‘vacation’ Category


  • on July 15, 2007 -
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Mykonos, Greece

Emerald Princess in port.

Thank goodness we were not scheduled to dock in Mykonos until noon. The last few days were pretty tiring, especially after walking miles in the sun so we slept in until 8am and had a nice leisurely breakfast on the ship. We watched as the ship entered the port of Mykonos — the side of the island is quite barren, mostly rocks and dirt, with very little vegetation. There are gleaming white homes with blue shutters and doors growing out of the rocks all over the island — very Mediterranean looking! When the ship docked, there was a complimentary shuttle from the dock to the Yacht Club in town a little over a mile away, but we decided to walk it instead. The road turned out to be a bit challenging as there is no real sidewalk and it’s very narrow in most places, but we managed not to get run over by any vehicles — which were mainly the shuttle buses going back and forth.

Walking downtown from the port

Once downtown we walked through the streets of Mykonos for the afternoon, with no real plan or agenda. Most of the streets are extremely narrow, made of cobblestone, and seem to wind in random directions. It’s hard to imagine these streets are open for cars, but tourists and cars both shared the road. Most of downtown consists of stores full of souvenirs, art, clothes, and restaurants. One of the few things to see on Mykonos (apart from the beaches and town) is the windmills, so we randomly walked the streets trying to get there. It’s very easy to get lost, which we did for a while. Eventually we arrived, looked around for a bit, and started wandering back towards town. Most of Mykonos is very beautiful and there are great photo opportunities everywhere. We had planned for this to be our “easy day” since there weren’t any major sights we wanted to see, so after getting a feel for Mykonos, we took the bus back to the ship to relax some more.

The windmills of Mykonos

After dinner we tried our hand at the 80s music trivia contest. I was a bit annoyed that we were only able to answer 15 of the 20 questions correctly, but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless. I keep forgetting that “my 80s” — New Wave stuff like Depeche Mode and Erasure — isn’t the same as most people’s 80s — Michael Jackson, Flashdance, etc. Kathie then tried her hand at Let It Ride at the casino but not surprisingly, the casino was the winner.

Everything on Mykonos is white. I mean, really, really white. How does everything get so white?

Oooohhhh, that’s why everything’s white.

Did I mention that everything is white?


Istanbul, Turkey

Our second private tour of Turkey with Ekol Travel began at 8:00am. We met our guide Terri and driver Cem (Jim) after getting off the ship, and drove to Istanbul. The city of Istanbul seems better built, less chaotic, and prettier than Athens. It was a very short drive from the port in the new city of Istanbul over the Golden horn bay to the old city.

Part of Istanbul, as seen from Emerald Princess

Jim dropped us off at the Hippodrome, which in the 4th century was a Roman stadium holding 100,000 spectators for chariot races, but little of which remains today. Of the original treasures lining center of the stadium, the remaining masterpiece is the obelisk from the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, standing upon a Roman base. The four bronze horses that originally adorned the entrance to the Hippodrome were taken by the Venetians and today can be found atop St. Mark’s in Venice (easily visible on the left side of the bottom photo in my St. Mark’s Basilica blog entry; click on the photo for a larger version).

Egyptian obelisk on Roman pedestal at the Hippodrome

We then walked a short distance to the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque is so called because of the blue colors of the frescoes and tiles that adorn the interior ceiling of the mosque, but the actual name of the mosque is Sultanahmet Mosque, named after the Sultan who built it in 1616. The interior of the mosque is quite amazing and difficult to believe that it only took 7 years to build! Since the muslim religion forbids iconography (statues, images, etc), instead there is beautiful Arabic calligraphy from the Koran, ceramic tile art, and fresco designs. The mosque is still used for services and we had to remove our shoes before entering the building. Mosques normally have one, two, or four minarets, the tall towers surrounding the building. The Blue Mosque has six minarets — apparently the Sultan directed his architect to make gold (altin) minarets, which was misunderstood as six (alti) minarets. The Mosque at Mecca had six minarets, so the new mosque in Istanbul caused quite a stir. To resolve the situation, the Sultan paid to have a seventh minaret added to the mosque in Mecca!

Outside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

Our next stop, another very short walk, was to Hagia Sophia. This “Church of the Holy Wisdom” was built in 537AD by the Roman Emperor Justinian. It was the largest cathedral in the world until the 16th century. In 1054 when the great Eastern schism separated the Catholic church and Greek orthodox church, St. Sophia became the Greek orthodox center for religion. In the 15th century, the church was converted to a mosque after the Turks arrived. When the church was converted, the altar was shifted to point towards Mecca instead of Jerusalem, and four minarets were added. Interestingly when the church was converted, the Christian mosaics and frescoes were plastered over rather than destroyed. Fortunately this meant that after the church was turned into a museum in 1920 by Ataturk, those works were restored and can now be seen mixed with the muslim art. When you enter the church, you’ll see gorgeous Christian works in gold, mosaics of Emperor Justinian, Mother Mary, the baby Jesus, etc, but you’ll also see huge circles of arabic calligraphy spelling out Allah and various prophets.

