The Monasteries at Meteora

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After a late dinner and bed by midnight, the thought of rising early wasn’t appealing.  But we set our alarm and crawled out of bed by 6:00am.

Our destination today would be Meteora where we would be visiting the Greek Orthodox monasteries of Saint Steven and The Grand Meteoron. Although we had serious misgivings on the condition of our bus, we decided not to abandon the tour for two reasons.  First, we were exhausted and couldn’t think straight. Second, we weren’t sure about transportation back to Athens….. about five hours. So we hesitantly stayed with the group and hoped for the best.

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After a nice breakfast at the hotel we loaded the bus for a relatively short drive to our destination. In the distance we could see the the rock formations upon which most of these 14th century monasteries were built.  You could also see various caves where many years ago some hermits and monks took up residence. There is estimated to be around 1,400 of these shelters in the cliffs.

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At one time there were 24 monasteries in Meteora, but today there are only 6. It’s estimated that there are only about 60 monks and/or nuns residing in these remaining monasteries. Today these monasteries primarily function as tourist attractions. 

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As for told, the Meteora monasteries have strict dress codes. The men were instructed to wear pants, no shorts.  Women were required to wear dresses, no pants.  Also if we didn’t have the correct attire there would be skirts available.  True to form, as we entered Saint Stevens, there was an assortment of skirts and shawls.  I quickly picked out a wrap while Lila purchased our entrance fees.

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Saint Stevens is by way of a bridge the most assessable of all the monasteries in Meteora. It has a varied history dating back to the Byzantine era. More recently though, part of its chapel was heavily damaged during WW11 and subsequent Greek conflicts. Then in 1961 it was turned into a convent.

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Our tour begun in the old refectory which now houses a museum. We saw many old relics such as manuscripts and artworks dating back to 330 AD.

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As we explored Saint Stevens further we came across the sacred skull of Saint Charalampus, it’s second patron saint. The skull is housed in a box under glass and caught us by surprise.  It was donated to the monastery in 1398 by the Prince of Wallachia Vladislav.

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On our way to the next monastery we stoped at a rocky overlook which required a bit of climbing. The climb was well worth it with an outstanding view of the valley below and some of the pillar formations that make up Meteora.

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Our next stop was The Holy Monastery of The Grand Meteron. It’s the most impressive of the 6 remaining monasteries being the largest, oldest and highest.  To reach the sanctuary it required walking up a steep staircase which switch backed it’s way up the rock.  Viewing from a distance the visitors making the ascent looked like ants on a hill.

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After conquering the hill we all met up for our guided tour.  We gradually moved up through the monastery while Lila pointed out a wooden board which I believe represented the wood of Noah’s ark. 

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She also discussed the history of the various frescoes adorning the walls.  It was about then when several priests walked past on their way to the chapel where they began to sing in this beautiful Gregorian chant.  This was truly a mesmerizing moment and I wished our group had moved another 20 feet to watch the priests perform. Eventually we did make it into the chapel….. after the priests had left.

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The chapel was amazing though and filled with beautiful frescoes depicting the Apostles and various biblical scenes. Lila then spoke for what seemed like an eternity about the artwork. Unfortunately due to the crowd size, she was hard to understand or follow what she was pointing at. In comparison a French group near by were decked out with the latest hearing devices and the tour guide had a laser pointer.  After a quick presentation their group moved on.

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Eventually the tour concluded.  We now had free time and Lila was gracious enough to point out things to see such as the old nursing home/ hospital on site, gift shop, an observation area for taking photos as well as the location of the restrooms.  Great!  Then she said that we’d meet up at the bus in about 30 or 40 minutes.  Wa what????  You see it would take at least 20 minuets just to descend the stairs back to the bus not to mention the line for the women’s restroom!

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Like disciplined disciples we obeyed and took a few photos on the way to the restrooms before making our way back to the bus. The chilly weather we had enjoyed in the morning was now warming up.  This was even more evident as we boarded the bus which was again hot and stuffy. Were we going to have another “bus breakdown”? I dared not entertain the thought in fear of jinxing our return to Athens….. and subsequent flight back home.

At this point all we wanted was a good lunch and a safe trip back. With our lunch destination not far, we focused on food and the fact that all the meals on this tour had been good.  So after arriving at the overpriced cafeteria style eatery, we were understandably disappointed.  

Oh well, I admit we were tired and cranky. Frankly it was time to end this tour. We just wanted to get back to Athens and take a shower.  I felt like there was sludge covering my entire body.  I was also going crazy from the Mosquito bites I acquired while standing on the side of the highway during the 3 hour “bus breakdown”.  I also was now acutely aware of the itchy bites covering my right arm, which was probably a consequence of dust mites.  An educated guess of course since I only sat on the right side of the bus with my right arm constantly rubbing up against the dusty curtain.

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I’m not sure how long we were on the road before our bus pulled over at a unplanned rest stop.  Out the door the bus driver flew. Our fear was realized when we saw the side of the bus opened to expose the bottled water. 

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 Yep the bus was overheating. After hydrating the bus we traveled about 20 minutes up the road to a small village, where Lila was arranging for a new bus.  I suppose I don’t need to mention that this should have happened sooner, but grateful that she was prepared…. this time.

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We were told there would be a coffee shop in the village.  There wasn’t, but a merciful winery owner open her doors and offered us all fermented beverages. 

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After about 45 minutes a shiny new bus arrived and the luggage was swiftly transferred into our new ride. Our new bus was so wonderful! It looked clean, it felt clean and the curtains were so nice….. not to mention the vehicle just seemed to purr down the highway.

When we arrived in Athens it was dark.  The tour groups passengers were dropped off in various locations based on their accomidations for the evening.  We choose Syntagma Square.  Here we hailed a taxi to the Sofitel Hotel, about a 45 minute ride, which is adjacent to  Eleftherios Venizelos Airport. The hotel was awesome and perfect for catching our early flight  home.

The Bus Breakdown

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We got hosed with a split in the radiator hose.

In tour life, two things are for certain, there will be mishap adventures and the bus will travel the most after lunch so we can all take a nap.

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We were zooming along in our post lunch snooze fest when the bus suddenly pulled over after a toll booth in the middle of nowhere. The place were these things usually happen is nowhere and this place happened to be a cotton field.

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The bus driver jumped off the bus and after a while we were told that there was a slight engine problem that would soon be fixed and to stay on the now impossibly uncomfortable warm bus. We begged Lila to open the side door and she said she couldn’t. Oh balogna, here we go again.  A lady shouted that the bus needs to be running in her defense and I almost spit out my water. Wrong.

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The back of the bus people started to move forward and out of the bus at the front exit. As I approached I explained to the forward passengers that they were getting a pleasant breeze that us back of the bus people didn’t have, and popped off the bus to hang out with a small group leaning up against the guard rail.

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I want to be clear, we were parked in the emergency lane, or breakdown lane, about a stone’s throw from the toll booth in a safe area.

Our guide Lila immediately said that we needed to be on the impossibly hot bus for our safety. I said that we were fine, and legal, right where we were. Some other passengers had joined the resistance and said pretty much the same thing.

And friends, this is when we started to hear Lila say , “10 more minutes” about every 10 minutes for the next 3 hours. I can appreciate her optimism, but loathed her dishonesty. About every 20 minutes we were told that we needed to  be back on that bus. One lady said that “We love you, but we are not getting back on that hot bus.”

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We heard many excited phones calls from Lila and the bus driver about what seemed to be a leaky water hose. The driver and one brave passenger with a sense of mechanical knowledge took turns at trying to tighten the hose clamp near the leak. But they did not have a screw driver or a wrench or some pliers to tighten it. A call of help went out to our bus mates that produced some nail clippers, tweezers and some scissors in which they tried to used to no avail.

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After about an hour of putzing around with various men staring at it, me included, we were told that a call went out for the bus repairman.

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A highway safety employee had then arrived putting cones from his parked truck to the bus to guide idiots leaving a toll booth from a full stop to not hit the big damn bus parked in the breakdown lane.

Were we to get another bus, was one on the way?  It was never answered or announced to the group. Any direct question to Lila was answered with 10 minutes and to get back on the bus. Everyone was off the bus at this point, some came and went, but most started to bond while hanging out for another “10 minutes”.

The cotton field was sprayed by a tractor and then left for the day, the sun started to set and it was going to be anther “10 minutes”.

It was announced around the 90 minute mark that a repairman was on the way and he was about, “10 minutes away”.  I tried to take a nap but was awoken with talk that the repairman was here. Or was he? He was driving a small 1980’s compact truck with a few items in the back bed and was approaching from the opposite direction. He started to slow down before the toll booth and where there was no traffic. There were two lanes going each direction and a big apron of empty concrete in front of the toll booths. He parked on the side and started to walk to our side of the road, and Mr Highway Safety Nazi went crazy with authority stopping our rescuer in mid road. He forced him to drive 6 kilometers away to make a legal turn and then drive back to us and that should have taken about…10 minutes.

