I've cruised 7 times, but it's been several years and I waited with anticipation to see how things had changed and how they'd stayed the same.
As a travel agent, I have achieved Commodore status with Princess Cruises, their expert certification program, and part of that reward is a free cruise for two anywhere in the world, for any length of time. The catch is that not every cruise is available for the Commodore reward. I watched the website for about 3 years before the perfect cruise dropped in my lap. The other part of the deal is that free only applies to an inside cabin. Other cabin types are available at substantially discounted rates. Jack and I went back and forth about whether we would take advantage of the awesome option of free but we both know that once you've sailed with a balcony, you're never going back. The compromise we worked out is we'd pay for the balcony, but not take as many shore excursion to make up some of the cost. When push came to shove, however, we took the balcony AND the shore excursions. Any logical person would know this was the way it would work out. We may be eating ramen noodles for the next six months, but it's worth it for the amazing adventure we had over nearly two amazing weeks in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Planning our vacation, after choosing the cruise and Jack getting approval from work, included having to find a good airfare from Dubai to Rome. We had a variety of options ranging from nonstop and super expensive to awkward and slow but cheap. We took cheap which meant we'd be taking the airport shuttle bus from downtown Dubai to Abu Dhabi, flying from there to Frankfurt on Etihad Airways and changing to Alitalia for a regional flight to Rome after a several hour layover. We did this in both directions and it was seriously inconvenient but was about $800 per person cheaper. Time is money, but it's not THAT much money. We also were not going to add on any days in Rome so that Jack wouldn't be taking too many days off work and we would save probably $1000 or more between us. It turns out that was a great decision. The weather in Rome the several days before the cruise sailed was rainy and cold, and afterward we were so exhausted that we were glad to get on the plane so we could just RELAX.
So jumping ahead, we arrived in Rome after a long but eventless trip and found our Princess rep who did not have us on her transfers manifest. I didn't panic too badly because I knew it would be taken care of one way or another (it's not like they'd leave us at the airport, after all), and sure enough, after a few phone calls, she discovered that we had been added after the manifest was printed. No worries; we're on our way!
The drive through the Italian countryside was pretty, green, rolling hills, so a vast difference from the flat flat flat brown as far as the horizon view we see when driving through the Arabian desert we now call home. Our guide was pleasant and thorough, telling us how to pronounce the name of the port city for Rome, Civitavecchia (chivy ta veck ya) and saying we would be quizzed before being allowed off the bus. For some reason many of the old bitties on the bus seemed to be taking her seriously, were quite concerned about getting it wrong and couldn't have been more so. She would say Civitavecchia, and they would respond back words that might as well have been "meatloaf sandwich" they were so far off. She finally started saying they were pretty close when they were not anywhere near the correct pronunciation for fear they may actually not get off the bus when the time came! Finally the ship came into view, much larger than any ship I'd sailed on before, but still with that iconic logo waving to us from a distance. Because we were on an official Princess Cruises transfer, I wasn't worried about missing the ship, but this was the closest call I'd ever had on boarding the ship. We got on board, got to our room and only had less than an hour before the ship sailed. I definitely prefer being able to get acclimated to the ship before its departure, but c'est la vie! Over the next 12 days, we'd get to know it just fine, and they did provide a map which I carried with me for two or three days to help us find our way around.
Regarding the cruise experience, as always we had a very attentive room steward, Paula from Brazil. Our cabin was on the 10th floor, Caribe Deck, C523, just aft of midship on the starboard side. The starboard side is the one that looks out to sea if the ship is harbored cross-wise in port. The way to remember is port (side) and left (hand) both have 4 letters - the same! Of course, keeping this straight when you can't see the water is all but impossible. Thankfully the ship had signs that said Starboard side, odd numbered rooms; Port side, even numbered rooms. I used the odd and even part, not the Starboard/Port part to remember which direction we went. Also, the painting with the weird globes when we got out of the elevator meant we went right. Whatever it takes!