Walking towards the Hagia Sophia

Our last stop before lunch was the Topkapi palace, home of the Sultan and his family in the 15th century. Walking up to the entrance of the castle, you may be hit by a sense of deja vu. The entrance looks remarkably similar to Cinderella’s castle at Disneyworld and some say this was the inspiration that Walt Disney used to build his castle. Topkapi has been converted to a museum filled with treasures from the Byzantine empire. We saw huge pieces of jewels including the 86-carat Spoonmaker diamond (pictures are not allowed). From the balcony of the castle, you can see the Bosphorus strait dividing Istanbul’s two halves on the Asian and Europe continents.

Topkapi Palace

We met up with our driver again, and went to the Grand Bazaar area for the afternoon. We started with lunch at an outdoor Turkish restaurant where we had a meal very similar to fajitas — carved meat, rice, and vegetables along with some flour wraps. After lunch our guide took us to one of the recommended carpet shops (there are many less reputable shops that will sell machine-made foreign carpets and claim they are hand-made Turkish carpets). Their selection was impressive, and the carpets were all beautiful. The masterpiece was a 6’x8′ all-silk carpet that, according to the salesman, had 640 double-knots per square inch and took two people 4 1/2 years to weave. The carpet was simply incredible, and we were both awed by it. The colors shimmered and changed from different angles, and it was luxuriously soft.

Inside the Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is a the largest covered market in the world, built in the 15th century and housing more than 4,000 stores. It is almost like a small indoor city, and seemed like an easy place to get lost in as every corridor looks much like the next and they branch off in every direction. We didn’t spend too much time, since after a while the goods offered for sale started getting repetitive. We exited the covered area and wandered the streets outside the Bazaar, with more stores and people everywhere. The last place our guide took us was to the spice market, another much smaller covered market that originally was exclusively used for spice trading, but now houses a few other types of shops. The market smelled wonderful, and the array of spices was beautifully colorful.

Outside the Bazaar

After the Bazaar, our guide took us right to the Golden Horn bay so we could look out and watch the ferries and boats. Speaking with Terri all day, it’s amazing to realize how western Turkey is. Most Turks are very secular, believing that religion is a personal belief and should not be forced on others. There are temples, churches, and mosques all over Turkey even though 99% of the population is Muslim. Women have the same rights as men and dress in shorts, dresses, and skirts. Turkish citizens are willing to fight and die for these rights.

Inside the spice market


  • on July 9, 2007 -
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Ephesus, Turkey

Emerald Princess docked at Kusadasi, Turkey at 7am on June 14th. We’d only have a half-day here, as we needed to be back aboard by 1:00pm to sail for Istanbul. We headed out of the terminal and met up with our private tour guide, Ali, and driver, Mahmud, from Ekol Travel. The currency exchange rate with Turkey is so favorable that we could arrange for a private tour here for less than the big 50-person bus tours in most of the other countries. During the drive to Ephesus, Ali told us about the history of Kusadasi port, which got its name from a nearby island, meaning Island of Birds. As Turkey tourism increases, Kusadasi port becomes more busy every year. Last year, 400 cruise ships docked at Kusadasi, this year they expect over 900 ships!

House of the Virgin Mary

Our first stop was at the House of the Virgin Mary. This is recognized as the last residence of the Virgin Mary, and also the residence of John the Evangelist. The place feels holy, and the entire area is very serene and peaceful. There are three springs outside the house to drink from that provide good health, wealth, and love. You can also bring an empty bottle to fill with the water to take back with you.

The Odeon at Ephesus

Next we drove to the ancient city of Ephesus, where we spent most of our morning. Ephesus was first settled as early as 1,000 B.C., as a commerce port at the edge of the sea. The city was moved several times as the sea level dropped and the natural harbors dried or silted up. We saw the third city of Ephesus, built about 200 B.C., which is undergoing active excavation and reconstruction. As we walked down the marble-paved main street through the ancient city, we saw Roman baths, the Odeon — a 1,400 person theater used for performances and city council meetings, Hadrian’s Temple, a public toilet building with running sewers and running water for washing hands, and one of the most advanced aqueduct systems of the ancient world. Underground terra cotta pipes provided the entire city with running water and sanitation.

Ancient public toilets with running water

Moving down the hill we came to the Terrace Houses. These are the very recently excavated homes of the important and wealthy people of ancient Ephesus. After the first section was uncovered, it was opened to the public for viewing, but was essentially destroyed by people taking “souvenirs”, walking on the fragile mosaics, and also from the exposure to the elements. When work was started on the second section, it was decided to charge admission and use the money to better protect the entire site under a roof, with glass floors on top of the original tile mosaics, etc. It was impressive how much of the houses remained intact, and how advanced they were. These large homes had open courtyards, beautiful mosaic floors, painted wall frescoes, were heated by hot air distributed through the house via terra cotta pipes, and full plumbing systems with multiple baths and toilets, and hot and cold running water!

