Amsterdam -April 28, 2016
Tulips are my favourite flower so when I learned about Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands many years ago I knew some day I had to visit. Keukenhof is 32 hectares of spring flowers - primarily tulips - and it is only open from the end of March until mid May. 7 million bulbs and 800 varieties of tulips. Surely I must be in heaven - except I envisioned heaven a little warmer.
We bought our tickets online which included bus transportation and entrance to the garden for €29. We caught the bus from Museumplein right by our hotel and took it to the airport. From there we had to stand in a long line by a large tulip to get the bus to Keukenhof. It took us a couple hours from the time we left the hotel.
The gardens are a spring time utopia. Everywhere you look is an explosion of flowers in various colours and heights. It is stunning! The theme of the garden this year is The Golden Age - the time when the Netherlands were successfully trading worldwide. There were indoor exhibits celebrating the theme and one indoor exhibit was all orchids. Many of them were combined with fashion pieces. Amazing! The garden is so beautiful and well done. Even though there were a lot of people, it's so big it doesn't feel crowded - except when you are in the gift store. If you love tulips, I highly recommend a visit!
The weather gods were not on our side today. It was really chilly and rained on and off. Mom, Penny and I bought matching gloves because our hands were so cold. We found some hot drinks and almond cookies to help keep warm...and then a waffle with whipped cream.
On our way home we stopped at a grocery store by our hotel. I hate grocery shopping at home but I love looking at grocery stores in other countries. We got some snacks and made our own happy hour in our large hotel room.
The rain stopped so we went out walking for a bit in the evening and called it a day. About half of us (me included) are fighting a cold.
We had breakfast in the dining room and said our goodbyes to everyone before disembarking the beautiful Koningsdam. I guess by now there are new people in stateroom 11030. I hope they enjoy it as much as we did. Especially the shower - I wish I could take it home with me! It is always sad to swipe my keycard one final time before leaving the ship. It was a fantastic cruise - interesting ports, wonderful staff and of course we sailed with a great group of people.
The crew at the Dutch cafe this morning were all wearing orange crowns for King's Day. They warned us about the party that will be going on in Amsterdam.
Rome Cabs was waiting as we disembarked to take us to the airport. We were early for the flight so we looked around a bit. Unfortunately for my wallet I spotted a Fabriano shop. I love Fabriano paper/stationery supplies and it is so much cheaper here than at home. I showed restraint though and only bought one notebook. Lime green of course to go with my trip photo challenge. And a fountain pen. And some cartridges. That's all.
Our hotel (Parkview Hotel) in Amsterdam is close to Musemplein and overlooks Vondelpark. It's really nice and out of the craziness of King's Day. We ventured out to check out the celebrations. It was 6 pm by the time we got settled in the hotel so many of the family activities and concerts were over. But, we saw a lot of drunk young people in the streets and on boats in the canals. Looks fun if you are 20! There are street food vendors set up and we indulged in some poffertjes and fries before we found a place to eat.
It is quite chilly so we needed some hot beverages to warm up. We got used to the warm sun in the Mediterranean. After dinner James and I walked around Vondelpark. It's beautiful and huge! Apparently the same designer as Keukenhof Garden which we are visiting tomorrow. Lots of birds, flowers and dogs out for walks. We ventured in to the surrounding neighbourhoods. The buildings are stunning - wonderful architecture and very posh looking.
I love Amsterdam - it's so easy to explore by foot! And the bikes...
April 26, 2016
I have been looking forward to exploring the Amalfi coast for a long time and it did not disappoint. In fact I think I'll buy a villa there when I win the lottery.
We got in to Naples around 8 am and met our guide Patty (with the Italian/Scottish accent) from Mondo Guide.
The port of Naples is crazy - very busy and lots of traffic. It took us about 30 minutes just to get out of the port. From there we headed south up and around the Bay of Naples. The views are breathtaking and the roads are very narrow. Patty told us they weren't made for buses and cars and there isn't a vehicle in the area without a bump, dent or scratch - I believe her! You definitely want to have a driver familiar with coast when you are driving through here. Although I did see a driver in Naples two hand texting while driving. That leaves no hands (or eyes) for driving.
