Travels with Lois and Jason

Mediterranean Odyssey

October 6 - 23, 2010

MapStones and more stones, rocks and bricks, pillars and arches.   What a great set of archeological sites we visited on this trip:  Olympia Greece, the birth place of the Olympic games;  Ephesus, Turkey, once the Roman capital of Asia Minor;  and finally, Rome, Italy, the grand daddy of archeological sites with the coliseum and forum as majestic as ever.  But our trip was more than stones – we had canals in Venice, a complete medieval city wall in Dubrovnik, a statue of David in Florence, and Gaudí architecture in Barcelona.  And, the Queen Victoria as a cruise ship with its three story high Royal Theater, made  the trip a real luxury.

We picked this trip, like so many others, because it was going to places we had never been (or visited so long ago that we forgot that we’d even been there!). There were eleven ports of call, and overall, they each met our expectations.  We learned a lot, saw a lot, and had great R&R.

If there were a downer for the trip, it was the crowds everywhere we went.  The number of travelers is incredible, and most are not all from the US.  Irrespective of where we were, it seemed English was not the predominate language heard, although it is the de facto standard when people from different countries want to communicate. 

Port 1:  Venice, Italy

Venice is a vibrant and exhilarating city – truly unique in the world. Our journey down the Grand Canal defies words, but we shall try.  We always stood or found seats as close to the front of our vaporetto (the waterbuses of Venice) as possible. Boat traffic jams were more the norm than exception;  during the day is like a freeway at rush hour.  Two, sometimes three, vaporettos vie for a dock at the same time.  And unlike buses on a street where they can just pull behind each other to load and unload, the vaporettos can only stop at the docking spot where they are tied to a pier  and the “safety” gate opened, allowing a flood of people to exit and a stream of new comers to board.  It is a rare stop where only a few exited or boarded, most stops along the Grand Canal are swamped by both locals and tourists.

Driving a boat on the Grand Canal is not for the faint hearted!  At times we were amidst a dozen different boats of varying lengths and sizes, all moving in different directions along the Grand Canal and in and out of the side canals, docking, loading, unloading, carrying passengers, carrying goods. The hustle and bustle of the canals was like a well choreographed dance created from the terrific skill of the boatmen as they moved in their totally unorganized, chaotic yet steady paces. 

We’ll try to describe the Grand Canal in words.  The old adage, one picture is worth a thousand words, is so true.  So, it will take us a thousand words to describe the joy and excitement we felt along that water way.  The Grand Canal is the main street of Venice.  The hundreds of businesses (hotels, restaurants, shops), stores for tourists with knick-knacks and shops for locals with fruit, vegetables, meat and baked goods – all the things of life – everything travels by boat in this city.  The only things with wheels are pushed by hand on dollies and tourists with rolling suitcases.  The goods move by boat, either directly to a door facing a canal or a dock near by where the goods are transported by human power to their final location.  This includes all the furniture, cash registers, computers, sheets, towels, food stuff, literally everything we humans use in our daily lives.  Moving all this stuff via boat requires lots of boats (vaporettos, small motorized row boats, larger transport boats (the 18-wheelers of Venice), motorized taxis and of course gondolas), all of which compete for the limited water-way space of the canals. 

Tourist Gondola
We saw two different kinds of gondolas:  the spiffy tourist boats with fancy and comfortable looking velvet seats covered with gold laced blankets, and the spartan “traghetti” (ferries) gondolas, devoid of anything (even seats) for the locals.  The tourist gondolas plowed the waterways everywhere, seeking tourist fares.  The traghetti gondolas are rare workhorses, going back and forth across the grand canal at fixed locations transporting the locals (and we suppose tourist) across this watery street.  While the tourist gondolas have just one paddle man, almost always in the traditional horizontally stripped shirt, the traghetti had two paddle men, one in front and one in back, wearing regular work clothes.  The first time we saw a traghetti we didn’t know what it was, but we figured it out when we saw an elderly lady standing in the middle of the boat holding her shopping bags.  traggi
Local “traghetti”Gondola

bridge As we plowed the Grand Canal we came to understand why the traghettis are so important.  The Grand Canal is about 2.5 miles long, with only 3 bridges crossing it.  So, the traghetti enables the locals to go about their business without having to  use the bridges.  Watching the traghetti, busy at work, and competing for the limited water space in which so many boats were constantly moving, became a game of sorts.  On our next trip to Venice we too are going to try to get a traghetti ride into our mix of activities! bridge2

Port 2:  Dubrovnik, Croatia

Lois visited Dubrovnik the year before we met, when she traveled on Europe on $5 a Day with two other nurses.  She had incredible memories of the beauty of the area as she only saw the coast from the ship.  This time she went ashore.   We walked the cobbled stone streets and the city wall, which is fully intact surrounding the old medieval city.  From the wall, the red roofed buildings, narrow streets, quaint harbor and majestic ocean views came to life.

