Saturday, June 23, 2012

An Unsavory Breakfast

The morning dawned under hazy sun and high clouds; it was definitely going to be another hot one. We put on our shorts and T-shirts and headed upstairs to the rooftop terrace for our first Turkish breakfast buffet. We had no idea what would await us but the multi-tabled spread included the usual suspects: yogurts, fruits, cereals, boiled eggs, cheeses, breads, jams, butter and a few surprises like halva, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and the Turkish version of bagels with cream cheese schmears. Coffee and tea were in abundant supply and we filled our cups to their brims.
I also noticed a lovely wine cart on wheels with a nice variety of vintages tucked next to the coffee urns. The young man servicing the buffet told me that in the evening, the breakfast-room-with-a-view turns into a bar and that yes, wine and beer were indeed served. When I asked about the availability of spirits in Istanbul and Turkey overall, he assured me that while some establishments choose to abstain for religious reasons, many others are available for wine-lovers like me. Phew, I thought and breathed a sigh of relief – I was already starting to warm up to Turkey.
We grabbed our customary morning plates (yogurt and cereal for me, cheese and eggs for Joe) and claimed a perfect table by the window. I took a spoonful of yogurt and looking up, instantly lost my appetite. A sad and frankly upsetting family scene was in progress just two tables in front of us. A T-shirted, baseball-hatted man and an adorable little girl in a flowered sundress were enthusiastically enjoying their bacon and eggs. Across the table from them, a woman in a black, face-concealing burka was attempting to eat her own breakfast. I watched in astonishment as she quickly lifted the heavy fold of veil and surreptitiously slipped a forkful of scrambled eggs between her lips as if to be observed eating was a depravity. Just as swiftly, she dropped the black cloth so that her chewing mouth was once again hidden. Her husband and daughter continued to revel in their morning repast while she struggled with every agonizing bite. My stomach was in knots as I watched the woman attempt to get through a meal in public. How can this be? I wondered. Does this woman understand the shackles that bind her? Is this the future she wants for her daughter who is now so carefree and spontaneous?
Over the course of our first days in Turkey, we witnessed so many fathers doting on their daughters, adorable creamy-skinned cherubs with soft blond ringlets and olive-skinned beauties with silky dark manes. How can the power of this misguided theology compel them in a few short years to subjugate these beautiful young girls by hiding them under shrouds the minute they reach puberty? Is a future of anonymity, of being covered and smothered what they dream of for their daughters?
It’s going to take some time to reject the suppression of women in Islamic countries, and it will take years, perhaps decades (and I pray not centuries), but it’s eventually going to happen. It will be up to the younger generations of women who connect in person and via the Internet with others not bound by the strictures of their religion to envision possibilities for themselves and carve out independent lives separate from their fathers and husbands. And there will be young men who want their women independent and not just prizes or trophies to be hidden.
I have four sisters, all of us strong, self-reliant, fiercely independent women, thanks in large part to the way our parents raised and educated us, none of us willing to relinquish who we are or what we look like for husbands, fathers or religion. We’ll all go to great lengths to do what’s best for our children, but beyond that, don’t try to tell us what to do, where to go or what to wear. I envisioned my sisters all sitting beside me in the Lady Diana breakfast room, open-mouthed with horror just as I was, watching this poor woman battling to finish her meal.
Joe and I drained our coffee cups, packed up our things and headed for the stairs. As I glanced back for a final look at the draped woman, I saw that she had pulled a Blackberry from beneath the folds. Yes, I thought, bravo. It won’t be long before communication leads to a yearning for dignity and independence. I suddenly had hope for her daughter.
Pictures of our adventures:

Friday, June 22, 2012

Istanbul: First Impressions

The flight to Istanbul took us over the northern Greek coastline and we could clearly distinguish the Halkidiki peninsula southeast of Thessaloniki with its three slender fingers stretching into the northern Aegean. Our plane then plunged into a thick cloud cover but as soon as we emerged ten minutes later and the terrain below reappeared, we knew we had entered new territory. The neat geometrical green and brow fields had transformed into irregularly shaped parcels in a rainbow of colors, like the art project of a kindergartener who scribbles freehand and then colors in the haphazard shapes that result. Disturbing visions of a Fes-like experience to-come unsettled our anticipation, despite the fact that multiple fellow travelers had told us that although there would be similarities, Turkey would not be another Morocco. We were flying into a murky, indefinite undertaking, having done only bits of inadequate research for this part of our trip. Turkey was going to be a whole new adventure, starting with its largest metropolis, that much was clear. We had no idea what we would find in this ancient city that dates back to 3,000 BC and has been known over the centuries as Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, “The New Rome” and myriad other exotic labels.