The Amalfi Coast is a protected UNESCO site which means modern structures can't be built. Only one of the 13 municipalities isn't protected under UNESCO. I can't remember the name of it but it suffered a flood and had to be rebuilt so it is more modern and resort looking. The Amalfi Coast is 40 km long, however to drive it from beginning to end takes 2.5 hours because of the hairpin turns, narrow roads and steep cliffs that plunge to the sea. I'm not sure what happens when there is an accident - everything must get very backed up.
We stopped in Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. Positano seemed like the largest of the three but we didn't have much time to explore and it was very busy. They have a lot of beautiful clothes made locally out of linen. We tried to touch the water at the beach but a wave caught us so we actually dipped our toes in - through our shoes. We also visited the church and saw the black faced Madonna and the native scene. As you drive through the coast there are lots of tunnels - one was eight minutes long - and every so often there are miniature villages with nativity scenes built in to the rock face. I'm not sure how anyone safely built them on the side of the road!
As we drove toward Amalfi we saw some donkeys that are still used to bring supplies up the side of the cliffs. I guess donkeys are the only animal that will do stairs. As we arrived in Amalfi it started clouding over but it didn't rain. My umbrella was in my bag so I knew we would be safe. When we arrived Patty showed us a bit of the town including the turtles before setting us loose. Amalfi has a beautiful church in the square with 62 stairs to the entrance. We didn't go in - not because of the stairs, James and I have been climbing many stairs to get to our stateroom on the ship - but we had limited time and we've seen a lot of churches already. We are kind of churched and museumed out. I managed to have some delicious Margherita pizza and James had calamari in a paper cone. I also found a stationery store with beautiful paper before we had to meet the group.
We drove up to the top of the mountain to visit the peaceful town of Ravello. On the drive we passed the area where there is the cliff diving competition Fiordo di Furore. Ravello is known as the music city - they have a large concert every year and the area around here is so lush. I am really amazed that people decided to climb up cliffs and build homes and communities. I'm glad they did, the Amalfi Coast is absolutely stunning. I would love to come back and spend a lot more time in the area.
We had our last dinner in the dining room and met for one last happy hour in the Crows nest this evening. Then we had the sad chore of packing. Its been a wonderful cruise and the ms Koningsdam has been our home for 19 days. I hate to leave the ship and go back to the real world where I have to work, clean and cook for myself. And there Will be no towel animals on my bed. Although I do miss the two little mutts that take up residence on our bed at home. I'll bring them with me to live in the villa on the Amalfi Coast.
April 24, 2016
Crete is the largest Greek island and has a population of 600,000 people. However the olive trees (45 million) and the sheep (1 million) far out number the human population. Crete is mountainous and we could see a bit of snow on Mount Ida.
Everywhere we go has the best olive oil and the oldest ruins. Today was no exception. Crete has the oldest ruins and artifacts that we have seen so far. I didn't try the olive oil so I can't comment on it. I'm sure it's good.
We drove to Knossos which is an ancient palace built as a labyrinth 4000 years ago. The palace was built to keep the Minotaur (half man, half bull) hidden. There is a complicated intertwining of reality and Greek mythology, that I didn't quite grasp but I do know the the Minoans were an ancient civilization. Formed by King Minos, the son of Zeus and Europa. It is pretty amazing to see the architecture and engineering and how advanced they were. The palace had running water with clay pipes. There were frescoes on the walls and floors, mosaics and large clay pots. The small thrones seem to indicate female rulers - a matriarchal society. The next civilization, the Mycenaeans, changed that.
After touring the ruins we went to Heraklion to see the relics in the Archeological museum. The artifacts are incredible - so much detail and they are 4000 years old. We saw exquisite jewelry, games, frescoes, mosaics, jars, double axes, bulls and sarcophagus.
We had some free time after the museum to look around. It was pretty busy in the shopping area because next weekend is the orthodox Easter. It seems odd to see Easter bunny decorations out.
