we had just descended was the "2 Aporthianos Path" and that the trail we had ascended earlier was the "1 Apocalypsi Path." We never found a tourist information office or any place where we might have obtained trail maps or descriptions.
At the waterfront, we saw a sign to the "Ancient Acropolis" that pointed to the left. We continued along the waterfront, past the Chris Hotel and a parking lot. On the next corner, we saw another sign for the acropolis, pointing uphill. From here, we started to see wooden signs for "3 Kasteli;" this trail was also marked by a white "3" painted on a red circle. Although the sign indicated that it was only 0.80 km and 20 minutes to the acropolis, it took us quite a bit longer to reach the top of the hill. The trail was non-existent in places, but we used "Greenland Rules" and made our own trail. Occasionally we would spot a trail maker. Eventually we reached a small church (Agios Constantinos); the ruins of the acropolis, including the remains of a Hellenistic wall, are above that. After clambering about on the ruins and enjoying the excellent views, we walked down to town and tendered back to the ship.
Tonight the show (a comedian, Tony Daro) was held before dinner for the late seating, so we attended. The comedian had some good jokes and some groaners. Overall, it was a fun way to pass the time.
This was Italian night in the restaurant and the waiters all wore striped shirts and neck kerchiefs. The headwaiters made a special spicy pasta dish, Penne Arrabiata, and a special Caesar Salad, both of which we sampled. We also each had a mixed seafood appetizer, but as an entree John enjoyed the Brasato (pot roast) and I had Shrimp Fra Diavlo. Dessert was zabaglione gelato for John and apple crepe with vanilla ice cream for me.
MAY (WED) AT SEA
Finally a sea day so we could sleep in! The main order of business was the Cruise Critic "Meet & Greet," which was held from 10-11:00 a.m. in the Sterling Steakhouse. Most of the roll call (22 out of 32) came, but no officers or staff attended. The M&G was originally scheduled for Sabatini's but the Princess rep forgot that the suite breakfast was still going on in there. To make up for the change in venue, Princess provided pastries and coffee/tea/juice for the group.
17 MAY (THU) HAIFA, ISRAEL (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 8:00PM)
The morning we arrived in Haifa, we picked up our passports in the Cabaret Lounge at 7:45 a.m. An Israeli Landing Card was already inside the passport; we took the passport and card to the Israeli Immigration officials in the lounge and had the landing card stamped. We then had to show the passport and landing card at the bottom of the gangway. We did not have our bags inspected, but some did (mostly younger passengers).
Today we joined a group of 14 for our tour with Guided Tours Israel, which had been organized by roll call member shadowyagyu. Our guide (Micha Margalit) and driver (Sumi) were waiting for us to begin our Christian Northern Israel tour. We first drove from the port to the top of Mount Carmel for a panoramic view over Haifa Bay and the beautifully manicured Baha'i Gardens with their gold-domed Shrine of the Bab. Mount Carmel is actually not one mountain, but a mountain range, which forms a ridge along the southwest side of the Jezreel Valley (AKA the plains of Armageddon). As we drove through the valley to Nazareth, Micha pointed out sights and told us stories about the area, including the contest between the Prophet Elijah and 450 priests of Baal to determine whether Yahweh or Baal was top god in Israel (spoiler alert: Yahweh won).
Our first stop in Nazareth was the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Christian tradition holds that that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and asked her to submit to becoming the Mother of God. According to Orthodox tradition, however, Gabriel visited Mary not at her home, but at the town well; we passed that site later as we left Nazareth.
The Basilica of the Annunciation is a huge modern (1966) structure with a cupola that allows the interior to be illuminated with natural light. The facade features carvings of Gabriel, Mary, the Four Evangelists and related quotes (in Latin) from the New Testament. The bronze doors depict scenes from the life of Jesus. This was one place where growing up as a pre-Vatican II Catholic and two years of studying Latin paid off; I amazed myself by being able to translate the inscriptions. The Grotto of the Annunciation is in the crypt of the church and, like all the holy sites we visited, is crowded; you get in line and shuffle past the traditional site of Mary's house. Upstairs, the walls of the Basilica are covered with murals of the Madonna created by artists from countries all around the world. In many murals, Mary is depicted as belonging to the nationality of the donor country. For example, the mural from Japan portrays her and Jesus as Japanese and her blouse is made up of seed pearls. The USA mural is aggressively modern; Mary's gown and veil look like crumpled aluminum foil to me. There are many more murals of the walls of the courtyard surrounding the Basilica. There are also areas in the courtyard where you can see some excavations of ancient Nazareth.
Next we visited the nearby Church of Saint Joseph, considered to be the site of Joseph's carpentry shop. In the lower levels of this church, you can see an ancient water cistern and a mosaic floor dating from the Byzantine period.
Next, we traveled through Cana (site of Jesus' first miracle of turning water into wine) and Tiberias. As we passed Tiberias, Micha pointed out the site of Karnei Hittim, where Saladin defeated the Crusader army; this battle eventually led to the defeat of the Crusaders who controlled Jerusalem. He recommended that we watch the movie "Kingdom of Heaven," which provides a reasonably accurate presentation of the events. Fortunately, we had already seen and enjoyed this movie. From Tiberias, we drove to a sea-level overlook of the southern end of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret). On the other side of the lake, we could see the Golan Heights.
We continued south along the lakeshore to the Jordan River and the Yardenit Baptismal Site. This is probably not the actual place where St. John baptized Jesus, but it still does a booming business in baptisms and re-baptisms. Two of our group wanted to go through a re-baptism ceremony, which was performed by a minister who apparently was dunking some people from his own church. Beware that the white rental robes become transparent when wet, so wear a swim suit underneath to preserve your modesty. We saw many large catfish in the river along with a nutria. As in Louisiana, nutria were introduced to the area for their fur, escaped to the wild and are now a pest. As at all attractions, you exit through the gift shop; I was able to obtain an Israeli flag there plus a few shekels as change.
Returning north along the lake, we had views to the west of Mount Tabor, the traditional site of the Transfiguration, where Jesus appeared in glory to his disciples and spoke with Moses and Elijah. Of course, John always wants to know how the disciples could recognize Moses and Elijah, but that's part of the miracle.