Arriving in 80-plus-degree heat, we appeared to have come in from the Arctic dressed in multiple layers of our heaviest clothing in a successful effort to avoid extra baggage weight fees. Joe may have stuck out a bit with his travel sports jacket fitted snuggly over bulky upper wear, but my sartorial excess of tights under baggy black sweats, hiking boots, several shirts covered by a dark fleece and a woolen pashmina enveloping my neck was hardly out of place. The sun was shining and the airport terminal stifling, but all around us were women whose clothing concealed any hint of exposed flesh. The minute I disembarked the air-conditioned plane the sweating started in earnest. I couldn’t imagine having to don this many layers as a matter of course, blistering Turkish temperatures be damned. The variety of female attire in the terminal ran from close-fitting mini-skirts and tank tops to full, black burkas with narrow slits that revealed only the wearer’s eyes. Welcome to the mix that is Turkey, I mused. More the norm were dozens of women in loose, colorful head scarves and belted, floor-length London Fogs cum burkas. All I could imagine while observing the heavy maxi coats was the perspiring that must have been taking place beneath them. These women had to have been swimming in sweat, but of course, any evidence of their indignity was safely hidden from view.

The drive from Ataturk Airport into old town Istanbul was via broad modern boulevards lined with bright, orderly beds of purple petunias, red geraniums and yellow marigolds and closely mowed grassy lawns worthy of an affluent American suburb. We passed scores of tankers and cargo ships lying low in the distance on the Sea of Marmara, waiting patiently to pass through the Bosporus Strait and north into the Black Sea. All along the waterside promenade were men running in gym shorts and singlets and women clad in head scarves and long skirts power-walking. The juxtaposition of male versus female exercise apparel was remarkable.

As our airport shuttle approached our destination, the scenery took a drastic turn and our curiosity about why there were two drivers in the front seats was sated. How many men does it take to navigate a mini-van through Istanbul? Always two: one to concentrate on operating the vehicle with a hair-trigger braking foot and one who knows the ins and outs of every tortuous lane and directs the guy behind the wheel. Our van-with-two-drivers entered a rat’s nest of dusty, narrow streets that wound up and down the hilly Sultanahmet quarter of the old town dropping off passengers along the way. I’m not sure why, but I had expected the city to be flat and here we were climbing steep hills and twisting down sharp curves to finally reach our hotel – the final stop.

Istanbul is home to a sea of humanity -- almost 14 million people live there – and we learned very quickly that everywhere is crowded and constantly teeming with activity. Our mini-van battled tram lines, cars, motorbikes, trucks, bicycles and handcarts through Istanbul’s crazy road system built, rebuilt and reworked over centuries with all drivers ignoring the universal octagonal red signs that commanded “DUR” in big white capitals. Gargantuan tinted-windowed tourist coaches squeezed through the tight neighborhood lanes ill-equipped to handle the complications of contemporary traffic at the risk of snapping off side mirrors and scraping bright enamel paint jobs. Istanbul made unruly Rome seem like a buttoned down English city by comparison.

Our accommodations were of the modern tourist variety (we prefer not to take chances when arriving in an unfamiliar city). Although bright and welcoming itself, the Lady Diana Hotel (apparently the owner loved the late princess) was in the middle of blocks of old wooden structures, some with broken windows and many of which looked like the termites had gotten the better of them. Many appeared uninhabited and needed a good chipping and a few coats of thick paint. Hmm, I thought, this is going to be interesting. The Lady Diana was perfectly situated not far from the Golden Horn, the broad natural harbor off the Bosporus in the center of a triangle formed by the city’s top sights (Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar). Istanbul straddles the 17-mile-long Bosporus, one of the world's busiest waterways, which runs between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea and separates the city’s old sections from the new. It is the world’s only metropolis situated on two continents: one third of the transcontinental city’s population lives to the east in Asian Anatolia but its commercial and historic center is to the west -- in Europe -- along with the remaining bulk of its residents.

On our first night in the swarming city, we ventured out in search of a restaurant with a rooftop terrace and traditional food recommended by Frommer’s. After wandering the old town labyrinth for over an hour and stopping for directions multiple times, we finally arrived hot, tired, hungry and ready to relax. The view over the Blue Mosque was magnificent but as luck would have it, the restaurant served no alcohol and I thought, “So much for our relaxing evening,” as I feigned a smile while ordering a bottle of sparkling mineral water. The alarm had roused us for an early flight at 4:30 that morning and all day in transit we’d looked forward to having some wine with our kebabs and baba ganoush. “Are we really going to have to battle the temperance monster?” I moaned, just as the call to prayer sounded over the city. I warned Joe that if coming to Turkey was going to be like vacationing in Utah where the prevailing religion was ever-present and finding a restaurant that serves wine and beer can be a struggle, I was going to be cranky for a week.