As always the food was good and more than plentiful on board. The difference for us this time was we chose Anytime Dining instead of fixed seating. This was not an option the last time I cruised, a little more than seven years ago. How this ended up working for us is as we met people we liked on the ship, we'd invite them to dinner with us at 8 PM at the Portofino dining room. So by the end of the trip, we pretty much had made a customized fixed seating arrangement. On one hand it took us having to troll for people to be friends with and take it right to the next level by making dates, but on the other hand we were able to have great dining companions of our choice. And this is what I would recommend. Set out to meet new people and make a dinner date! You may not find your perfect dinner companions the first time out, but it does complement your cruise experience very well! In addition, on a cruise with an older clientele, this allowed us to have dinner within our demographic. More on our dinner companions later.
A new element of dining on cruise ships is the specialty dining venues. There were two on the Star Princess. One of them comes with great reviews for just $20 extra per person. I fully intended to go, but never quite made it. I found as the days went on, the menu in the dining room got less creative and special, and to do it again would have booked one or both of the specialty restaurants during the cruise.
As always, I spent pretty much every evening in the casino. However, the casino was MUCH smaller than I remembered. There was only 1 table of any game, and not a single table of regular, $5 minimum, 8 deck black jack. There were two games, face up black jack, which seems like a good idea but is in fact a sucker bet, and "fun 21" a copy of Spanish 21, which varies from black jack here and there, and of course, increases the odds to the house. There was also a $10 minimum bet table that had an auto shuffler. The one thing I found with this is if you're hot, you're hot, and if you're not, there's no "new shoe" to salvage a bad run. However, as is pretty much always the case, the better gamblers go to higher minimum tables, so when they got sick of the stupid play at Fun 21, they'd move over to the $10 black jack.
There was also one craps table, one roulette wheel, a Caribbean Stud table (which I love but I know is risky when you don't want to spend a lot of money), and a few other tables. Then of course there was an abundance of video poker/slot machines. Two of our dinner companions work for a casino in Ontario Canada and explained why the games have changed so much.... MONEY. The house doesn't make enough money on regular 8-deck $5 black jack, so they eliminated it. Also, the casino was never crowded, and usually quite empty. I would be interested to learn how revenue has changed as a result, since I'd think butts in chairs would be better, even if you have to give away a little more money here and there. But maybe not.
As always, I didn't attend a single show on the ship. It's a holdover from my Club Med days, and no matter how logically I know that cruise ship shows are NOT the lip-synced, non-professional mess we put on, I still can't get myself to go. I met a member of the cruise crew who also worked at Club Med years ago, and she said the same thing... she can't watch the shows either. We had a good chuckle reminiscing (cringing) about "Hands up" and the duck dance. Sadly, we were interrupted by her having to do actual work and we never got to finish our conversation. What I got from other passengers is that the shows are well-staged and well-performed, if cheesy. The more mature set loved it.
Two more new things on this ship (and many of Princess' ships) are The Sanctuary and the Thermal Suite. Although I'd do it a little differently next time, we enjoyed the Thermal Suite, and didn't use the Sanctuary. The Thermal Suite is part of the Lotus Spa, which includes the salon, spa services, and the gym. It's a room with relaxation beds, s-curved heated stone beds that were oh so relaxing, a sauna, steam bath, eucalyptus steam bath (the part I used the most) and big walk in showers with the spray all around. After a long day it was fabulously quiet and relaxing. Luxurious, really. However, I wouldn't spend the money on this again, especially for both of us, because Jack wouldn't go very often (that would be a big fat duh, but he insisted he would when it was time for us to commit to it), and it was nearly $200 for both of us for the length of the cruise, at a discount, and the regular changing room for the spa (the "public area") had both a steam room and sauna. It wasn't as nice as the Thermal Suite, but if I'm going alone that's good enough, and free is better. On the other hand, we didn't use The Sanctuary, and I wish I had. At the far aft of the ship, on the 16th floor, there was an area with a cover over it, with potted trees, awesome lounge chairs with almost mattress-thick cushions, and Serenity Stewards bringing you drinks and Evian face misters. Our ship was not very crowded, but I can imagine this being a fantastic option on a full ship at a warmer time of year. They charge $10 for ½ day (4 ½ hours) or $20 for the full day. I'm thinking 4 ½ hours of pure relaxation per day is probably sufficient, and a great way to spend part of a sea day after a crazy couple days of touring, especially with the crazy schedule we had. Unfortunately, our cruise was front-loaded with sea days, so by the time you figure out the best way to handle your day, they're past you.
