In my first report, I mentioned that I half expected to get first-hand answers to the most frequently posed question I get for my "Ask the Editor" column on Cruise Critic: "What happens if my flight is delayed and the ship has already sailed?"
Before this day was out I would be able to answer, from personal experience, the second-most-asked question: "If you're on a ship-sponsored shore excursion that is delayed returning to the ship until after the scheduled departure time, will they hold the ship?"
More on that later ....
Izmir is a port that falls into my "new experiences" mental folder. As a matter of fact, I don't recall seeing it on Mediterranean itineraries until a year or so ago. Clearly, this port is meant as a substitute for Kusadasi, whose main draw was its proximity to Ephesus, the major seaport, and political, cultural and commercial center of the ancient world. The archeological site at Ephesus has resonance for a number of demographic groups: those interested in history and archeology (the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World); those fascinated by Greek and Roman civilization; and for devout Christians, because it played a role in the beginnings of Christianity. (St. Paul established a Christian congregation there in the first century, and preached in its huge amphitheater.)
Izmir has dubbed itself with the moniker, "Gateway to Ephesus," though the appellation is a bit of a stretch. Ephesus is a 20-minute bus ride from Kusadasi; it's close to an hour from Izmir. One attribute of Izmir that makes it attractive to experienced cruisers is that the archeological site at Pergamum can be reached from there, though not from Kusadasi.
From the moment we pulled into port the differences between the two cities were obvious. Kusadasi is a small, resort-like community with a population of only 50,000; Izmir is the third largest city in Turkey, with a population of three million. The port of Kusadasi is non-industrial and laid back, with a dozen or so outdoor cafes serving up fresh local seafood on charming waterfront decks. Izmir is a non-scenic commercial port dominated by cranes and stacks of cargo containers, with the tops of nondescript weathered high-rise apartment buildings poking up above the port's infrastructure.
Izmir's lack of charm was hardly an issue, as our port call here would be short -- arrive at 9 a.m. and leave at 4 p.m. -- with the vast majority of passengers opting for shore excursions rather than independent exploration. And, to be fair, the port is evidently a work in progress, and improved logistics are promised for when the port is reorganized next year. But at the moment, it is hardly passenger-friendly. For one thing, the distance between the cruise terminal and the bus staging area is quite long, especially this time of year, with the temperature hovering near 100 degrees.
Not only is the port adjusting to the recent arrival of the cruise industry, but there are a number of rough edges to the ship to shore interface onboard that no doubt will be smoothed out over time. For example, there was confusion over our arrival time, with the brochure stating 9 a.m. and the daily program listing it as 9:30 a.m. In either case, the scheduled departure time for my excursion to Pergamum and Asclepion of 9 a.m. would certainly be unrealistic at best and impossible at worst. Fortunately, we arrived early, making it possible to depart on our tour close to on time.
Once ensconced in our bus, we were introduced to our driver, Sedat, and our guide, Erol. Erol, a youngish chap with excellent English skills, was a university graduate with a major in history, who opted to use his skills in the sightseeing rather than academic arena. Since our tour departed during the peak of the morning rush hour, we experienced first-hand one of the major disadvantages of departing from a large urban area. And so we sat in gridlock, keeping our fingers crossed that the bus's air conditioning would continue to function at optimum levels.
Though the 1.5-hour drive took us mainly through Izmir's urban sprawl and relatively featureless, currently fallow-lying, farmland, Erol filled the time with a detailed rundown of the complete history of the region, known in ancient times as Smyrna, home of the Greek epic poet, Homer. Erol's passion for history and his encyclopedic command of factual information were obvious. He also spoke of modern Turkish issues, including problems with the economy, not the least of which is the high price of petroleum, currently at about $10 per gallon. I'm happy to note that Turkey's raging inflation (once near an eye-popping annual rate of 80 percent) is now moderated to about 10 percent. (When I last visited Turkey a couple of years ago I made two trips in that one year. On the occasion of my first visit, the exchange rate was 500,000 Turkish lira to one U. S. dollar; when I returned later that year it had swelled to one million lira to the dollar!) Fortunately, they also revalued the currency, and new liras are close in value to the euro, though, sadly, Turks now can no longer call themselves millionaires!