After just eight hours in Istanbul, with its resplendent past and complicated present, Joe and I were on sensory overload. The city was ancient and modern, conservative and free-wheeling, cramped and sprawling, filthy and spotless, young and old, deafening and serene. Overall, it was congested, just like I’d imagined, but even grittier and noisier. It was definitely not Morocco since no one had hassled us on the street but what had we gotten ourselves into. But I had to tell myself to be patient, you’ve only just arrived. First impressions may be misleading but I knew that Istanbul was going to have to do its best to grow on me.

Pictures of our adventures:

Monday, June 18, 2012

How Green Was My Slovenia

What I’ll remember most about Slovenia is the color green. That and hundreds of neatly stacked woodpiles, dense pine forests and a spotlessly clean little country. I had absolutely no expectations when we decided to visit the Republic of Slovenia, only that Joe had told me after he briefly visited its capital city of Ljubljana on a masters degree program trip in 2004 that the town was a lovely, little gem. The five days we spent in Slovenia confirmed that his characterization applied not only to its capital, but to the rest of the country as well. The young nation of just over two million people appears to have emerged from the years as part of Yugoslavia relatively unscathed and was the first former Communist country to join the Eurozone.

We headed east into Slovenia from Trieste, Italy. Our first stop was the Kendov Dvorec 
Hotel, a Relais et Chateaux manor deep in the mountains in the evergreen-rich village of 
Spodnja Idrija to celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary. The property was lovely, friendly and quiet – just what we needed after the hustle and bustle of Venice – and we enjoyed two romantic dinners of Slovenian specialties in the candlelit dining room.

Next on our itinerary was the spectacular Lake Bled set high in the foothills of the Julian Alps up north near the Austrian border. I’m pretty much a beach girl when it comes to relaxing by the water, but this stunning fairytale kingdom lake invited us to put up our feet and stay awhile and changed my mind, at least for a few days, about my favorite waterside setting. Lake Bled is a glistening jewel, pure and simple. Swans float on its emerald waters and gondolier-style oarsmen rowing canopied boats shuttle visitors to the lake’s signature centerpiece, Bled Island. The Church of the Assumption’s picturesque white steeple with its pointed gray tip, its image reflected in the green waters, beckons couples from not only Slovenia, but around the world, to tie the knot on the tiny island. In fact, our hotel was filled with the friends and family of a British couple getting married that weekend – talk about a fairytale destination wedding. To appreciate the mountain lake from every angle, we walked the four-mile, just over an hour-long route around its perimeter. Adding to the drama of the setting was red-roofed Bled Castle, which from its perch high over the crystalline lake provides a birds eye view of the surrounding countryside. Built atop a white limestone cliff that rises from the lake’s shore, the castle is one of the most picturesque we saw in all of Europe and it is definitely worth the hike up if only for the view.

We reluctantly left rural Slovenian for an overnight stay in Ljubljana, one of Europe’s newest capital cities. As we approached from the north on the motorway, there were some shamefully ugly apartment blocks, vestiges of the bygone communist era, but everything remained as clean and tidy as the countryside. The pre-fab concrete housing quickly morphed into the charming medieval architecture of Old Ljubljana, a prosperous place filled with theatres, museums, galleries and no shortage of restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs kept hopping by a significant student population. The narrow Ljubljanica River divides the heart of the city in two and its colorful embankments are magnets for activity, including promenades by scores of strollers. We walked over the Triple Bridge with its three arms reserved for pedestrians, walked through the old town, took the funicular (Joe was in heaven) up to the 12th century castle that watches over the city and ended our day with dinner at a chic outdoor cafe.

Our final destination took us southwest and back into the Slovenian countryside, this time outside the little town of Lipica, home of the original stud farm for Lipizzaner horses. We’d witnessed these lovely steeds go through their paces in Vienna and were surprised to discover that most of them had their beginnings in Slovenia. From the moment we first glimpsed the horses, my heart melted and I turned back into a little girl in pigtails, my nose pressed to the fence, watching the weeks-old foals with knobby knees and spindly legs frolicking in the fields with their mothers. Our guide took us to say hello up close to and stroke the velvet noses of the mature, muscled stallions in the stables, including Kanizo, an equine beauty presented as a royal gift to Queen Elizabeth on a state visit several years ago. I was so sad to leave these noble thoroughbreds and end our tour of the expansive, pristine, very green pastures. When a Belgian woman in our group inquired about the price of a horse, our guide quipped as we completed our tour, “Let’s just say that rich people buy horses and really rich people buy Lipizzaners.”

Slovenia was green, friendly and sophisticated. We had absolutely no problems negotiating the roadways since they were well-organized, modern and were marked well with terrific, clear signage. It was by far the tidiest country we’ve visited and it is already well on its way to benefitting from a solid tourist trade. It has an Adriatic coastline, gorgeous rolling mountains, dramatic peaks, drop-dead gorgeous lakes and an endearing yet sophisticated capital city. “Hvala, Slovenija,” thank you for a delight-full visit.

