It has been very busy the last 15 days. We’ve been in a new port almost every day and today is the first sea day we’ve had in 2 weeks. Unfortunately, I’m just south of Iceland in route to Reykjavik and we’re far enough north, the internet is not working very well. I wasn’t sure I was even going to be able to just do a text update.
Here’s the list of ports I’ve been in since the last update. Starting April 24, Lisbon, Oporto, La Caruna Spain, 3 days in Bordeaux, Brittany, Bilbao Spain, St Malo France, Southampton, Falmouth, Cardiff Wales, Dublin, Belfast and Portree Isle of Skye Scotland. That works out to 13 ports in 15 days and we spent 3 days in Bordeaux. As I’m getting down to the end of the trip, I’ll do an update with pictures when I get better internet service. There have been some great tours and things to see, but I’m also getting very tired of quaint villages, cobblestone streets, 500 year old church’s and castles. I started going through some of the pictures and had to check photo dates against the itinerary because some of them were running together.
We arrive in Iceland tomorrow and I’m going on an evening whale watching trip. We’ll spend a couple of days in Reykjavik then make daily stops at ports around Iceland before we head to Norway and finally Copenhagen where the trip will end on the 22nd.
For the next week or two, I’m going to be grouping some of my stops. Things are getting a little hectic with a new port every day. I’m starting to miss the lazy sea days where we had fewer things to do and now it’s up earlier than normal to catch a bus for a tour somewhere.
Malaga, Spain – This is the classic sun drenched, delightful southern Spain beach town. It’s one of the oldest ports in the Mediterranean so there is lot’s of history along with great beaches and delicious food. I did a highlights tour, which starts out with a panoramic bus ride around town to some of the scenic sites and then starts a walking tour through the old town. Instead of cobblestone streets, the old town is covered in marble. We arrived right after all the holy week celebrations and Malaga is known for it’s large ornate parades and decorations. As the processions wind through the streets, they are all burning candles and of course the wax is dripping on to the marble. For our visit, the city workers were out with power washers blasting the wax off the marble, so if you are every looking for something slippery, try a wet marble floor with wax. I decided to try a tapas lunch so after reading what seemed like a hundred menus, I found a place on my way to the market that looked really good. What I didn’t know was that I just outside the market and the tables and menus I was looking at were for fresh restaurants that were inside the market. Let’s just say that was some of the freshest seafood I’ve ever had and was delicious. One example is a grilled shrimp skewer on a bed of fresh greens covered in Iberian ham bits. We were only there for the day, so after walking and the lunch it was back to the ship. I will say this is one of the few places I’ve visited where I would seriously consider if I was ever to make a move like that. Rent costs are low, beach within a block, great restaurants and shops and the climate is incredible.
Gibraltar – Next stop Gibraltar and it does look a little different from the commercial. Very British in spite of being surrounded by Spain. They have the little red phone booths you see in London as well as the police where the big hats and there are fish and chips at the pub. I did a WW 2 tour of the caves inside the mountain which was very interesting. A few Gibraltar facts, you have to drive across the runway of the international airport to get to the Spanish border, there are more miles of caves inside the mountain than outside. There are also a lot of monkeys they call apes that are at the top of Gibraltar. They are experts at stealing bags and purses as well a making a mad dash to get inside a tour bus and raid any food they can find.
Seville-Next stop, Seville which is 60 miles from the coast. How do you get there on a cruise ship? You take a small river until you get to Seville. This river is so small there were places we had less than 75 feet on each side of the ship and there was no room for 2 ships to pass, so a timed passage. We would clear a bridge and power lines with only a few feet to spare and when going through a single lock just before arriving, there was less than 20 feet on each side and not much front and rear. If you’re not on a small ship like this, your option is to dock in Cadiz and then take a 2 hour ride to get to Seville. As for Seville itself, it’s probably one of the most famous cities in Spain for some of it’s buildings, narrow streets and sidewalk restaurants. Before getting here many of the passengers would go on and on about how beautiful it was but after Malaga those stories changed a little. It’s still a very nice place, but this was way more commercial and “big city” feel and pricey. On day 2, I went on a tour of the largest Sherry winery in Spain. In their earlier days, they would put an image of a red bull alongside the road as advertising. Then the king of Spain liked it and wanted them larger and there was concern about the “advertising” so they changed the paint color to black. The Sherry itself dates back to the mid 1700’s. After the tour we were treated to snacks and a sample of each type of Sherry they make from the dry to the cream style which is almost like a port. We were supposed to be in Lisbon by now but due to heavy rains and wind, we had to delay our departure for over 12 hours so now scheduled to arrive Lisbon at noon instead of 8:00 am.