We drove back through Tiberias and Magdala (hometown of St. Mary Magdalene) to Ginosar. Along the way, we stopped for lunch. John and I do not usually eat much for lunch and apparently we were the only ones in the group who had read the suggestion from GIT about bringing our own snack. We had thought there would be a park or someplace besides the restaurant where we could eat our sandwich. We were embarrassed to be taking up seats in the restaurant when we did not buy our food there. However, we did take the opportunity to try the local beer, Maccabee (20 shekels or $5/bottle). Despite our faux pas, the restaurant owner very generously provided a plate of pickles to go with our sandwich and a cup of coffee accompanied by dates; he refused to allow me to pay for any of that.
After lunch, we visited the Kibbuttz Ginosar. As we strolled through the compound, Micha explained kibbutz life. Originally, a kibbutz was an agricultural collective where all property was held in common and each member was compensated equally for his/her labor. This communal life even extended to child rearing; children were cared for and slept in a group home, not in their parent's apartment. As the standard of living in Israel rose and demand increased for the "good life" portrayed on TV, it became harder for people to adhere to this idealistic lifestyle. Many kibbutzim now follow a more capitalist model, with private ownership of property and members earning an individual income. Kibbuttz Ginosar supports itself through tourism as well as agriculture. There is a hotel and restaurant as well as the Ancient Boat Museum ($5 pp), which houses a restored boat that dates from around the time of Christ. Popularly called the "Jesus Boat," it is merely similar to the type of boat that the fishermen-apostles used. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the boat and watch the short movie about how it was found, raised from the lake bed and restored.
Next, we drove to Tabgha and tried to visit the Benedictine monastery and the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. This site has ruins of an ancient synagogue with a celebrated mosaic floor. Unfortunately, the monastery had just closed for the day and Micha was not able to sweet-talk the gatekeeper into letting us in for a quick visit. As an alternative, we visited a small Franciscan chapel, the Church of the Primacy of Peter. It commemorates an event that takes place after Jesus' resurrection: the disciples have been fishing all night with no luck, a man on the shore tells them to cast their net on the right side of the boat, they do so and can hardly pull in the net because it is so full of fish, they put into shore and find Jesus cooking a fish breakfast for them. Tradition holds that Jesus laid the cooked fish on a rock, which is now incorporated into the chapel. After eating breakfast, Jesus reaffirmed his desire that Peter become the leader of the Church.
Our next top was at Capernaum, a prosperous lakeside town where Jesus preached and his disciples, Peter and Andrew, lived. The town was abandoned around 700 AD; a carving in the ruins depicts the Ark of the Covenant. There are impressive remains of the "White Synagogue" (3rd or 4th century AD), was built of imported white limestone rather than native black basalt. This is the site of an even earlier synagogue, contemporaneous with Jesus and one perhaps where he prayed or preached. Under a nearby church are the ruins of a house reputed to be that of St. Peter's mother-in-law.
Our final stop was at the Mount of the Beatitudes, where we arrived 15 minutes before closing time. Although the church was already locked up, there are windows all around it that you can look inside. The real highlight is the excellent views of the Sea of Galilee and its surroundings. While there is little to determine which hill near Tabgha is the true location where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, it is still a lovely and peaceful place.
Like the Magi returning to their own country by another route, we returned to Haifa on a different highway to avoid road repairs taking place on our earlier route. Micha was still pointing out historic and biblical sites as we drove along. One of these was Mt. Arbel National Park, known for its vertical rock faces. During the reign of Herod the Great, many Jews who opposed him hid in caves on its sheer cliffs. Herod let his men down in baskets and fished them from the caves, forcing them off the cliff to their destruction below.
The total for this excellent excursion was $99 pp plus $1 pp for the Mount of the Beatitudes admission, which Micha paid for us in shekels. This did not include lunch or the admission to the Ancient Boat Museum.
We had to show our passport and landing card when we returned to the ship in Haifa. For the four nights the ship was in Israel and Egypt, dinner was open seating.
18 MAY (FRI) ASHDOD, ISRAEL (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 8:00PM)
Micha and Sumi had driven overnight from Haifa to Ashdod to meet our group for our tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We were now down to 8 people because some of our previous group wanted to visit the Dead Sea instead of Bethlehem. We again had to show our passport and landing card to disembark the ship.
As we approached Jerusalem, we stopped at the Gerald Halbert Observation Park for a panoramic view of Jerusalem and the Judean desert. We descended the slopes of the Mount of Olives, passing the Mosque (and Chapel) of the Ascension (where Jesus ascended to heaven) and the Church of the Pater Noster (where Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer to his disciples). We stopped at the Rehavam Viewpoint, which was crowded with tourists, vendors, tour buses, and men offering camel rides. Nevertheless, it provides a dramatic overlook of the ancient Jewish cemetery, the Kidron Valley, the walls of the Old City, and the Golden Dome atop the Temple Mount (Mount Moriah). There are several other churches clustered on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives.
At this point we were able to appreciate one of the benefits of traveling in a van rather than a large tour bus. Sumi was able to negotiate a narrow, walled road that bypassed much of the traffic to deposit us near the entrance to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus often went to pray with his disciples. As expected, the Garden of Gethsemane is full of ancient-looking olive trees. Next to the garden is the Basilica of the Agony (Church of All Nations), which we visited. In front of the altar is a large stone where tradition holds Jesus prayed and sweated blood prior to his betrayal and arrest. There are several mosaics depicting the events of that night and some of the mosaic floor from the first basilica (Byzantine) built on the spot. On the church's facade is a gold mosaic showing God the Father looking down from heaven over Jesus. We went back out through the Garden of Gethsemane to view another church, the Tomb of the Virgin, which reputedly houses the tombs of Mary and Joseph.
Next we drove to the Dung Gate in the Jewish Quarter, near the Temple Mount. Micha told us that downhill from here was the original prehistoric settlement of Jerusalem and of the ancient City of David as it existed around 1000 BC. This area and Mount Zion were inadvertently left outside the city walls when they were rebuilt in 1538 by Suleiman the Magnificent (the errant architects were beheaded).
