Sunday, January 16, 2011

2010 Mediterranean Trip – USA to Greece, Days 1-5 (part 1 of 6)

We thought we should take some notes as we traveled to help remember all the things were are going to see, and for a blog post to share some photos and information with family and friends. We were more successful with keeping up with notes at the beginning of the trip…imagine that. So we worked on back filling some of the notes. Some are by Jen, some by Tim, so a mix of both of us (can you tell who wrote what parts??).

I also decided that this was getting too long, so have broken the trip up into six different posts so that you don’t get too bored and miss a big chunk of the trip. This will also allow me to (finally) get a post out about the trip without having to have the entire thing done all at once – for example – we loved Rome, but didn’t write down any notes! So have to back fill some parts more than others.

We also suffered from digital camera disease =) – I took 3,944 photos and Jen took 1,926! I am sorry to say that I didn’t think about taking video more often during the trip. I have some from Egypt and Israel and a few other places. Will probably post most of these separate from the blog posts. We shall see…

This is an area of the world that I would suggest you travel to if you ever get a chance – so much rich history to see & feel & be a part of.

We are took the “Holy Land” cruise on the Azamara ship Journey. This is a fairly new cruise line that has a number of the small ships we feel in love with on Oceana. 700 guests and 390 staff – that’s a good ratio. The smaller ships are great for getting into smaller ports and giving you more options. We really like the more intimate feel and better service you get too.

Our itinerary for this jaunt. We were traveling with Jen’s folks – 84 & 85 years young. They get around great for their age, but they are still 84 & 85. Flying takes a toll on them both. So we broke up the flying with an overnight stay near the JFK.

New York (Queens – JFK Airport hotel…) Oct 30

Athens (Piraeus) (Greece) 11/1/10 – 11/3/10 – cruise started on 11/3
Mykonos (Greece) 11/04/10    7:00 AM - 9:00 PM 
Rhodes (Greece) 11/05/10    9:00 AM - 6:00 PM 
At Sea 11/06/10    --- 11/06/10    --- 
Haifa (Israel) 11/07/10    7:00 AM - 10:00 PM 
Ashdod (Israel) 11/08/10    7:00 AM - 10:00 PM 
Cairo (Port Said) (Egypt) 11/09/10    7:00 AM - 9:00 PM 
Cairo (Alexandria) (Egypt) 11/10/10    9:00 AM - 11:00 PM 
At Sea 11/11/10    --- 11/11/10    --- 
At Sea 11/12/10    --- 11/12/10    --- 
Sorrento (Italy) 11/13/10    11:00 AM   --- 
Sorrento (Italy) 11/14/10 --- 5:00 PM 
Rome (Civitavecchia) (Italy) 11/15/10 (last day of cruise) – 11/16/10

New York (Queens – JFK Airport hotel) 11/17/10
Back home late in San Diego – 11/18/10 (hated the drive to Valley Center – I was beat!)

Nov 1, 2010 11:00 pm, local time – New York

We are here! After an exhausting two days of travel we have arrived in Greece. But back to the trip to get to Greece… We left San Diego on October 30 and flew to New York. Once there we got a wheelchair for Mom and 3 of us followed after the guy pushing it. At the baggage carousel he dropped us off and left. Once we got our luggage the real walking begin! Good Gods, we must have traveled a mile to the airtrain (think raised rail) that took us to another area where we rushed to meet the hotel shuttle. I didn’t think Mom was going to make it and I don’t think she did either. We were all droopy, dragging our 11 pieces of luggage (5 big ones, a carry-on each, Dad’s oxygenator and the two containers of batteries)! But we made it and we had a nice stay at the Hilton Garden Inn in Jamaica….Queens, New York. We all perked up at the thought of dinner - and the free drink coupons from our friend Dean at the front desk didn’t hurt anything.

Halloween. (Sigh.) The first year I haven’t carved a pumpkin in I don’t know when. My favorite time of year… Arrived early at JFK in case the lines were long. They weren’t, but it didn’t matter. We had a pretty good lunch as far as airport food goes and then boarded our Delta flight to Athens. Let me tell you, they need to board people from the back of the plane. Once I walked through first class and saw where we were going to sit I wanted to weep. We had more room on our JetBlue flight from San Diego to New York, and this trip was going to be 6 hours longer!