Just a brief note about our stateroom. The balcony was FANTASTIC, and it appeared that the 10th floor (Caribe deck) had the best balconies. The floors both above us and below had smaller balconies, and if the balcony is the thing, bigger is better. We spent quite a bit of time on our balcony, having breakfast, Jack having his smokes, enjoying the islands we passed, just being at peace, and I'd push for Caribe deck balcony over a fancier cabin on a different floor, unless of course we were getting upgraded to a full suite or something. I think those balconies are supposed to be pretty posh, but I can't say from first hand experience. The balconies, by the way, have doors that go between them, so if you do have adjacent cabins, you can add an access point, which could be nice if you're traveling with family. Years ago we were on a Carnival cruise and they removed the entire dividing walls between our family's balconies, but I haven't found a cruise line since them who does the same. That's one point for Carnival, a gazillion points for Princess. But I digress. The bathroom was smaller than the one in the inside cabin I had on the Regal Princess eons ago. However, it worked as it was supposed to and the bathroom isn't the thing for me, so not worth making a big deal about. I would recommend, if little showers annoy you, to use the showers in the Lotus spa. They're bigger, better shower heads, and have shampoo, conditioner and liquid soap in dispensers, which is much more earth-friendly. And since it seemed like we had to use mountains of shampoo to get a lather, not going through an entire hotel bottle of shampoo every day eases my conscience.
The other note about the stateroom is that the bed sucked. S.U.C.K.E.D sucked. It was Icky Holiday bad (another story for another day). Given an opportunity to gripe and yet not be ungrateful, I would go on and on about how old and uncomfy the mattress was. I would be interested to know if the suites or mini-suites had better/newer mattresses because if I'd paid for a cabin at that price point I'd have seriously been screaming about it. Alas, we were so exhausted every night, I could have slept on the floor.
On to the destinations!
The itinerary ahead of us was 2 days at sea, Alexandria for 2 days (which meant we could go to Cairo, which is 3 hours away in each direction), day at sea, Khios, Greece, Istanbul, Ephesus, Athens, day at sea, Naples, and back to Rome.
I was really glad to have 2 days at sea so that I could decompress before the touring started. I was really excited to have so many new destinations to visit. The only place on the entire itinerary I'd been to before was Athens, but that had been years ago, and it certainly merited at least a second viewing (and cutting ahead, definitely merits a third visit), so we were going to see some new and very important places. Really the entire top of my bucket list (I know it's clichE but it soooo effectively states the point) was going to be checked off. Of course, the trade with cruising is that yes, you get to visit these places, but many of these places required more than one day to do it justice. On the other hand, it's a fantastic introduction and some places will go back on the to-do list while some have gone off, never to be even considered for a revisit (Cairo, I'm talking to you).
So speaking of the devil, Cairo, here we come! The Star Princess holds about 2800 passengers. The ship wasn't full, but probably 2200 or so (I have no actual idea how many were on board), and virtually everyone there was boarding a shuttle bus to Cairo, to see the pyramids, the Egyptian museum, a Nile cruise, an overnight stay, there were a lot of options. So the deal is that cruise ship passengers have to go by convoy with armed security forces. It doesn't exactly start the trip on a warm and fuzzy note, but it is what it is. So the 25 or so busses loaded up and off we went. We chose to see the pyramids, the sphinx and the Egyptian museum. It was a great day for the pyramids! There are 3 stops in Giza that you make, pretty much just for photos. There's nothing there except the pyramids, although you can go into one of them. I had been warned to not go in! Our guide said the same thing and mentioned it is such tight quarters that if you are a smidge larger than you should be, you might literally not fit. They had me at huge claustrophobia with nothing to see as a pay off, so that was easy. When you get to the pyramids, everyone gets off the bus, takes a couple pictures, gets hassled to buy crap, and then back on the bus. So on our bus was a group of Brazilians, a few of whom spoke English, several old couples, and a family of four from Chicago. The bus had a front door and a side door. The side door was great for crowd control, but the steps were extremely steep. The first time out of the bus all the old people took FOREVER getting off the bus. This is understandable to an extent, although the people waiting for the steps down could have walked around the people nearly falling to their death. Instead, the same old people used the back stairs every time, instead of walking to the front of the bus and the perfectly manageable stairs there. Thankfully after a time or two, we figured out the process, and walked by the old people nearly falling to their deaths. Concern is concern, but this is the pyramids, and we have 10 minutes. So cutting to the chase, we made 2 stops at the pyramids of 10-15 minutes per stop to take pictures, and then went to the Sphinx. The sphinx is dramatically less spectacular than you think. On the other hand, you have to walk through an ancient temple to get close to the sphinx. This temple? Nothin. It was not even a little organized, documented, or secure. You walked through and got to the other side with no commentary of any sort en route. Our guide had told us about a hole that was used as a wishing well where a statue had been found that we would later be seeing at the Egyptian museum. So there was a hole with a metal grate over the top, and a few dollars and coins thrown in. No sign, no one standing there, nothing. Just weird. So we took a couple pictures of the sphinx, and back we went to the bus.
