Friday, 8 July 2011

Greek Islands Cruise Part 2

After a night at sea we were able to sleep in a little before having breakfast at the restaurant and relaxing on the deck of the ship and then in our room. At around 10:30am we rounded Prevlaka (the southernmost tip of Croatia) and entered the Bay of Kotor. The next hour or so was spent cruising through one of the most beautiful areas we had ever seen; towering mountains dropping steeply into an astounding blue harbour; small villages perched on the edge of the water, usually on promontories; a road winding precariously around the various bays and inlets on each side of the water; and small islands, occasionally with a church or farmhouse in the centre, with people waving as we cruised past. Montenegro was the country we had heard least about before coming on this cruise but this section of the cruise rapidly established it as one of the places we most enjoyed, and this even before we had dropped anchor in the port. It is no wonder that this is a world heritage site.

Kotor has been known since ancient Roman times, having been part of the Roman province of Dalmatia, and was first referred to in 168 BCE when it was called Acruvium. It is located at the far end of the Bay of Kotor and was walled during medieval times. That wall still exists now, both around the city and extending up as a fortification over the hillside for 4 ? kilometres, giving a view of the harbour below. We travelled into town by tender, a trip which was incredibly smooth due to the calm waters in this part of the bay, met our tour guide and driver and boarded the bus that we were going to be travelling on as we explored this part of Montenegro.

The first step was to climb the hill, immediately behind the town, which we did via 25 switchbacks back and forth. This road is only 1 lane each way and feels quite narrow as well as windy. When traffic came in the other direction it was occasionally necessary for one or the other vehicle to reverse in order for them to pass. Looking out the window it was at times only an inch or two separating a side mirror from the side of the car or the rock mountainside. Near the road is an old mule track known as the 'Ladder of Cattaro', which used to be the only route linking the coast to Cetinje, the old capital of Montenegro. There are stories of large pieces of furniture being carried on the backs of mules up and over the mountains. By the time we reached the top we were a kilometre and a half above sea level and the views were magnificent.

After a brief stop and multiple photographs we journeyed on to the village of Njegusi located on the other side of Mount Lovcen. This town was the birthplace of the Petrovics, the royal Montenegrin family but we were not there for a history lesson. As we drew near to our destination we spotted a group of small cabins and were commenting on how quaint they were. We then drew up at these very same cabins, and the restaurant that was the main point from which holiday accommodation in the cabins could be booked. Our lunch consisted of homemade cheese, smoked ham, bread and a choice of coke, red wine, or a mead drink. Because there were a couple of tour buses stopping at the same time it was very crowded. The bread was quite dry but the prosciutto and cheese were lovely and the red wine was very strong.

Of recent times, Montenegro has only been officially recognised as an independent nation since June 3, 2006, when it declared independence from Serbia as part of the long-term break up of the former Yugoslavia. This was not the first time that something like this had happened for this area. In 1878 Montenegro had received recognition as an independent state within the Austro-Hungarian empire (a situation which lasted till the end of the Great War, when it was annexed by Serbia and then incorporated into Yugoslavia). In its previous independent incarnation the capital was Cetinje, our next stop on the tour, and the city has maintained much of its historical character. We saw a number of foreign embassies, the theatre, an old monastery dating back to the 15th Century, and a variety of other buildings, with the highlight being a tour of the old royal palace.

While described as a palace, the building itself was smaller than many of the houses we see in Qatar or Australia. However, the guide who showed us around was immensely proud of the history of his country and the history it has had. The building featured an amazing collection of artefacts, most of the related to the royal family, including some of the medals, uniforms and regalia presented to them. For a tiny nation, as they were, they had obviously been very influential. Much to Meg's delight the upstairs section had been preserved to look as it had done when the family had lived there. The excellent preservation with the knowledge and enthusiasm of the guide made it feel as if we were stepping back in time. It was a wonderful experience.