20 minutes.

30 minutes.

45 damn minutes later we surmised the Safety Nazi pissed him off and made him spend two toll charges and was not coming back. Did he take a dinner break?

60 minutes later. SIXTY minutes later the repairman cruised up. We were told that he missed the 6 kilometer exit to turn around and had to travel to, who knows, it was probably horse manure, but there he was, with real grown up tools.

Five minutes later the radiator hose was off, a new hose was cut to fit and it was being tightened. Then water had to be put in the radiator using a cut water bottle as a funnel just like the professionals use. 

We were back on the road in a little over three hours. During our drive back we had an announcement from the Lila. She said, “I was going to wait until later but I want to tell you now, that after talking to the home office they are going to offer you all free drinks at dinner!” Crickets. This was an insult adding to injury. Free cheap wine, crappy beer and generic soda! For free! No one applauded or said a word. 

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The hotel was another hour away and we arrived at 10:30 for dinner. After a quick refreshening, we ate and it was midnight just like that.

Post mortem:

  1. There were no basic tools for repairs, not a screw driver or a pair of pliers and no duct tape.
  2. Poor communication on what was really happening or being done beyond 10 minutes.
  3. We were told that there were no buses anywhere near and the closest was 13 hours away.
  4. No other bus could help ferry us. 
  5. No other tour bus at the hotel 1 hour away could help us. I counted 6 buses at the hotel.
  6. We were constantly told to get on the bus or to stay behind the white line for the emergency lane.
  7. A passenger asked about taxis, and The Lila’s response was “How many would it take?” A passive aggressive way to say they could not afford it or coordinate it and I couldn’t imagine 12 taxis driving out to the cotton field.
  8. The tour people blamed the bus people. The bus people,offered no help that we heard.
  9. They were unprepared and seemed to have no game plan the first 60 minutes.
  10. No new bus was waiting for us the next day, we took the same bus up in the mountains taxing that cooling system.

Delphi and The Oracle

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This morning we were off early to visit the Archaeological Site of Delphi, considered to be the center or “navel” of the “Ancient Greek World”.

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Temple of Apollo

We entered the ruins at Delphi while following our fearless leader Lila. After a short walk we took a rest near The Temple of Apollo.

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While sitting on stones she filled us with the fanciful tales of the Oracle at Delphi.  All really quite fascinating. 

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The Oracle or otherwise known as The Pythia was the high priestess of the Temple of Apollo.  She was believed to be the voice of God or the spirit of Apollo. She was thought to have prophesied the future while inhaling vapors that arose through crevices in the rocks, causing her to fall into a trance. 

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But where were those reported “fumes” that arose from the rocks?  Modern Geologists believe that at one time underground water carried gasses that were thought to be Ethylene in origin along two fault lines. These two fault lines intersect directly underneath The Temple of Apollo. 

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Over the years there were many Pythias with several serving at the same time.  The only requirement was that they were chase.  Originally the chosen Oracles were young virgins but latter they were replaced with older women who the ancients felt were less likely to be seduced.

People would travel for months to consult the Oracle and visit the temple of Apollo, but not all would be allowed admittance. During the sessions, while the priestesses was in a hypnotic state, she was reported to speak in strange tongues or simply be uttering gibberish. Her words would then be translated by a Priest, who was the only other person allowed in the underground chamber.  It’s interesting to note that the prophecies were given in such an ambiguous way that it would allow the Oracle to always be correct ….. depending on the interpretations of course.  So was it the Priests that held the true power at Delphi and perhaps the whole Ancient Greek world?

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Sphinx of Naxos

After our visit of the ruins we toured the Delphi Archeological Museum.  The museum is very popular and located adjacent to Delphi’s archaeological site.  We walked through the museum which is composed of two floors and houses items excavated from the site.  Most notable is the Sphinx of Naxos.

 

Rebels in the Ruins

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

We woke up early and in good spirits with a renewed faith in our tour and guide. We were not disappointed. After all we were on our way to Olympia, Temple of Zeus and God to the Warriors. It was also where the first ancient Olympic Games were held and is where the Olympic flame began.

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The drive from Nauplia to Olympia was long.  But the weather was good without the predicted thunderstorms from the day before. As a matter of fact the bus drove on under sunny skies as we were welcomed by a surrounding landscape  similar to California, complete with rolling hills and olive groves.

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After arriving at our destination Lila quickly got off the bus to purchase our passes.  Soon after we gathered at our meeting spot and were given directions to the bathrooms and eventual museum. Into the site we proceeded with great enthusiasm while listening to our guide describe the history of this place. Her stories at first were interesting, but it soon became apparent that our time to experience Olympia was being hi jacked by her overly detailed monologues. 

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We then noticed a few other people peeling away from the group and that was all we needed for a little disobedience. Yes we ditched our tour guide Lila and were joined by a fellow bus mate Anne Marie.

Olympic Stadium

Olympic Stadium

It was great to explore Olympia and with Lila out of site we wandered the ruins like rebels. It was fascinating to see areas where the ancient athletes trained and where the gymnasium once stood.  There was also the original Olympic stadium, a large flat field, but which seemed small to today’s standards. 

There were also remnants of temples to the Gods Zeus and his wife Hera. It’s interesting to note that the orientation of these temples were from east to west with the entrances on the east. Many of the beautiful statue were placed in the west so as the sun rose the light would illuminate them.

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 In front of Heras temple is where the  Olympic flame burned. Today the Olympic torch is lit here, several months prior to the games, and where the torch relay begins before making its way to the Olympic cauldron.

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No one is for sure how the Olympic Games  begun, but were considered rituals dedicated to the Gods. They are believed to have originated sometime around 8th century BC and continued for at least 12 centuries.  Then with the popularity of Christianity around 4th century AD, the Olympic Games were banned by the priests. 

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With Olympia holding no value for early Christians many of temples fell into disrepair, except for a few that were converted into Christian churches. Eventually the masonry was upended, with the stones and metal stripped, causing further deterioration. Statues were also destroyed or pillaged. In addition earthquakes took there toll on the land. Eventually mud covered much of the existing structures. Over the centuries houses were built on top.  Today Olympia is a major archeological site. 

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After playing hooky, we met up at the museum for the guided tour. It was interesting.  We then boarded our air conditioned bus for a long ride to Delphi. 

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On the way we passed the Rio–Antirrio Bridge, which crosses the Gulf of Corinth, linking the town of Rio on the Peloponnese peninsula to Antirrio on mainland Greece and is considered a major 21st century accomplishment. I was unable to get a good pic but our friend Anne Marie was able to get the better shot above.

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The evenings accommodations were booked at another Amalia hotel.  Again this hotel was super nice with an awesome view.  This was a good day.

Day One

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Today we rolled our suitcases about 700 meters according to Google maps and met our Greece tour group at the Amalia hotel. Our first impression  was that it was organized and professional. Good, all aboard.

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We made a stop at a bridge over the Corinth canal linking the Agean sea and the Iberian sea, a big deal back in 1920, but since the invention of super tankers and cargo ships the size of small islands the canal is too narrow doesn’t get much use.

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The tour visited the archeological site at Mycenae which is about 90 minutes west of Athens and where we were met with our tour guide Lila’s first fumble. She had gone ahead to buy tickets for us all and upon which she stood by the turnstile to scan each of us in, until she got to us bringing up the rear. With no tickets left in her hand she said; “You are not with my tour”.  “Oh yes we are” we chimed! So off she went running up the hill talking to various people trying to find out what happen and who had the extra tickets. After an awkward couple of minutes she returned with no explanation to our question and scanned us in. Another tour guide explained that she had scanned two members of another group in using up our tickets. No apology, no golly gosh, no laugh.

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We then caught up to our group and she announced, “You can see what happens when you don’t stay with your group.”

What?! My brain to mouth filter came off saying “Well it’s no fault of ours.”  Wow! Lila was making it sound like it was our fault to the group!

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Ok, we had a tour queen who never makes mistakes. Also, she knew a huge amount of history and needed to say it all. It was too much information. She also had a bad habit of peppering her monologs with “OK”, followed by a pause like we were moving on, but no she would go off on another historical tangent while the group slowly peeled away on their own. And this was the first stop!  Marla and I were both holding our tongues trying our best not to be negative, however that restriction soon came off.

The Browns didn’t want to be “late” again so we were right on time to the bus, in fact we were a few minutes early.  Surprisingly the bus driver hadn’t opened up the bus and was talking to his bus driver buddies, making no attempt to acknowledge us or open the door while we stood in the hot sun. Lila arrived and instructed him to open the door and he did but stayed outside engrossed in conversation.