Then we went to the Oberoi hotel for lunch. I have to say, they did an amazing job of hauling several hundred people through a buffet, provide water, coffee and tea, and have us on our way in less than an hour. The food wasn't fantastic but it was fine. People not from the Middle East may have seen the food as acceptably exotic. I thought the hummus was lousy, but I digress.
After lunch we drove into Cairo. You've heard about the traffic there. It was all that. I don't need to elaborate. But what we had to get to was our "shop stop." Like 10,000 other tchotcky stores around the world, this was sort of a mall with several vendors. We were all given a card designating our driver so they'd know who to grease after our sale. The only thing that was any kind of interesting was the cartouches they were selling, but they were expensive and I wasn't going to deal with the crowds just for that. So 5 or 10 minutes and we were out of there. Even Jack wasn't tempted to buy something! So back to the bus we went and waited. We were there for more than 45 minutes, longer than the total amount of time we'd spent at all 3 stops in Giza. This was about enough for the obnoxious Chicago guy to go into full meltdown. Apparently he didn't get the memo that Cairo and Egypt in general is a cesspool of corruption, greed, and useless wastes of time. So the fact that our guide rushed us through the site of one of the most mysterious, significant relics in history so that she'd get her cut of a single $200 (I don't actually know what the one woman paid for her piece) cartouche, should have surprised no one. Bitching about it, although pleasant for me sitting immediately in front of the guy, was going to get him exactly nowhere. Moving on.
We went to the Egyptian museum, the home of the King Tut items you may have seen on the exhibit that toured the US and Canada when I was a kid. It also holds a bunch more than that, in a 2 story oldish building. So you walk into pure chaos. There is no organization to the building or any of the exhibits. The lighting is so terrible it's hard to get around, and certainly hard to figure out what the artifacts even are. We skipped right by any of the ground floor exhibits and went straight upstairs where we struggled to see mummies of animals. Every once in a while there would be a 3X5 note card, written in Arabic only, with a short description. I don't speak or read Arabic. Our guide was very excited to show us a handful of items, which were in cases similar to my mother's hutch. Ok, they were bigger than that. Maybe each one would hold 3 sets of china instead of one. The inside of the glass was dusty, which would tell anyone, even in that dim light, that the displays were not air tight. She showed us one statue she was especially excited about, and in order to show us the remarkable eyes, she pulled out her cell phone which as a flashlight on it so that we could see it. Seriously. She had to provide her own flashlight so we could look at an exhibit in possibly the most important collection of artifacts in the world. So we were there for an hour I suppose. I was interested to see the gift shop; maybe I could buy something that I could appreciate later. We had to search for awhile to even FIND the gift shop because you had to leave the museum, walk around the outside and in a sort of side door. The gift shop was approximately the size of my bedroom, but less clean (and if you know me, you know I'm a slob), and I had to seek out assistance to buy something. So back on the bus we went. The return drive took longer because getting out of Cairo is its own little piece of hell. We got back to the ship at about 9 PM, and although we could have gone straight into the dining room, I was so dirty, it would have required a shower with, I don't know, a triple shampoo, rinse, repeat. I swear I took half of Cairo with me in my hair. And Jody was nowhere in sight to laugh at me! More on our dinner later.