From Cetinje we headed back toward the coast and the centre of modern Montenegrin tourism, the town of Budva. Unlike some of the roads we had previously traversed this was a wide modern highway which, when we saw Budva made a lot of sense. Budva is a tourist town because it is very beautiful, sitting on the Adriatic with idyllic beaches and small islands. Settlement there dates back approximately 2 500 years, but it is so modern in its architecture and fittings that it could be anywhere in the world. Jaz Beach, one of the prime areas, has hosted concerts by the Rolling Stones and Madonna, and some other big names were slated to appear there during the summer. However, Budva is probably best known for the island of Sveti Stefan, which is now connected by a causeway to the mainland, which was once a fortified village but is now a resort and was the titular setting (although no scenes were filmed there) for the 2006 version of 'Casino Royale'.

The last part of our trip took us out across the coastal plains toward the Tivat Airport before turning onto the road that took us through the Vrmac Tunnel (nearly 3 klm long) back into Kotor where we were to take a walking tour of the old town. The Venetians built the town walls back when Venice still had its own empire and much of the architecture of the rest of the city is Venetian as well. It had lovely old cobblestoned streets that are so narrow that traffic is almost exclusively pedestrian. An earthquake damaged much of the city back in 1979 but it has largely been rebuilt to maintain the old character of the town. We had a lovely walk around, admiring the beautiful, old, Catholic cathedral and sending postcards from the local post office before catching the tender back to the ship. The walls of Kotor bear the legend "What belongs to others we don't want, what is ours we will never surrender." It is a truly beautiful place and we hope that this is one of the things referred to by those words.

Cruising out through the bay was possibly more beautiful than the cruise in, as the sun was setting and the lights of the small villages began to twinkle on the shoreline. Up on the hills overlooking the bay there were individual dwellings and churches that must have had the most amazing view overlooking the bay. We immediately decided that, if we ever won the lottery, one of the places we would love to own a house would be on the shores of Kotor Bay. Overnight we would be cruising along the remainder of the Montenegrin coast (we passed Budva while we were having dinner) and then past Albania.

The following day was spent entirely at sea, the first of two we would spend this way during this cruise. The lack of a need to wake early to take a tour allowed us to sleep in before breakfast again. We were able to spend the day exploring the ship, participating in things like trivia and mask making. In the evening was the first heat of the karaoke challenge where a variety of people from around the world, including a girl from the Philippines, another from the United States, and a man from South Africa were among the contestants. Our South African friend fancied himself as a rapper and produced a hilarious version of the theme from 'The Fresh Prince of Bel Air' while another, very drunk, English woman produced the most cringe worthy performance of the night. All in all it was an amusing day.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Greek Islands Cruise Part 1

The 2010/11 school year was complete and we had had a few days to recover and set things up before departing for the summer. Stella was going to be looked after by our cleaner, Nikhil, and everything was organized. Our flight leaving Doha for Istanbul was at 2:15am so we ordered a taxi for 11pm giving ourselves a lot of time in case there were any problems with traffic or crowding at the airport. We were dismayed that it was late but at 11:18 it turned up and it was a good trip with very little traffic. Our journey through the new section of the Departures terminal (which used to be the Arrivals) was very smooth. Once inside and at the final gate before boarding we were pleased to see another member of staff (Mokhtar Badri with his family) and a family of some of our students (the Oganesyan’s) were on the same flight to Istanbul.

This initial flight was relatively smooth, taking about 4 hours. We woke at one point to a beautiful beginning of the sunrise, the sky outside our window was a variety of gradated colors and a couple of photographs were taken. Istanbul Ataturk International Airport was large and busy but we only had a relatively short wait before the next flight to Venice. So we sat at a café to watch the world pass us by. There was a very interesting mix of nationalities and peoples, including a very cute young girl, who had clearly just learned to walk, attempting to escape from her mother while not straying too far from comfort.