wall1 wall2

Port 3:  Olympia, Greece

Our tour of Olympia started with the museum and then proceeded to the ruins.  Our guide explained the history of the Greek gods and myths and history of the area.  Olympia was a sacred city, accessible for the priest only except at the time of the games. The Olympic games which began in 776 BCE was an important religious event – a way of uniting all of the Greek communities.  The most important structure at Olympia was the Temple of Zeus, which held a 36 foot high gold statue of this Greek god.  A “royal truce” was declared for four months before the games so that all warring communities would not fight so that the athletes and their supporters could travel safely to Olympia.  Women were not allowed at the games.  The men particated in the nude and rubbed olive oil and sand all over their bodies to protect them. The games continued for about a 1000 years until the Christian rulers put an end to them because they did not want the people to worship the Greek (then Roman) gods.   In Olympia today, only the original track, marked off by 600 Herculean feet (just under 200 meters) exists exactly as it did 2800 years ago.  Everything else is in ruins and we needed our imagination to put the stones back into their original splendor.  In the museum we saw models of many of the structures.


Temple of Zeus
(white building in center of photo above)
Original Olympic Track
(right side of photo above)

Port 4:  Mykonos, Greece

This quaint village was exactly what one would expect of a Zorba the Greek town:  a fun place to walk with little shops and very narrow twisty streets.  Every building was white washed with different colored window shutters, doors, and stair cases.  The water was crystal clear and lapped the sides of the buildings close to the sea.  There are old wind mills once used for grinding flour, giving a Don Quixote flair to the hillsides.  While this was a pedestrian town, motor bikes raced up and down the narrow lanes.

Mykonos Mykonos Mykonos

Port 5:  Istanbul, Turkey

minerretsIn many ways Istanbul was the biggest surprise of this odyssey.  We really didn’t know what to expect, but certainly not to find ourselves in a very modern, European style city.  In the areas we saw, the trams, cars and everyday dress of the people (wearing a burqa in public is against the law) looked just like any other Western city.

Our first glimpse of Istanbul was from our ship as we entered the Bosporus, the channel which connects the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and making Istanbul a city in two continents:  the western side of the city in Europe and the eastern side in Asia.  It was a rainy misty morning, and from our cabin we could see minarets, lots of minarets, along the shore.  Given Istanbul has over 2000 mosques, it isn’t surprising we saw so many minarets.

We elected a morning tour to take us to two major attractions of Istanbul (Haggia Sophia and Blue Mosque) which left us the afternoon to visit the Grand Bizarre.  So much to see, so little time to see it (perhaps the greatest disadvantage of traveling via cruise).   Our tour guide gave us a history lesson on Istanbul along with so much information on these two major historic sites.  There were a couple of items which stood out from all his comments:  Istanbul was once the capital of the Roman empire. 


The Haggia Sophia was built as the cathedral of Constantinople in 360 CE and was the center of the Christian religious world.  In 1054 there was a split in the Catholic church and the Roman Catholic branch moved its capitol to Rome, and the Eastern Orthodox branch stayed with its capitol in Istanbul (at that time, Constantinople).  When the Ottoman Empire took over Istanbul in 1453, the cathedral was converted to an Islamic mosque.  In 1934 when Turkey became a secular state, the mosque was converted into a museum, which it is today.  And what a beautiful structure.

Blue Mosque

Across a plaza from the Haggia Sophia is the Blue Mosque, built in celebration of the Ottoman’s capturing Istanbul from the west and converting the city to Islam. The mosque gets its name from the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior.  Both structures have spectacular mosaic tile works, chandeliers, and stained glass windows.

Our guide explained that many Turkish artifacts were in fact no longer in Turkey but distributed in museums around the world, and primarily in England.  He told us he was actually glad that so many of the antiquities were taken from Istanbul to European museums as they are preserved, whereas many of the things that remained (for example, the gold around the domes or bronze statues), were taken and melted by whomever the latest invader was to make into weapons. 
Blue Mosque

The highlight of our visit to Istanbul was the Grand Bizarre. We were told there were over 4000 shops and to bargain for everything.  We had been to flea markets all over the world and expected this to be just another flea market – wow, were we wrong!  It wasn’t a flea market in any sense of the imagination.  In fact, to say upscale is an understatement – very upscale is more accurate. The Grand Bizarre is all indoors and there were guards at every entrance. 

bizarre bizarre bizarre bizarre bizarre

The bizarre was lots of fun.  We walked up and down every aisle, dazzled by the colors and beauty of the goods we saw.  It seemed there was an emphasis on color, in the shoes, the tea sets, the clothes. The lamp shops were so colorful and the material shops had tons of incredible materials.  We passed shop after shop displaying gold and silver jewelry, and of course, Turkish delight!  Everything was new, no used stuff.

Final note on Istanbul, the crowds at these major tourist sites were overwhelming, and the vast majority of the people were not American.