A solid 1.5 hours after leaving the port, we entered the modern city Bergama, site of ancient Pergamum. That ancient city's most famous feature, its acropolis, was visible atop a hill overlooking the valley farmland. The acropolis, chosen because of the defensibility of its 1,500-ft.-high perch, augmented by thick fortification walls, was the repository of the town's public buildings, governmental residences, and palaces and monuments. The general population, largely agrarian, lived near their fields on the valley floor. When under attack or during other emergencies, they would escape to the fortified acropolis.
The name, Pergamum is thought by some scholars to be derived from the word for parchment, which was invented nearby as a substitute for papyrus, a material that could no longer be acquired because of an embargo from Egypt, then the only country producing it. Perhaps, in part, because of the availability of this new writing material, Pergamum became a center of learning, and its library was among the finest in the ancient world. After the first sacking of the Great Library at Alexandria, Mark Anthony stole numerous books from Pergamum and presented them to Cleopatra to help restock the Alexandria library.
Though unlike its cousin, the library at Ephesus, the remains of the Pergamum library are little more than an empty foundation flanked by fragments of walls. But some of the major temples have large sections of their columns and facades reconstructed from fragments unearthed at the site. These are the most impressive features of the site. But though of historical interest, as ruins go -- given the length of the drive to reach here -- it came as somewhat of an anticlimax. Were it not for Erol’s extremely lengthy and in-depth narration, the site could have been completely covered in a far shorter period of time.
Two other features of interest were the 10,000-seat amphitheater on the flank of the acropolis (where St. Paul preached after being banished to Pergamum from Ephesus), and the Altar of Zeus adjacent to it. Erol concluded his remarks by inviting those of us who were comfortable with difficult walking conditions to take a longer, alternate path back to the nearby parking lot, rather than the short, flat, direct route. Our path would take us down the aisles of the theater -- the deepest theater of the ancient world -- and then close to the Altar of Zeus, following a path that would lead us back to the buses. We were given 20 minutes to make the jaunt. Four of us opted to see the theater and altar, but the so-called path branched several times and, as a result, we wound up returning to the bus 10 minutes late.
Our next stop was Asclepion, which was to medicine what Pergamum was to scholarly pursuits. Our tour started with a walk down the marble-paved road that connected Asclepion to Pergamum, the lower center section for chariots, with raised walkways on either side, lined with columns that are all that remain of a suspended wooden roof to shade walkers from the elements. At the end of this thoroughfare stood the ruins of the medical school and hospital, one of the finest in the ancient world. Treatment here was available to all free of charge, with the only proviso that the ill presented themselves with maladies the hospital was certain it could cure. Thus they were able to stand behind the "guarantee" carved into the bases of the marble columns, "Nobody Dies Here." Treatments were based on sunbaths, mud baths and drinking the mineral-rich spring water that still flows from terra cotta pipes into the original marble fountain. Surgeries were also performed, including cosmetic procedures for women.
Perhaps most notably of all, the hospital at Asclepion provides us with one of the earliest records of methods of treating the mentally ill. These methods included use of opium and spring water to calm the patient down, after which the therapist would lead them down a long, gently descending underground tunnel, with skylights every 50 feet or so. Water running down channels on either side of the steps provided a calming sound to augment the relaxation. At each skylight the therapist would stop and ask his charge about what in his adult life or childhood was creating his problems, and, if he was unable to answer, they would proceed to the next pool of light and repeat the question -- perhaps the first evidence of psychoanalysis! At the end of the tunnel was a pool of ice cold water which the patient (victim?) was tossed into -- the first evidence of shock therapy?
At the end of Erol’s 90-minute presentation we were given 10 minutes (!) for picture taking, exploring the tunnel system, rest stops, and souvenir purchases, after which we were whisked into modern Asclepion to one of those massive tour-business-supported buffet restaurants whose food is so generic as to defy national or cultural distinction. No picky palates here; it was now 2 p.m. and we were all pretty hungry, and would have been plenty happy to chow down on Kusadasi Fried Shoeleather. But what a surprise when we were rousted by Erol after only 20 minutes or so, and shepherded toute de suite back to the bus. When I thought about it for a moment I realized that we were in time trouble. It was now 2:30 p.m.; last call for passengers to board was 3:30 p.m., and it had taken us better than an hour and a half to get here. The ship was scheduled to sail at 4 p.m!
This was another case of touring from Izmir being a work in progress. Clearly the big city traffic situation in the port had not been taken into account, or too much had been packed into the Pergamum/Asclepion tour to be feasible in the time allowed, though eliminating Asclepion would have made a visit solely to Pergamum too little substance for the large amount of travel. Perhaps the port call at Izmir needs to be extended to allow a more comfortable touring experience given the longer travel times and traffic issues.