Arrived safely the next morning in Athens after traveling with a plane full of Greeks headed home. A nice older woman sat across the aisle from Mom and Dad and required our assistance several times. She thought we were great and kept taking my arm and hand in her cool hands and squeezing and patting. She lost her husband after 49 years of marriage and has no family. I don’t know what she was doing in the US, as her English was very broken and my Greek non-existent, as well as the fact that she spoke rather softly in the noisy plane. Nice woman, I found her at the wrong baggage carousel after we landed and brought her over to the right one. She told Mom and Dad they have a good daughter.

Wow. Long plane ride and the food was awful. All right, I thought the food was awful, everyone else thought dinner wasn’t bad but agreed with me on breakfast. Mom thought the egg on English muffin was, I quote, “Really bad cheese.” We got our bags, asked directions and went to find our driver. I stopped him as he started to sprint past us towards the terminal. When you get in at 8:30 in the morning you hit traffic. Not bad, but they are crazy drivers. The freeways are pretty, lined with the mini forests of assorted pines with a few wild Cyprus trees and some eucalyptus. The driver said that there are 8 million people living in Athens. Interestingly enough, he asked us if we wanted to know how many Greeks were living in the city and proceed to tell us (4 million?) before relaying the actual population. [ Athens is made up of 55 municipalities – the total pop of these together in 2001 was just under 4 million, the city of Athens itself is just under 800,000 and the whole country is over 11 million ] We got the feeling from this driver and a tour guide later that they aren’t too excited about the booming mass of the illegal immigration population. They are seen as a drain on the system since they don’t pay taxes and they also sell cheap goods on the street that take away from legitimate local businesses. It sounds like it is a growing problem, especially in the larger cities.

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Athens is a huge sprawl of white colored houses, apartments and other buildings. Just beautiful.

Tim was quite intrigued by all the graffiti. It is everywhere. Roads, stores, alleys, everywhere you look. I got the feeling they have just given up trying to keep up with it. I would classify it as tagging since it was mostly words. In the US there is some graffiti that is really amazing art work. In talking with the guide about it, it sounds like it is mostly political expression – the only way a lot of the public feels they can make a statement about what they don’t like, the only way to maybe be heard.

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We decided to get something to eat and wandered around the shops a bit till we decided on something. Tim had the breakfast special (eggs, bacon, bread) and a coffee – this is the best coffee I have ever had. Even Jen liked it! Also the first time I have used a French  Press. Jen had a plate of spanakopita (and loved it).


November 2, 2010, Athens, Greece

Hotel Plaka – nice hotel if you ever visit Athens. Plaka means “city center” – this is the center of the old city. Nice location. They even let us into our room at 10:00 in the morning. Helped mom & dad into their room, opened up the blinds and there was the Acropolis!

IMG_2121 Wow! Just fantastic.

The hotel also has a roof bar – which has a fantastic view of the Acropolis! You have to go up there at night – hard to beat the view and it is just lovely at night – partially because of the dramatic lighting, and partially because the darkness hides the construction equipment around the ruins.

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Had a decent breakfast in the hotel restaurant this morning and then headed out on a half day sight seeing excursion. We had the same driver and bus as yesterday and a good older woman who was very knowledgeable on about everything. She had a great grasp of English which made things so much nicer. She told us too much history and information to fit into our heads! So much to do, see and learn – fantastic!

On our driving tour of the city, we first stopped at the Temple of Zeus. There isn’t much left standing, but it was still great. Very lovely. While there I asked her about all the dogs you so everywhere and found out that in Greece they don’t look down on dogs running loose, in fact there are groups that will take the dogs in to visit the vet to be cared for. They are fed and don’t look at all sick. They are laying around the temples and all over the city. Very mellow and friendly. Nice that they are cared for and aren’t sick and passing sickness around. We didn’t see too many cats loose – except on top of the Acropolis, there was a whole family living up there. Very friendly kittens too!

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Next we drove through town to a high point called Agios Georgios (we didn’t go all the way to the top). A great view over Athens from here, over to the Acropolis and beyond. Our guide pointed out various historical spots and told a few stories about things that happened there over the years. It was just amazing to see so many homes. They are packed together too – the density is  just crazy compared to the US.

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Coming down from the hill we were back in the traffic – driving in areas outside the US can be a very different experience. There just seem to be so many more cars, and all squeezing into every spot possible. Many times in Athens we saw motorcycles go up on the sidewalk to get past some cars backed up in traffic. Just nuts. And a lot more motorcycles than in the US. They seem to be very popular because they can bypass so much traffic. Watch traffic at a signal. Cars stop, and then the motorcycles start piling up at the front as they work their way passed all the waiting cars. Then they take off into the next block to do it again, getting a bit more ahead of the cars each time.