Next day: Alexandria. I didn't have high hopes after yesterday, plus we were very tired, but we'd paid our money so off we went. We boarded busses again, but this time there were way fewer and not all the busses left at the same time. Again it was a beautiful day, not too hot, not humid, bright sunshine, perfect! The tour we took included the catacombs, Pompey's Pillar and the Alexandria Museum. Any of these three beat out pretty much all of yesterday AND we had limited old people. The warning about the catacombs was that there were 85 steps (or something like that), but the reality was each step was about 2 inches tall. It was more like a jagged circular ramp than a staircase. I'm not going to go into all the history here, except for 2 things. One day a mule fell into a sink hole, and in trying to get it out, they discovered these ruins. The other thing of note is this catacombs was originally built to be a mausoleum, more or less, for a single wealthy family. The place included a big dining room table in a room because they thought people would want to come down and spend the day visiting them, and they'd need somewhere to have lunch. The funny thing is they did! They found in this room a huge pile of broken dishes because although it was fine to have your lunch next to dead people, it was bad luck to take anything out with you. So they broke all the dishes before ascending. I thought that was pretty funny.
We then visited Pompey's Pillar. As it was a beautiful day, even though this ruins site wasn't all that spectacular, we really enjoyed learning about it and then walking around for a few minutes. I think we had 30 minutes of free time there, and that was plenty. The take away on this is the pillar is called Pompey's, but is not in fact his. They don't know why it got this name, but they do know who it's dedicated to (and yes, I've forgotten already).
Finally we visited the Alexandria Museum. The building that housed the museum was formerly the US Consulate. As far as museums go, this was fair, but relative to Cairo, this was the Smithsonian! The artifacts were reasonably well protected and lit, but still the descriptions were on 3X5 note cards and language was not consistent.
What we didn't see in Alexandria was the library. The original library is completely gone, and they've built a new one where they think the old one might have been. We were told the outside was cool but the inside was just a library, so we skipped it. I came across one couple who did go in and said it was great, and it sounded like it was much more than just a library. Alas, you can't do everything, and I think we made a fair trade.
We had another day at sea and then Khios, Greece. This is one of the biggest and more important islands of Greece, although I'd never heard of it and had trouble finding information online. I should have thought to try alternative spellings. Anyway, they don't have a deep water port, so the tenders would be used on this day. The weather was pretty rough, so they had to send out a test tender to see if it was safe to send passengers. When I saw this first boat hit the water, my day was instantly rescheduled. I have never seen a boat bob and weave like that before. I got an image in my head of getting in there and insty-vomiting on 6-10 people, and that was it. They determined that they would send people ashore, but if you were booked on a tour and didn't want to take the tender, you could get a full refund. And the entire crew was kept on the ship. They weren't happy about this because it was the first time they'd ever been to this island. Anyway, the people that went said the ride was fine, and the island was fine. There is a UNESCO world heritage site that people said was nice but small. When I said I get sea-sick, they ALL said, oh, well no, then you definitely did not want to be on that tender. I have no regrets, except that I wish Jack would have gone without me. It wouldn't have bothered him at all.
Next day: Istanbul! The AWA Dubai Travel Club is planning a trip in the spring to Istanbul, so I was excited to get some firsthand information. Istanbul is awesome, so easy to get around and all the things you'd want to see and do on a short trip are all within walking distance of each other (really within several square blocks you can see 6 or 8 really cool places). We took the shuttle from the bus into town. They charged 12 Euro one way or 20 round trip. We bought the round trip, but this is another thing I'd do differently. The tram system in Istanbul is terrific and there's a stop very close to the pier, and it costs 1.50 each way. The meeting place to catch the bus back was near the Grand Bazaar, back up the hill, and by the time we were done doing our thing we were way too tired for the walk and ended up taking a taxi back to the ship. The guy kind of ripped us off because he let us off quite a ways from the entrance to the pier. In his defense, he probably didn't know where he was going, but we paid, I don't know, maybe 40 euro to get back to the ship and then had to walk a very long 2 or 3 blocks. If we'd have taken the tram for 1.50 we'd have gotten closer to the ship. Grrrrr. But live and learn.
I don't know what to say by way of advice for money. Pretty much everyone in Turkey would take dollars, euros or lira (and plastic), but of course none of those is our preferred currency (except plastic, of course!). I would probably recommend having 50 euro in small bills and coins for things like tips and sodas, but to take the tram you need lira. If you're going to spend several days in Turkey (we had 2 days, including Ephesus), I'd probably get at least 20 euro for the same kinds of things. What we found ourselves doing to figure out what things cost is this. There are 2 lira in a Euro, a Euro is about $1.40 US, and a dirham is about $0.27. Thankfully we didn't buy much because by the time you estimate here and there, you'd be WAY off. The Grand Bazaar was substantially more expensive than the people outside, and you can't trust what any of them are saying.