We then boarded and were hit in the face with a sweltering heat blast and backed right off to seek shelter in the shade of the bus, while the bus engine was running sucking up diesel fumes …. Holy Shitballs!

The driver hadn’t got the air conditioning going before the group arrived and by now the rest showed up going into the bus and immediately backing out.

Maybe there was a miss communication between Lila and the driver on the time we were to return. Again no apologies, no jokes as the guides are good at to relieve the tension of travel snafus.

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Another archeological site came up with an amphitheater and a museum. Lila was really on her game with historical facts and figures hardly taking a breath except to say “OK?”. Enough with the OK’s already, set us free to roam please! The Browns and others soon started to wander off.

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We had some downtime and a group of us shared some shade under the pines trees and a breeze cooled us off before it was time for the bus. As we boarded the same old familiar sweltering heat blast greeted us and our cool, dry clothes were soon wet with sweat. They usually always have the air conditioning in the bus for those seeking refuge or if they can’t keep up with the group.

We were upset and even the Canadians were complaining so you knew this was serious. I was going to say something but did not want to be  “that guy” so early in the tour, until the air conditioning shut off and the heat with tempers started to rise.

We agreed to say something at the next stop and gave the Canadians the heads up. After exiting the side bus door we walked to the front door waiting for our guide Lila to come out. She did and we asked for a moment.

Me, “you have to do something about the air conditioning , it’s been sweltering the last two times and it’s supposed to be cool inside, not the other way around, right?”

Lila acknowledge that we were in front of her talking, but panicked and didn’t say anything. A group had formed around her chiming in with sounds of agreement and misery.

Now, I don’t handle the passive aggressive non response to well and had to confirm that she got the message and was going to do something about it. This was where most guides jump in with apologies, lame excuses and jokes but agree to fix it. Lila said nothing. I put on my Boss Hat and said, “the bus needs to be cool when we get on, right?” And got a meek yes in the affirmative. “And you are the one who can fix this, right?” Lila was pissed! I had called her out and forced to to do something. I hate having to do that. I want to relax, have fun, enjoy the tour and not be stressed out.

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Hotel Amalia

Our stop in the town of Nafplio was good and better yet our bus was cool upon our return. Nice. Also the hotel for the night was really great. Unfortunately, with such a bad day it was hard to truly appreciate our accommodations.

The Curse is Lifted

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The Curse is Lifted

The medicine was working its magic, but Marla still had another restless night, yet was improving enough to have some breakfast. 

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We took it slow and easy planning a day with as many bathroom stops as possible before walking over to the HoHo bus.

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The bus took us to the stadium of the first modern Olympics held in 1896. Greece had hoped to host the Olympics in 1996 commemorating the 100 anniversary but lost the bid. The entire country took this lost hard and fought back making many improvements winning the bid to host it in 2004.

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The next stop was the Temple of Zues which did not look like much from the bus and we hit it later during our nightly walk. Our goal was the Acropolis and the museum.

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The Acropolis museum opened in 2009 and was fantastic. The were many stipulations required and one was that it could not hinder excavations currently in progress. So, the museum has several glass floors, some several stories high, over the excavations. 

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The marble statues and friezes look amazing with the help of modern laser cleaning. They actually looked better than new with a few chunks missing here and there. 

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The lasers are similar to the pulse lasers used for skin rejuvenation and tattoo removal. It makes the brownish centuries of funk turn to white. Genius.

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The museum’s method of displaying features of the Parthenon is also ingenious but hard to describe. The Parthenon had a series of frieze panels circling the top of the building that pictured tales of the gods and battles. These friezes have been mounted in the museum to walk around and view.

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A tent was set up in front of a section where the laser cleaning was being done displaying a visible, before and after result. 

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Some of the statues have missing pieces and have been mounted in glass so you can view with the help of a drawing, what used to be 2,000 years ago. Like many European museums you can get literally nose to nose with the sculptures. 

Once again, we were overwhelmed with how old the artifacts are and how damn cool they were. These were offerings to their gods and had to be perfect.

The Greeks had many gods to explain the forming of islands, mountains, the weather and the tides of the seas. 

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It was time to climb up the Acropolis ( ancient word for big rock) and view the Parthenon. We timed it perfectly to be in the middle of the day when the heat and humidity was at the peak. I figured that I would grab a bottle of water on the way and figured wrong  getting very thirsty. 

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The path is rocky and takes some time to climb the 1,000 feet to get up there while dodging tourists with selfie sticks but the view is fantastic. You can’t go inside the Parthenon, (of course, what was I thinking?), however you can loop around it taking in the city view and selfie sticks. 

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We had another “Things They Don’t Tell You moment”, there are industrial buildings up there to accommodate the workers and to do archeological stuff. Of course.

After making the loop we headed down the hill to hydrate and eat gyros. We hopped on the HoHo and headed back to the hotel for a shower and a nap.

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Later that evening we walked down to Zues’s temple and found the Plaka, a supposed wild and crazy shopping area, that wasn’t, the flea market was so much better before walking back to xxx plaza for dinner.

Footloose in Athens

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Footloose in Athens and Mykonos’ Revenge.

Day two in Athens was unplanned and that worked out well because Marla was feeling the results of a bad salad in Mykonos and had a rough night.

So, I went to breakfast on my own and then with the help of the front desk found a pharmacy open in Sunday. Many local businesses close on Sunday and if they do open, they close around 2:30.

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There was a 24 hour pharmacy about a half a mile away and I took off with a map in hand visiting a quiet neighborhood away from tourist activity. It was a nice walk and after passing two closed pharmacies in the way I entered the store and there was only a young girl dusting shelves who didn’t understand my request. I had practiced what to say and how to pantomime it if needed. She then motioned me outside. Was I getting kicked out for bad acting? No, the pharmacist was relaxing outside on a bench looking at her cell phone and had apparently heard and understood my English and poor acting. 

She gave me some medication instructions and 2.20€ later I was strolling back to the hotel feeling cocky enough not to look at the map and overshot a turn taking a more scenic route back to the hotel.

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Marla was in bad shape and she kicked me out into Athens alone, afraid but not nakid. I made my way over to the Hop On bus to pre run our planned visits for the following day. I was the lonely old fart on the bus and didn’t hop off but took note of where and when we would go should she feel better. I read my Jo Nesbo book, The Son, and it was quite good.

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I drank coffee and discovered these delightful ring shaped cookie-biscuits with sunflower seeds on top and a taste of molasses. I may have had 4 throughout the day.

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I came back to the hotel to check on Marla then took a nap, watched TV and took another walk ending up in the big plaza across from the Parliament building. 

After finding a nice bench in the shade I read, wrote and watched a small crew film a music video with BMX riders doing tricks in the background. The police were drinking iced coffees and enjoyed watching it too.

Marla felt good enough for a short walk and we hunted down a cafe that was opened not far from our hotel. She had a little food and then it was back to bed for her and I finished up the night reading and people watching in the hotel’s coffee shop.

And then, Athens

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And then, Athens. Or fair is fare.

We disembarked from the ship with ease and headed through the terminal to the taxi stand. A police officer pointed us towards the next taxi and our driver was warm and engaging. We were warned that traffic would be really bad and the taxi fare would run around 23€ or maybe as high as 30€ if traffic was really bad taking up to 30 minutes.

It was early Saturday morning, there was no traffic to speak of and our driver was jamming making excellent time arriving in about 15 minutes. I did noticed during the ride that no meter was running which is not unusual for some flat fare rates. He unloaded our bags and said “45€”. What?! I said it should be 30€ giving him the benefit of the high side of the fare.

He said 45€ and we paid up like soft Americanos and steamed our way to the hotel. A cafe manager later told us that the fare would be 13€. We considered it our contribution to help the Greek economy.

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Our room was not ready and we were expecting this so we walked down the street passing a Rolex shop, a hint from the Grecian gods, and found a Hop On Hop Off bus two blocks away in front of the Parliament building.

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The tomb of the unknown soldier faces the street here and there is a routine marching of the guards with about 100 spectators. I don’t understand that given the seriousness of the monument people were taking selfies and smiling away being goofy. 

We hopped on the bus and the driver took off while still punching buttons on the credit card machine and handing me a receipt to sign. Skills.

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After a few stops and melting in the mid morning sun on top of the bus we jumped off and at stop number 15 to stroll around a plaza and there was a Flea Market, we were in hillbilly heaven. We walked and shopped buying an x rated bottle opener, a tee shirt and some lightweight cotton shirts in white. When in Greece…

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In the middle of our white trash shopping spree we noticed an A. D. R. ( Another  Damn Ruin)  It was Haydrian’s Library, or what was left of it, so we took a break to sweat it out among the ruins and it was only 4€.

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The library was nice, quiet and not over run with touristas. They had only recently open the ruins to visitors in 2008. 

