Saturday, 30 January 2010

The Med cruise

Day 1: Let's start by saying there are 3 families, each with two kids. 11 days. Do the math and the luggage alone is crazy. We planned ahead though. We each had at least one car parked down in Naples at the Navy base. This way on the return trip we have transportation home... We then enlisted a small convoy of Honda Odysseys to get us all to the train station. So far so good... The train is an hour late... No big deal that is why we took the train the night before. Seven hour train ride to Genova. We got to our train station, got off and schlepped our ton of bags about a mile to the hotel. What a site for the good people of Genova. A long single file line of Americans and their kids and there dozen or so suitcases and garment bags at 11 PM. The hotel was pretty nice. We slept good.
Day 2: At sea. Room was a fiasco. Cold, rough day in the Med. If you had told me there could be 10 foot or better seas in the Med I would have said, "No way." There was.
Day 3: Olympia. Pretty neat seeing the site of the Olympic Games. They used to happen every five years, not four. She explained it weird. Four summers and then the next year they would have the games. The site was destroyed by earthquakes and covered by floods. It doesn't look like the Greeks restore like the Italians. For instance you can see in Pompeii where they are putting some back together as they excavate. It looks like in Olympia, as they excavated they left everything as it was found. They rebuilt a few key pieces so you can get a feel for what it looked like. Very pretty area though. Very green. Pines, oaks, olive trees, and grass. The site included the old stadium, different types of training areas (running, wrestling, boxing), a women’s area, and a small museum. Women were not allowed to enter the stadium area during the games. One woman did get away with it though. Her father was an Olympic champion. Her husband was an Olympic champion. Her son was competing. So she cut her hair and dressed up like a trainer. In true mom fashion as her son won, she cheered and made a scene. She pled her case and since she was surrounded by so many Olympic champions they let her off. If we decide to go back, traveling to Greece should be easy. We can take a ferry across the Adriatic. We'll have to do a little research first though.
Day 4: At sea.
Day 5: Israel. Really good tour guide for Jerusalem. As with any large group tour it was fast paced. We started off by going to Mt Olive where we got a nice view of old Jerusalem. This is also the site of the Church of the Ascension, where Christ was said to have ascended to heaven 40 days after his resurrection. It is interesting seeing so many large churches, mosques, and temples all over, together. Next we went into old Jerusalem and retraced Christ's final walk. The whole area is a giant market. We went into the church that was built on top of the crucifixion site. Within the church there are several denominations. It’s kinda weird to consider really. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant... The guide said sometimes it gets a little tense as the different factions argue about who gets to use the church on what days. The rock the cross was stuck into, the marble slab he was wrapped up on, and what's left of the pillaged tomb were all there. The actual cross was found there but is somewhere else now.
Next we followed the path he took while carrying his cross. Mostly market now there are markers on doors and walls where the different "stations" or events happened. Next was the West wall. The one wall that the Romans didn't flatten of the second Temple. Still a very active prayer site. Men and women are split so they don't "distract" each other. Here we happen to also see some of the Israeli Army. Three years required service for men. Two for women. Five? for officers. All heavily armed, but very friendly. Austin has a picture wearing one of their berets as they are carrying grenade launchers.
From there to lunch. Very good. Chicken, eggplant, couscous, some barley thing, a pasty type thing. All good. Then to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. First, Bethlehem is in Palestinian conntroled territory. Our Jewish tour guide was not allowed to go into the city because some guides have been kidnapped. The next guy wasn't anywhere as good. The first place they took us was a tourist, marked up, souvenir shop. The prices were easily jacked up 5 or more times what we could have gotten the same stuff for in the markets in Jerusalem. I'm pretty sure it’s like an entrance fee for the tour busses. The Church of the Nativity itself is built right on top of the site where Jesus was born. It was built around 300 AD when Constantine's mom, the reason Christianity exists on a large scale, wanted it. The background on that, some of our older Roman blogs might cover it, was Constantine’s mom was a Christian. Constantine became Emperor Constantine around 300 AD. The Emperor then made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire which then made it a big deal. Anyway, the church isn't small but isn't huge. There were maybe 500 people crammed in the various rooms. We got a quick run down on the fact that the church is split in three groups, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Armenian. The street venders (beggers) here were aggressive but manageable. Much better prices.