Only two elements of the airport frustrated us. When we first arrived we checked the gate from which our next flight was to leave and found it was, not entirely surprisingly, at the far end of the airport. When it was nearly time to check in at the gate we walked the majority of the way, only to find that our gate had been changed. It was now at the opposite end of the airport. No doubt this had been announced but, as our Turkish is somewhat limited, we had not noticed that announcement over the loudspeaker. When we finally got to the gate we found one of the security personnel to be very officious. While he let us through with very little scrutiny, people of Indian background had their papers passed over with (literally) a magnifying glass. Although we did not understand the language it was clear that he was speaking in a very rude way to people.

We were feeling quite tired by this time, having had very little sleep, so each of us spent much of the flight to Venice dozing. Once again we were served breakfast, so this did not bode well for our diets during this trip. Although there had been a significant amount of cloud during the flight, this had all cleared by the time we approached Marco Polo International Airport and we found ourselves back in Europe once more. Customs and baggage collection were relatively straightforward and, as we passed through immigration, there were Royal Caribbean Cruise representatives waiting through the gate. Even though we had not booked transport from the airport to the port (it was a little on the expensive side) they were happy to organize a taxi for us. Davide (the taxi driver) had recently returned from Australia and was very enthusiastic in his approach to life. With some interesting information about Venice and the surrounding areas we were dropped right where we needed to be in order to board the cruise.

Getting on board the ‘Splendor of the Seas’ was the next order of business. Our baggage was swiftly dealt with, we had our photographs taken to remember the cruise, and we were ushered to a desk to fill out the necessary paperwork. At this point we discovered that Quinn’s wallet was missing which meant that he had no photo I.D. other than his passport, which had just been collected. The increased scrutiny that this brought to us meant that, for the first time, our relationship with Quinn was called into question. Fortunately we keep electronic copies of all sorts of documents on a hard drive so we were able to convince the security people that he was our son and allowed to board.

The port of Venice is on an artificial island (Tronchetto) to the north of the city, just near where the bridge from the mainland (the Ponte della Libertà) meets with the first of the over one hundred islands that make up Venice proper. There were four other cruise ships, three of them larger than ours, also in port and we later found out that there were approximately 12 000 visitors in Venice just on the cruise ships alone. We could also see the industrial area of Venice from the deck, as well as the bell tower of the basilica in Piazza San Marco. We spent some time getting acquainted with the ship before deciding to take a nap to recover from some of the rigors of the day before our evening meal.

One of the highlights of the cruises we have been on so far has been getting to know some of the staff on board. The company employs people from all over the world who speak a variety of languages to cater for as many different guests as possible. This ship had moved, from doing cruises around South America, across to Europe a couple of months earlier, in readiness for the summer cruising schedule in the northern hemisphere. Our regular waiters for evening meals are a Filipino man named Rosanno and a Brazilian lady named Adriana. Because our regular dinner companions, a family from California, were not yet aboard, we received the full focus of Adriana and Rosanno’s service and they showed themselves to have both a good sense of humor and a keen interest in us and our backgrounds. Even the nap had not fully solved our sleep issues, so an early night was in store before venturing into Venice the next day.

We had intended to wake early and get some exercise before breakfast, but a failure to set the alarm on any of our clocks meant that we woke at 7:40am with less than an hour before we needed to meet with our tour group for our Venice tour. Consequently, it was quick showers and dressing before a reasonably rapid breakfast (although not so rapid that we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to eat real bacon, and pork sausages). Our tickets for our tours had not yet been delivered when we ventured to the theatre, however Wayne went back to the room quickly to grab the battery for the camera, which had been recharging overnight, and the tickets were under the door.

It had rained over night, and it was still somewhat overcast, so the seats on the top of our tour boat were slightly damp which deterred some of our companions from joining us, however the sun was starting to emerge and we braved the deck. Our tour guide was a retired Venetian lady who was extremely knowledgeable and there was an enormous amount of information to tell us about the history, economics, and current position of Venice as we made our way among the islands that make up the different areas of the city. Because of the size of our boat we had to keep to the larger rivers and canals, however we were still able to see many of the sights for which Venice is famous, including the gondolas and some of the nearly 500 bridges that cross the smaller canals that run through many of the islands.