I’m going to take a moment here and reflect on these stone buildings that were erected 400 to 200 B.C. We were that smart and advanced 2,000 years ago? What the heck happened? Have we devolved into scamming fat tourists? 

Well anyway, it does hit you while walking around. Respect.

We finished up and found another street of flea market goodies to devolve into.

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The Hard Rock Cafe was there and we passed it sneering at it full of self importance and sophistication, before making a U turn to satisfy our of craving of nachos. The Hard Rock was air conditioned and the wifi was excellent, the nachos, not so much.

After lunch we boarded the Hop On and hopped our way back to the xxxx square were it was an easy walk back to the hotel.

Am I a Travel Snob?

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Am I a travel snob?

I booked a lot of tours for this trip.  It’s something I don’t usually do, but this adventure is different.  I didn’t want to think much other then be entertained by knowledgeable locals, and to be honest it’s been hit or miss on these excursions.  

Our fellow travelers on these little “field trips” have tended to be more on the elderly side,  but we have encountered all ages, shapes and mobility challenges. At times with my aging knees and Allan’s feet we are right there with them.  Usually though we feel a bit trapped…unless we have an outstanding guide.  

Even with that we often have issues with the devices we’re given to listen to our expert.  Sometimes it’s not the device but the tour guides ability to use it correctly.  For instance one guide kept talking so close to the microphone that all you could here was distorted noise.  

Then there’s the guide that sounded too rehearsed and basically recited the Wikipedia.  She didn’t need to ….. because basically we were going to read it anyway. 

Another guide was nervous and panicky.  For example when a member of our group didn’t feel well she threatened to shorten the trip.  Ok I really felt bad for this traveler and was ready to jump in and help, but on the other hand there should be some kind of alternative plan to handle such situations.  I mean statistically when you have an elderly group of individuals the odds are someone might die. It could happen…..

Welcome to Mykonos!

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Mykonos means pile of stone. According to Greek mythology the island of Mykonos was created when Hercules threw a huge stone into the Aegean Sea creating this twelve mile patch of land.

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Later it was said that Hercules lured “The Giants” here from Mount Olympus where he destroyed them and where the large rocks scattered about the island were believed to be the petrified corpses of those Giants.   

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Mykonos, like many of the Greek islands, is deeply steeped in Greek mythology.  The tale of Hercules’s creation of the island describes quite well the geography of the area.  

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The rocky landscape in contrast to the white houses is striking. But why are the houses white? Historically the houses were natural stone color which helped to camouflage the settlements from invaders. But in 1938, due to fear of diseases, a decree with enacted that required all the houses to be lime washed white.  It was easy to enforce this law since Greece, like all of Europe prior to WW11, was under a dictatorship and did not have to deal with a democracy.  So whether this helped to control diseases or not is debatable, but the white color did help keep the houses cooler.  

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Also we noticed that most of the houses have flat roofs with rounded sides.  This helps with water runoff as well as the wind….. and it gets very windy in Mykonos, with wind power being a major generator of power.  

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As we toured the island today not only were we educated with these Greek fables and historic facts but were driven to the xxxx monastery.  The building and the interiors all seemed so familiar. 

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But what struck me the most was the life of a monk.  Their existence, in order to be closer to god, required remaining silent, celibate and sleep was seldom.  It’s no surprise that years ago this monastery housed over 50 monks, but today there are only three.

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We eventually made our way into the shopping area of Mykonos.  Not a shopping mall, but little shops and restaurants numbering around 5,000. It was a fascinating area with a labyrinth of curvy streets originally created many years ago to confuse the pirates.

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Our eventual goal was to reach “Trikini Beach” (hat, sunglasses and flip flops with clothing optional) but we never found it …… so we left ours clothes on and took the Sea Bus back to the ship……

Island of Crete

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Crete and Cretens

Although it’s only been 3 days as I write this, Marla and I both had difficulty remembering what we did on Crete as the tours started to blend together. Was that one with the monastery? Was there a cumquat factory? It was a sign of a good vacation or old age. In fairness we have been to at least 2 monasteries and we are getting old.

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Crete was the island where an agreement was made in 1922 to have the Crete Muslims move to Turkey, and the Turkish Christians move to Crete regardless of where they lived or were born.  This was the Treaty of Lausanne  following the Turkish Greek war, otherwise known as the Western Front, and was the condition for Greece to get their independence from Turkey. Wow. Many people lost land based on their religious convictions.

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Our Crete tour was uneventful and basically a 90 minute drive to a monastery that looked like the Alamo in Texas and then a drive to a small seaside town.

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During the tour of the town we played hooky and ditched our group for a walkabout on our own and some lunch. I had the best lunch in my three weeks of vacation and I’m not sure what it was but it was the favorite of our waitress. It had bits of chicken in it and marinated vegetables with a taste that I can best describe as a subtlety spiced Panda Express fire honey chicken that was sweet. Damn it was good and a large portion too for 10€. I needed a nap afterwards. Marla had some chicken with pita bread and a side of slowly cooked WiFi.

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It was hot and muggy near the harbor and we discovered some penis shaped bottle openers that we vowed to buy at a future stop. We had a hot walk to the bus and boarded before immediately exiting due to the crappy air conditioner and stood on the shade like the other passengers. 

On the ride home the air conditioning did not improve and we got blasted by the afternoon sun on our side of the bus. The lack of oxygen lulled us to sleep and we were glad to be greeted by the icy blast of the ship’s air conditioning.

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In hindsight a free day at the beach would have been better choice  but all the tour descriptions sound good. We were probably getting a case of tour overdose and were looking forward to Mykonos.

Corfu and Coffee

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Corfu and Coffee.

Today was a day of truly first world problems and complaints sprinkled in with the beautiful Greek Island of Corfu.

It was the first time that our tour guide was clear, concise and had excellent pronunciation. The problem? She sounded like she was reading a script from Wikipedia and we missed the passion that often comes with the local guides. I found out later that she was raised in Montreal explaining her perfect English.

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Fifteen minutes into the drive we stopped at the mandatory “tour gift shop”. Yawn.

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This time it was a cumquat store ….. cumquats?….. that featured every lotion and potion you could think of made from the fruit of a cumquat, including a liqueur. Who was ready for cumquat shots at 9:00am? Not many were and we wasted 30 minutes right off the bat with this frivolous and irritating tour stop we have come to call “The Leather Factories”.

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Are we travel snobs? Probably, and the tour continued to what was the highlight of the day, Achillian Palace up in the hills of Corfu.

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It was packed with hot and sweaty tourists moving like lava through the grounds and palace.

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The views were amazing and the Kaiser of Germany Wilhelm 11 thought so too and bought it in 1907 for his summer residence.

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The Palace also served other functions over the years such as a former casino and a location for a James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only”.

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We then crawled our way through the Palace now sharing amused looks of how crowded it was. The tour guide repeated an emphasis on how beautiful Cisi was who lived there, how skinny she was and also how depressed she was, seriously we must have heard that trifecta of factotums 10 times. Sometimes tour guides run out of material when the tour takes longer than expected and they start riffing.

We met at the bus at the appropriate time of 10:10am and we waited until the bus started up at 10:20, and we were still parked at 10:30. Our bus driver then bolted off the bus and started passionately explaining to the cars blocking our way to move while the other bus drivers joined in. It seems that there is an unwritten rule to only drive one way on the road to the palace to prevent a traffic jam during tourist season. The GPS in rental cars though doesn’t know that, so people kept driving up the wrong way blocking our way down the hill on a different route. Forty minutes later we were on our way without bloodshed.

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Our next stop was the old historic town of Corfu and another UNESCO heritage site which is always a good seal of approval.

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However, we took a short look see including a church, that required me to wear long pants, and our time was up. 

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Our choice now was to go back to the ship or take a latter shuttle allowing us to hit the town and visit the interesting fortress on the bay. We elected the latter and off we went. 

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Most historic towns were all built around the 1500’s with big stone blocks with cobblestone narrow streets and the same gift stores worldwide. You can find the same tee shirts, hats and shot glasses with different city names from Russia to Rome, and also Corfu. I bought a hat.

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We also bought a cream cheese filled flakey pastry for 2€ that held us through lunch and I found a shop selling Rolex watches for 30€.

We go to Mc Donald’s more abroad than at home, today was no exception, because they offer free WiFi and clean restrooms. Today’s Mickey D’s had a view of the plaza, a long wait for the restroom and such weak WiFi that Marla could not download a single photo during our hour stay. Such injustice and inhuman treatment! We plan on contacting the American Embassy over this!

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The island of Corfu has changed hands with various countries and empires over the centuries as many Mediterranean countries have. It has been mostly Italy’s before now being a part of Greece. 

With this in mind we climbed up the Old Fortress or the Venetian Fortress which overlooks the bay.  The fortress was originally constructed during the Byzantine era then later reinforced by the Venetians for defense against the Turkish.