We had to be back on the ship quite early so we enjoyed this sunshine and watched sail away. We were blessed with another sunny day. Later in the evening though the wind picked up and the water is no longer as calm as it has been.
On a sad note, we received the news that my grandma passed away early this morning. She was an amazing, strong woman with a beautiful spirit. I have so many fond memories of her and the times we spent together over the past 45 years. She was our matriarch and all of us will miss her. I know she will be watching over us.
Rhodes, Greece April 23, 2016
Yesterday (April 22) we had another fabulous sunny day at sea to celebrate James birthday. Happy birthday also to my sister, Alana, and uncle Daryl!
I forgot to mention in the previous post that we learned if Holland America decided not to take us to Turkey we would have called on Cairo and Israel. Interesting choices. I'm glad we stopped in Turkey - I really enjoyed Kusadasi/Ephesus and Istanbul.
We had a great day in Rhodes. We did a walking tour of the port area, the old city walls including the moat and the palace. The ship docks very close to the old town so you can easily get to the old town. Again, lots of history that goes back to 408 BC. Our tour was ok but this is definitely a port to do on your own. No need for a guide unless you are really interested the Knights of St. John and super fortified city walls. The guide we had was very nice and funny - just too much information.
The old city is filled with shops in spectacular old buildings. Before heading back to the ship the team had large beer out of glass boots. Overpriced but fun!
We had a jam packed day touring around the fascinating sites of Istanbul. Istanbul is definitely a city that warrants a lot longer visit!
We met our guide Arzu first thing this morning and took the tram to explore. There was only the 12 of us on the tour And it was a walking tour which is the perfect way to explore this piece of Istanbul. Istanbul is a huge sprawling city that spans two continents with at least 18 million people. There are probably more that aren't registered. Their largest border is with Syria and Turkey has taken in 2.5 million refugees so far and will take more. It is definitely a challenging time for the country.
We visited the Blue Mosque, the hippodrome, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, and the grand bazar with a stop for lunch. We also discussed the January 16 bombing where it happened by one of the obelisks. Arzu was very close by when it happened guiding another group.
There was barely a line up for the blue mosque and aside from school children, none of the sites we visited were very busy. This was great for us but not so great for the tourist industry. Arzu told us that hotels are operating at 20%. She has a small child so she doesn't mind spending the extra time with him this year but hopes the tourist drought doesn't last long.
The blue mosque is grand and Arzu explained some of the practices of the faith. She relayed stories about her grandfather who prayed five times per day. I especially liked the explanation of the two angels that sit on our shoulders recording all that we do to decide how much time we spend in hell before we are allowed into heaven. There are specific calculations for things like drinking wine, missing prayer or having a bacon sandwich. Arzu is not a practicing Muslim and is concerned with how religious and conservative Turkey is becoming. She does not agree with many of the Muslim teachings related to women. She feels Turkey is becoming a poorer country and she is considering leaving. Her sister lives in Canada.
All of the sites are stunning and the history of the city from Constantinople to Istanbul (in 1453) with the Ottoman rule and then the exhale of the royal family and the beginning of the republic in 1923. And the change from Christianity to Muslim. My favourite site today was the Hagia Sofia. It was built in the sixth century and it's huge! It was an Orthodox Church then mosque with the Ottoman rule and now it's a museum.
Our lunch was really good. Most who tried the Turkish coffee didn't like it. I don't drink coffee but I can say the tea was very good.
There are stray dogs on the street. They are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, tagged and then left to live free. The colour of the tag on their indicates what area they are from. None of them looked underfed.
The grand bazar has4500 shops and about 20,000 people work in the bazaar. We only had 30 minutes so we only saw a snippet.
Oh I also learned why St. Paul was driven out of Ephesus. The goddess Artemis was the mac daddy of the goddesses in Ephesus so lots of little statues were sold depicting her. St. Paul started preaching about one God and that pagan worshipping do many gods and goddesses was wrong. This made the Artemis trinket sellers mad so that's why the scuffle broke out and St. Paul was put in to protection.
That was our day in a nut shell. We are getting ready to set sail back towards Greece. Tomorrow we are at sea and our next stop will be Rhodes.