Or perhaps guides like Erol need to restructure the emphasis and amount of time spent lecturing to better balance guests' free time to do what sightseers like to do; shop, snap photos and explore a bit on their own.
In any case, Erol committed the cardinal sin of the tourism service business; he placed the blame for the problem of his own temporal mismanagement squarely on the shoulders of his guests, continually claiming over the P.A. on the bus that the time problems were due to the guests who were 10 minutes late getting to the parking lot at Pergamum. I tuned this nonsense out and began to doze. I awoke to the sound of a crying child. Apparently, Erol was saying over the P.A. that there was no need to worry, "... if you miss your ship you can stay with me at my house. Of course," he continued, "it is a small house, so I only have room for the women." Children, unable to see this as a joke, were naturally alarmed.
I turned back to face a mother and infant from Wisconsin in the seat behind me. Dad, with a six- or seven-year-old clearly worried son were seated one row behind them. I told Mom not to worry, that they wouldn't leave port without waiting for passengers on a ship-sponsored shore excursion. But, then I looked at my watch; it was 3:30 p.m. and we were stopped dead in traffic. I couldn't even see the water much less the ship. Privately, I began to think that I would get that first-hand experience with a late-returning shore excursion.
As the time clicked down, Erol conducted several terse cell phone calls, presumably with either his headquarters, Carnival's shore support company, or both. I speak not a word of Turkish, but by watching him jerk his thumb in our direction it was obvious that he was protecting his own backside by continuing his litany of blaming us for our own tardiness.
I am happy to report that the ship was still there when we arrived at the dock at 4:15 p.m., 15 minutes after the scheduled sailing time and 45 minutes past the "all passengers aboard" cutoff.
How a 10-minute delay mid-tour wound up with a 45-minute tardiness shows that scholars in history don't always make skilled mathematicians.
At this point in time Izmir needs fixing. The port call is too short, or some of the tours are too long. One possibility would be to advance the arrival or extend the departure or a little of both.
Additionally, guides need more vetting and training to create more tolerance for and flexibility with American tourists and their tastes.
I was curious as to why ships now call at Izmir instead of Kusadasi, and, by a very trustworthy source I was told there were two reasons. The first was that, even though Ephesus was a longer and more difficult drive from Izmir, Pergamum is only reachable as a day excursion from Izmir, and not Kusadasi. With the increasing number of repeat cruisers this option gives those who have already visited Ephesus an alternate tour destination.
The second reason is that the port charges for Kusadasi are six times what they are for Izmir. Perhaps, in the final analysis, it all boils down to money.
After a nap (dashing through the parking lot in 100-degree heat will do that to you) and a refreshing shower, amazingly, it turned out to be dinner time already. I haven't talked much about the food in the main restaurants. It is very much a duplication of the menus served on other Conquest-class ships -- at least, based on my experience aboard Carnival Valor. As I experienced aboard that ship, cuisine continues to be upgraded in the Carnival fleet, and the Georges Blanc recipes, though hardly cutting edge adventurous, still lend a modicum of sophistication to the menu. This all adds up Conquest-class-wide, if not across the whole fleet, to a dependable consistency.
If I had any criticism it would be that I would like to see more regional influences on the cuisine in the various cruising destinations. In other words, it's all well and good, in the name of variety, to offer ziti pasta with Italian sausage and peppers off the coast of Jamaica and jerk pork off the coast of Italy, but offering some of the Mediterranean's excellent local seafood rather than Tilapia flown in frozen from the U. S. would definitely have appeal for me. That being said, quibbles about variety aside, the quality of the food on the menu has been quite good. Tonight I enjoyed a tender and delicious osso buco, which literally fell off the bone.
After dinner I made my way to the Victoriana Lounge to check out the evening's entertainment, comedian Richard Gauntlett. "Comedian" is one of those words that, in this case, comes up short. Gauntlett is one of those neo-vaudevillians that we are so used to seeing on these ships, a guy who includes comic patter, audience participation, juggling and props to please the audience. It may not be a totally original act, but he does it extremely well.
Tomorrow is another long port day in Istanbul, and I have a 7.5-hour excursion to get up for, so I bypassed the casino in favor of the best bet onboard the ship: a date with Carnival's upgraded deluxe bedding.