We walked through the Dung Gate, past the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, to the entrance of the Western Wall Plaza. This section of wall is the only remnant of the original Herodian retaining wall that encloses and still supports the Temple Mount. Men and women must go through separate security lines; once inside, there are separate prayer sections of the wall marked off for men and women. The "Wailing Wall" is the holiest of Jewish sites, where God is deemed to be especially present; prayers placed in a crack of the wall are thought to receive extra consideration. The men in the party were able to enter a passage where they could see how the levels of the walls changed over time as buildings were erected and destroyed.The Western Wall was the site of a very upsetting event for me and another woman in the group, not to mention our husbands. Both of us misunderstood Micha's instructions about where to meet after visiting the wall; we thought he had said to meet outside, in the shade. When no one else had joined us by the appointed time, I realized that we had made a mistake. However, when I tried to re-enter the Plaza, no one was being allowed through that gate and I was directed to go off to the left and apparently through the city to another entrance. Since I had no idea where we would end up if we went that way, we decided to stay put instead of getting even more lost. Finally, Micha called Sumi to go looking for us and he spotted us right away. I was mortified for having been so inattentive and causing everyone to lose a half hour of touring time.
After that debacle, we regrouped and drove to the section of the Old City on Mount Zion, just outside the Zion Gate. The first site we visited in this area was a 12th century Crusader structure. The upper level is the traditional location of the Room of the Last Supper (Coenaculum), where Jesus celebrated the Passover Seder with his disciples before his trial and crucifixion. Some also believe that this is the site of the room where the Holy Spirit descended upon Mary and the apostles on Pentecost. The lower level holds an empty sarcophagus marking the traditional location of the tomb of King David. Although this place is venerated as the site of David's burial, the tradition can only be traced back to early medieval times; many believe that David's tomb is actually located somewhere in the ancient City of David, south of the present Old City. Outside the tomb, there is a controversial statue of King David holding a harp; ultra-orthodox Jews consider it a graven image and want it removed.
Near the Coenaculum and King David's Tomb, we visited the Dormition Abbey. According to tradition, this is the place where Mary fell asleep for the last time, just before she died and was assumed into Heaven. A statue of the sleeping Mary lies under a marble canopy; the inside of the canopy is decorated with mosaics of Jesus and famous Biblical women. There is a golden mosaic of the Madonna and Child over the main altar and six gold-decorated side chapels donated by various countries. The mosaic floor depicts the signs of the zodiac.
Next, we drove to the Jaffa Gate, which is across the street from the Citadel of Jerusalem and the entrance to the Christian Quarter. The Citadel tower is called the Tower of David, although it was built 800 years after David died. Today, the Citadel is a museum. From here, we took a walk through the suq (bazaar), a warren of shops selling anything and everything.
Finally, we walked over to the area around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This area is a hodgepodge of abutting and overlapping churches and chapels of numerous Christian denominations and religious orders. We followed part of the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross), starting between the 7th (Jesus falls the second time) and 8th (Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem) Stations of the Cross.
We arrived at the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but did not enter immediately. We circumnavigated the church, passing the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer and finally ending up at Station 9 (Jesus falls the third time). This Station is just outside the entrance to St. Jacob's Coptic Orthodox Church and by a sign pointing to St. Helen Coptic Church. Nearby is a Roman pillar and an arch across the street; the arch has a neon light outline of Jesus falling beneath the cross.
At this point, we climbed a few steps to the roof of the Chapel of St. Helena (Constantine's mother). This was the crypt of Constantine's church and is the oldest complete section of the current Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The roof is the location of the Coptic Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which includes 5 churches. We saw the entrance to one of the churches, Queen Helen Coptic Orthodox Church, which houses a stairway leading to a vast underground cistern. The roof is also home to an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery. We then passed through the Ethiopian Orthodox Chapel of St. Anthony (interesting painting of the Queen of Sheba presenting elephant tusks to King Solomon), through the Coptic Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel and out into the main courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/jerusalem-church-of-holy-sepulchre-plan) is believed to encompass the site of both Jesus' crucifixion and his tomb, making it the most revered Christian site in the world. The Roman Emperor Hadrian built a Temple of Venus over the site in 135 AD, perhaps in an attempt to discourage Christian veneration of the site. After his conversion to Christianity in 312 AD, Emperor Constantine tore down the pagan temple and built the first of many churches that he commissioned throughout the Holy Land. Constantine's builders dug away the hillside to leave the rock-hewn tomb of Christ isolated so that the church could be built around it. Constantine's church was burned in 614, restored, destroyed again 1009 and partially rebuilt. The current church is the work of the Crusaders, who completed the reconstruction in 1149.
The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (Latin) and Armenian Apostolic churches share ownership and use of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre under a decree (called the Status Quo) originally laid down by a Turkish sultan in 1757. That decree covers several other religious sites in Jerusalem plus the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In the 19th century, three minor Orthodox communities (Coptic, Syrian and Ethiopian) were given the right to use certain areas of the church. Each sect aggressively guards its rights, sometimes leading to altercations among the clergy. Their inability to compromise has prevented desperately-needed repairs and renovations from being carried out. Interestingly, under these decrees, two Muslim families share responsibility for the keys to the church.
Now it was time to jostle our way through the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To the right of the entrance is a disused stair that leads to the Chapel of the Franks, site of Station 10 (Jesus is stripped of his garments). The inside of the church was packed with tourists and pilgrims, making it nearly impossible for Micha to give us any explanations. There isn't any signage to help interpret the sites either. First we encountered the large rectangular Stone of Unction that commemorates the spot where Jesus' body was anointed before burial. The stone receives a lot of devotion, but it only dates from 1810. There is a large mural on the wall behind the stone that depicts Jesus being taken down from the cross and his body being anointed and taken to the tomb.
Next we were herded onto Calvary (Golgotha), the site of the Crucifixion; it is controlled by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic factions. The Roman Catholic altar marks Station 11 (Jesus is nailed to the cross); behind the altar is a large mosaic of the event. The Greek Orthodox altar marks Station 12 (Jesus dies on the cross); this has an elaborate gold and silver altarpiece depicting the Crucifixion. Perhaps when the mob is smaller, you can see the rock of Golgotha beneath the altar and the hole where the Cross stood. Carried along by the throng, it is difficult to see or appreciate the significance of these sites. Station 13 (Jesus is taken down from the cross and given to Mary) is placed between these two chapels; I'm not even sure I noticed the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows that marks the spot.