What about the food – I get asked a lot about the food so I thought I’d share a couple of photos. This was from the Easter brunch.
Yesterday we stopped in Siracusa where I took a tour that stopped in an old village and then up Mt Etna followed by lunch at a winery. The village turned out to be a high point of this excursion. It was a very classic European city center with a large plaza surrounded by a church restaurants and shops. It was also a market day, so there was all kinds of fresh fish, produce, meat, sausages and cheese. One of things that also surprised me about the area is the miles of lemon and orange orchards that we drove by. If you are familiar with the liquor Limoncello, this is where it started. Not only do you find the lemon flavor but also orange, mandarin and pistachio flavors. I did have to get one of these as a souvenir. There were lots of lemons and oranges at the market and you could buy them for 1 Euro per kilo or roughly .50 cents a pound. Most of this town was destroyed when Mt Etna erupted several hundred years ago and they are still have eruptions today. The last was about 15 years ago which is about a minute ago in volcano time. As you drive up Mt Etna, you travel about 3 miles through the lava fields and past houses where only parts of them remain from the last eruption. The top of the mountain is about 9,000 feet and from where we were at 6,000 feet, the ski lifts started and went to the top. It was not a pretty day as the wind was really bad and it was a little cloudy and cold at 6,000 feet. Before starting back to the ship, we stopped at a winery which is one of the largest in Sicily and it was absolutely beautiful with flowers, manicured lawns and decorations. I now know why they take a siesta break after lunch. When you have an appetizer, 2 courses of pasta and dessert all washed down with great wine, a nap on the bus seemed like the right thing to do.
Today’s stop in Malta was cancelled due to high winds, rough seas and a narrow entrance to the harbor. So now we’re headed to Malaga and Gibraltar and should arrive in Malaga Monday evening.
We visited Athens, or Piraeus as it’s called locally, for 1 1/2 days. On day one, which was an afternoon, I went on a bicycle tour of Athens. Because I was on a bike, I didn’t take a lot of pictures as I was planning to do that on day 2 when I was scheduled to tour the Acropolis and the Parthenon as well as a museum and some other city sights. However, back on the ship the first evening, I received a note from the excursion desk that the archeological guard union was on strike and we could not visit the Acropolis and Parthenon. As a result, I decided not to spend a couple of hours on a bus riding around and just went back in to town and walked around shopped and had a lunch there. When I got back to the ship that night, those that went on the tour told me apparently the strike ended as quick as it was called and everything was open.
So net result was not so many pictures as you’ll see. One of the fun things about touring by bike is you can cover a lot of ground, but still get the feeling for the place as you ride through and also make stops to hear the history from our guide. The Greek equivalent of the White House is there and as we rode through the flower gardens behind it, we were able to stop and watch the changing of the guard. They do this in the front and at the back entrance to the building. All the tourists go to the front of the building and there is a sizable crowd there to watch. They do the same ceremony at the back entrance and we basically had the street to ourselves which was a nice way to watch. We went past the first Olympic Stadium where the modern Olympics began in 1896, the athlete housing and continued through the streets and ended up riding through the Plaka which is the heart of the old city filled with shops and restaurants. (and I didn’t run over anyone)
This was a major event exclusive to the people doing the full world cruise. We docked in Kusadasi just a short sail from Rhodes. We boarded buses to the airport where Silversea had chartered 2 airplanes to take us to Cappadocia. The area here was a major site for civilization 3,000 years ago where Hittite Empire reigned. Cities and homes were carved out of the sandstone walls where the people lived. Some of these were incredible with stairways carved out of the stone to travel between floors.
Later Friday evening, they had a special dinner for us and Whirling Dervish show at the Saruhan Caravanserai. This was a stop for the the camel caravans traveling between Asia and Europe.
