We arrived in Athens two days prior to embarkation, so we could see the sights, and had a marvelous time, not a HAL excursion, but taken about by Constantine with AthensTaxi.org. This is a family run taxi/tour company that will go out of their way to show you the sights and a good time. He picked us up upon our arrival at the airport at 9:AM, took us to The Athens Gate Hotel, where we checked in, checked our luggage since the room was not yet ready, and we went on a 1/2 day Athens tour.
I admit to being awed by the ancient ruins, as I studied classical Greek in high school, but this was my first in-person exposure to the area. It was super-hot on the acropolis, but we took our time and saw everything - Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike, looked down on both theaters from above, took a zillion photos - then went to a great casual outdoor restaurant near the agora for a gyros lunch with fresh feta & tomato salad, and tried to local beer. The beer was probably a mistake, after a long flight, no real sleep, and the heat on the rocks, began to be very tired.
But, we sucked it up, toured the agora, then took a drive up Lykavittos Hill, stopping for several views of the area below. After a tour past some of the important government buildings, the university, we drove thru the main downtown business area, and then back to the hotel.
4163 - well worn, but otherwise AOK.
Evening tour: Istanbul Deluxe Part 1. The Spice Market was great; merchants seemed friendly and honest, but haggling was the name of the game (not for food - no haggling for food!!) We bought 1/2 Kilo of mixed peppercorns- hard to find all four colors mixed in the US, and the price seemed right. Underground cistern was unique, a good visit. Boat ride on the Bosphorus was maybe a tad too long? but, beautiful! No food on the tour, return to the ship was late! A wonderful guide! Lido open late, but not much available.
All day tour next day: Istanbul Deluxe Part 2. The Hippodrome (no big deal), Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace, lunch, St Sophia's Church/ museum, and finally a carpet demo, then the Grand Bazaar. Awesome! Pleasantly surprised and impressed with Istanbul!
We chose this cruise because of the two stops in Israel. A few other ships/cruises do it, but not too many. Because this was our trip highlight, we hired a private licensed guide for the two days. Moti Bar-Tuv met us in Haifa, and drove to Nazareth - Church of the Annunciation, Church of St Joseph's workshop, and the synagogue where Jesus taught - Capernaum (Home of St Peter and the synagogue), had lunch at a Lebanese restaurant - great hummus, salads - all very fresh, wonderful. Visited Tabgha, site of the loaves & fishes and now a church, and the Mt of Beatitudes Church, a very peaceful site overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It seems the Sea of Galilee is the lifeline for all of Israel, and the mood of the citizens varies as the level of the water of the sea, depending on rainfall. We went thru Tiberius, and the baptismal site of Jardenit on the Jordon River. Stopped at the Baha’i Gardens and learned something of that religion, and then returned to the ship. A fantastic day.
Port was actually Ashdod, but Moti met us at the ship again, and we went to Jerusalem. The old city is beyond description. First stop an overlook and photo op. Then to the Mt of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane, and the Church of All Nations. The garden is much smaller than I had imagined, and of couse it is smaller now than 2000 years ago.
We entered thru the Jaffe Gate, and sort of went backwards, starting at the Church of the Holy Seplechre, which is a conglomeration of churches, Greek Orthodox, the old Crusader church, Roman Catholic, and an Armenian ladder (it's a long story). A very long line waited to go into the tomb given to Christ by Joseph of Aramithea, but Moti pulled some strings, and we jumped the line - probably would have been murdered if it was not a church. Past by the stone where his body was prepared for burial, many very emotional people, sobbings, praying, etc. Saw where the cross may have been erected. We back-tracked the last five stations of the cross, and then went down the Via Delorosa which is now a market of seemingly never ending vendors, into the Muslim Quarter, turned onto Wadi St, and ate at a nice restaurant. Had hummus with pita bread, salads, and lots of water.
Continued to the open area near the Western (Wailing) wall. An amazing place to "people watch". Then, thru security and up a "temporary ramp" (the original collapsed, and the temporary is being used while they sift thru artifacts before rebuilding the main ramp) to the Temple Mount. We could not go in the al Asqua Mosque or the Dome of the Rock (Muslims only, although it changes from time to time), but we walked around the entire Mount, taking loads of pictures, of course.
Went out thru the Cotton market, back to the car. By this time of day, the dust in the air was getting bad - dust from sand storms in Eqypt of from the Negev, depending on whom you talked to.
Drove back past Bethlehem, but did not go into the city, because it is in Palestinian controlled territory, and israeli guides cannot take you in. We could have transferred to a Palestinian gude / taxi, but they require you to go on a "shopping opportunity", and we would have lost 1/2 a day total, so it was way too late for that.
We saw the famous walls / fences that Israel built to prevent terrorist attacks, and Moti pointed out that the settlemenbts in this area were built on land formerly owned by jordan until they foolishly joined in the attacks on Israel by most of the Arab nations. This land became part of israel, and was never Palestinian land when these settlements were built. So, they are not really settlements at all.
Took a different route back to Ashdod along the old Roman road, and thru the valley where the armies of the Philistines stood across from the Israelites, and only two warriors met to settle the war, in lieu of great losses on both sides. David, of course, bested Goliath in that contest.
We took a tour that promised a four-wheel drive caravan to show us the pyramids of Saquora as well as those of Giza and the sphinx. We got every penny of it. I had asked several times before leaving if the jeeps were air conditioned. The answer was always: Yes! Reality: Most of them have A/C.
Long bus ride thru Alexandria to Cairo, to Sakkara (also spelled Saquora). There was a lot of dust in the air from the sand / desert. This is in the Sahara, after all, and if it’s breezy, it's dusty. It was also approx 100 degrees F. Saw the Step pyramid (2686 BC) the bent pyramid, and an outdoor museum, while trying to duck the souvenir vendors. Saw the Giza pyramids. Boarded a bunch of 4WD vehicles, many of which were nice, others older and beat-up. These were privately owned by the drivers who were hired by the tour operator. In some cases, seat belts were inoperative. Very rough, occasionally high speed (for the terrain) ride to the Dahshour area. One lady who had been riding in a non-air conditioned jeep passed out while standing on a concrete platform viewing the pyramid. She fell, and her husband tried to catch her, and he went down on top of her. VERY lucky not to be seriously hurt. She took my spot in an A/C vehicle, and I rode in the junker to the next stop. I found a spot in another with A/C, and my wife in a third one, so the husband could be with her for the last jaunt, which was a good thing, because then we went hell bent thru Cairo traffic in the jeeps to the hotel for "lunch" about 3 or 4PM. My life passed before me on that trip thru Cairo traffic, and not just once. About a 1/2 hour ride, heavy traffic, maybe one traffic light that was merely a suggestion, I think. I was never so happy to get out of a car in my life. Had a good meal, then back on the bus for the 3 hour ride back to the ship.
The pyramids are amazing - so old, so large, such engineering feats. But, if I had it to do over again, I wouldn't. If you've always wanted to go to Egypt and see pyramids, I have one word of advice: don't. Not just because of the jeep trip, but the whole country is a mess. Garbage all over the streets, ruble everywhere. While there are certainly some nice hotels, great people, etc., the place is 90% a shithole. Look at pictures, read books, but stay away. Just my opinion, and please excuse the language, but that's the best adjective I can think of that applies.