The final Station (#14) in the Way of the Cross commemorates the burial of Jesus. The Tomb of Christ lies under the dome in the rotunda of the church. The actual sepulcher is enclosed in a marble edicule ("little house"), which is held together by girders and metal bands. The crowds were not being allowed to go inside to see the marble slab where Jesus' body lay or the stone that blocked the entrance to the tomb. Instead, Micha guided us into the nearby Syrian Orthodox Chapel of Saints Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, with its rather dilapidated altar. On the far side of the chapel is the low entrance to two complete 1st-century Jewish tombs; traditionally Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were buried here. The presence of these tombs gives weight to the argument that the events surrounding Christ's death and resurrection took place in this general vicinity.
We walked around the rotunda clockwise, heading for the exit. We came to a stairwell that leads down into the Chapel of St. Helena (we were previously on the roof of this chapel). This chapel is owned by the Armenians, who have re-named it to honor their national patron, St. Gregory the Illuminator. There is a gorgeous original mosaic floor in front of the main altar and many hanging lamps and crystal chandeliers. To the right of the altar is another staircase that leads to Chapel of the Finding of the Cross, where St. Helena discovered the True Cross and other instruments of the Passion and Crucifixion (we did not visit this chapel). Ascending the staircase back to the main church, Micha pointed out the many small crosses carved by medieval pilgrims into the wall.
Continuing on our way out, we passed a large glass case that allows a glimpse of the natural rock of Calvary. Finally, we came to the small Chapel of Adam, which is directly beneath the Greek Orthodox Chapel of Calvary upstairs. According to tradition, Jesus was crucified over the place where Adam's skull was buried. Here the rock of Calvary, with a fissure in it, can be seen through a window on the altar wall. Some believe the fissure was caused by the earthquake reported in the Gospels to have occurred at the time Christ died. The bedrock of Calvary can also be seen through glass panels in the floor to the right and left of the altar.
As we exited the church, Micha called our attention to an enduring symbol of the friction among the various sects in charge of the church: the Immovable Ladder. Someone placed a wooden ladder against a window ledge above the main entrance around 1850; it may have been used to supply food to Armenian monks locked in the church by the Turks. The ladder remains where it is because no one can agree on who is responsible for putting it away.
Leaving Jerusalem, we headed to Bethlehem, which is in the Occupied Territories. We could see miles and miles of the Israeli security fence that is intended to protect Israeli settlements from Palestinian terrorists. We thought that we would have to produce documentation at the security checkpoint, but we were not even required to stop. However, Israeli citizen tour guides are not allowed to enter areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority, so Micha had to remain behind and we picked up a new guide, Sami.
The first order of business was lunch at the Oriental Restaurant. A sandwich on pita bread with choice of soft drink was $8 for falafel and $9 for chicken shawarma; we got one of each to share. It was interesting to see "Coke Zero" and "Bon Appetit!" written in Arabic. Now fueled up, we headed to the main attractions of Bethlehem: Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity.
Manger Square is surrounded by the Church of the Nativity and Church of St. Catherine complex, the Mosque of Omar and the Palestinian Peace Center. Although there were many tour groups in the square, this was not a problem until it was time to muscle our way through the tiny Door of Humility into the church; the outlines of previous, larger doors can be seen above the current entrance.
The Church of the Nativity (www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/bethlehem-church-of-the-nativity) is another of the churches commissioned by the Emperor Constantine after his conversion to Christianity. Built on a site previously dedicated to the pagan worship of Adonis, only parts of the original structure remain. The Emperor Justinian razed much of the church in 530 in order to build the much larger church that remains today. It is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world and in dire need of repairs and renovation. However, the three groups that own the Church of the Nativity under the Status Quo cannot agree on what should be done to preserve the church.
The door is tiny and requires people of even normal height to stoop quite low in order to enter. Once inside the church, we added to the throng in the huge nave. Some of the original mosaics from Constantine's church can be seen in the middle of the nave under wooden trapdoors. There is no transparent covering to protect the mosaics or keep people from falling into the depressions, so be careful! Many of the columns are also from Constantine's church. Fragments of mosaics dating from the Crusader era decorate the upper walls of the nave.
The main altar at the east end of the nave includes an Orthodox iconostasis, which is crowned with gilded angels, icons, gilded chandeliers and lamps. The stairs down to the Grotto of the Nativity are on the right side of the main altar; the line of people waiting to enter the grotto extended from there to Door of Humility. Sami said that if we got in the line, it would take us 2-3 hours to reach the grotto. This was where the real advantage of having a small group and a local guide came in: Sami had friends who let us in through the sanctuary and ahead of the huge line. Just before going down the stairs, we passed the Altar of Circumcision.
The entrance to the Grotto of the Nativity is by a narrow door; we had to struggle to keep our group together. The grotto itself is a rectangular cavern; a silver star in the floor marks the very spot where Christ is believed to have been born. The star (placed there by the Roman Catholics) was allegedly stolen by Orthodox monks in 1847. This theft exacerbated the competition between Russia and France for control of Christian sites in the Holy Land that ultimately led to the Crimean War. There is a silver and gold icon of the Madonna and Child on the wall above the star.
The Greek Orthodox Church controls the Grotto of the Nativity, except for the tiny Chapel of the Manger, which is owned by the Roman Catholics. Ascending a staircase from the grotto, we returned to the main church. We saw the Altar of the Virgin and the Altar of the Three Kings, who tied up their horses nearby. Then we went through a door leading to the Catholic Church of St. Catherine.
The Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria is where Midnight Mass is now held on Christmas Eve. Leaving the Church, there is a cloister with a statue of St. Hieronymus (St. Jerome) in the middle. The cloister was built above the remains of the walls of St. Jerome's monastery, where he translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. There is mosaic on the wall that shows the location of the major Christian sites in Bethlehem.
Our final stop in Bethlehem was an obligatory shopping stop at a cooperative store run by Christian Arabs living in Bethlehem. The shop featured all kinds of religious items, with a special emphasis on nativity sets and Christmas items. I found some olivewood animals to add to the nativity set I bought at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans. After the shopping stop, Sami left us and we picked up Micha again. As we left the Occupied Territories, we again did not undergo any security screening.