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Anchored in the harbor was the world’s largest sailing yacht from Russia that looked like something a James Bond villain would have. 

We came, we saw, we Corfu’d, we WiFi’d and we shuttled back to the ship.

Montenegro

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To be honest, I wasn’t sure what Montenegro was. Was it a principality? A territory? A kingdom? But to be clear,  Montenegro is a country that was formed with the dissolution of Yugoslavia.  It’s located in Southeastern Europe on the Adriatic Sea and borders Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Albania. 

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Montenegro’s history goes way back to the 9th century and the Byzantine empire… but to make it simple after WW1 it became part of Yugoslavia.  Then after WW11 it became a puppet kingdom of Italy.  Currently it’s an independent nation celebrating its 12th birthday. 

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So today was our visit to this small nation of about 620,000 people.  Our destination specifically was the historic town of Kotor.

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In order to reach this area the ship had to maneuver through s small shallow fjord, or actually a submerged river canyon.  As a matter of fact, because of the depth of the waterway, when navigating this area our ships captain relinquished control of the boat to the local sea authorities.

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Also because of the ships size we had to dock off shore requiring us to use tenders (water taxis) for transport.

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What a beautiful little country this is.  We walked directly to the historic city center surrounded by old stone walls and which led to the medieval fortress at the top of the hill. 

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We briefly contemplated hiking up to the fortress but changed our minds due to the laws of gravity.

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The streets in this area of Kotor are winding and paved in stone with numerous squares.  It’s also UNESCO protected so it has remained unchanged.  That being said part of the city was damaged from the earthquake of xxxx, although we didn’t see any evidence of that.

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We also visited the churches of St. Mary’s and St. Luca’s.  Both were beautiful and old. 

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In the St. Luca church there was a listing of the apostles with one name covered up. We’re not sure why.

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Next we checked out the Maritime Museum which had an assortment of artifacts and old guns.  It was hot in the museum and did not hold much interest to us.  Allan later told me that he had wandered outside with an English couple for fresh air, although I had never noticed him missing. Maybe I had passed out? … can’t say for sure…

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What I did find interesting was Kotors fascination with cats.  This is first evident by the numerous cats wandering around.  They’re very tame and appear to be oblivious to us humans.  You’ll find them laying in walkways or on benches, relaxed and maybe laying upside down without a fear in the world.

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Then there are the numerous shops that cater to cat memorabilia like plates, bags, T-shirts and such. We even came across someone’s door adorned with a metal cat artwork.

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After exploring the old section of Kator we ventured out to the harbor.  Again very picturesque and lined with little boats and yachts.  Actually these small vessels are probably the best way to visit this town without the hassle of tenders. It was also pretty interesting checking out these boats on one side of us,  while the other side was a two lane street jammed with traffic.  Ahhh such is life…..

Desperately Seeking Nothing

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Desperately Seeking Nothing 

I get it now.  Yes I truly understand.  After squeezing 6 days of activities into 3 we are thoroughly exhausted.  Who would have thought?  I think we’re more tired now then spending a month walking across Spain or cycling in France. Yes a day at sea seems to be just the ticket.  As I look at my Princess Cruises “daily organizer” the thought of a couples massage and tooth whitening seems appealing.  Even the posture analysis, which I could benefit from, and the shoe insole demonstration on deck 5 are a possible maybe.  Although I have to rule out Jive dancing class, the possibility of bingo and board games could be a perfect fit.  Yes as we sit here in our lounge chairs, guarding our perfect patch of paradise, a movie under the stars might appear on the large screen before us.  Yes…. today…. I will desperately seek nothing…..

Pompeii and the Volcano

Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius. Let’s do the Time Warp Again.

Today we were to visit Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius after getting up early. Our tour guide Rachael was very jovial and liberally peppered her commentary with analogies of Italian life and dozens of “Momma Mia’s” .  Our itinerary was immediately switched and we headed to Pompeii first because Vesuvius would be too slippery from the rain. What? We thought that we would now be baking on the volcano in the hot mid day sun.

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Upon arrival in Pompeii the first impression is that it’s not that spectacular looking. It is conveniently located off the freeway and it looks like a bunch of boring ruins on a hill, with the requisite souvenir stands and that’s the way the tour started. Once again we had the radio and earbud combo so we could roam around while Rachael did her talking.

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It was a slow start and rather smart of her to do so as the ruins got better and better. If you did the tour on your own with the supplied map you would not get the history or nuance of the dwellings and would pass many buildings by.

Pompeii was a bustling wealthy city of around 150,00 people with streets paved with lava rocks. There were public baths, rich people with beautiful mosaic tile work in their homes and and two amphitheaters. 

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The city included pedestrian only walk ways, drainage for the rain and cafes. Before the eruption Pompeii had a sea harbor., afterwards it created the land mass that is now Naples. The streets had bits of white travertine inserted into the joints of the lava stone pavers so it would be reflected at night by moonlight and easy to see.

Pompeii was a city that was, and then it wasn’t. The Mt. Vesuvius volcano erupted in 73 A. D. covering the city in lava and pyroclastic volcanic ash. Most of the city is still underneath this ruble. The current excavation started in the 1950’s and stopped in the 1980’s. 

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The ash was so hot that it vaporized the citizens and covered them in a volcanic cocoon. Some of these lava cocoons have been drilled and filled with plaster, and then later cracked open to reveal the human form, or dog, in their last moment on earth. It’s sad to look at, but that is not the defining image of Pompeii as the excavated ruins revealed a city that was full of life, art and trade 2,000 years ago.

Most of the famous ruins of the world have at some point been looted, destroyed or their stones used for another project through time. The Roman Coliseum’s stones were used in the building of the Vatican, and the limestone outer layer of the Egyptian pyramids was  used for local city projects.

Pompeii is still there, most of it didn’t survive the pyroclastic devastation and the wood is gone, but damn, what is there is amazing. How did they have the smarts to build this 2 millennia ago? What will the generation 500 years from now be amazed at what we did? Other than the invention of rock and roll, not much.

Our savvy tour guide made us walk uphill at first and then downhill at the end of the tour and the buildings got better and better. She knew her stuff.

After a well informed two hour tour we were allowed 40 minutes to eat and we headed right for the stone oven fired margarita pizza and what was now our favorite beverage of The Travel Geeks tour of 2018, orange Fanta.

The bus ride to Vesuvius was about 45 minutes long and we stopped at the ubiquitous tourist trap gift store, this time a coral jewelry factory store. Yawn. But, the toilets were nice.

Our red blooded and short statured Italian bus driver started up the twisting road of Mt Vesuvius honking as he approached the blind corners. We had two seriously close calls with cars that made Rachael let out a few Momma Mia’s and the bus passengers gasp. We have come to expect nothing less in Italy. What is one  of the biggest sports watched in this country of former chariot race fans? Formula 1 racing. Ahhh, now we get it.

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Our driver pulled into a dirt lot at the top and we understood why our agenda was changed, we were fogged in and people were wearing jackets up there. It would have been cold and slippery in the morning.

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We strode out unaffected and dressed for the baking sun that wasn’t there destined for a case of fog burn. The 20 minute climb ( 20 Italian minutes) was actually around 35 minutes to the top where we took in the fog scape, with an occasional partial glimpse of the crater.

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Marla and I took our photos and headed back to the bus which was now parked along the road another 600 meters down from the parking lot.

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There were understandably some late arrivals to the bus before we headed back to port. We were now seated on the downhill side of the bus, the scary side, for the trip downhill and were able to view a few past lava flows, the most recent lava flow was in 1940. The city of Naples, with a population of over 1 million was below us looking a little like a Mediterranean Los Angeles.

It was a long day, and we were rewarded with some great cell phone reception on the ship upon returning. We took that opportunity to post some photos and catch up with the outside world before heading to dinner.

There’s no place like….. Rome!

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Our next stop was the Colosseum, which was known at one time as the Flavian Amphitheatre and located in a different area.  But with a little conquering back in the day and some local land swaps, the Colosseum was rebuilt in what we now consider to be the city center.

Years ago when we first visited Rome we were talked out of going inside the Colosseum.  It was something which we had always regretted.  We were told “Don’t go in there.”  “It’s too expensive.”  “Everything you need to see is from the outside.” Blah blah blah…. But what were we missing?  So with our return to Rome this understandably was #1 on our bucket list. 

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So here we were with our tour group and it was very crowded.  We had a timed reservation and were walked to the special group entrance. We didn’t go in right away and I watched as one of our  guides seamed to have some banter going on with “the guy” who monitors the groups.  Meanwhile another group was allowed entrance while we continued to wait. I wondered what was going on as she appeared stressed.  But not long after that we were allowed through the gates. Yes! Finally! Check!!