We had a guy approach us, looked normal enough, spoke English well, and asked us if we needed help. Here's the story he gave us. He is a rug wholesaler in the US and goes back and forth to Istanbul to buy rugs. His wife is American, but she is back in the US. There was a young attractive woman with him, but somehow he never got around to introducing her. My first red flag went up when I told him my sister sells furniture in the US and she'd love to work with him and he DIDN'T whip out a business card. So he's kind of telling us what he knows about rugs, and tells us he helps people find the right items for them, as a courtesy, because, you know, he's a good guy with time on his hands. Well I know for sure we are not in the market for a rug since we already have one, and even if Turkish rugs are better than Persian rugs, I think I could still probably find a good one at home. Then he told us he's a producer of rugs (did he forget he's a wholesaler, LIVING in the US?), and if we've ever been told a silk rug is made from natural dyes, we've been lied to. He has silk rugs with natural dyes but they are quite a bit more expensive, but worth it if you want the real thing. Also, you really want a wool rug because they last longer. And, how do you tell if a rug is handmade versus machine made? Turn it over. The knots won't all be the same size if it's handmade. A little corner of my brain got a little worried that we'd gotten completely screwed on our rug (had we been told our rug was made from natural dyes? I couldn't remember. And my rug is so consistent you could almost have the bottom face up!), but another little corner said this guy is a douchecanoe and don't pay any attention to him. So cutting ahead to the next day in Ephesus, our tour dropped us off at a place that makes and sells rugs. We went through the whole spiel and I asked the guy about the silk rugs. He said silk rugs are NEVER made with natural dyes. It won't accept the color. Plus, it is fairly obvious to see when natural dyes are used on wool rugs, and he showed us the differences. We had just sat through a demonstration of a woman making the rugs (wow), and I asked him about the knots thing. He turned over a rug that had been made in-house (no reason not to believe this guy; I'd just seen a very good demonstration). If the knots weren't all perfect, they were close enough without a microscope.As his story started to twist and it became clear the hard sell was going to start any second, we extracted ourselves and walked away. At about this time, we were standing between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia at 12 noon, straight up. A cacophony of calls to prayer surrounded us. It was really cool! Every mosque, and there are lots of them, did the call to prayer, not exactly in unison and as opposed to how it is in Dubai, it was LOUD. If I had to deal with this every day I'd imagine it getting really old, but one time during a great day in the heart of Istanbul, yeah, I can do that.
Finally, we made our way to the Topkapi Palace, the only site we paid to actually enter. This is a huge palace with beautiful gardens, the treasury of jewels, the spoils of war, gifts, clothing, all kinds of stuff. And because this was not Egypt, there were great signs, in Arabic and English that explained what we were looking at fabulously well. By this time we were both beat, so we didn't do as much exploring as we'd like. I would definitely do this again, and get the head phones, or take advantage of a guide. You know about the trip back to the ship now.
There's no rest for the weary, as the next day we arrived in Kusadasi (pronounced KOOSH a DAASH e), the port for Ephesus. Based on recommendations and what I remember Mom and Dad telling me about their trip here, we did Ephesus, the Virgin Mary shrine and St John Basilica. To do it again, and if it was offered, I'd do Ephesus and St. John Basilica. The shrine was in a pretty area; it felt like a state park, but the story is pretty weak and if you're not a true believer, this is an hour out of your day that could be spent much better. The house (a representation, not the real house) is not very exciting, but there is a shrine inside. However, you are not allowed to stop to say a prayer or even light a candle. You are shuttled in the front door of a room about 8 feet by 10 feet, and out a side door. Once outside there's a place for you to light a candle. Even if you wanted to be moved by it (I'm remembering the lame-o woman who was brought to tears in the 4 year old Greek Orthodox Church at the Baptism site in Jordan), you wouldn't have time until later. A little further down there is a wall with 4 niches, 3 of them right together and one a little bit separated, each with a water spigot. This is the fountain of sacred waters. So you can turn on the spigot and fill a bottle with holy water, or you can simply wash your hands, as most did on this day. Each spigot was supposed to provide you with a different blessing, health, wealth, love, and the 4th is for non-Christians (Muslims also believe in Mary). They apparently don't get a specific blessing. The fact that each of these came from the same spring didn't seem to slow anyone down. I think this little piece of mythology is something the Catholic Church wants to downplay. I couldn't remember the 3rd wish so I googled it and didn't find any official or semi-official websites that spelled out the purpose of each spigot. Needless to say, it made the rest of the site seem kind of ridiculous. Finally there is a wishing wall. I played along and put a wish for both Jack and me in there. He wouldn't play along.