We thought that our tour was over after Bethlehem, but Micha surprised us by stopping at the Emmaus-Nikopolis Antiquity Site (www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/emmaus.htm). The ruins are those of a 4th or 5th century Byzantine basilica that was substantially rebuilt by the Crusaders. Although traditionally identified with the "road to Emmaus," where Jesus appeared to two disciples after his Resurrection, this site is too far from Jerusalem to be the same town. Micha surprised us again by bringing out loaves of challah, with olive oil for dipping, and a bottle of Yarden Mount Hermon (2011) wine for us to taste. Near the Emmaus site is the Trappist Latrun Monastery (named for the good thief crucified with Jesus).
When we returned to the ship in Ashdod, we again had to show the passport and the landing cards were collected. Princess collected our passports so that they could be stamped by Egyptian authorities before our arrival in Port Said. The total for this excellent excursion was $115 pp; this did not include lunch. We highly recommend Guided Tours Israel for your shore excursions in Israel.
Tonight was one of my favorite menus: the French/Continental Dinner. I had my usual choices of noodles with lobster sauce, escargot, French onion soup and frogs' legs.
19 MAY (SAT) PORT SAID, EGYPT (ARRIVE 6:00AM DEPART 8:00PM)
In Egypt, we arranged a customized overnight tour with Ramses; it was modeled on this one: www.ramsestours.com/egypt-shore-excursions/port-said-shore-excursions/portsaid-overnight-1/. The base price was $250 pp for 2-4 people, $220 pp for 5-8, and $210 pp for 9-15. The customization included a visit to an additional pyramid site (Dahshur; $20 pp extra), the Solar Boat Museum at Giza ($10 pp extra), a felluca ride ($15 pp extra, but complimentary for our group). Some of the group also added a 5-star dinner cruise on the Nile ($55 pp extra) and others took a 15-minute camel ride ($15 pp extra). Payment was in cash (USD) at the end of the tour.
We were somewhat concerned about meeting our guide at 6:00 a.m. (as scheduled) because Princess said that independent passengers would not be able to pick up their passports until 6:30 a.m. However, our group of 4 couples met at 6:00 a.m. in the Club Bar and immediately got in line outside the Cabaret Lounge. Princess opened the lounge and began to distribute the passports at about 6:10 a.m. We went through quickly and headed down the gangway, where we had to show the passport page with the Egyptian stamp. In the cruise terminal, our bags were scanned and we passed through a metal detector.
We walked down the quay to the port gates, where our guide (Karim Serry) was waiting for us with a sign. He got us into the nice Toyota van that had extra seats for the 8 of us to spread out and introduced us to our driver (Mohammed). Each person was provided with a bottle of water; I suggest bringing another bottle or two from the ship. Then our van moved into position for the security convoy to Cairo. Karim said we would be second in line for the first convoy, which would be the independent tour vans; the buses for the ship's excursions would be in the second convoy. The first convoy was ready to leave at 7:30 a.m. and we were off on our Egyptian adventure!
As we sped down the highway to Cairo, we could see the levees of the Suez Canal and ships transiting the canal. The convoy reminded me of wedding cortege, with police blocking the intersections. Nevertheless, local traffic was still occasionally able to become interspersed among the convoy vehicles. It takes about 2-1/2 hours to reach Cairo. Factoring in the wait for the convoy to depart, this was too long for some of the group. Fortunately, Karim knew a gas station with relatively clean toilets that was about halfway to Cairo, so we left the convoy and stopped there.
Speaking of gasoline, I was surprised to find out that gas (which costs approximately $1 per gallon) is in short supply in Egypt. We saw long lines at many stations and others were obviously out of gas. Our foresighted guide and driver had filled up the van the previous evening in Port Said, so we did not need to waste time sitting in a gas line.
After the pit stop, there was no sign of either of the convoys. No problem though, we continued on to Cairo without incident. Along the way, Karim gave us a continuous commentary about Egypt's history and the sights we would be seeing. He pointed out that Saturday is a holiday, while Sunday would be the first day of the work week; thus, the traffic in downtown Cairo would be somewhat lighter today. Also, we would be entering Cairo from the west side of the Nile, where the downtown attractions are, and the pyramid sites are on the east side (towards Alexandria) and away from downtown. For these reasons, Karim wisely suggested that we see the sites planned for the second day today and save the pyramid sites for tomorrow.
Karim also taught us the two most important words in Egyptian, "Laa shukran" (No, thanks!), and advised us how to deal with all the vendors we would encounter. He also told us that the toilets at tourist locations were supposed to be free but that the attendants would be more or less aggressive about requesting/demanding "baksheesh" (tips). We found that this behavior ranged from simply jingling coins to remind us that a tip was expected to shoving towels at us with the exclamation "Money!" followed by loud complaints (in Egyptian) when we did not comply. John found the male attendants to be particularly demanding and he felt compelled to part with some small coins (0.10 euro) in order to escape.
Our first stop was at the Mohammed Ali Alabaster Mosque, which is inside the Citadel of Saladin. To enter the mosque, both men and women must have shoulders and knees covered. You must also remove your shoes or rent shoe covers ($1 pp). The mosque is similar in style to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, but not as highly decorated inside. Outside of the mosque is an overlook with a panoramic view of Cairo and the Nile; it was even clear enough to see the pyramids! There were a good number of vendors around the mosque and they seemed pretty good-natured when we declined their wares. I was able to obtain my Egyptian flag for $1. It probably disappointed the vendor that I did not bargain, but I did not have any local coins to offer a lower price and I did not want more than one flag.
After the mosque, we drove to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. The traffic was quite heavy and it was hard to imagine how much worse it could be on a weekday. In additions to cars, we saw donkeys and even a camel being ridden against the flow of traffic. Along the way, we saw some demonstrators protesting in front of an embassy (Syria?). When we passed Tahrir Square, we saw a burned-out 12-story government building and a burned-out TV station. Karim said that the government building was going to be left as it is to be a monument to the revolution. There were no demonstrators in the square and we didn't see any others as we drove in the downtown area.