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The Colosseum from the inside was spectacular.  We walked around imagining what it once looked like in all its glory. It’s huge and was designed to hold around 80,000 patrons. 

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We could also see where the arena was designed to be flooded so fake naval contest could take place. There were also various performances in the arts. 

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Unfortunately, over the centuries, the structure has been pillaged with much of its precious stone and metals stripped.

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But there were guts as well as glory with this historic symbol of Rome.  For example, after the “Siege of Jerusalem” in 70AD over 100,000 prisoners were taken as slaves to perform the manual labor needed for the construction of the Colosseum. Many of these slaves would work in the quarries that involved transport of stone from 20 miles away.

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Then there were the brutal games which involved the spectators participation in who would live or die by various hand gestures. Not only were there trained gladiators looking for glory but slaves who fought unwilling mortal contests.

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The use of animals was also popular with the inaugural ceremonies alone involving the slaughter of over 7,000 animals.  

It’s interesting to note that the Colosseum has served many functions over the years such as a Christian church, housing and a stone quarry to mention only a few.

Roman Holiday

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We had an early reservation for St. Peter’s Basilica.  This was great because the crowds had started to form and the weather was still cool.  

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This wasn’t our first visit to the Vatican.  We had spent a week here in Rome years ago and stayed virtually next door where many visiting priests would stay. We even attended mass in Latin at the Basilica, even though we are not Catholic. I remember my youngest daughter saying “Mom!  What are we doing?”  I said “Hush! This will be an experience you’ll remember.”

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So here we find ourselves again. I must say there is always something new to be experienced with each visit to Saint Peter’s Basilica.  Even the sculptures, paintings and architecture become more relevant.  

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Saint Peter’s Square is different too with a lot of chairs, handicap ramps and barricades set up. Perhaps this is do to  the holy year?  We heard that the pope is in residence three days a week instead of one and that he didn’t want the people to have to stand for long during his attendance. This was good but the square seemed so cluttered and was challenging to maneuver around or even get a good pic.

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After our visit to Vatican City we headed over to “Saint Peters in Chains” which is a church that houses the supposed chains which shackled St. Peter while he was in Jerusalem.

The chains are displayed in a glass box at the bottom of a short staircase.  In the corner near the display was a homeless woman which took me by surprise.

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This church is also well known for Michiangelos Moses.  It’s said that Michiangelo was never satisfied with his work on the Moses. I found it amazing.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

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We came, we saw, but did not conquer….

We had only one objective and that was to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  So when our bus pulled into Pisa we bolted off and quickly worked our way through the sea of vendors. 

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Clever we were to avoid all the selfies sticks and tourists creating that perfect picture.  In our 40 minutes allotted to us we felt victory was near. But then reality set in.  We noticed that the line wasn’t too bad, but that’s because there were only reserved tickets.  

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Oh well, we would not surmount the Tower on this day. So we hung our heads low and headed to McDonald’s for WiFi and a beverage.  At this point Allan’s dog like instinct emerged… like a beagle on a fox hunt.  He said “Put the order in and I’ll be right back.”  and out the door he went.  His eye was on the prize of a not so carefully crafted “Rolex”.  The nice Somali started his price at 150€.  Allan told him no way and left to rejoin me. 

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After finishing our beverages the nice man was waiting with a new price of 80€.  Allan shook his head NO as we headed back to our bus.  The nice salesman kept dropping the cost till it was about 25€…. but it was still a no go. So no Tower and no “Rolex”.  It was just another day in Italy.

The Dave, The Mick and The Ryan

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The Dave, The Mick and The Ryan

Today was our tour of Florence, we had visited 12 years ago but we ran out of time and had a very bad tour guide, ( the same one who talked us out of going into the coliseum in Rome), and we didn’t have time to see Michiangelo ‘s The David, the must see of Florence.

Today, the Brown’s had a purpose, a goal and no one was going to keep us from The Mick’s The Dave. The Ryan will come later.

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Florence was about a 90 minute drive from the cruise ship and our tour consisted of about 16 people and we bee lined it immediately towards the Academia which contains Michloanglo.

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This museum also contains other works of Michealanglo including some of his unfinished works, a couple were basically huge blocks of marble with a basic form that he had started to chisel.

Our tour guide spent too much time in the first gallery talking about one fresco that was the Instagram of it’s day showing everyday life of the 1600s with characters of all walks of life including a drunk being helped up on the far left.

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We all pretended to be interested but it was hard this early in the morning and I was leaning on what I thought was a wall railing.

Another guide shoed me off my perch and I wandered over into the next gallery to take a peek at The Dave, he is huge! The walkie-talkie radio strapped around my neck and the ear bud kept me in the loop of our tour guide, Patricia’s, ramblings. The radios are great because you can hear clearly while checking out things you would rather see. It’s multitasking on a sophisticated art level.

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Our group finally got to the The David and it is stunning. The Dave for all you hillbillies is the David from the David and Goliath fable, standing there with his sling over his shoulder, Buck ass nakid. The proportions and detail is amazingly life like and Mick did this at age 23. The guide pointed out all kinds of minutia that I only retained a little of,  one was that the veins in his lowered arm are more prominent as the blood flows downwards, more than in his raised arm. The Dave is one of those things in life that you do keep staring at impressed with the execution of such a thing done 500 years ago.

Our guide went on  to describe various cracks and the slightest of imperfections, and I noticed something she had failed to mentioned yet after you see it, you can un-see it.

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Dave’s hands are frickin enormous! I waited for Patricia to mention it and wondered if she did and I missed it. So, as we started to leave I asked about his giant hands on an already giant statue. They are indeed the only thing purposely chiseled in disproportion for a reason, to represent that only his strong hands and the sling could cause the giant Goliath to fall.

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Patricia walked us up the pedestrian street towards the square where the other smaller  David is now kept.

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The bigger Dave, Big Dave, was kept in the town square until the 1850’s when reasonable minds thought it best to put Big Dave in the Academia Hall and leave Little Dave out in the elements.

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On the way there a car was crawling past the pedestrians to set up a vendor booth and as it made a turn into our group the passenger apparently said something in Italian about us dumb tourists blocking the road.   Patricia then let out a sentence in Italian that was not meant for our ears. As we approached the now parked car the passenger, a lady, got out and Patricia again defended our honor with more fast and furious Italian towards her. The lady responded in kind and it was ON! The exchange lasted long enough for me to take my phone out in an attempt to video it. It was like a movie scene complete with hand gestures from both verbal combatants and there was no backing down. It ended before I could hit the record button, but I did happen to photograph the car earlier as an example of Italian driving. Patricia got a appreciative round of applause and continued like it was nothing.

The English drive on the left like the Aussies, but the Yanks, the French and the rest of the world drive on the right side of the road, the Italians drive on the right, the left and the middle of the road.

The Ryan, Ryan Reynolds .

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We walked through a few narrow streets and alleys making our way to another square where we were to have a break and visit the damn leather factory shop tourist trap where the restrooms where. Tours generally trap you at some shop where the toilets are and you get a discount on your purchases while the guides get a kickback.

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Marla and I immediately avoided the leather shop trap and headed over to where a crowd had formed and a dozen trucks with motion picture equipment had parked.

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There was an area cordoned off with camera crane trucks and stunt cars with security guys looking official. We walked towards a crowd on a side street who had their phones poised in the air excitedly. There was an easel with a poster of the movie production staring Ryan Reynolds with Michael Bay directing called, Underground 6, by Netflix.

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We headed over to the crowd to see a motor scooter with some kind of camera rig on, a fast looking lime green car with two back Alfa Romeros parked behind it. There was some general in between scene commotion and production assistants talking into two way radios and the filming of a chase scene was about to begin.

We heard the word “rolling!”, over the radio and the green car took off with the black cars giving chase. The cars sped down the street and street liter could be seen blowing in the slipstream of the cars followed by gun shots, pop, pop, pop.

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The scene was over in 10 seconds and the cars backed up to reshoot it, a set assistant swept the “litter” back in the street and a young man who looked very similar to Ryan Reynolds got on the motor scooter.  We assumed he was Ryan’s stunt double, and  it was as close as we were going to get to the real thing. They repeated the chase scene again, the fake litter flew up in the wind again and the fake gun shots went off again.

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Cool. The scene appeared to be done as the crew moved to the next street and fake Ryan turned his leather jacket into the wardrobe lady while another assistant carried the helmet away.

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The crew then moved one street over and filmed some more with the fake litter and all. There was no less than a dozen trucks, 6 stunt cars ( one with fake bullet holes in the side) a couple of camera crane vehicles, a real ambulance, a dozen security dudes doing nothing, actually there was a lot of standing around doing nothing by everyone in the crew. However it was so much better than the leather shop.

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We had a cool drink at a cafe on the street of the first chase scene for our  15 minutes of Hollywood magic and felt absolutely fabulous.