Not a bad tour over all. I don't think Bethlehem would have been better even with a different tour guide. Some friends booked a private tour for the same sites and because he was Israeli he couldn't go into Bethlehem either. So for political/ religious reasons you're stuck with guides that are really there just because they know tourists will come.
Day 6: Going to Egypt right? Not so much. We were about an hour or 2 late leaving Israel, same night the Lebanese plane crashed in a storm, and the weather remained so bad the Egyptians closed the port of Alexandria. A day at sea and off to Crete.
Day 7: Crete. A beautiful Greek island. The fifth largest island in the Med. Mountains and beautiful coast. Pretty old towns. The day would have been better if we spent a day researching on line what towns we wanted to see and what path along the coast to drive. That, a rental car, and a GPS would have been great. The tour we went on wasn't what we expected. It was labeled "Villages of Crete." In Italy if you do that you will find a town that is big in ceramics, another big in Lemmon cello, another for wine, etc. We ended up on a tour bus that took a very pretty drive, which would have been great if we could have stopped a few times to take in the fantastic views, to a small tourist town, which was mostly closed because it is off season, and then to a bigger town (also a small port town). The driver may have given us a brief history on each but I think his accent was rougher or something because we didn't get much more than the city names. We got about 30-45 minutes to walk around each town. So not a great tour, but the good thing is if we decide to go back we can catch the military rotator (space A flight) over on a Wednesday and back to Naples on a Friday and stay at the Air Station.
Day 8: We're in Egypt! The tour here was exactly what we expected and wanted. We took a tour bus from Alexandria (named when the Romans had control) to Giza. The pyramids here are amazing. Huge. The three big ones are for a father, son, grandson set of kings. Interesting enough each son had his pyramid built a little smaller than his fathers out of respect. So each king gets his own. The wives (one king had 37) get the little pyramid in back as their tomb. At one point there were 117 pyramids in Egypt. Even where we were in Giza if you looked through the binoculars you could see different pyramids in most directions. In Giza there is also the Sphinx. All of it was just wild to see in person. The sand, the camels, the donkeys... From Giza we went to Sakkarah to see the first pyramid. Built 4500 years ago, it is about 1/10? the size of the Giza pyramids. They are restoring the bottom portion now. The king at the time made an offer to a very good architect at the time that he couldn't refuse. Build me a grand, new type of tomb. If I like it I will give you the title of King of Architecture. If I don't I like it, I'll have you killed. He apparently liked it. We also got to see some of the elaborate entrance/ tunnel. It decended about 100 steps and even though straight line distance to the pyramid was about 100 yds, it curved and winded around so much it was 6KM long. Next was a 4x4 ride through the sand and over some dunes. Not a long ride but it was in between the two previous sites and offered a couple good views and photo opportunities. At the end of that we pulled up to a herd of camels. Everyone got their own and we rode camels back the rest of the way to where we started. It was about a 15-20 minute ride. There must be an art to riding camels because I was ready to get off. Maybe mine had a weird gate to his walk... Finally "lunch" at 4:30. We brought with us, and were given snacks earlier to hold us over. The food was great. It was at a small country club type of place. After that we stopped at a three story store for souvenirs. They had paintings, jewelry, and then anything else the street people were selling. In Israel/ Palestine I complained about this. Here not so much. The prices weren't as inflated and the paintings I bought (we got two) are of real quality. The other thing is the people at the sites are aggressive salesmen (sales kids). You can't simply be polite and say “No thank you” to most. Ignoring at least got you through and an occasional stern “NO” got the others off your back. So to not deal with that was worth it. The tour was great.
Most Egyptians make about $7200 a year. While not as poor as some countries that still hurts. Most of the economy is driven by crops, tourism, and although the guide did not say it, I assume some oil. Gas was less than a dollar a gallon. Driving around as much as we did (it is three hours from Alexandria to Giza) you notice a big disparity. Everywhere is trashy. Most places are run down. But then there are some places you can tell are for the wealthy or strictly for tourists. I think this life is what breeds aggressive street selling and a general dishonesty. After we got off the camels the guys tried to tell us we owed them 25 euro for each ride even though we were part of the group and they clearly knew that. The tour guide gave us good warning all along the way though the day. 80% of the population is Muslim. The remainder is Christians and a small group of Jews. While the tour guide said "We don't care about religious differences. We are all Egyptians" I don't think I really believed it. 95% of that 80% may feel that way but the small fraction made it a necessity for each tour bus to have a submachine gun toten private security guard on board the entire day. Someone else said it is a kidnapping issue also. I'm glad we got as good a tour as we did. I loved it and would recommend someone do it the same way, but I won't go back. My hair is a little longer and I had grown a decent beard by this point in the week. For the first time in the last seven months I felt that it was good to not look like a clean cut US military person. I didn't feel it as much in Bethlehem but I think that is because we were in and out. I didn't see a single place in Egypt that I thought, "We could stay at that hotel and easily and safely get around to see sites on our own." Maybe it’s all the American press telling us how bad Muslim states are for the past 10 years but the fact that Israeli tour guides can't go to Bethlehem and the fact that we had an armed escort in Egypt seems to support that it’s not all that safe.
Day 9: At sea to Messina Sicily. The cruise itinerary got changed the day Alexandria was shut down. No more Tunisia. Now Sicily. Not a bad thing. We weren't going to do much in Tunisia and Sicily is someplace I want to go but don't really want to drive 8 hours to get to (or take a ferry).
Day 10: So maybe I will make the 8 hour drive some day. If nothing else for the cannolli!! Taormina is a pretty little town. Our tour guide was a wealth of information. Messina, where we actually pulled in is a fairly newly rebuilt city. It was devasted in a few earthquakes, a tidal wave, and WWII bombing. Taormina is a beautiful hill side town. Like most of the Med countries it was under Greek control, Roman control, Byzantine control, Arab control and then finally back to the Italians. It is interesting to see the different building styles (material used) between Greeks and Romans. We saw the difference in Olympia also. The Greeks used big stone (lime or marble, whatever was local) while the Romans made bricks and used concrete between bricks. There were a few really great views. Mt Etna was mostly cloud covered at 11,000 ft. It is the tallest and most active volcano in Europe. The views of the coast are gorgeous. We were then given about an hour to explore the little city. We stopped at a small bakery where I had the best Cannolli I have ever had. So rich. So sweet. SO GOOD! On the way back to the ship we stopped at a really pretty church in Messina.
Day 11: Back in Naples. The ship got in on time. We gathered our bags and walked right off. "Customs" was funny. We walked off the ship through a small building where a guy asked, "Any alcohol or cigarettes?" I have a bottle of wine in one of the suitcases. "Okay."
We took cabs from the port to the base where we had our cars staged. Our cab driver was the most aggressive, yet polite, driver ever. Ah, good to be home.
The cruise was okay. Israel, Egypt, and Taormina were my highlights. I would not go on an MSC cruise again. Service wasn't the same as it was on our American cruises. For instance after a couple nights our waiter warmed up to us and was kidding around with us but I think he just had way to much going on to have the time to really be engaged. Our cabin staff while very friendly, again wasn't at the same level or caliber of Carnival. You pay for all of your drinks. Europeans don't do tap water. The cruise line sells coupon books for coke, water, beer, wine, ice cream, shakes, and alcohol. So then you have to carry them around and sort though them... As an alterative to the main restaurants, there are "theme" restaurants. You have to pay for those. We went one night and even though the guy had probably 1/4 of the work load that the dining room staff had, he was horrible. While the cruise can't control the weather they can plan the timing and distance between ports on the itinerary. I think Naples was the only port we arrived or left on time from (we had 12 hours to go less than 200 NMs).

1 comment:

  1. So interesting! Y'all's itinerary was so different from ours. I love all of the history and background stories. Thanks for sharing!