The museum is huge and deserves much more time than the 1-1/2 hours that we had to visit it; in retrospect, we should have asked to spend some of our free time there. I had read that the museum is often packed with people, making it difficult to see the exhibits, but it was not very crowded today. Karim rented headsets so that none of us would have any difficulty hearing his explanations of the most significant exhibits. The second floor houses the treasures of the child King Tutankhamen, including his gold mask and much jewelry. We did not pay the extra fee to see the royal mummies, but there are plenty of other mummies on display.
Karim suggested that we take a motorboat from the museum to the lunch restaurant instead of sailing on a felluca. The motorboats can travel further on the river because they can go under bridges that are too low for the fellucas. This also allowed us to bypass a lot of traffic. During the ride, John and two of the other men had the opportunity to pilot the motorboat. It was fun to see the city from the river and we also saw the riverboat where we would later go for the dinner show and cruise.
The Happy Dolphin Restaurant was located right on the waterfront where the Nile Lily riverboat docks. It had free WiFi, so some of our group were able to get online. The meal started with various salads, such as coleslaw, hummus, baba ghanoush and chunks of marinated eggplant. The main course was grilled meat, either chicken, beef, or mixed; this was served with cinnamon rice, French fries and a chunk of grilled tomato on lettuce. The dessert was two types of baked sweets similar to baklava. The only local beer served at the restaurant was a non-alcoholic kind (Birell), so we tried that. Like non-alcoholic beers available in the US, it was much too sweet but still interesting to try; the cost was $4/bottle.
After lunch we had some free time. The ladies caucused and decided to do some shopping now so that we would be able to devote all of our time tomorrow to seeing the pyramid sites. One couple was interested in buying some cartouche jewelry, so Karim took them to a jewelry store that was next to a papyrus shop (the Merit Center). He helped that couple place their order while the rest of us enjoyed a demonstration of papyrus-making and admired the various papyrus articles for sale. This turned out to be a popular stop; I think everyone bought some of the papyrus art for themselves or to give as gifts. The prices were reasonable; for example, we bought a 13"x16" (approx.) painting of a solar boat for about $25. Bookmarks were $2 and a name could be added in hieroglyphics for another $2. If you bought other art, one or more bookmarks were included for free, but you still had to pay to have the name added. If you want to pay with a credit card that does not have a foreign transaction fee or a currency exchange fee (e.g., Capital One), it is worth insisting that the store place the charge in Egyptian pounds instead of converting to US dollars; you will receive a much more favorable exchange rate. By the time we finished our purchases, the cartouche bracelet was ready; it was quite lovely and undoubtedly less expensive than the ones available aboard the Pacific Princess.
Following the papyrus store, we went to a perfume factory, where we were served hibiscus tea while learning about Egyptian perfumes. The factory sells pure essences (rose, orange blossom, etc.), knock-offs of famous perfume brands (such as Chanel #5 and Poison) and some uniquely Egyptian fragrance combinations. All of these can be mixed with alcohol to make perfume, cologne or aftershave lotion, or with water to scent hair or linens. In addition, the store sells blown glass perfume bottles and diffusers. We were anointed with several fragrances, including one called "Arabian Nights," which is supposed to make men irresistible. That fragrance became the source of a running joke for days after our visit to the perfume factory.
After everyone had their fill of shopping, we set off for our hotel, Le Meridien Pyramids. This hotel was the same one being used by the Princess overnight shore excursions. It is in an excellent location, with fine views of the Giza pyramids. Karim helped us check in and called each couple after we had gone up to the rooms to make sure everything was in order. He had also given us his card and cell phone number in case we had any problems. The hotel in Cairo made copies of both of our passports, but we retained possession of the passports. The room was very clean and had a large bathroom equipped with huge bath towels plus Egyptian cotton robes to use during our stay. The king bed was actually two twins pushed together with no bridge to fill the gap; however, it was comfortable for a one-night stay.
After about an hour to freshen up and relax, Karim collected three couples for the Nile dinner cruise and show aboard the Nile Crystal. Earlier in the day, I had been surprised to learn that we were going on this boat because I had thought we were going on the Nile Maxim. Both Karim and Mr. Ahmed (from Ramses) assured me that both cruises were of equal quality, but that the Nile Crystal was closer to the hotel and farther from an area where demonstrators were camping out. Also, it was the boat used for the Princess shore excursion luncheon cruise. Although I had only researched the Nile Maxim, we ended up being quite happy with the Nile Crystal.
The dinner cruise lasts two hours (8:00-10:00 p.m.) and features a buffet with salads, hot dishes, breads and desserts. The food was quite good, especially the vegetables stuffed with seasoned rice. Beverages are not included and were much more expensive than at the other restaurants. I tried a Stella and John tried a Saqqara for a total of $18 for two beers. We wanted to charge the beers to get a better exchange rate (about $15), but the waiter said that our card was rejected. Actually, when I checked our account online later, the charge went through but then was reversed. At least we got to taste the local alcoholic beers; as Mr. Ahmed had told me, the Stella was better.
The buffet line opened just as the boat started sailing and the first hour of entertainment was a duo performing Egyptian and international songs. After we finished eating, we went out on the open deck to enjoy the city lights and the other boats on the river, which were brightly illuminated. The second hour featured a belly dancer, a whirling dervish and some other traditional dances. At the end of each act, the performer went through the audience posing for pictures (later offered for sale at $8 each). After the final act, members of the audience were invited/abducted to dance with the performers. Several members of our group ended up dancing, including me. Fortunately, I still had some muscle-memory of moves I learned in a belly dancing class 35 years ago; at least I'd like to think that I did not look completely foolish. In any case, a good time was had by all.
Upon our return to the hotel, the lobby was filled with singing and dancing people. This turned out to be a wedding celebration. We were only able to watch the festivities for a short time before exhaustion forced us to retire for the night. Needless to say, we slept very soundly.
20 MAY (SUN) ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT (ARRIVE 10:00AM DEPART 6:00PM)
The next morning, we were not hungry, so we skipped the included breakfast. Others in the group said the breakfast buffet was good and included the typical egg dishes, bacon/sausage, cereals, fruit and coffee/tea/juice. The plan was to meet in the lobby at 6:45 a.m. so we could be on our way by 7:00 a.m. and arrive at the Dahshur pyramid site by the time it opened at 8:00 a.m. We would then work our way back north to Memphis and Saqqara, have lunch, visit the Giza pyramids and then head to Alexandria for a brief tour and to be back aboard the Pacific Princess with plenty of time to spare. After we boarded the van, Karim surprised us by gifting us with Arab headdresses to wear in photos throughout the day. We also each received another bottle of water.