We gave in and headed towards the leather shop to use the restrooms and I talked to the bored clerks who said that the production crew had been filming for three days. I showed my video clip of the chase scene three times around the shop so they could ,all see what they were missing.

Funny story, our lunch mates returned from another leather shop with the same jacket that was €200 more in the designated tour leather shop.

The Dave, The Mick and The Ryan all in a day.

Boat to Portofino

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We docked in Genoa around 10:00 am.  The city is located in northwest Italy and boasts the largest seaport in the Mediterranean. It’s a city that is striking in its geography and where the town is built on its terraced levels. 

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Genoa is best known to some as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and to others as the Basil capital of the world.  It’s also a major producer of salt.

Our tour today would take us to two seaport villages about a hour’s drive from Genoa; Rapallo and Portofino. 

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To reach our first destination of Rapallo our route required the bus to travel through a series of tunnels.  C2438C13-B62B-4E72-81B1-89F3E212D4BA

On the way we crossed near Genoa’s collapsed Morandi Bridge, which killed 43 people when it collapsed two weeks ago. Our guide Pablo didn’t want to discuss the bridge other then it was tragic and that lives had been lost.  For us it was surreal to see the remains of the bridge after watching the news coverage from the states.

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After arriving in Rapallo we had a “look see” around the historic center. One interesting thing about this town is its churches. Back in the day churches were built by the wealthy families.

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One of the first churches we saw was the Sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Montallegro, which is striking with its black and white stripes. 

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 The other one was the former English church, St George’s Church.  Pablo mentioned some of the churches were for services and some were for praying only, which was not considered unusual for the time.

After our tour of this town of 30,000, we had snacks and a little free time which was spent shopping in an open air marketplace along the seafront. From here we could see Rapallo’s Castle and the bell tower and dome of the basilica of San Gervasio e Protasio. 

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Afterwards we boarded a boat to Portofino, land of the rich and famous. This seaside village is small with a population of only around 200 people. Portofino’s original industry was fishing, but that changed in the 1950’s to tourism.  As you might expect it’s quite expensive to live here especially since no new housing is permitted.  But boy is it beautiful with the colorful buildings clustered around the small harbor.

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We strolled past cafes and a few high end shops as we gazed at the yachts in the harbor. 

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We then walked up the hill to the church of Saint George which offered expansive views of the bay.  

Portofino may be familiar to those that watch travel shows for the Statue of the “Christ of the Abyss”, which was placed 50 feet underwater in 1954. The statue represents Christ in the act of blessing while looking up towards the sky with open arms.  It’s purpose is to protect the fishermen and the scuba divers.  It’s also dedicated in memory of Dario Gonzatti, the first Italian SCUBA diver.

 

The French Connection

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Marseille, France is infamously known for the 1971 movie the French Connection and the world capital for art thieves. We did not see any indication of either as we began our electric bike tour.

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Marla and I both got the mountain bike version with rock hard seats, which I still felt the next day, even though I had stood up a lot and rode with one but cheek on the seat at times.

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Those electric bikes were awesome and the electric boost feature was only needed on the uphill ascent of Marseille’s Notre Dame. There were three speeds available: Eco, Tour and Turbo. I left it on Eco for the mostly level riding of our 13 mile tour and it was a cruise. 

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Our tour guides were French, tanned and handsome. One guy took the lead, one was at the rear to heard the stragglers and one rode back-and-forth to keep the strays in line.

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The tour started at the modern Mucem museum where we all got used to our new rides before heading out to the old harbor which is in the middle of the old downtown. I passed a road sign that said “Rolex“ with an arrow. Fancy.

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One of our first stops was at Old Port harbor where it’s almost impossible to rent a boat slip and it is very expensive.  The boat slips are actually handed down from generation to generation like the family Farm.

After looping around the old port we made our way to a park and our first pee stop. My stall had the infamous hole in the ground with nonskid foot grips on the side molded in porcelain. I have seen one other one of these about 10 years ago in a small village. Marla had a western style commode. But, I digress.

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The tour guides then herded us toward the xxx monument located across the bay from the Castle where the Count of Monte Christo was kept, as in “The Man in the Iron Mask”. Another group joined us and we were about to head off and the last thing I said to Marla for the next 15 minutes was, “get up front and avoid the slackers”, and off we went to the right. Was Marla stuck in the back after all, destined to be blocked by the slower riders? Where was she?

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Have you seen me? Last seen in Marseille, France.

Had my wife been “taken”in Marseilles!?She was nowhere to be found as I kept swiveling my head around looking for her. A Shipboard friend said that she had left with the other tour group who went across the street versus making a right turn with our pack. Merde! 

If any of you know Marla well enough you know that she is missing the navigational part and her DNA. GPS has been a godsend for her back home. Any hopes of her making a U-turn and returning to us past after a few minutes. The tour guide herders were conversing in French to what the issue was and how to solve it while interpreting my English to each other. I called her on her cell phone and it went right to voicemail, it had been turned off. One guide took off towards her last known direction. I waited with Peter who spoke the best English. After about 15 minutes I saw a familiar T-shirt huffing and puffing up the hill on the left without the benefit of the electric turbo boost. She had indeed taken off with the wrong group. I blame myself for telling her to get up front.

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She was with the wrong group and realized it at their first stop. That tour guide gave her some vague directions to make some left turns to get back to the main Boulevard near the harbor and she had to climb the hill again back to the monument.

The first thing I said was “Well, we now have a great story to tell!” I let her catch her breath before riding at a fast pace, for about a mile, while trying to catch up with our group. The guides had now caught up and we all rode through several red lights like true French cyclists. We also learned a few new French cuss words on the way.

We eventually caught up with our group who were on a break and being taught how to use the electric function for the upcoming steep hill climb to the Notre Dame of Marseille. Not many people really missed us or seemed to care that we took “the scenic route”.

Our guide told the group to use the full turbo button on the hill and to not mess with any other selection. We needed it. After another stop at the base of the winding street I pushed the turbo button. Yikes! I had to quickly shift into lower gears to decrease my speed. Before I could do that I passed a string of seven riders or so. These Electric bike motors can really add to your speed on the hills.

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We made it to the top of the hill of the Notre Dame (not the Paris one) and took about a 30 minute break.

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The view of Marseille from there was breathtaking. 

The ride downhill was fast with the electric function off and both brakes on, because of this some of the other riders decided to walk it instead. The group then descended a narrow path that was paved,  but again some of the novice riders  chose to walk this as well. After that it was easy riding through city streets with the guides blocking traffic for us at times.

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Back at the museum we turned in our bikes and took a city walk where we enjoyed the murals of Marseille. Our guide told us that the Marseille people like to exaggerate and they like things big and that was reflected in the large murals and street art.

After our tour ended and we searched out for some free Wi-Fi finding some at… Burger King. Yes they sell the whopper over here just like the United States.

The Good, The Bad and The Fugly

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There are a lot of good reasons to cruise.  First of all if you book early you can get some great bargains, although if your not careful excursions can cost a small fortune.  It also makes it simple to visit multiple locations while only unpacking once.  Once on board there are variety of cool music venues and your cabin can offer unbelievable views. In addition, since your traveling with a group of people, making new friends from around the world is easy. 

The bad things about cruising is that you can be somewhat limited to a set agenda, especially on sea days. Our daily cruise personalizer, for example, consisted of events such as board games, bingo and arts and crafts.  Although that being said, there was a rather exciting hairy chest contest out by the pool.  But if these things aren’t your thing it can be disappointing.  

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But there are are other downsides as well.  For example, I woke up this morning and I couldn’t find my neck. Yep I’m pretty sure it was there when I boarded the ship.  Now as I look at my reflection in the mirror, I appear to resemble Jabba the Hutt. This is a direct result of over eating.  There are just so many opportunities to eat…. and snack …. and nibble before eating again. 

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At lunch we met this nice couple Carrie and John, from Pennsylvania. They will be joining us on a cycling adventure tomorrow in Marseille.  They’ve been doing triathlon’s.  They’ve also been doing spin class prior to this excursion.  Well we haven’t trained for this “electric bike” trip and are feeling fugly.  So after being inspired by this couple, we have decided to reclaim our younger selves and do daily laps around the ship and hopefully….. we won’t have to walk the plank!

Monkey Business

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Welcome to Gibraltar!

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After a day at sea cruising from Barcelona, we arrived at Gibraltar at 7:00am in the morning. We were looking forward to visiting Gibraltar after not being able to squeeze in a visit in back in 2014. 

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Gibraltar- land of intrigue, governed by the British, the end of  Western Europe has been fought over by many countries over time. We booked Best of Gibraltar through the cruise ship. 