Saturday morning we were up at 4:30am for a sunrise balloon trip over the landscape. This turned out to the first day in almost a week the balloons had weather they could fly in so we had a lot of company that morning as we launched. It turned out there were 156 balloons up in the air with us that morning each with a capacity of 25 passengers. If they only averaged 20 people per balloon, that was over 3,000 people up that morning. We also got up to rain on Sunday so Saturday was the only day this week the balloons were able to go up. Because of the landscape and views, hot air ballooning is a major industry in the region. In addition to the caves the landscape has “fairy chimneys” which are rock towers created by erosion over time. After the balloon flight, it was back to the hotel for breakfast, a break and then some more site seeing. This was followed by another special dinner held in the underground Guray Museum which is a private ceramic museum that is built in to a cave.
The last day was a visit to Zelve where you can tour through an entire underground city. The caves here could hold 25,000 to 30,000 people and were built under the city the people normally lived in above ground. Because they were on the trade routes between Asia and Europe they were often raided by armies traveling the area. When that happened, the city would go underground through hidden passages and live there until the danger had passed. The city we visited had 5 levels underground with the top level being the stables for their animals and then rooms for families, wineries, kitchens and churches on each level going down. The tunnels connecting the rooms were made so that they were only wide enough for one person and you had to walk in a crouch. This was done so that if they were being attacked, you could only come through tunnel openings one at a time and they could defend them easier. They also had rocks that looked like a millstone that would be rolled across an opening to block it off if needed. When building these the first they would do is dig air shafts so there would be fresh air on all the levels. This had a waring if you were claustrophobic, don’t go because once you start there isn’t room to turn around and pass people to go back.
The hotel we stayed in was the 5 star Cappadocia Cave Resort where they had linked caves together and then incorporated them in to the architecture as they built out the rooms. For example, to get to my room, you would go from the reception area, 2 doors down the street then take an elevator down a level to a cave that came out at a stairway above my room. No two rooms are alike as they built them based on what was there and the view.
After the underground city, we went back to the airport for our return flight to Istanbul where we met up with the ship again.
We’re not just docking Athens, Greece and I’ll be off on a bicycle tour of the old city this afternoon and then the Acropolis, tomorrow.
Next stop was Rhodes for a short day exploring. It’s a walled city on an island that is a major European resort city. The tourist season had not started yet, so the town was very quiet. Not really a lot here but for a beach vacation, it would be a lot of fun with narrow cobblestone streets filled with shops and restaurants and nice beaches. I did a short tour of the main fortress and palace, then wandered downhill through the shops for a few hours.
We docked in the port of Haifa in the north of Israel and were there for 2 days. The first day I went on a panoramic tour of the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth and the Golan Heights. On the second day, it was a tour with private guide through the old city of Jerusalem. What was most interesting with both days is you heard all the stories and names of places in Sunday school growing up, but actually seeing these places including where they are geographically and what they really looked like really puts a lot of that into a real perspective. Our guides were very good with helping understand the difference from places that are really known to be a spot where something occurred and the places where they know this is the area, but no one really knows the exact spot so sometimes, the “place” is created such as where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. They know the general area, but no one has the exact place. Also on the Via Dolorosa, they have markers on the buildings for the different stations of the cross and our guide told us they are generally close, but sometimes change when a building changes ownership for example and the new owner doesn’t want all the attention. Some of the highlights of Jerusalem were seeing the city from the top of Mount Olive, then to Mount Zion and the church where the last supper was held, King David’s tomb, entering through the Zion Gate, all four quarters of the city which are Armenian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish quarters. This included the Western Wall, the Via Dolorosa and the Sepulchre which is the church where Jesus died and was entombed and then we exited through the Jaffa Gate. Probably the oddest thing was a place we stopped on our way there to take a break which was the Elvis Restaurant and gas station. It has statues of Elvis, murals, a giant guitar and inside all the Elvis memorabilia you can imagine including the obligatory coffee cups and Elvis wine. These are just a few of the pictures to share with you.
The Suez Canal is one of those things it’s nice to be able to say you did it, however it’s not that picturesque. Where the Panama Canal is a series of lakes and locks to raise and lower ships, the Suez Canal is about 100 miles of narrow river like transit. They started a new canal in the middle with north and south bound channels, but each end goes down to a single lane for several miles. The result is the ships have to go through in a caravan and be timed for traffic going north or south. In our case, we were the lead ship in a 45 ship caravan that stretched for several miles. Our ship is tiny compared to some of the super tankers and container ships and we didn’t have that much room on either side going through some of the narrow areas. It’s not hard to imagine how the ship that got stuck in the canal could do so with just a minor error in navigation.