Initial settlement of the islands of Venice took place in approximately 500 CE and it has had a fascinating history, including being a major empire building power during the 15th and 16th centuries. Indeed, a number of the other places that we were going to visit during the remainder of the cruise had been part of imperial Venice. However, due to limitations of space and constant difficulties with the amount of water in the city, there is very little which could be called modern. The tallest buildings are the church steeples and bell towers (of which there are over 80 still standing) and the most recent ‘new’ buildings are from the 1950’s. From a population high of nearly 200 000, the population of Venice today is closer to 60 000, and our guide lamented the fact that the average age of the inhabitants is close to 60 and that there are very few young people. Partly this is due to the cost of living in a city that grows increasingly expensive, especially if you do not own your own home.

The first part of our journey took us through the Canale della Giudecca, with the island of Giudecca on one side, and that of Dorsoduro on the other. Here we learned that Venice has long had a history of sheltering refugees (there has been a sizeable Jewish community here for hundreds of years, hence the name of the island). For much of it’s history, different islands of Venice served different purposes (for example Isola di S.Michele serves as the cemetery for much of the city) and we went past islands which have served as hospitals, as nunneries, as the centres of vegetable growing, and as places of segregation for those who had the plague. With tourism having become the focus of much of Venice in most recent times, many of these islands have now become devoted to hotels and there are some very beautiful places to stay or to study.

Our guide explained which islands, or parts of islands, were for sale (although the difficulty is in determining who one might actually purchase them from) and also pointed out some amazing boats that were for sale. We went past the Lido (one of the few islands in Venice on which cars may be driven) and had the history of fashions in health and their impact upon residence of different areas related to us. In the latter part of the tour we went past the Isola di Murano, which has long been famous for glass making and which still uses the same methods today as have long been used (and jealously guarded). Another lament from our guide was about the encroachment of inferior quality glass into the souvenir market without correct labeling. We also saw the Arsenale and the Stadio P.L. Penzo before returning to the main island, San Marco.

From the more recent ‘The Tourist’ back through other movies, books and plays (Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ spring to mind) Venice has been a favorite setting for all sorts of media. Consequently, the Doge’s Palace was very familiar (although somewhat disfigured by advertising) as were many of the other buildings in the background. This is the main area where you might find the traditional gondolieri, and we were informed that the first female gondolieri has relatively recently begun working, while another is in the process of applying. We speculated as to whether this might have been the lady that we saw rowing earlier on in the tour. St Mark’s Square, so our guide related, is the watery section in front of the palace, but most people associate it with the land next to it. This area, too, was very familiar as well as very, very crowded.

One of the issues from which Venice suffers is regular flooding. This is so regular that, apparently, the land known as St Mark’s Square is flooded on 200 days per year. Much of the city is sinking and needs constant upkeep in order to maintain its position above the water. A new series of artificial islands are being built near the entrance to the Adriatic Sea at a cost of many billions of dollars to try and alleviate the impact of tides and rising water because of high storms, however it is not known if this will be at all successful. This work is intended to be finished by 2015. We reached the end of the tour, not far from the ship, with a couple of hours to spare before the ship was due to leave Venice and commence the travelling part of our cruise.

The ship’s muster (where we go through the procedures in case of an emergency) took place as we were leaving the outer islands of Venice behind us, and moving into the Adriatic Sea. As muster finished we stumbled across a mask-making workshop to prepare for the masquerade ball that was going to take place that evening and spent an hour or so meeting other guests and making masks. Meg had run short of her favorite perfume (Chanel’s Allure, if any of you ever feel the need to pick her some up as a gift) and so a visit to the various shops was in order to see if any was available that we could pick up any at a discounted price (there was and we did). Dinner that evening was a much more formal affair and so, after some time relaxing and reading, Quinn and Wayne suited up (thanks to ‘How I Met Your Mother’ for the phrasing) while Meg donned one of the formal dresses she had had made by our tailor in Qatar.