Pictures of our adventures:

Thursday, June 14, 2012

La Serrenissima

What a luxury – Venice for a full five days! I had visited three times before, for only two nights each – just enough of a stay to get a feel for the city but not really experience its fabric. This time would be different.

Our arrival in Venice was from the Adriatic leaning on the railing over the bow of our cruise ship -- a breathtaking approach by sea in the early hours of dawn. The city slowly came to life as the Aegean Odyssey silently made its way through the outer islands all by its lonesome and then alongside the fishing boats, ferries, water taxis and vaporettos of the awakening city. Our lectures on the ship had taught us much about La Serenissima (the Most Serene Republic of Venice, its formal name) and we were anxious to explore its recesses beyond the madding, camera-toting crowds of St. Mark’s Square and the overrun Rialto Bridge. We had the luxury of strolling leisurely and absorbing the details of tranquil, deserted squares, the Jewish Quarter, the Public Gardens, far-flung streets and the glass-blowing island of Murano. We luxuriated in soaking in the Venice of our imaginationsthe city locked in its glorious past, a place apart from the fast-paced, modern terra firma across the lagoon.

Venice has no classical foundation of its own – no Greek nor Roman antiquity of which to boast or on which to build. Its original settlers fled to the previously uninhabited marshy delta in the Adriatic lagoon to escape plundering Germanic and Hun invaders in the 6th century. Thus, starting from scratch, the Venetians resorted to lifting the ancient treasures of others to establish their own bona fides. The new city arose from the wetlands and despite the fact that it fostered its very own personality and distinctiveness, believed that it was important to create the illusion of links to the beginnings of Christianity. In the 9th century, the new democracy showed its chutzpah by managing to steal the bones of St. Mark from Egypt, thereby proclaiming its very own power and religious stature. Clever marauders, those Venetians...

The so-called canals of Venice are actually not canals at all. La Serenissima is a cluster of over 100 islets separated by fortified passages initially created by de-silting the dividing waterways to allow boats to pass. Each narrow channel evolved over the centuries as the individual islands developed in the muddy waters. Much like a puzzle whose pieces fit together but the resulting image makes little sense because a different artist painted each segment without consulting the others. The streets on one island don’t match up with those across the way and narrow alleys unexpectedly end at a canal with no means for crossing because the various islands worked independently. Comprehensive city planning was not a priority as Venice grew up which is why very few streets actually link together and the overall street pattern has neither rhyme nor reason. As Joe enjoyed reminding me, Venice tests even my normally pretty solid directional abilities.

Hotel rooms in Venice are always dear – it’s a question of limited supply and voracious demand on very tight real estate -- but during our stay they were exorbitant. Soon after our checking into our lovely little (overpriced) B&B just off St. Marks Square we learned the reason why: the Vogalonga (“the long row”) was in town. One of the world's largest and goofiest rowing regattas that invites participants to paddle just about anything that floats through the storied canals for 30 glorious (and I imagine grueling) kilometers, the Vogalonga is a one-day international celebration of “people of the oar.” The colorful event jams 6,000 rowers in 1,650 boats into some of the world’s most beautiful urban waterways. What was launched in 1975 to protest the burgeoning scourge of gas-powered boats whose wakes gnaw away at the city’s antique foundations has revived Venice’s long-held rowing tradition. Gondolas, kayaks, canoes, barges and rowboats of every description with flags of countless nationalities whipping from their sterns formed a colorful pageant as we watched from our vantage point along the Cannaregio Canal.

The hordes of summer visitors can temporarily swell the midday population of Venice to 120,000 twice its normal number of residents. The gelato-wielding crowds crawling the city’s narrow streets were so dense one morning that attempting to exit the tight alley of our B&B was like merging into the choked lanes of the Long Island Expressway. We had to jostle for an opening, jump out decisively and quickly join the flow. There were feral cats lurking all over Venice and all of them looked well fed and content. I suspect that most of the shopkeepers and restaurateurs helped support their presence since I’m sure they share my sentiment: better cats than rats.

We were having breakfast in our satin-walled, yellow brocaded, Italianate B&B and were enjoying the gondoliers crooning "Bésame Mucho" as they passed through the canal around the corner when the earthquake hit. Some minor rocking and rolling with windows jingling, sirens wailing and dogs barking alerted us to the temblor and we later learned that the deadly event centered in Emilia-Romagna had resulted in the deaths of several people. We checked in with our landlord to make sure all was okay and then continued on with the day. Our plans included aimlessly wandering the city followed by a heady dose of culture: a late afternoon visit to the Gallerie dell'Accademia art museum, an early dinner and a night at the opera. While neither of us is a devoted opera aficionado, I do enjoy occasionally hearing those with which I’m familiar. Joe, on the other hand, needed more than a little prodding to agree to attend Puccini’s La Bohème in the famous Venice Opera house, La Fenice. When I told him we could get partially obstructed nosebleed seats for just 25 euros, he acquiesced. He teased me all day about “making him go to the opera” and as the 7pm performance approached, ratcheted up his taunting to such a level that I just wanted the show to begin to silence him. We arrived in plenty of time only to find the square in front of the opera house filled with the buzz of disappointed ticket-holders; the show had been canceled due to earthquake damage inside. I stood incredulous with tears of disappointment clouding my eyes. But Joe, always the jokester and to poke fun at me even further, practically jumped in the air with a celebratory fist pump and an enthusiastic, "Yes!" Well, we didn’t get to see the opera at La Fenice, but we were safe and sound with yet more time to explore La Serenissima 