Today I’m sitting on my veranda while we’re transiting the Suez Canal and taking this time to watch the scenery and do my updates. We’re the first in a convoy of 45 ships coming through today. An interesting point is we are actually traveling the border between Africa and Asia. That said, we just spent 3 days in Aqaba which was absolutely incredible. The days were spent with a jeep safari in the Wadi Rum desert then a full day in the ancient city of Petra and last was a snorkel trip and lunch on the Red Sea.
Wadi Rum Jeep Safari – the Wadi Rum is a huge desert best known for the area Lawrence of Arabia led the fight against the Ottoman’s in the early 1900’s. The movie was filmed here and the train seen in the movie runs alongside the road from Aqaba to Wadi Rum. This was also the site of the filming for the movie The Martian with Matt Damon. Today, it still looks much the same and is still occupied by Bedouins with their camels, goats and tents. One of the stops we made was to visit one of the camps where were were invited in for cardamon tea. There were also camels to ride to our next stop, for a fee, and a few of our group did the trip. Another interesting stop was a dead end canyon where Lawrence of Arabia held the Ottoman prisoners. Today there is a carving of him in one of the stones there.
Ancient City of Petra – This was a major bucket list item for most of the passengers and me as well. As this was very important to many of us and the challenge with our ship is there are a lot of mobility challenged people and you move at the pace of the slowest person in the group a fellow traveler and I opted for hiring a private guide which was fantastic. Not only did we get to see a lot more, our guide was actually born in the caves and his parent, grandparents, etc. lived in the caves here. After the city of Petra was discovered in the 1800’s and some of the excavation completed, the government realized they needed to protect the site so they built a new city of Petra and all the cave residents were required to leave. That only started happening in the 1960’s and until the early 1970’s, the Bedouins were still living in the caves. One of the benefits they received was housing and free water and electricity for life.
Many of the major structures here date back 1000’s of years with the newer ones estimated to have been built around 50 AD. Only a small percentage of the actual town has been excavated and there are ongoing projects trying to uncover more of the historical areas. From the visitor center to the first building which is the Treasury, of Indiana Jones fame, is 1 1/2 miles down hill, which means uphill coming back. Once we got inside and started getting a feel for how massive this area was, we decided to take advantage of a golf cart service to ride out so we could spend our energy exploring plus the cart ride is about 10 minutes and it gave us more time to explore in addition to saving our legs and boy were we happy we made that decision. To actually explore all the major structures would take at least a week if you were in good shape. For example to climb up to the Monastery, it’s over a mile from the Treasury and then up 812 steps or you could go the other direction and climb 600 stairs up to the High Place of Sacrifice. In addition to the physical effort, there is not much else to see along the way. Our guide wisely talked us out of trying that but then took us on a billy goat climb up rocks and stairs to to see many caves, the Royal Palace, which is the newer structure built in 50 AD and other structures. Between climbing and walking in sand, we were beat after almost 5 hours of walking. The person I was with measured about 5 miles and 45 flights of stairs. I was really happy to see the golf cart at the end to say the least.
Day 3 – Snorkel trip in the Red Sea. After Petra, this was a welcome relief and very relaxing. The boat was actually about a 50 ft boat with a glass bottom, so we toured around over the reefs and a maritime park the Jordanians created using sunken ships, an old military tank and aircraft which are only about 10 ft under the surface of crystal clear water. Given the water was a balmy 70 degrees and the wind was blowing almost 20 miles an hour, staying on the boat with a nice glass of wine and watching them cook lunch seemed like a great idea.
Last a couple of early pictures of the Suez this morning. We started though about 4 am and are not quite halfway through yet. We’re currently in a newer section with a north bound and south bound lane. Shortly we’ll be heading back in to the original single lane section.
After 6 sea days then the longest 3 days ever in Saudi Arabia, I’m finally getting some updates done. Saudi Arabia was not on our original itinerary and was only added after Egypt changed there rules on Covid to if there was even 1 case of Covid on a ship, they could not get off the ship. Silversea felt the risk was too high that we could get stranded for several days with no where to go, so they made the alternative plan to go to Jeddah and Yanbu. You might have heard of both of these last week as they were both attacked by Yemen missiles and bombs at their oil complexes.
Saudi Arabia only started issuing visitor visas in late 2019 and with Covid that was shut down, so we were one of the first cruises to enter with visitor visas. What we found was Saudi Arabia is still extremely restrictive to outsiders and there were many places we were either not allowed to go or only with a chaperone. Women had to make sure legs and arms were covered and head coverings were recommended. The first indicator is when going through passport control, they have separate women and men’s waiting rooms. Also, no alcohol is permitted so all ships bars were closed, no wine at dinners and even your room was cleaned out of any alcohol while we were there.
