THE GREEK ISLES – October 2012

 

Back to Istanbul

It was only this time last year that Huckleberry B and I spent a short time in Istanbul, after our pilgrimage to Gallipoli. However, we really did not see the city.

Our stay would again be short. However, on this occasion, our day in the Turkey’s largest city will remain long in our memory.

For starters, Huck B had arranged for us to stay at a charming little hotel – the Neorion – in Istanbul’s old city. Unlike our hotel last year, which stood along a reasonably wide boulevard in the central business district, the Neorion was nestled in a nondescript laneway amongst the maze of narrow streets which meandered down from the Hagia Sophia Mosque to the shore of the Bosphorus. As part of the old city, both the small hotel and the location boasted genuine character.

What made our day in Istanbul so special, however was the time we spent with our friend, F, who had returned to Turkey for several months to finalize the affairs of her late husband.

We met F at the ferry wharf and, after hugs all around, set off on a delightful ride across the Bosphorus. Never has the journey from Europe to Asia been so easy and so short. It was lovely to sit on the benches on the outside of the ferry and watch the expanse of Istanbul drift by, its hills covered by small dwellings punctuated by the domes of a dozen or more mosques with their minarets reaching for the heavens.

Before long we were joined by F’s sister, B, and it was off for a leisurely lunch at a fish restaurant by the ocean. Unfortunately, getting to the leisure of the lunch was less than leisurely. If there is one thing about Istanbul which has not changed it’s the traffic. Getting anywhere on Istanbul’s roads is traumatic. We have never seen such smothering congestion. For much of the time, it is thrilling to achieve a walking pace. For the majority of the time, our vehicle was stationary.

To make matters worse, on this particular journey, our taxi driver was not sure of the exact location of the restaurant for which we were looking. He would stop periodically and stick his head out the window to ask somebody strolling by for directions. Invariably, the helpful individual would point in a direction opposite to our travel and in contradiction to the last helpful individual.

Happily, we finally found our restaurant and sat down to a spread of mezze followed by some delicious fresh fish. The location was lovely. Adjacent to a marina and overlooking the ocean, we had the place much to ourselves.

After lunch, we strolled out to the main road to look for a taxi. However, to our surprise, we were greeted, instead, by a slim Cavalier King Charles spaniel trotting happily towards us with her master. Huckleberry B and I instinctively smiled and waved at the charming little dog. Noticing this, the CKC’s  master smiled at us and stopped so we could say hello. We soon learned that the dog’s name was ‘Chico’, who was almost one year old. Whilst fondling her ears, Chiko jumped up and placed her front paws on Huck B’s thighs and craned her neck forward to give my wife a kiss on her cheek. I told Chico that she was a good girl.

Later in the day, after I had overcome a bout of Chico-inspired homesickness,  we did some shopping. However, this proved more difficult than may first have been anticipated. We were, specifically, looking for business shoes for me, to go with the ones I had purchased in Istanbul the previous year (with which I was pleased).  Unfortunately, when we arrived at the sister store by taxi, we discovered that the shop had closed. The bright side was that this gave us an ideal excuse to sit down at the adjacent Godiva shop and enjoy a round of coffees and iced chocolate milk.

Next, we were back in the taxi to another shopping district in search of the elusive shoe store…

With the store located, shoes sampled and  purchases made, it was (obviously) time for more coffees and Turkish delight. We sat down in a bustling market area where, we were told, only locals ventured. The place was teeming with Turks of all shapes and sizes. At a nearby table, I could see a mother listening intently to all the excited words which were spilling from her son’s mouth whilst her husband sipped quietly on his drink. Meanwhile a rotund young man strolled by with his arm draped around his girlfriend’s shoulders.  Across the alleyway, a mother and adult daughter sat in contented silence.

In every direction we looked, we could see the colours of the local football team. F explained that there was a game that night and the spectators were having a quick meal and a drink before heading to the stadium. When I observed that only one team’s jersey was in evidence, F stopped a supporter pushing past our table and asked who they were playing that night.

The supporter spat out a word in Turkish and F explained that the opposing team was also from Istanbul and ‘those people don’t come here’. I made a mental note to avoid the stadium that night; sounded like some bitter rivalry might by playing out.

As the sun began to set over the Bosphorus, we headed back to the wharves and took a ferry back to our corner of Istanbul. It had been a wonderful day. We felt as though we had sampled some of the ‘real’ Istanbul. A day to remember.

Silver Spirit

After our memorable day in Istanbul, we boarded Silver Spirit and looked forward to our seven day cruise among Greek and Turkish ports.

Of all the vessels we have had the privilege of experiencing, there is no question that Silver Spirit is the most impressive. Our standard verandah suite was spacious and very well appointed.  I adored the wooded paneling on the feature wall.

Entering the room for the first time, I was very pleased with what I saw, but wondered where the television was. I soon discovered that it was set inside the mirror opposite our bed. Once activated, part of the large mirror became a TV screen.

Outside our stateroom, the rest of the ship had its attractions too. In particular, there was a speciality Japanese Restaurant which we frequented regularly. On the first night, we enjoyed a Japanese degustation menu. Most of our lunches involved a seemingly endless stream of sashimi and sushi.

Across the aisle from the Japanese Restaurant was a speciality French Restaurant. Whilst very pleasing in its own way, we preferred the Japanese.

There were other dining options too. In addition to the main dining room, we could enjoy a hamburger or a hot dog around the pool. The area used for buffet breakfasts and lunches was converted to an Italian Restaurant  in the evenings, which we also sampled on one occasion.