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Finally – to the Acropolis! I have wanted to see the Parthenon since design school all those years ago. Wow – the Acropolis – Amazing! The guide had some diagrams of what the various structures used to look like, explained some of the design features and symbolism, etc.

It was too bad there was so much construction equipment around, but they are working had to rehabilitate the ruins. It would be great to come back sometime in the future when the restoration work is done and see it all in its full glory.

Entrance stairs into the Acropolis.

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Overview on top of the Acropolis

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View of the Parthenon, over the side of the Acropolis, around town to the theater at the base of the Acropolis.

Later Jen and I decided to head out for a walk. Wanted to see more of the city, and we needed to get a replacement plug converter as one of ours had broken. Found some interesting places in the commercial part of town. And yes, we got a converter – nice guy didn’t let us by the expensive one from Germany or something like that, pointed us to the MUCH cheaper one from China. Saw a few pet shops (and the largest rabbits we have seen in our lives!), a farmers market, and the meat market. We didn’t get across the street early enough to really enjoy the meat market – it looked really interesting from what we could see.

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Went out in the evening for some late shopping and to grab dinner at a place Jen and I saw earlier in the day that looked nice, called Efxaris. We had some good food (and drink) – somehow managing to eat a bit more than any of us should have. =) 

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It is really cool that you can walk all over the place and look up at almost any time and see the Acropolis watching over you. Turn a corner and there is another temple you hadn’t seen before. Walk down a busy street and run into some really interesting little churches.

Lots of history, literally at every turn.

Nov 3, 2010, Athens, Greece

Up again at the Hotel Plaka, breakfast at the hotel.

Ran out to do some quick shopping – x-mas gifts for a few family members, and some local coins for dad to add to his collection. Just outside the flea market area (wish we had found that earlier – looks like some good shops) we found a man selling coins – 20 coins for 5 Euro – dad had a blast picking out the 22 he wanted, yes, 22, the nice man said we should take a few extra. Dad also picked out a few of the more expensive ones – totaled 10 Euro, not too much and totally worth it to see dad happy to have his Greek coins.


Back to hotel to pack and catch the shuttle to the port. Different driver this time, but a nice guy. Drive to port was about… total guess here since I didn’t watch the time… 45 minutes. Saw a lot of the outer cities of Athens and the industrial area.


Pulled up to the port. Tim commented that it is a large port, the driver said it is the third largest port in Europe. So yeah, it’s big. The port is called Pireas.

Pulled right up to the Azamara area, guys grabbed the luggage and a nice lady walked us inside to the usual “medical form” which basically let’s them know if you have been having diarrhea recently. They would probably want to keep you off the ship or quarantine you right from the get-go. They really have to watch stomach bugs on ships – they can spread like wildfire.

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No lines, and check in was pretty painless. Security check was more lax than most. Bags through x-ray, people through metal detector – the metal detector kept going off, but there was no one there, so people just filed through. At least they were watching the x-ray machine.

Went to our rooms, then up to the buffet for some lunch. This is totally the same ship that Oceana has. Exact same layout. Some minor layout differences in the staterooms, and things like carpet color are different, but same core ship.

Nice size these ships. Not too small, but certainly not as huge as most of the major lines. We like them for a few reasons – they can get into smaller ports (like docking right in town in St Petersburg Russia), and the crew to passenger ratio is much better compared to the large ships. So you get better and more personalized service. The Azamara ships allow for 694 guests.

We were surprised to find we didn’t have side-by-side cabins, so requested to switch with the people between us. No promises, but they said they would ask the other guests. After a late lunch we were in the cabin and were surprised to hear (and feel) the practice session for the evenings show. A review of the ship layout showed that our room was directly above the back of the stage. Not good. Was trying to relax and read and the floor was vibrating and I could hear most of the must being played – not very relaxing…

Dinner was good, but not very hot. Soups were warm, entrĂ©e was warm. Tim had the duck appetizer, French onion soup and beef tenderloin. Jen had an appetizer, French onion soup & the tenderloin as well. Enjoyed the free house wine. Nice to see that they aren’t crappy box wines – they rotate the house white & red each day. This evenings red was a merlot called “Goodnight” from the CA Central Coast.

After dinner we went by Guest Relations and talked with them. They asked us to stay in the room for the night since the show would be ending soon, and said that they would find us a new stateroom in the morning. We ended up on the other side of the ship, two floors up. But that was actually nice – we could always get the best view off the ship from one room or the other.

Off to Mykonos!