Next was Ephesus. I was a little concerned that after having been to Petra, Ephesus would be a letdown. It was completely unnecessary worry. The similarities are that they are both ruins and the main attraction at both is a large building of 2 stories with columns. There's no need to go into a full description here. It was large, a lot of walking, totally cool, and our guide was great and very informative. Given the chance to visit, don't hesitate. I am looking forward to comparing my photos with my parents. They went 10 or 15 years ago and I'd like to see how much has changed, since it is actively being excavated and restored.
Finally, just so we can pile on, we went to St. John Basilica. Although people confuse this St. John with John the Baptist, they are two different guys. This Basilica is for the apostle John who went with Mary from Israel to Ephesus, not the one who baptized Jesus and then had his head on a platter. Anyway, this site was beautiful, a high point in Kusadasi, literally, so it had great panoramic views of the area, and had a more plausible back story than the Mary shrine did. Unfortunately, at this point in the day, we were pretty wiped, so I don't remember too many of the details. Jack might, since it was his namesake we were visiting.
When we were done there and it was now nearing darkness, the driver said there's a store that does carpet making demonstrations and if we hadn't visited the place in Istanbul, we could go in and look. There were only 2 couples who went in, which was disappointing to me, since I knew we would only be learning from them and not BUYING. But that's just the way it goes sometimes, and I'm not going to throw the guy a bone by buying a $1000 rug. I've already discussed part of this visit, but the first part was maybe even more interesting. They showed how they go from silk worm cocoons to silk thread. Here's what happens. They take a bunch of silk worms, maybe a hundred at a time, and dump them in a pot of water. They are soaked for a few minutes, and then the guy takes a sort of brush and starts beating against the cocoons. As he does this, the ends of the strings start to stick to the brush. He takes those ends and runs it through a guide, kind of like threading a sewing machine, and hooks it to a paddle thingy. Then he starts winding the paddle up and before long you've got a paddle full of silk thread (each cocoon makes about 1 kilometer of thread) at one end and a pot of dead black silk worms at the other end. The guy let me take a cocoon with me, so that was cool.
Next day (no, we get no breaks for awhile) was Athens. I've been to Athens before and loved it, so I was really looking forward to going back. Jack has never been, and I was concerned about all the walking we would do. Because he had done so well through Cairo and Alexandria, I decided to go for it and buy the tour in Athens. We did "The Acropolis and on your own" which is fairly self-explanatory. However we did get a pretty good city tour en route to the Acropolis, including a stop at the original stadium from the first modern Olympic games. The stadium isn't all that exciting, but it offers a fantastic first view of the Acropolis and Parthenon from there.
One thing that was a pleasant surprise is that the Acropolis has changed since I visited last. I remembered being wowed by it, but wishing there was more of it standing. My wish was their command. The site was much more complete this time. They are slowly dismantling and reconstructing the Parthenon and other buildings to make them earthquake-proof. When I visited before I think they were just starting this process. There are miles to go before they sleep, but definite progress has been made. In addition, we were able to watch them moving blocks around to do some reconstruction. It's an exceedingly slow process, so I couldn't wait around for the stone to actually get where it was going, but with time I could have sat there for hours watching the process. But then Jack's head would have exploded from the tedium. Instead of walking back down the front to our bus, we walked out of the acropolis the back way and down to the Plaka, the shopping/dining district I'd spent so much time in the last time I was in Athens. Our guide pointed out a couple things, but we didn't get any sense of him really pushing us to one store or restaurant, which was a really nice change of pace. We finished our walk right on the square in front of the first Greek Orthodox church. There was an al fresco restaurant right there, and noticing there were actual Greeks sitting there, I suggested we give it a shot. One of our new friends, Sharon from New Zealand joined us. They had a menu of pretty typical Greek things, and we began to order. We thought we'd 5 or 6 dishes and share between the 3 of us. It seemed weird when I got half way through my order and the waiter said Great, and started to walk away. I called him back and finished our order. Here's why the waiter was smart and we were stupid. These were entrees, not mezze, so we basically ordered enough full meals for 6 people. On the other hand, it was all awesome and we chowed down. There was tragically little left over, to all of our bloated embarrassment.