Leaving Venice was like retreating from Disneyworld to the monochrome swamps of central Florida; we went from Technicolor to black and white in the blink of an eye. One minute we’re in a vaporetto cruising the Grand Canal, the world’s comeliest aquatic boulevard, past romantic salmon, apricot and tawny buildings adorned with flower-spilling window boxes and the next we’ve been disgorged onto the dusty, colorless Piazzale Roma, Venice’s unsightly transportation hub on the edge of town. We boarded a bus and before we knew it were being propelled along the causeway to the mainland. Land is not a premium on the other side of the lagoon and used car lots, dull office complexes and suburban housing projects predominated. On our way to Slovenia, we were back to reality having traded La Serrenisima for black-and-white suburban sprawl.

Pictures of our adventures:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ports of Call

Taking a cruise is sightseeing with a stopwatch. You swoop into a place, see as much as you can with the time allotted and then it’s back on board for yet another meal on the Marco Polo deck.

The Aegean Odyssey arrived on time in each new port with the reliability of a Swiss clock. But similar to the clichéd windshield tour, you dip your toe into the locality and then quickly pull it out because it’s time to go, never having had the opportunity to interact with the locals, explore aimlessly or enjoy down time at a cafe observing resident life pass by. We contributed little to the local economy other than the guide’s fee, the attraction entries and the purchase of an occasional postcard. We had our meals on the ship but made time during a rare free afternoon in Croatia to have lunch in Dubrovnik for a modicum of perfunctory conversation with the local cafe staff. For the bulk of our trip we’ve been immersed in local cultures and everyday goings-on, but for the ten days of the cruise, we lived on the ship, significantly diminishing our experience of a genuine sense of place.

However, there were worthy compensations like the recurrent breathtaking views each time the ship pulled away from the pier, followed by the thrill of seeing a new destination come into view. The pièce de resistance of traveling by ship, the need to unpack just once, is dampened somewhat by the realization that you have only a slice of a day in a beautiful, fascinating place in which you’d love to stay a week. Cruise-ship life is certainly less detail-laden than traveling by land and with many fewer unexpected problems, but the ease of it all can be just a little too antiseptic for me to do more than now-and-then. That sense of accomplishment – that frisson of I-did-it-all-by-myself -- enjoyed when traveling independently doesn’t make an appearance when you’re escorted from place to place. There’s definitely diminished adventure, but the unreserved relaxation was just what we needed for this particular week-and-a-half. Our independent travel thrills would once again make themselves felt before we knew it.

All misgivings about a floating expedition aside, the ship took us just where we wanted to go, no fuss no muss. Our ports of call were magical places, some of which I’d long wanted to visit and others I’d never even heard of.

   Nafplio/Mycenae, Greece – A two-hour drive southwest of Athens, Nafplio is a pretty town on the Peloponnese Peninsula, crowned by a medieval fortress high on the hill. It is elegant and chic, graced with lovely Venetian and neoclassical mansions and its wharf is awash with classy cafés whose colorful cushions beckoned us to come in and if we’d had the time, would have made us want to stay. We walked up the 999 steps to the fortress and breathless, were rewarded with spectacular views across the Argolic Gulf. A short bus ride from Nafplio were the hilltop ruins of ancient Mycenae, an important center of Greek civilization in the second millennium BC and home to King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek Army in the Trojan War.

   Olympia, Greece – We docked at Katakolon, a seaside village on the western shore of the Peloponnese and our gateway to Olympia. Spending a morning among the ruins in the verdant valley, communing with the spirits of the ancient Greeks who flocked there every four years for more than a millennium to celebrate the sacred games dedicated to Zeus was forever imagined and finally realized. A sanctuary for the games rather than a town, Olympia includes a stadium and hippodrome where the athletic contests were held (the marble starting and finishing blocks are still in place), the Palaestra, or wrestling school, and the Gymnasium (from the Greek for nude), where all competitors were obliged to train for at least a month. The complex was also a national shrine and thus included temples, altars and votive offerings for worshipping the gods. The most celebrated temple was that of Zeus, inside of which was a monumental statue of the father of all gods in ivory and gold. Next to Zeus’ Temple was the Heraeum, dedicated to Hera, his wife, which included the podium for the garlands prepared for the games’ victors. I lost myself in reverie, imagining the ancient games of physical glory; I could practically hear the cheers of the crowds and see the oiled, bronzed musculature of the athletes in action.