Walking through “Dwelling Unit 2” of the Terrace Houses

The Library of Celsus was the third largest library of the ancient world, holding 12,000 scrolls, and had a double-wall system with a space in between in order to help protect the scrolls from humidity. Completed in AD 135, the two-story front facade is a remarkable example of Roman architecture.

The Library of Celsus

Around the corner we came to the theater, which seated 25,000 spectators. The theater is still in use today for concerts, but the Turks are very careful to keep the audiences small and the music at a dull roar. Previous modern concerts caused some damage to the theater due to the volume of the music and the number of audience members.

The theater in Ephesus seated 25,000 spectators, giving a good clue as to the size and importance of this ancient city.

A short drive took us to the site of the Temple of Artemis. It was several times larger than the Parthenon, and was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was destroyed by an arsonist on July 21, 356 B.C. and now all that remains is one lonely column. A short distance away is the Basilica of St. John, now largely in ruins due to an earthquake in the 14th century, and the 700-year old Isa Bey Mosque. It’s interesting to see these different religious buildings in one area, reflecting the region’s change from worshiping pagan Greek gods, to Christianity, to Muslim faith.

We returned to the ship at around 1pm, grabbed some of the ship’s excellent pizza, and watched Kusadasi fade as we headed north to Istanbul.

Heading north through the Aegean Sea


  • on July 7, 2007 -
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Athens: Part 2

150 years ago Athens was home to only a few thousand people, but today about a third of all Greeks live here — over four million people. It is a huge, dense, sprawling city centered around the Acropolis (literally, “high city”), which can be seen from anywhere in Athens.

Overlooking Athens and the Acropolis

After entering the Acropolis archaeological site, we walked further uphill and passed through the Propylaea, a giant building constructed around 435BC as the entryway to the Acropolis.

The Propylaea, gateway to the Acropolis

Once through the Propylaea, we walked the slippery marble streets of the Acropolis — good shoes are a must when touring the Acropolis. What immediately draws your attention is the enormous Parthenon on the right. Although it is currently under renovations and covered with scaffolding, it still impresses. Any marble building two-thirds the size of a football field, built 2,500 years ago should! Most of the renovations currently underway are to correct improper renovations done almost a century ago. How the archaeologists can put all the various ruins together is amazing. It’s very similar to putting together a puzzle without all the pieces… where some of the pieces don’t fit together… and you don’t know what the picture looks like.

The Parthenon

Across the street from the Parthenon is the Erechtheion, with its Porch of the Caryatids — six columns carved in the shape of maidens. These columns are replicas of the originals, which are now in museums.

Erechtheion and Porch of the Caryatids

The last sight as we headed back through the Propylaea was the Theatre of Herodes Atticus, a relatively recent addition to the Acropolis (AD 161). The ancient Greeks and Romans really loved their theaters, as we encountered several in every ancient city we visited. They were used for political discussions as well as entertainment, and historians are able to estimate the population of ancient civilizations by the seating capacity of their theaters. The seating area in this theater was rebuilt in 1950 and is now used for the annual Hellenic Festival.

Theatre of Herodes Atticus


Athens: Part 1

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Our ship’s first stop after a relaxing day-at-sea was Athens, Greece. We were due to spend the entire day there, and had booked a two-part tour with a local taxi driver, Dimitris Vakirtzis, whom we had read great reviews of online. Unfortunately the ship had some engine problems en-route and we arrived to Athens at 11am instead of the planned 6am time. This meant there wouldn’t be enough time for our drive down the coast to Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon, but we’d still have plenty of time in Athens itself.

Our first stop was Hadrian’s Arch and the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest temple in antiquity, both seeming out-of-place in the middle of the bustling city. There is some speculation that Hadrian’s Arch is a “toll booth” for those entering Athens. The ruins were quite impressive! The original temple consisted of 104 Corinthian columns, each 55 feet high and weighing 800,000 pounds.

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Next we stopped at the old Olympic Stadium — the site of the first modern Olympic games 1896. The all-marble stadium was built atop the foundations of the original Athens stadium from the 4th century B.C, and hosted 80,000 people for the 1896 games.

Olympic Stadium

We made a quick stop at the Presidential Mansion, guarded by the ceremonial guard, the Evzones, where Kathie was brave enough to pose for a photo. Another person posing got too close or touched the guard, who loudly banged his rifle on the ground in protest. If we hadn’t witness that, we might have thought he was a statue.

Kathie and a member of the Evzone guards

We then drove through the Plaka, a large shopping district, on our way to the Ancient Agora. Over 2,000 years ago the Agora was a city center Greek citizens would go to to publicly speak their minds about politics, and which eventually turned into a large marketplace for the ancient Greeks. At the top of a small hill was the Temple of Hephaistos, an impressive, still-intact temple built from 460-415 B.C.

Temple of Hephaistos in the ancient agora of Athens

Looking through the Temple of Hephaistos towards Athens