What makes the dining options so remarkable, is that Silver Spirit is only a small ship. Its capacity of some 540 passengers compares favorably with Sapphire Princess‘ guest list, which exceeds 2,000.

Overall, the food on board Silver Spirit was simply outstanding, as was the high level of service.

 

`Capitalism Will Kill You’

With deep regret and a very heavy heart, we left Silver Spirit on the morning on 15 October.

It was so sad to close the door on our Stateroom and leave the vessel for the last time.

Soon enough, we were on a bus for a day tour of Athens, before being dropped off at the Sofitel Hotel at Athens Airport, where we would stay for one night before flying to Cyprus for my birthday.

We spent about 90 minutes being guided around the Acropolis. That was quite a thrill. We had seen images of this ancient structure so many times on TV and elsewhere. It was wonderful to finally see it in person.

Our tour also took us through the streets around Constitution Square. We saw some evidence of the recent ‘troubles’ in Greece over the government’s austerity measures. A small group of protesters were positioned on  a street corner, albeit not vocal when we passed. Some riot police vans were parked around the corner. Graffiti was splashed on some government buildings including the message: “Capitalism will kill you”.

However, the Greek Capital appeared to be at peace during our short city tour. Two major unions were, ominously, planning protests on the coming Thursday. Worryingly, that is the day we are scheduled to fly out of Athens on our long journey home. As we headed to the airport hotel we crossed our fingers and hoped that the protests would not interrupt operations at the airport.

Whilst the day of protest remained two days in the future, it turned out that the driver of our bus was about to stage a personal protest in the next 15 minutes.

When the bus pulled up at the departure hall of Athens Airport, we dutifully disembarked with the other passengers and collected our luggage which included three large bags and three small ones.  From where we stood, we could see the Sofitel. However, to get there meant dragging our bags across a road, down some stairs, across another road and over to the hotel.

We had told our guide that we were going to the hotel rather than the airport. Very helpfully, she approached the driver and asked him to drive us to the front door of the hotel, representing a detour of five minutes max.

Whilst we are illiterate in Greek, we are both fluent in body language.

It was obvious that the driver was resisting the guide’s requests. He looked at his watch and slouched his shoulders. Then we pointed to our bags, with the implication that he was not minded to put them back on the bus. The guide resorted to reaching into her pocket and thrusting ten euro towards him, however, his truculence triumphed. Thinking that our tour was over, I handed the guide our ten euro tip, comprising two five euro notes. She immediately took one note and handed it to the driver. Finally, his threshold of resistance breached – evidently valued at 15 euro – the driver angrily heaved our bags back onto the bus and climbed into the driver’s seat. As they say: ‘capitalism will kill you’!

Less than five minutes later we were at the hotel’s front door and our bags were unloaded again. The driver had the last say though. As he reversed the bus, the front swung around and knocked two of our bigger bags over. We’ll never know whether this result was achieved by design. Either way, the driver’s attitude and conduct certainly stood in stark contrast to the exceptional service we enjoyed on board Silver Spirit. It reminded us of our last visit to Athens when a taxi driver insisted on a 20 euro fare to take us the length of the cruise port.

A Birthday in Cyprus / Austerity Strikes Back

After a night in Athens, we rose early to fly to Cyprus. It was 16 October and my last day as a 43 year old.

We landed in Lanaca mid-morning and found our driver without any difficulty. Our luggage loaded, we set out – for the second time on this trip – on a journey to traverse the breadth of an European island. First it was Dublin to Galway, now it was Lanaca, on the east coast of Cyprus, to Polis, on the west coast. Our destination was the Anassa resort. When we arrived the view of the Mediterranean Ocean was stunning.

An afternoon swim, a beautiful dinner and, come the next morning, by birthday had arrived!

Unlike last year, I didn’t celebrate my birthday by swimming in the Dead Sea in the morning before being serenaded by Bedouins singing Arabic love songs in Wadi Rum in the evening. However, I remained a very happy, dimple-cheeked birthday boy whilst enjoying the day with Huckleberry B at the Anassa Resort in Polis, Cyprus. The location was stunning. Standing on our balcony on the second floor, we looked across a garden to some white washed villas with the azurre blue Mediterranean Ocean a short distance beyond.

Unfortunately, the mood of the day changed when, early afternoon, we received an email from Olympic Airlines which caused B to gasp in horror. The email said that our 10am flight back to Athens would now be leaving at 12.00 noon and arriving at 2pm. Ordinarily, the extra hours’ sleep in the morning would be welcomed. However, the problem was that our connecting Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi and then to Sydney was scheduled to leave Athens at 2.35pm and we had no chance of being their in time.

A google search of `Athens strike’ revealed that – amongst a large number of protests – the Air Traffic Controllers and firemen at Athens Airport were walking away from their radar screens and hoses at 10am and would not return until 1pm; hence the forced delay of our Olympic Air flight.

The rest of the afternoon was spent variously googling updates on the strike, checking whether our Etihad flight was also going to be delayed and calling Olympic Air and Cyprus Air to see whether there were seats available for us on an earlier flight at 8.10 am. After much frustration, Huck B finally convinced Olympic that we would miss our connecting flight if forced to remain on their flight and we secured two of the last seats on the Cyprus Air flight. Even then, we were not out of the woods, given that our driver was scheduled to arrive at 6.30 am to drive two hours across the Island of Cyprus to Lanaca airport. Thankfully, he was most accommodating and agreed to collect us two hours earlier than planned, at the horrific time of 4.30am.

Our revised plans now in place, all that remained was to enjoy my far from austere birthday dinner and brace ourselves for the 3.45 am wake-up call.

Moonriver

 

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