   Monemvasia, Greece – Travel can reward you with delightful surprises and Monemvasia did just that. The village (whose name means “single entrance”), linked to the mainland by a short, narrow causeway, is located on a small peninsula on the southeastern tip of the Peloponnese at the base of a 650-foot high Gibraltar-like rock. The ruins of a medieval fortress look over the cobblestoned lanes lined by ochre-colored houses of the constricted, fortified town with its Byzantine churches, bougainvillea-covered squares and charming stone architecture cut into the rock cliff. Monemvasia enjoyed a long reign as a primary port through the Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman empires (it was a regular stop for ships sailing between Constantinople and Venice), but is now simply a beautiful, rocky sliver of post-antiquity Greece. A switchbacked path took us by the ruins of churches, mosques and formerly grand buildings up to the forsaken fortress where we could look down on the town and out over the seemingly endless blue Aegean. I so wanted to stay in this place with its back to modernity and its face to the sea, for lunch and dinner and a night under glittery skies. When we found ourselves deep in the village’s maze, unsure of how to return to the town center, an open-hearted woman who spoke little English recognized our plight, led us under arches, up stairs and down alleys and pointed us in the right direction. Before letting us go, however, she invited us in to see her property of which she was clearly proud, a renovated monastery turned sophisticated boutique hotel. We will return to Monemvasia, I vowed then and there. The village was magnetic -- a place I won’t soon forget.

   Ithaca, Greece – The island home of Odysseus and Penelope off the western coast of the Peloponnese and nestled next to Cephalonia, its bigger, more frequently visited neighbor, was green and lush with an inviting natural harbor at Vathy. But Aeolus, keeper of the winds, decided to flaunt his might, thus making it impossible for us to disembark via tender so the ship pulled anchor and we left soon thereafter. We disappointedly waived goodbye to Ithaca from the stern of the Aegean Odyssey, rationalizing that perhaps it’s sometimes good to leave a location with just a bit of longing.

·      Corfu, Greece – The first Greek island Joe and I ever set foot on in 1979 has some of the most beautiful coves and hidden inlets I’ve ever seen. The combination of green pines, blue waters and white cottages is simply, chromatically perfect. But on this brief cruise stop, we had a mere couple of hours to see one of the two fortresses and wander the rabbit warren of the island’s main town with no time to experience Kerkyra’s beautiful coastline. Much had changed in over thirty years with the town’s charming streets now overrun with tacky tourist shops all selling the same tchotchkes. The main square facing the old port on which we’d stayed in a cheap, walk-up hotel with sawdust pillows as backpackers had fallen into disrepair since most of the local activity had migrated around the headland to the chic Liston colonnade neighborhood. As we sailed away from Corfu, we held out hope that the rest of the island had remained as pristine as we’d remembered, untainted by massive cruise ship tourism. After five weeks in the land of Pericles, I was filled with a tristesse similar to what I’d felt when we’d left our dear friend, Italy. Waving farewell to Greece was like saying goodbye to yet another old friend; she had treated us so kindly and we would miss her warm embrace.

·      Butrint, Albania -- As we approached the Albanian port city of Sarandë, it was clear we were no longer in Kansas. Communist era apartment-block housing of stupefying ugliness and only half of which had been completed, looked like it could fall down tomorrow. The entire seaport needed a good coat of paint and a legion of street sweepers. But a few miles from the city via a rattletrap road that could shake your teeth loose lies the remarkable archeological site of Butrint, an ancient Greek city and then Roman colony surrounded by a lagoon. I had never before heard of this settlement in southwestern Albania, quite close to the Greek border, that was abandoned during the Middle Ages after it was overtaken by encroaching marshes. Perhaps the repository of ruins remained clandestine because for so long it was behind the iron curtain in dirt poor Albania and word did not get out about the lush archeological treasure hiding beneath soaring eucalyptus trees and home to throngs of singing frogs. Our lovely guide, Maria, was quite frank about her country’s economic difficulties and how far they have to go to get even close to neighboring Greece and Croatia in terms of exploiting tourism and attracting foreign investment. She was a kind soul with an industrious spirit and if a representative example of her country’s people, it bodes well for Albania making steady progress toward a better future.

·      Kotor Bay, Montenegro – Often referred to as Europe's southernmost fjordthe Bay of Kotor in southwestern Montenegro is a narrow, winding, waterway. Its shores have been inhabited since antiquity and host some well-preserved, picturesque, medieval towns. We cruised the bay for a deckside tour over the course of an afternoon and then headed back out to the Adriatic and north to Croatia.