I’ll speak about Jeddah first. Although considered one of the most liberal cities in Saudi Arabi, it still very restrictive and outsiders are looked down on. The immigration officers bordered on down right rude and seemed to purposely find things to make you wait and just stand there. You were finger printed for all fingers and thumbs as well as photographed. You were also required to get an exit stamp before you left the country and this was completely disorganized with each agent doing something different. As a result, they thought 2 passengers had not been stamped and would not let the ship leave until that was resolved. At one point, all passengers had to bring their passports to reception to be verified of an exit stamp by crew members who then went back to discuss with immigration. The result was a 3 hour delay leaving which, even though the captain tried to make up time, ended in a delay arriving the next day in Yanbu.
Now as for Yanbu, it was like a different country. The immigration officers were polite and helpful and seemed happy for us to visit. In both locations, once you got away from the government officials, the actual people were very nice. So I’m not complaining about the country as much as I am their government.
Now for the last of my rant, if you want to know what happens with all the money we spend on Saudi oil, it is used to build the most elaborate, gaudy and large infrastructure you can imagine. They pride themselves in having the largest flagpole in the world, the largest fountain and have plans for a new skyscraper to become the largest one. Everything looks new or is under construction with no end to the funding.
Jeddah – The only excursion I did here was an area called the “old town”. This was the original Jeddah and the buildings are 100’s of years old and were falling apart and is now being restored. They used a unique construction method because the main stone available was coral and coral is too soft to take much weight, so they would build a wall about 3 feet high, lay timbers across that level to spread the weight and then build another wall 3 feet until the buildings were typically about 3 stories high. This is also the home of the largest souk in Jeddah, supposedly with all the hustle and bustle you might expect. I say supposedly because they close from 2-5 and our tour left the ship at 1:30 and returned at 5:30, so all we saw were many closed doors and only a few of them open. If you notice the ornate wood screens on the front of the buildings, they serve 2 purposes. This first is ventilation for the rooms and the second is to allow the women to maintain their modesty by not being seen by males not members of the household. The ornate screens are made of wood and very intricate. We visited a wood shop where they make these and teach the art of creating them.
Yanbu – As I mentioned, Yanbu seemed much more welcoming and friendly. My excursion there made all of us chuckle. Yanbu is not a large town other than the oil refineries so there were not many options. So, we board our bus and ride about 45 minutes south from the pier to a man made lake in a park. The guide gave us 20 minutes to walk around the park. They were extremely proud of this lake and park as it’s one of the few fresh water lakes in Saudi Arabia. To those of us in the US, it was a typical city park with a manmade lake, waterfalls and green water. We still hadn’t seen any sign of the old city that was supposed to be the focus of the tour. We reboard the bus and now start driving north at which point several of us start joking about this “old town” must be closer to the ship and we had no idea how correct we were. When we got there, we got off the bus and our ship was tied up about 200 yards away. So we went on a 1 1/2 hour bus ride to look at a city park. The old town here was a fraction the size of the one in Jeddah but one of it’s key features is the house where T. E Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, lived when he led the arabs against the Ottomans to take control of what is now Saudi Arabia. There is also an incredible water front park lined with out door coffee shops and restaurants along with a small shopping area of souks. It was pretty empty in the afternoon and I went back there in the evening and the park was filled with families and kids riding electric cars and scooters. You could rent the electric cars from a vendor there and they were not Barbie cars or jeeps, they were all Bentleys. I had some of the best coffee and some incredible snacks. The snacks were something called Balila which are chickpeas, beets and a bunch of seasonings. Not something I would have ordered but turned out to be very tasty, so when in Rome. The other was a little half dollar sized pastry that were very light and fluffy and drizzled with hazelnut and pistachio icing.
After 3 days of sobriety and restrictions, we were all ready to get on to our next adventure in Aqaba Jordan. My primary goal there is to visit Petra and play Indiana Jones. A couple of us are sharing a private car and guide so we can maximize our visit. As for leaving Saudi Arabia, we had a pajama party in one of the bars last night as soon as the harbor pilot left the ship. Everyone is much happier today. We should arrive in Aqaba on Tuesday, the 29th.