I'm on our deck frantically typing before we leave and I hear the call to prayer in the background.
I'll post more photos when I have better internet.
Sailing the Dadanelles and arriving in Istanbul
April 20, 2016
I was up early and started watching the sail through the the Dardanelles around 6 am. We sail very close to the land on both sides so you can appreciate the hills and all green. I was able to see the memorial for Anzac which is in honour of Australians and new zelanders who lost their lives.
Most of the day we were sailing toward Istanbul. The bow was opened so we could watch the sail in to the city. It was incredibly windy but fun to watch on the bow.
We were able to get off the ship at about 4 pm. Aunty Pat got us on the tram and over to the spice market area. As we got off the tram there was a call to prayer. It was moving to be in the square seeing all the bustle and hearing the call to prayer. We visited a mosque with exquisite blue tile inside. Uncle Rick thought it was the Blue Mosque but it wasn't. It was just a mosque with blue tile. We had fun walking through the spice market sampling Turkish delight. The fresh Turkish delight made with honey is so good!
It started raining as we headed back to the ship. There was a Turkish party in the lido - lots of food, belly dancing and music. The music was loud and a little screechy.
We are docked in Istanbul overnight and I am looking forward to our full day of touring.
Kusadasi, Turkey April 19, 2016
We made it to Turkey. For a few months we weren't sure if the ports would be cancelled because many other cruise lines stopped calling on Turkey. But a few days ago the captain told us we were going ahead with the planned itinerary. We were given some tips about how not to stand out as tourists. Hmmm...I think no matter what we will look like tourists. The cameras are a dead give away.
We arrived in Kusadasi (a resort town) in the morning and were treated to another hot and sunny day. I think it got up to about 30 degrees. My mom booked a tour quite a while ago with a company that I don't know the name of so I will have to add it to the blog later. It was a great price $43 USD per person for our group of 12 which included all our entrance fees and lunch. Our guide Erol was waiting to take us to ancient Ephesus.
This area of Turkey is incredibly green and clean. On the drive to Ephesus we learned a bit of history. Erol told us that Turkey's history goes back to about 10,000 BC. Seriously?! Our North American brains comprehend that much history! Luckily for you readers, I got lost in the beautiful scenery and didn't pay attention to the narrative explaining 12,000 years of history so I can't share it with you.
Ancient Ephesus is amazing. It was a port city until the land started drying up and got all swampy. Then the mosquitoes started transmitting disease (malaria) which was killing people so the ancient city was abandoned. The ruins are fascinating. We wandered through the ancient city and visited the Terrace Houses. The houses were built in to the cliffs and they were owned by the wealthy. I think there are about eight houses open and they are continuing to restore them. The houses have 2000 year old frescoes and marble mosaic tile floors. One has a pool and a few shared a cathedral. There are some exposed clay pipes which give a glimpse in to their plumbing systems.
Ephesus has important religious significance. St. John came to Ephesus and started spreading the message of Christianity. There was some sort of scuffle in the amazing theatre between St. Paul and someone else and St. Paul ended up staying in the counsel tower in Ephesus. I'm not sure if was for his protection or punishment? Anyhow while he was in the tower he wrote some of the letters in the gospel. That's my condensed version of history.
The library is very impressive and very grand. Our guide told us that there was an underground tunnel between the library and the brothel across the street. The men would tell their wives they were going to spend some time at the library while they shopped...
The cats ruled this site - there are a lot of stray cats in the Mediterranean. We are amongst ruins that are thousands of years old but we are all trying to get photos of the cats lounging in the sun.
The Turks like to sell and they are good at it, but you have to barter. It's was only men selling. Some of them start with the line - how can I get you to give me your money? It sounds harsh when I type it but they do it in a charming way. We visited a carpet factory and a ceramic factory. Both were very interesting and both were eager to sell to us...after some apple or pomegranate tea. Tourism is down by 60% because of the terrorist threats and attacks. It is hard on the industries that rely on tourists. So we were only being good global citizens by leaving some of our money in Turkey! After bartering.