·      Dubrovnik, Croatia – Noted as one of the ten best medieval walled cities in the world, Dubrovnik is a seaport gem tucked into the southeastern tip of Croatia. In its heyday, it was the only eastern Adriatic maritime power to rival Venice. After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Serbian forces besieged the city for many months and much of the old town fell victim to ongoing shelling and sustained significant damage. Twenty years and millions of dollars later, much of the city has been rebuilt. To fully appreciate Dubrovnik’s beauty, it really must be seen from a rewarding walk along the two kilometers of the massive fortifications that surround it. From their vantage points, we were able to look down over the characteristic orange tiled roofs and get a good feel for the city with glimpses of daily life on rooftop terraces, in small walled gardens and behind private gates. Statues of Saint Blaize, patron saint of Dubrovnik (and throat maladies), adorn the city throughout as he holds a model of the city in his left hand for safekeeping.

   Split and Trogir Island, Croatia – Roman Emperor Diocletian and native son of Croatia built his retirement palace in his hometown of Split, formerly a Greek colony and now the largest city along the Dalmatian Coast. The city takes its name from the plentiful yellow flowers of spiny broom that cover the surrounding countryside (spalatum, in Latin), which we witnessed on a side trip to Trogir Island, a walled town and harbor just to the westSplit’s medieval center actually developed inside the palace walls, thereby forming the core of the old town with its twisting tangle of streets. On one side of the fortifications along the bustling port is a broad harborside plaza filled with inviting restaurants and flowerbeds. Around the corner to the right are the fish merchants and in the opposite direction and around to the left is the sprawling green market. But these were not the art-directed arcades we’d visited in so many other cities with shiny fish on iced display with delicate lemon slices to adorn them and glossy fruits and vegetables in perfect piles. No, these were gritty, graphic bazaars -- unsentimental presentations in flat plastic containers of all manner of slimy sea creatures fresh from fishing nets and rods, some of them still moving, with blood oozing, fishhook tears gaping and smells overpowering. Away from the stench of the fish on the far side of the town walls, stall after stall of irregularly shaped vegetables in wooden crates that still bore the dirt of the fields and fruits that remained attached to their branches were offered by the callused hands of the farmers themselves. It was hard to imagine that these rudimentary presentations could eventually be transformed into the perfectly orchestrated food pageant we were headed back to on the ship.

·      Zadar, Croatia – Our final stop along the dramatic Croatian coastline was the fortified port of Zadar, the historical center of Dalmatia directly across the Adriatic from Venice. The marbled city streets where Roman ruins sit next to Byzantine churches are rich in history, art and architecture and as a university town, its center has a cosmopolitan vibe with lots of young people out and about. While still relatively undiscovered, Zadar appears to be doing a good job of luring visitors to her pleasures with attractive restaurants, trendy bars and a waterside promenade with a fascinating sea organ that turns movement of the wind and sea into intriguing harmonic sounds.

Our ports of call were scenic and historically significant, the excursions were enlightening and educational and what helped bring it all to life was one of the compelling attractions of traveling on the Aegean Odyssey. Insightful lectures by expert speakers on board complemented what we saw and learned on land. Speakers Chris Wood, a former art history professor at the University of Melbourne and Sir Michael Rose, a retired British Army General were fascinating educators and their knowledge of and enthusiasm for their subjects enhanced our trip immeasurably.

As our Adriatic cruise neared its end, we had mixed feelings about going ashore. Being on board had been a welcome break from bag-dragging exertion, the ship’s staff couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful and the itinerary was just what we’d hoped. It had turned out to be the perfect way to survey the Peloponnese and Adriatic. But while we’ll miss being aboard, it will be good to once again genuinely mingle with the people of the countries we visit and to once again be masters of our route. 

When my spirit lags and I’m feeling rather sentimental, I’m convinced that our year is simply a series of goodbyes: to places we’ve grown attached to, people we meet, our visiting children and countries we’ve come to love. But then I perk myself up and remember that there are new adventures and more possibilities yet to come. After all, Venice is our next port of call and we can stay there as long as we like. Walking down the gangway back into the real world and leaving the safety of the ship’s hull for the final time felt a bit like being dropped off at college after a respite at home. We were elated to be back on our own once again but already missed, just a bit, the rhythm and relative ease of life on board the Aegean Odyssey.

Pictures of our adventures:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Growing Old With Gusto

There’s growing old gracefully and then there’s growing old with gusto. I just love this quote by writer, Mark Frost, and God-willing and good health-permitting, hope to follow its contention: “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body. But rather, to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming...Wow, what a ride.” I’ve met too many people who chide, “Act your age,” or who decide that growing old means sitting in a lounge chair watching others have fun and the world pass them by. I once met a woman who decided to chop off her long, beautiful, blond tresses because, “I’m too old for hair below my chin.” What? Who makes up these rules? Spending a full ten days at sea with the older set gave us ample time to observe and then envision how we’d like to spend our later years. It certainly won’t be sitting in a chair and if the spirit doesn’t move me, I’m not planning to cut my hair.