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Our tour guide and shuttle van driver Tommy was 72 years young and drove with confidence through town. One of the first stops is the landing strip of the airport. Gibraltar is limited on space with mostly high rise apartments for the residents and the airport was built on ruble from excavations and construction. 

The Main Street crosses over the one and only landing strip perpendicularly.  When an airplane lands or takes off a barrier comes down, hopefully, to prevent traffic from crossing it. We crossed the landing strip and a hundred yards away was Spain. About 2,000 people a day commute from Spain into town. 

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Tommy pulled a U turn and drove to the lighthouse through tunnels and narrow streets. We could both hear our guide wheeze through his microphone and he was short of breath at times. The tour then started the climb up the mountain and the road got more narrow, and Tommy wheezed even more. What if he went into pulmonary arrest? Could I dive into the drivers seat and turn the ignition off? The ” guard rail” was nothing more than a rusty pipe to indicate where Tommy ran off the cliff side road with a van full of tourists. I was genuinely concerned. Could I open the door and jump out before rocketing down the mountain side?  I did what any grown man would do, tried not to look over the edge, and conspicuously leaned toward the uphill side. 

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We made it to St. Michael’s Cave without incident and walked through the cavern that was lit with dramatic color changing lights highlighting the stalagmites and stalactites.

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After exiting there was Tommy who had managed along with 5 other shuttle vans to turn around and parallel park along the narrow road. It was an impressive feat of parking that we had missed.

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The monkeys, actually Barbary apes, started to appear before we boarded looking for food. They jumped on the vans and generally started behaving like monkeys.

It was foretold that when the monkeys disappeared it was time for the British to leave. Winston Churchill heard this and imported 400 more apes. The are at least xxx apes on the island now and we saw a couple with their babies allowing the Brits a few more years. 

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Tommy drove to another monkey reserve and even more monkeys were ready to great us. With signs warning to not touch the monkeys there was a tour guide feeding one peanuts held in his mouth and people started going crazy with selfies. No blood was shed and Tommy headed us down the mountain passing the World War Two tunnel entrance . There is said to be 58 km of tunnels through Gibraltar’s limestone mountain that were used for defense during various wars through the centuries.

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The van dropped us off in town and we strolled down and up Main Street having coffee and poaching Wi-Fi from restaurants.

All Aboard!

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Our travel day took us from Malaga via train to our ship the Crown Princess in Barcelona.  Because of the preparations for the Vuelta de Espana and closure of the pedestrian way, we needed to walk about 300 meters down the polished stone blvd Marqués de Larios to catch our taxi to the train station.

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After arriving in Barcelona we made our way to the depot and were impressed how easy it was to board the ship.  The the vibe seemed different with virtually no lines and fellow passengers so at ease.  Latter we realized that the boat had already been sailing for a week and we were merely the Barcelona stragglers hitching a ride to Athens.

Rooftop View

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After passing the Cathedral de Malaga numerous time, we finally decided to visit.  So we paid our 6€ a piece for an opportunity to climb to the Cathedral’s rooftop, opting to skip the churches interior.  At 8:00pm prompt the doors swung open that allowed us to ascend the stairway to heaven. Up and up we went on this narrow spiral stairway….oh my what were we thinking ?? 

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After completing our climb we found the views of the city amazing, especially with the setting sun.

Vuelta de Espana

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Unable to secure a 4th night at our beloved apartment, we scurried about a 5 min walk to our new hotel “Room Mate Larios”, which is located on the main pedestrian way of historic Malaga.  

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As luck would have it, the hotel put us up in a corner suite that overlooked the starting point of the upcoming “Bicycle Tour of Spain” or the “Vuelta de Espana”. 

The race is similar to the Tour de France and is composed of 21 stages over a 23 day period with two rest days. This first stage of the race starts in Malaga and ends at the Caminito del Rey. Coincidentally, four years ago we had also stumbled upon the timed trials in Burgos for the Vuelta.

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Unfortunately this time we wouldn’t be present for the race.  It was exciting though to watch the installation of the barricades for the race track as well as seeing all the broadcasting trucks preparing for the big event.  

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We did however get to see the opening ceremonies at the Alcazaba Ruins the previous night.

Bikes, Beaches and Boobs

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After an exhausting day walking the Caminito del Rey, Thursday was to be our relaxing beach day. We had closed the wooden shutters to the rooms in our apartment in an attempt to keep the street noise out and it worked, but it also obscured the morning sun causing us to sleep in until 10 am, a first.

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We ate breakfast at a place down our little street next to the hookah bar where we had couscous the night before.

Marla ordered a Spanish omelette. Spanish rice is rice with spices and sauce, but a Spanish omelette here is a thick potato pancake. Surprise! I ordered what I thought was a cheese omelette with a baguette and the waiter asked “just cheese?“, To which I said yes. When the order came in it was “just cheese“, on a toasted baguette with no eggs. Some travel ventures are food adventures. Such is life.

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We walked over to the street where our 2014 hotel was and where we had rented bikes before. The bike shop was no longer there but had moved a few shops down into a bigger space. This bike rental shop uses the names of celebrities rather than numbers to keep track of their bikes. In 2014 Marla had rented Beyoncé and I had rented Bob Marley, both were old fashion style single speed city bikes. The Dutch have a term for them referring to them as “grandmother bikes “. 

We entered the bike shop and asked if Beyoncé was available to rent and received a big smile from the clerk. She said that Beyoncé was unavailable. But what about Bob Marley? Bob was now in bike heaven and enjoying the afterlife. Marla then rented Rapunzel and I was delighted to rent Keith Moon the former drummer of The Who.

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We rode to the beach and all the twists and turns to get there came back to my memory, which was nice after getting turned around numerous times trying to find our apartment.

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The route takes you past the shops and restaurants that are there for cruise ship passengers before we made the left around the lighthouse.

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The boardwalk parallels xxx Boulevard where there is a restaurant about every 300 yards with their own private beach. We anticipated the smell of barbecued sardines and we were not disappointed. Picasso Beach was our destination, which is located about 1 mile down the boardwalk.

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After turning off into the sand we paid 6€ to rent a paluupa, which included two chaise lounge chairs.

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The beach, like most of Europe, allows the ladies to go topless and for the gentleman to try not to stare.

I took a nap in the cool shade with the sound of the Mediterranean sea gently lapping about 20 feet away. It was great; better than the sea of boobies before me.

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It was that good and after I woke I took a swim with my sandals on to protect my tender feet from the narrow ribbon of rocks before the water. With my sandals on and the high salinity of the Mediterranean Sea I floated like a cork. Ladies and gentlemen, this is as good as it gets.

 

Caminito del Rey

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Caminito del Rey

We had seen a couple of YouTubes on the old Caminito del Rey, a rusty delapatated , thrill seeking mess of high wire “fun”.  It was a hundred year maintenance sky walk for the hydroelectric plant built in 1921. It helped folks working on the hydroelectric plant and was good the locals to connect with a shorter walk through the canyon.

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The word “Rey” is spanish for King as the King of Spain took a walk on the finished walkway and it was henceforth known as the King’s little pathway, or Caminito del Rey.

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It also became an awesome hike, but then  over the years it deteriorated requiring the hikers to use mountain climbing equipment to safely navigate the gaps.

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Sections fell away, the concrete crumbled and certain sections were nothing but rusty beams. This didn’t stop people and there are videos of dudes with Go Pro cameras mounted to their helmets walking it and one scary video of someone mountain biking over the girders. It sounds like fun until someone gets hurt, and people started getting killed. A sudden stop from a 300 meter fall will do it.

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The government eventually stepped in and closed it down in 2005 and did something unique of government  bureaucrats …. they fixed it, made it safe and opened it to the public. The thrill seekers were bummed, but this now offered an opportunity for many others to enjoy.  It’s still a hike of 7 km and thrilling to walk. They limit the number of people, space them out and hand out mandatory helmets with cozy hair nets.

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There are signs stating to walk 1.5 meters apart and only 4 are allowed one one glass bottomed overlook.

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Marla booked this tour out of Malaga which required walking about a mile from our accommodations to the shuttle  pick up spot. The drive there was about an hour or so.

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There is a limited number of thrill seekers they allow onto the Caminito at one time and it looked like they were doing groups of 30 or about 5 min apart. When we arrived there were already about 150 people in the staging area.

It took about 3 hours to complete the hike with breaks and snacks. We were beat when we got back to the bus and napped on the way back to Malaga.

 

Faux Pas at the Cinema!

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After getting settled into our new space we set out in search of our favorite theater, which is located literally next to the Alcazaba ruins in the historic city center. 

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The Albeniz Cinema plays the small indie films we enjoy and there is this cafe a few feet away where we’ve gotten the best chocolate cake.

After picking out a movie and then realizing it wasn’t playing, we asked the ticket gal which movie was starting next.  We couldn’t quite hear which movie it was, only that it was starting in 2 mins.