As we traveled south to Dahshur, we passed villages where many people live a traditional lifestyle: farming vegetables and raising livestock. Water is still hand-pumped and donkeys are used for transportation and plowing. In addition to herds of sheep and goats, we saw herds of camels and several water buffalo. In the larger towns, we saw vegetable markets, bakeries with huge stacks of pita bread, and coffee shops with people smoking hookahs. We also passed vast plantations of date palms. At one point we could see the pyramids at Abusir in the distance.
We arrived at Dahshur just after 8:00 a.m., but the ticket seller was not there. Karim consulted with the Tourist Police and it was agreed that we would visit the site and pay on the way out. We proceeded through the desert to the Red Pyramid (named for the reddish cast of its stones). This pyramid can be entered and most of the group made the effort to climb the 99 steps to the entrance. Although the ticket seller was not at the main entrance to the site, there was an attendant at the entrance of the pyramid to check for cameras (no photos allowed inside) and to hit you up for a tip when you exit. This is definitely not an activity for anyone with claustrophobia! If you enter this pyramid, a flashlight is helpful for the first section; after that there are some electric lights. Also, it is easier to descend the low-ceilinged ramp backwards. There is a strong ammonia odor that increases as you descend; this is attributed to bats that formerly lived there. At the bottom of the ramp is the first of two large, empty rooms with sloping walls. There is a short, low tunnel connecting the two rooms. The second room contains a wooden staircase that leads to a balcony overlooking a ventilation chamber. Despite the fact that there is not a lot to see, it was exciting to actually be inside a pyramid.
There are several other pyramids at this site that are closed to entry, but can be seen from the road. One is the Black Pyramid that was left unfinished due to the untimely death of the pharaoh it was built for. Another is the Bent Pyramid; the slope of the faces changes part-way up. I thought we would only view the Bent Pyramid from the road, but Mohammed took off on a trail through the sands so that we could have a closer look. Karim also took some photos of us in our headdresses and some trick photos (e.g., holding a pyramid in your palm). During the entire time at Dahshur, we were the only tourists and there were no vendors either.
After about an hour at Dahshur, we headed off to Memphis. There is not much left of the ancient capital. A small museum contains a huge statue of Ramses II, which is horizontal so that you can see its details. There are a few other bits and pieces from the site inside the museum. Outside in the open area is the other main attraction, the Alabaster Sphinx, the second largest sphinx in Egypt. There are also more statues of Ramses II, statues of gods and goddesses, false doors and sarcophagi from tombs, column bases, and other odds and ends. Although there are not a lot of artifacts at this site, it has great historic importance. The vendors here were fairly restrained.
Next we went to Sakkara, the necropolis of Memphis. This is a huge funerary complex built for King Djoser. It was originally surrounded by a tall wall, part of which has been restored. We first visited a set of tombs that are usually bypassed by larger bus tours. These tombs were built for various queens and have amazing wall decorations showing the queens receiving food and other offerings. The amount of color remaining in the paintings after nearly 5,000 years is truly astounding. No photos are allowed in the tombs, so we succumbed to a vendor selling sets of postcards (10 for $1), some of which included pictures of the decorations.
The centerpiece of the complex is the Step Pyramid, King Djoser's tomb, built by the master architect, Imhotep. The pyramid is surrounded by scaffolding and is not open to the public. Karim also explained other important features of the site, including the temples and colonnade. The vendors here were more aggressive and less ready to take "NO/LAA" for an answer.
After Sakkara, we returned Giza and ate lunch at the Caviar Restaurant near our hotel; it has a good view of the Giza pyramids. Again, we had salads to start, a choice of grilled chicken or mixed grill with white rice and potatoes as a main course and ice cream for dessert. John and I had given up on beer and drank Coke Zero instead ($4/can). The restaurant had a nice toilet and no one looking to be tipped.
Before visiting the Giza Pyramids, Karim gave us very explicit instructions about how to behave during our visit. He emphasized that absolutely NOTHING is free at the site and that we should not touch anything, let anyone touch us, give anyone our camera to take pictures of us or even allow ourselves be drawn into a conversation. Although it is difficult and unpleasant to have to charge ahead, ignoring people and constantly saying, "Laa, shukran!" over and over, this is the only way to survive Giza with your wallet intact. The fact that tourism is down in Egypt made each of us even more of a target.
Anyway, our first stop was the Great Pyramid of Khufu/Cheops, where we had free time to take pictures, climb partway up (entering requires paying an extra fee) and be hassled by vendors wanting to take our pictures, adjust our headdress or sell us something. Escaping back to the van, we drove past the pyramids of Khafre/Chephren and Menkaure/Mykerinos to the Valley Temple area. This area provides a panoramic view of the entire site and was where the rest of the group took their camel rides into the desert. While waiting for them to come back, John and I walked around taking pictures. Despite our best intentions, we ended up giving $1 baksheesh to one of the Tourist Police after he hassled us.
Next we visited the Solar Boat Museum, which houses a boat that was built, disassembled and buried near the Great Pyramid; the boat was intended to help the pharaoh sail to the sun. Two boat pits were discovered in 1950; the boat on display was excavated in 1954 and reassembled in 1968. The second pit was finally excavated in 2011 and that boat will also be reassembled for display in the museum. We had seen a short note in National Geographic about this more recent excavation, but did not realize how large and impressive these boats are. The museum allows you to view the boat from several levels and is well worth the visit.
Our final sight on the Giza Plateau was the Sphinx. Although I have read that some people are disappointed by its size, it seemed plenty big to us. We walked through the Sphinx Temple and saw the statue from various angles. By now it was getting late (around 2:30 p.m.), so we headed over to the KFC, where Mohammed was waiting to drive us to Alexandria.
The highway to Alexandria crosses the desert and there is not much along the way; it's a good thing no one needed a pit stop. At one point, we encountered a traffic accident. This did not stop Mohammed, who simply took the van around the tie-up by driving through the desert.