We visited what I call Mary's house. I think it has a more official name, but it is basically the site in the mountains that Mary (as in Jesus' mom) is claimed to have lived in her later years. Jesus had asked St. Paul to look after her so it is believed he set her up in the mountains and brought her supplies. The area is serene and peaceful. The house was rebuilt on the original foundation and is very small. We left our wishes stuck in the wishing/prayer wall.
We also visited the site of the temple of Artemis which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was burned in a fire in 354 BC and then destroyed by Christians in later years - no pagan relics allowed! Now all that is left is a tall column and some other ruins in the middle of a slough. It's not very spectacular but it would have been in its day.
We had such a wonderful day. We even had a large Turkish buffet for lunch. Not once did I feel unsafe at any of the sites we visited. There is a police and military presence but it doesn't make you feel uneasy. The Turkish people have been so friendly and grateful that we visited Kusadasi/Ephesus. Every time we bought something we are given a gift. Usually it was a blue eye amulet to ward off evil spirits. The blue eyes are all over Greece too - except Corfu because you may remember Corfu was the only Greek island that was not occupied by the Turks.
I would definitely come back to this area!
April 18, 2016
That's how our guide Ava from Olympic Tours described Athens.
Athens has a population of 9.5 million. Greece's entire population is about 11 million so most of them live in Athens. It seems most people live in apartments. And there is a lot of graffiti.
We did a bit of a drive of the downtown to see some of the sites. I wouldn't describe Athens as pretty. There's a lot of concrete. And did I mention the graffiti? There are three types of graffiti - sports related, political and artistic.
We saw some of the buildings that were built for the 2004 Olympic Games. They have an extensive metro system now thanks to the 2004 games. When they were digging for the metro they uncovered a bunch of artifacts. Of course in any of these countries if you dig down you will find relics of an older civilization. The artifacts are on display in some of the metro systems. We didn't take the metro but our guide told us it is beautiful.
The modern olympics began again in 1896 and we visited the site of the first modern games. This is also where the Athens marathon ends every year in November. While we were at the site our bus got hit by a woman in a smart car. I'm not sure how the chain reaction happened but we got to witness a fight between a young Greek woman and a man driving another car. They were standing about 2 cm apart yelling at each other and the woman was pushing the man. I guess tempers flare while driving in Athens. They should have taken the metro.
Today was some sort of special day...I think it was called monument to world heritage. Maybe? Anyhow we didn't have to pay to get in to the Acropolis. We only had to pay €5 to get in to the museum. We saved €20 so we can definitely go to happy hour later.
The museum was open in 2006 and it is really nice. It houses many of the artifacts recovered from the Acropolis and Parthenon. Of course they want the remaining marble pieces back from the British museum. They also found artifacts when digging the museum so there are glass floors all around to see the excavation work and what has been uncovered. Fascinating!
It is about 28 degrees today and sunny so the hike up the Acropolis was a bit of a challenge. Not like Great Wall of China challenge, but a challenge. The site is incredible. It was built in the 6th century BC and the engineering and craftsmanship is amazing.
We had a short break which included baklava before heading back to the ship. Now we are getting ready to sail toward Turkey. Yes, as if today we are going to Turkey.
Katakolon, April 17, 2916
What a spectacular day! The sun was shining and we really had nothing to do but poke around the small village of Katakolon. We were here last week and we went to Olympia. Today the only thing on our agenda was the beer bike at 11.30.
For €5 we got to pedal our way to the beach while enjoying two Greek beer and Greek music. Our hosts were a father/son team and the father, George, was quite a character. The ride to the beach was pretty flat - only one small hill and some potholes. At the beach we did some Greek dancing. Some of us (Joe and Yvonne) were better at it than others (the rest of us). It was so much fun! They kept telling us they like Canadians (and Australians) because we smile and laugh. Maybe it was the beer?
We did some master negotiating to purchase some silver jewelry while James and uncle Rick found more beer. Oh and I had some ouzo.
A really fun relaxing day! Tonight is happy hour at the Crow's Nest and dinner at the Tamarind Restaurant.