After Athens, we blessedly had a day at sea, and man oh man did we need it.
Our final port of call was Naples. What did I know about Naples going in? Not much. Pizza comes from there and Pompeii is sort of close by. I've been to Jerash in Jordan and I met a woman there who said she'd been to Pompeii and Jerash blows it out of the water. That is kind of like saying Paris is better than Rome, so you don't need to bother. What? The two have virtually nothing to do with each other. I am SOOOO glad I listened to friends who said although they hadn't been to Jerash, there was no way I could skip Pompeii. The other thing I got was you HAVE to see the Archeological museum in Naples. The third biggy for history/museum geeks is Herculaneum but there are only so many hours in the day, and since I'd heard most of the artifacts had been removed from Herculaneum to the museum, I felt safe in skipping it. Whether that was right or wrong, I can't say, but I'm happy we did what we did, Pompeii, the museum and pizza for lunch. And every single tour that went out of Naples stopped by this cameo factory. It's nice of Princess to try to prop up an ancient and dying art, but I seriously could not care less about cameos. So they shuttle you in so you can use the bathroom and stretch for a few minutes, and off you go to the next thing. I don't know if anyone on our bus bought anything.
I'm not going to go into the details of Pompeii (you can read about it online somewhere) but suffice it to say you cannot miss this! It was astounding, educational, beautiful, really amazing. Unfortunately this is the only day we encountered any sort of bad weather, but even then we were very lucky. We got into the baths just as a deluge of rain started to come down. By the time we'd finished the baths (without dawdling) the rain had pretty much finished. We did get caught in the rain closer to the end but pretty much everyone had rain gear on. I didn't, but I did have my winter'ish coat which I pulled over my head. It wasn't pretty but it got the job done. Note to self, don't forget the friggin umbrella! On a side note, one of our friends who also visited Pompeii in a separate group said as soon as it started to rain (much earlier for them as they arrived later) one woman declared that they should stop the tour and just head back to the bus. The guide thought this nutbag was speaking for the majority and almost called it quits. My friend and some others apparently spoke up and continued on, with the woman complaining the entire time that they should stop.
The only thing of note from our group is that after we were finished and waiting at the meeting place, our guide had 4 (!!!) different old people approach her because they'd lost their group. One guy's group had already given up on him and left, and he was like, well what are you going to do about it? She was asked so many stupid questions on this day I don't know how she got through. For example, there was an old lady who apparently didn't hear too well. The guide was saying how this or that thing (like architecture or religion) dates back to the Egyptians. This woman said, "the gypsies?" and the guide, not understanding her said, "yes, the Egyptians" and kept talking. After MINUTES have gone by the old lady says, "oh, you are saying Egyptians!" hmmmm, where have you been for the last 11 days? Later she's talking about the wife of Jason (of the Argonauts) and what Jason did. The old lady asked her, "what about the Jesuits?" Seriously people, try to keep up. And god forbid read up on your Greek and Roman mythology before going on an historical tour of Southern Europe. Anyway, she was a fantastic guide and was able to cram in a remarkable amount of the museum in a fairly minimal amount of time. The long and short on the museum; you should place this in the pantheon with the Louvre and the British Museum. It's that impressive. I would go back to Naples just to be able to spend more time in this museum. Or maybe do Herculaneum and the museum since I missed that last time.
On a separate note, some friends of ours went on a hike of Mt. Vesuvius. Again, this is the only day we had bad weather and they got PELTED with hail while on the mountain. Apparently it was awful, although they did say in nice weather it would have been beautiful. They were disappointed at having made a bad choice since everyone raved about Pompeii and the museum.
So that's the cruise! Read Less