Most of our shipmates were continuing to embrace life, paying little attention to the fact that they were well into their 70s and 80s. Diminished physical capacity and the always-present aches pains of maturity, what my Dad says his Mexican grandmother called “Los achaques de edad,” are not easy. But studies have found that those over 65 are the happiest demographic and over and over our elders admit that one of their few regrets is that they wished they’d been less cautious and had risked more.

We tend to abhor aging, especially in the US (and do all we can to disguise it), when what we should actually be doing is welcoming the change and the freedom it affords. Rather than looking in a mirror wondering what happened to the taut muscles of our youth or trying to figure out how in the world we got so jiggly, our backs so stiff and our knees so creaky, we should concentrate on what else we want to learn and where else in the world we want to experience. Much easier said than done, of course, but we need to follow in the footsteps, literally and figuratively, of Angus from Toronto and Bob from Philadelphia.

We spent time speaking with Angus, his lilting Scottish accent belying any thought that he’d always lived in Canada and his khaki adventurer’s hat protecting his head, a former civil engineer cruising alone. He had lots to share about his travels and interests and Mary, the love of his life, whom he had lost to cancer when she was in her fifties. Angus had traveled all over the globe including to Antarctica the year before and he showed us some of the delicate watercolors he’d done of penguins and landscapes. His artwork was remarkable, but what was even more amazing was that he’d taken up painting just two years before. Now 91, Angus was an artist newbie who did absolutely beautiful work. Bob from Philadelphia, also traveling solo, was in our excursion group and at 86 had not yet tired of seeing the world (just like my Dad who at 84 travels significant distances every few weeks to see one of his 11 children and 26 grandchildren). This was Bob’s second cruise on the Aegean Odyssey and he’d already booked three more. He told us about how he had sold a successful restaurant in Provincetown on Cape Cod 30 years ago (“You wouldn’t believe how much they paid me for it,” he confessed, still incredulous) and had spent much of his windfall traveling ever since. No longer quite steady on his feet, Bob needed an assisting arm or firm grasp from a travel mate to go up and down the uneven stairs through the old towns and over the rock-strewn ancient ruins. There are few helpful handrails in Greece, Albania and Croatia, but Bob kept going like the Energizer Bunny, shuffling one foot in front of the other and always arriving on time.

There were only a handful of passengers (in addition to the aforementioned bitch-with-a-cane) who still, at their advanced age, hadn’t learned proper manners. After a heartfelt talk in the Ambassador Lounge about Venice by a British woman who had married an Italian and lived in the city with their three little girls, an older woman in the audience declared rather frostily and with obvious disappointment, “I had expected your talk to cover more about your daily life...” It hadn’t occurred to her that there might have been a better way to ask the young speaker to share the details of living day-to-day in Venice that might not have sounded so condescending.

There’s always something to learn from our elders but sometimes the tables can be turned. I did my best to school one elderly British gentleman on the benefits of the online world when he scolded me while I sat beside the pool with my Mac on my lap, tsk-tsk, to stop looking at my computer and just enjoy the trip. I drew a long breath and took a big bite of the shiny green apple I’d taken from the breakfast buffet before I responded. The cartoon thought bubble above my head read, “And you think I’m not enjoying myself because...?” I felt chastened and since I don’t like the feeling, I responded that I actually was enjoying myself and decided to follow up with some questions:

“Sir, are you reading books on board?”

“Oh yes,” he replied, “I’m reading several.”

“Well, I’m reading a really good memoir on my computer. Do you read the newspaper?” I asked.

“Of course,” he added, holding up the printed Guardian excerpts provided each morning in the ship’s library. “Do you?”

“Yes, but my newspaper is on my laptop,” and I showed him the article I was reading.

Pushing my luck, I then asked, “Have you written any postcards since we left Piraeus?”

“Yes, a few,” he admitted, “to my daughter and my grandson.”

“And I write notes to my children as well, almost every day, but I send them emails with pictures attached,” I shared.

And then he observed, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I saw you typing this morning in the Observation Lounge for an awfully long time. A long email?”

Clearly, my intimate relationship with my laptop and the time we spend together had piqued this man’s interest.

“I don’t mind at all,” I told him and then filled him in on our yearlong travels. “I’m writing a journal about our experiences and it’s all right here on my trusty computer.”

“I’ve always wished I’d kept a journal each time I travel, but I’m afraid I never have,” he confessed, rather wistfully.

We talked a bit more about traveling and as he packed up his things to head inside for tea, conceded, “I stand corrected. You appear to know just what you’re doing poolside.”

The next morning, he passed by me at breakfast with my computer open next to my muesli and yogurt on the table and with a quick wave and a wink declared, “Enjoy the headlines!”

I think I may have won him over. With gusto.

Pictures of our adventures: