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Eastern Mediterranean Cruise with Family

Written by Keith and Audrey Wilson.

On Saturday, June 17, 2006, Audrey and I left home at 10:35 a.m. and arrived at Metropolitan Airport, Detroit, at noon. We met John at 12:30 p.m. as we were traveling to our departure gate for our USAir flight. We found Anita and the three children at the gate. The flight was delayed and we boarded at 3:25 p.m. and arrived in Philadelphia at 5:00 p.m. The plane was a Canadian Embarco with a capacity of 72 passengers. We were in the last row in seats 18-A/C. We left Philadelphia in business class at 6:00 p.m. on a Boeing 767. The seats were in pairs separated by an aisle and were comfortable enough but did not make up into very sleepable beds. We had wine, wine, and wine and an excellent meal. John and Anita were one row over and one row ahead of us, so we conversed very briefly. (The children were in tourist class seats.) John bought me some chocolates in honor of Father’s Day. We slept a little more than 2 hours of the flight and arrived in Venice at 8 a.m. local time.

The Costa Line took charge of our luggage except for John’s bag, which did not arrive. They bused us to a Vaporetta stop and we headed for San Marco Square to find Mary Anne, Phil, and Philip. John decided we would be better off on a water taxi, so we took it instead for 60 Euros. After we arrived and wandered around trying to find the San Maseo Hotel where the Reeds were staying, John sent Phil an e-mail, got an immediate response, and we all met in the Square. We walked a mile or so to a café Phil recommended and had lunch.

After lunch, we split off so that Audrey and I could board the ship while the rest of them took a gondola ride and did some sightseeing. We received directions on the Vaporetta to take to the point where the Costa bus would take us to the ship. We boarded Vapor. #82 at San Marco Square and traveled East to the end of the line and ended up on Lido Island . We tried to find where the ship was but were frustrated by the lack of English-speaking Italians. Finally, we found two employees of a café who could speak a bit of the language and concluded we were on the wrong side of Venice.

We returned to the station and took Vapor. #82 the other way. Along the way we inquired of fellow passengers first, did they speak English, and second, could they help us find the ship. Very poor results in both areas. Audrey and I were seated in separate rows and an attractive woman who, it turned out, was from Ireland but had lived in Venice for many years joined her. The woman informed us we were going in the right direction, the stop to get off, and we finally ended up at a station from which we could see the ship but not the bus. Her husband, who was sitting in my row, was a professor who had grown up in Minnesota . Her son, sitting behind Audrey, had recently been vying for a professorial position in Paris . (Somewhat pertinent info provided by Audrey.)

We wandered around a tourist area trying to find someone who spoke English to tell us how to find the bus. We finally found a far Eastern person running a food stand who spoke the best English of anyone we met and he told us it was a 15-minute walk to the ship and how best to get there. After profusely thanking him, we took off and finally found the Holy Grail. Immediately ahead of us checking in were John and his family. We boarded about 3:15 p.m., found our cabin and our luggage, unpacked and lounged around until 7:00 p.m. and had dinner at Table 132. All 10 of us were seated at the same table, an arrangement that lasted through the entire cruise. Seating at breakfast and lunch was not specified so we got an opportunity to meet other passengers on those occasions.

We ordered two bottles of Pinot Grigio, chatted up a storm, and had a very good meal. The dinners were all six courses and I never had more than five and then only once. In fact, at three of the dinners I didn’t eat the main course but had a cheese and grape dish instead. At every meal we had two bottles of wine, sometimes both white and other times one of each. John felt considerably under-dressed at the dinners because his luggage was still lost, as was the luggage of a couple at the table next to us who were from California .

We returned to the cabin and Audrey decided to attend a lecture in English on something or another while I retired to bed to read. A short while later, she returned, not able to find the location of the lecture, so we ordered room service for 8:30-9:00 a.m. and retired until 8:20 a.m. when the room service arrived. The waiter explained they always came at least 10 minutes early to avoid being late.

Let me take a moment to describe the ship, the Costa Mediterranean. The ship was built in Finland and completed in 2003, has 12 decks, is 292 meters long, and holds some 2.680 passengers and a crew of 900. The first three decks hold the restaurants, casino, service desks, card room, etc. and the next five decks are all cabins. The top three decks have the gyms, pools, sunning areas, and some cafeteria-style dining. There are three sets of six elevators and another open elevator setting in the center of the ship. There are all kinds of artworks and the ship is well decorated. The cabins all have twin beds joined to make a queen size bed, a bathroom with shower, a couch, coffee table, and a desk with a raised TV set. We were fortunate that our luggage was of a size to allow it to be placed under the bed, since we otherwise would have had to walk around it in one area or another of the cabin if it wouldn’t fit into either of the two hanging closets.

It was now Monday and after eating, showering, etc., I went for a stroll while Audrey went to bed for more rest. John and family and M.A. and family had decided to go to Bari, Italy and see the sights and we made arrangements to visit Olympia on Tuesday before they left. Audrey decided not to visit Olympia . I visited decks 9 and 10 which were the pool areas and returned to the cabin. Audrey was awake and hungry so we decided to take a stroll before dinner and met Anita near the workout room and suggested we lunch together. She only wanted some fruit which sounded good to me, but Audrey wanted to have lunch in the formal dining area so that’s where we ended up.

Lunch also consisted of six courses but I held myself to three and was still full. A Swiss couple about our age who spoke four languages but not English joined us. We had an amusing time trying to communicate with a few words and lots of gestures and then were joined by a German couple, also sans the English language. We saw the rest of our family eating elsewhere, having returned from Bari, exchanged greetings and headed for the cabin, Audrey to rest and I to sunbathe on the veranda. From our discussion, it appeared Bari wasn’t anything special.

We had a fire drill at 5:30 while underway to Katakolon, Greece, from which we would travel to Olympia . After the drill, I met John and Phil for a pre-dinner cocktail and then the adults dined pleasurably for about 1.75 hours. After dinner, we read awhile and then retired for the evening.

I awoke at 6:45 a.m. on Tuesday to prepare for the trip to Olympia, had breakfast and joined the family sans Audrey at 8:00 a.m. to board our tour bus. We traveled some 35 miles and had two guides on board, one speaking English and the other German. We had a hard time understanding ours and I don’t know how the Germans made out.

We got to the site of the ruins of the original Olympic games and got about two hours of the history of Greece and its mythology, about 15 minutes of which I well understood. Our guide as impressed by the fact the Olympic participants were in the nude, something we must have heard 10 times during her discourse. It was very hot (91 degrees we were told later) and very sunny and, for some reason, our guide insisted on standing in the sun to give her speeches while other guides had their guests seated in the shade. We walked about three miles around the area to see the ruins, which were almost entirely lying on the ground. In fact, the arena, which at one time could seat some 40,000 people, consisted of a field with a hill around it since later rulers took the stone seats out to build something else in another location.

We boarded the bus and returned to the ship only to find about 250 people ahead of us waiting to board the vessel. It took about 20 minutes to reboard and I went to the cabin to find Audrey and we went to deck 9 for a hamburger. Returned to the cabin for a nap, to bring my chronicle up to date, do a little sunning, and then prepare for formal dinner night. John came in a white shirt, long pants, and tie that he had purchased earlier and the rest were well attired for the occasion. Again, we had a good time together and must have had more to drink than usual because the children were given some wine as a treat. They didn’t seem to appreciate it all that much. The ship’s company put on a performance that included dancing in the aisle and the waiters and waitresses brought passengers out on the to dance. A real Italian performance with some great recorded music. We returned to the cabin and were asleep by 10 p.m.

Today, Wednesday, is the day we used our self-hired tour guide. Phil made the arrangements via the internet and we were looking forward to the occasion. We all met on deck 2 except none of John’s children appeared. John went to their room and found them asleep. They managed to get up, have a quick bite and still make it off the ship on time. As we disembarked, we found our guide with a lettered sign waiting for us and we were more than pleased with what we saw. She, Gulsum Ozbay, was built very well and also managed to speak reasonably good English. She said “gul” meant rose so we called her rose for the day since we couldn’t seem to pronounce her name properly.

She was well versed in the history of Izmir and told us as much as we needed to know to appreciate the significance of what we were seeing. She came with a driver and an 11-passenger bus-she sat on a chair at the side entrance of the bus-and we traveled about 1.15 hours from Izmir to Ephesus and the final residence of the Virgin Mother. Her home site had been discovered in the early 1950’s by a Dutch nun’s visions and the house re-built as it once was. It is now used as a place of worship and, of course, for tourists to visit. The house is located some 400 kilometers above sea level and the trip there was delightful because we were looking at rocky hills and valleys either heavily planted or occupied by villages.

We noted that Turkey ‘s geography was much like that of Greece : high hills with valleys in between. Most of the hills were rocky and useless and the vast majority of people lived in the valleys. It appears that about 75% of the Turks live in high-rise apartments, which were very prevalent wherever we went. The rural homes we saw had solar hot water units on their roofs and either had satellite dishes or no TV.

Back to Ephesus where we spent most of our time. At the request of Jesus Christ, St. Peter returned to Izmir to watch over Mary and preached at a large church that was a former mosque. I understand Mary lived to be 102 and Peter remained with her through her life.

Anyway, the roots of the City of Ephesus go back to 6000 BC to the Neolithic Age. During 1050, immigrants from Greece began to populate the city and the city of today was established in 300 BC by Lysimachos, one of the generals of Alexander the Great. The city was the capital of Asia province with a population of 200,000 and during ancient times was known as Smyrna . The city had a theater with a capacity of 24,000 and a classic library. The façade of the theater has been restored and the area used to host many national and international events. The Turks have done a good job of partially restoring some of the buildings so that they can provide the effect they had when initially constructed. It helps not to be in an earthquake zone, too.

Christianity prevailed until the Roman Empire split in two in A.D. 395 when Izmir fell under Byzantine influence and remained in that status until 1320. In 1422 Izmir was made a permanent part of the Ottoman Empire. Starting in the 16th century, Izmir became a center of trade and in the 18th and 19th centuries became an international commerce capital under British, French, Italian and Dutch traders. Izmir ‘s independence ended in 1922 when it became part of Turkey.

It appears that the name Izmir applies more to an area than to a specific location since the units within the general area all have their own names. The original location of Izmir was at the northeast part of the Bay, but the port silted in and was moved southerly to more or less its present location.

This was our finest tour to date and we began to anticipate our visit to Istanbul the next day. We returned to the ship where the adults dined together and the children ate elsewhere. This was somewhat the pattern of the trip with the children joining us for dinner on four of the seven nights we ate on board. (The children were given very little supervision and performed extremely well through the entire cruise. They pretty much had the run of the ship and the only requirements were that they be up on time for any scheduled shore excursion and that they attend several specific dinners.)

The evening was also a gala occasion because John’s luggage arrived! We celebrated (me a little too much) the occasion before dinner and, as a result, I slept very well that night. I should mention the ship presented evening entertainment every night with two showings, the first at 9:00 p.m. and the second at 11:00 so that both groups of diners could see the show. The children attended more shows than the adults, although Audrey and I went on Thursday and she joined John and Elizabeth on Friday.

Thursday we arrived in Istanbul and docked on the Bosphorus. We hooked up with Karin Benlian, co-owner of the tour service we used in Izmir, and he took us on a long tour of the City covering both sides of the Bosphorus. We visited the Blue Mosque and the Hippodrome as he gave us the history of Turkey . He spoke English very well and had a good sense of humor so we are recommending him and his firm to Classic Travel for their consideration. We also visited the church of St. Sophia, completed in 537 BC.

We ended up at the Topkapi Palace, which consists of a considerable number of buildings and area. We must have spent four hours touring them and their grounds and had lunch at what was termed to be the oldest restaurant in the city. It overlooked the waterway and the food was good. Our tour then took us to the Grand Bazaar where some 3,000 shops are located. The first shop was a combination rug/jewelry store where we received the full sales treatment and saw about 20 different rugs and learned more about them than we cared to know. However, it turned out that John and Anita were in the market for such a rug for their entry and ended up buying one while we were touring the Bazaar.

The bazaar was divided into areas of interest and the first one we hit was the jewelry section where we must have encountered 40-50 separate stores. There were lots of people in the bazaar but not many in any individual store. The next section featured rugs and we decided we had seen enough and went outside to hear more about the City from our guide. He said the population of Istanbul is 18 million and that the City is now building a tunnel under the Bosphorus that will accommodate rail and vehicular traffic. The City has about 1.5 million cars and an extensive bus system. Some of the buses were four units long and all of them had lots of people in them. I estimated the first two buses I saw had more people in them than the City of Lansing carried on their buses in a year. I have never seen as many taxis in one city in my life and the traffic was almost always bumper-to-bumper. Every time we slowed down, pedestrians would dash between the vehicles to cross the street. All of the streets were filled with people and it was just one seething mass of humanity.

Friday turned out to be an at sea day while we traveled to Dubrovnik, Croatia . Everyone lounged around the ship although we kept running into one another. It also was Phil’s 51 st birthday, so everyone gathered their birthday cards and the father’s day cards that had not as yet been distributed and we first had cocktails to celebrate Phil’s birthday and then went to dinner with the entire family. This was our second formal night and it honored the crew and we were treated to an Italian performance. It began with an operatic aria by Pavarotti booming out of a first-class sound system and was followed by other singers and a parade of waiters and chefs around the dining room. It ended with a birthday cake and a collection of waiters singing happy birthday to Phil.

We arrived in Dubrovnik at noon and everyone but Anita and Audrey and I went ashore in the old City to see the sights. John told us later that almost everyone he encountered not only spoke English but spoke it very well. They were also very disdainful of the Italians. It was a very hot day and since everyone was in the walled part of the city, they were without a breeze. I decided to take a ride on one of our lifeboats into the City to get a feel for it but didn’t stay long because it was so hot. I saw Mary Anne, Phil, Austin and Alex who were traveling together hoping to find John and Elizabeth because John had all of their passports. They hooked up later and got back in good time.

We had dinner and then returned to our cabins to pack our bags, which had to be placed in the corridor by 1 a.m. to facilitate disembarking in the morning. We were all given tags of different colors and were called to disembark by color in the morning. John and family left first and headed straight to the airport to fly to Rome and join the Bruni family for the rest of their vacation. The rest of us proceeded by land taxis to the Marriott Courtyard Motel where the Reeds remained for a few hours and then we took the Motel bus to the airport about one kilometer away to get them on their way to Amsterdam. We returned to the Motel and went for a walk in the area and, on our return to the motel, met a couple we had befriended on the ship who had sat at the table next to us and who also lost their luggage. It was returned the same time John’s arrived on the ship in Izmir and they were exhausted because they had walked with their luggage from the airport to the motel.

We awakened in the morning and had breakfast at the Motel, packed our bags and headed to the airport for an 11:40 a.m. departure. Going West is always longer than going East because it occurs in the daytime. We ate lunch, read, watched some TV, listened via earphones to some comedy acts, napped, had a dinner snack, and arrived on time in Philadelphia . We cleared Customs and then, at the suggestion of a couple we met on the airplane, hired a porter to handle our bags in the Customs baggage area. He took the bags and us around the line trying to recheck them and then around the line going through the checkpoint process so that we avoided about a half-hour it took the others. We came into the terminal to learn all flights to Detroit had been cancelled due to weather. Unbeknown to us, the East coast had been hit by heavy rainstorms, which slowed or stopped incoming flights so that there were no planes to fly us to our destination.

We went to the ticket counter and Audrey and I managed to get the last two seats on a flight scheduled to depart at 8:30 p.m. instead of the 5:40 we were originally slated to take. At about 8 p.m. it was rescheduled to 9 and then 10 and then 11 at which time we were told there were some maintenance problems. We ended up leaving at 1 a.m. and arrived in Detroit at 2:15. We got our bags, found our car, and arrived home at 4:30 a.m. It left us with a rather poor opinion of Philadelphia, especially its airport.

In spite of the foul-up at the end of the trip, we both agreed the cruise had been wonderful and that we had thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the presence of our children and grandchildren. We were greatly impressed by all of them which is rather funny when you ponder on it. We hoped to be impressed with the grandchildren and were but we felt we knew our children and their mates very well and didn’t expect anything special there but found there was much more to them than we remembered. We feel very proud to be the parents and grandparents of such a fine collection of individuals.