As we approached the downtown, Karim pointed out the hall where his wedding would be held in a few months; his fiancee is also a tour guide. Later, we passed the building where his new apartment is located; it has a side-sea view, so he must be doing well as a guide. Our first photo stop was on the Corniche, across from the new library in Alexandria. This is a dramatic modern structure built on the site of the famous Ptolemaic Library of Alexandria. Our next stop was across from the lovely Mosque of Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, Alexandria's largest. From here, we also had views of the Qaitbey Citadel, the site of legendary Lighthouse of Alexandria. After this short tour, we entered the port and were dropped off just outside the cruise terminal. Thanks to Karim's excellent guide service and Mohammed's excellent driving, we had a fantastic two days in Egypt. We highly recommend Ramses Tours!
Princess collected our passports when we returned to the ship in Alexandria.
21 MAY (MON) AT SEA
After four straight port days, it was great to sleep in until 8 o'clock. Later in the morning, we went to Joe May's usual excellent port lecture on Sorrento and Civitavecchia. Afterwards, we went back to enjoy reading and relaxing on our balcony. The day was somewhat overcast, but we had periods of sun and the temperature was very pleasant. John brought some pizza back to the cabin for lunch and said the Mexican lunch buffet looked quite elaborate. The pub lunch was also held today.
The Princess Grapevine wine tasting was held in the afternoon; this event is complimentary for Elite Captain's Circle members. We tasted five wines: 2 white, 2 red, and 1 dessert. Each person attending the wine tasting receives a souvenir shot glass with various Princess designs; it looked like only the ship's wheel and ship's bow (both of which we already have) were available. We received ship's bow, so we gave ours to some roll call friends to help them build their collection.
Tonight was the second formal night and the Captain's Circle Cocktail Party. At dinner, we had lobster and king prawns.
22 MAY (TUE) AT SEA
Today was the "Most Traveled Passengers" luncheon for the 40 people with the most days sailing on Princess. On this cruise there were only 17 Elite members aboard; we were seated with the Chief Engineer. The lunch was held in Sabatini's and, as usual, was delicious. The appetizer course consisted of three small appetizers: New Potatoes with Sour Cream and Caviar, Homemade Japanese Style Beef Goza, and Peppery Lobster Bloody Mary. We both chose the "King Neptune Symphony" (Chilean sea bass, lobster tail, and colossal shrimp) as the entree. Dessert was the "Pacific Temptation" --- a real delight for chocolate lovers.
During lunch, the Chief Engineer mentioned that the sea conditions were not favorable for tendering into Sorrento tomorrow. Unfortunately, he was correct about the sea conditions and later in the afternoon the Captain announced that we would be visiting Naples instead of Sorrento. All of the ship's excursions would proceed, but with altered starting times. John had planned a nice hike on the Sorrentine Peninsula, so we would have to revise our plans.
23 MAY (WED) NAPLES, ITALY (ARRIVE 7:00AM DEPART 5:00PM)
We had visited Naples twice before. In 1998, we took a ship's excursion to Capri, Sorrento, and Pompeii. In 2008, we engaged a driver to take us to Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius. This time, we decided to see the art that was removed from Pompeii and Herculaneum and is displayed in the National Archaeological Museum.
The ship docked at the Stazione Maritima. From there it took us 25 minutes to walk past the Piazza Municipio to Via Toledo, then up Via Toledo to the Piazza Museo. The rose-colored National Archaeological Museum (6.5 euros pp) has two full floors of exhibits, plus a mezzanine floor and a small lower floor. Unfortunately, large sections of each floor were closed, perhaps due to austerity measures. Some of these sections would be opening later in the afternoon (too late for us to wait), but most of the sections we wanted to see were open.
Frommer's recommends renting the audio guide (5 euros pp); I had to surrender an official ID (my NC driver's license) to rent them. I thought the audio guides were helpful because many of the exhibits are not labeled in English. The sound was good although we had to turn it to maximum in order to hear the explanations above the commotion caused by the tides of students that ebbed and flowed throughout the museum.
We started in the Farnese collection of statues, which includes such famous pieces as the Doriforo (Spear Bearer) from Pompeii and the Ercole Farnese from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. It also includes a large sculpture group, the Toro Farnese, from the 2nd century BC. This sculpture depicts the queen of Beotia being tied to a bull and has been augmented and restored many times over the ages (Michelangelo wanted to turn it into a fountain). After touring about half of this large collection, we decided to skip to the main (for us) attraction --- the wall paintings and mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Our next stop was the suite of rooms displaying wall paintings, mosaics, bronzes and other art from Herculaneum's Villa of the Papyri. Many papyrus scrolls were found in the villa; some were displayed and there was an illustration of the device invented to unroll the scrolls without destroying them. Other rooms displayed more mosaics, wall paintings and paintings on marble from several Roman towns and villas destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The details and colors in these paintings are astounding! Among the many works of art here is huge mosaic depicting Alexander the Great defeating Darius of Persia.
We stumbled upon the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room), which houses Roman erotica. The sign said we needed a reservation, but the person at the information desk said that was not necessary and just wrote a time on a slip of paper. The guard at the door did not even look at the slip, perhaps because not many people were touring the rooms. The mosaics, paintings and statues on display are not especially shocking to modern eyes. Although some of the paintings may have been brothel menus or advertisements, many of the phallic images were intended to represent fertility and success or good fortune.
After a bit more wandering in the museum, we took a stroll through parts of the interesting old city. From there, we walked to the Galleria Umberto I, a huge glass-roofed shopping center, where we found a Tourist Office and a gelateria. Sadly, it was now time to return to the ship and prepare our belongings for their move to our new cabin for the "Mediterranean Collection" cruise. Passports were returned to all of us after we sailed from Naples.
24 MAY (THU) ROME (CIVITAVECCHIA), ITALY (ARRIVE 5:00AM DEPART 6:00PM)
Our plans here were to take the train from Civitavecchia into Rome, tour the pagan necropolis under St. Peter's and visit the Vatican Museums. My description of this excursion is given in my review of our May 24-June 5 "Mediterranean Collection" cruise. Less
Pacific Princess Cruises to the Eastern Mediterranean