Port 6:  Ephsus, Turkey

Ephesus was once the Roman capital of Asia Minor, and the second largest city of the Roman empire with a population of 250,000.  It was a major seaport located at the mouth of the Cayster River where it joined the Mediterranean.  But over time the silt from the river filled in the harbor area and now Ephesus is five miles from the sea.  Our tour took us to the ruins of this once great city. 

Ephesus stret building


Our tour started at the top of a hill and we worked our way down a canyon.  At the top were ruins, pillars and shells of buildings, nothing unusual or spectacular.  And then we turned a corner and below us was a well paved stone road that came to life as a real place where people lived and worked and played and enjoyed life.  At the foot of the road was the façade for the Library of Celsus, once one of the greatest libraries in the ancient world with over 12,000 scrolls.  The two story high façade still shows the incredibly rich carvings and sculpture work of its creators. 

library ylibrary


Further along the road as we moved toward the city gates we passed the coliseum with a seating capacity of 25,000.  What an impressive structure.  It is used  today for concerts, and we were told the acoustics are excellent. 

Port 7:  Taormina, Sicily (Messina, Italy)

etnaYet another little quaint pedestrian town, but this time situated on the top of a very steep and challenging hill.  In fact, our bus parked in the town parking structure, and we rode up seven levels to get to the town’s street level.  And why would anyone build in such a difficult location:  for protection of course.  As we walked through the ancient town gates, our guide explained how continuous war and raiding along the cost drove the people who created Taormina to select such a demanding location for their protection.  But for us today, the town offered spectacular views of the surrounding country side and cost line.  And the Romans didn’t miss an opportunity, building their amphitheatre in a location which provided an excellent view of Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe.  We unfortunately only got a slight view as the 10,000 foot peak was shrouded in clouds.

scenary scenary scenary scenary scenary

star close up
Taormina has one long main street with a city gate at each end.  At the central square, one of the buildings was decorated with Stars of David.  Our guide said that at one time there was a thriving Jewish community in Taormina and the stars were to commemorate the Jews lost in the Holocaust.

Port 8:  Rome, Italy

We visited Rome together in 1969, so we thought it was time to go see “what’s new?”   As it turned out, nothing.  (Actually, crowds and admission fees were new for us.)  Just the same old rocks, same old ruins and fountains and sites.  We took the Hop-on, Hop-off bus and used it to get us around town, and then walked between sites.  Our overall impression was “crowds.”  At the Trevi Fountain, people were three and four deep and we never got to the front row.  The crowds were so thick we didn’t even bother crossing the street to get to the Spanish Steps, and the Coliseum was so crowded we stayed way back (best views were from way back anyway).  You couldn’t get near if you wanted to and the lines for entering were hours long.   

trevi steps coloseium
forum forum mounment

9:  Florence, Italy

david Our morning tour of Florence took us around all the major architectural sites and ended at the Piazza della Signoria, which is an outdoor sculpture plaza with reproductions of Michelangelo's David and many other major works.  We felt we got a good sense of the city from our tour and Florence is really a great walking town.  Even though it was very crowded, we didn’t feel pressed in as in some of the other cities.  Regrettably, however, to see the original Michelangelo David requires the purchase of tickets well in advance with specific times, and then you wait in line hours to get into the Academia. So we had to settle for the copy which was really great.  In fact, we were so taken with this David, we decided to buy a copy for ourselves. churcj

              river doors

On the city map we found the Jewish Synagogue well away form the tourist area.  We decided to check it out.  It was a challenge to find the entrance and we completely walked around the block looking for it.  Of course the entrance was on the fourth side, and had a high security fence.  The building is quite handsome, built in a Moorish style almost with the appearance of a mosque.  There is a large dome, which is now green from the oxidation of the copper roof, with two towers.  When we tried to take a picture, a policeman came out of his hut and said no pictures.   Upon leaving we sneaked a picture, and fortunately it came out fairly well. 

We passed a security gate to enter the synagogue, and had to leave our camera.  There was one last tour for the day and we joined it.  Our guide told us  the history of the Jewish community of Florence, which flourished during the 19th century, which is when the synagogue was built.  The synagogue was a major center of Jewish learning and had a very large collection of Torah scrolls.  During the Nazi occupation, the synagogue was used as garage.  The Torah scrolls were hidden and survived the war.  After the war, the synagogue was restored, and then in 1966 there was a major flood in Florence and most of the scrolls were destroyed(what an irony to survive the Nazis and be destroyed by a flood).  The water level had gone to about six feet up the sides of the building and we could see where the original mosaic tiles and the refurbishing had taken place.

We encountered one major shock in Florence -- The Basilica di Santa Croce.  When we entered the plaza in front of this church, the most pronounced ornamentation on the façade was a huge Star of David, right in the center.  We assumed it was some kind of decoration without any meaning, but our guide told us that it was intentionally included to indicate that people of all religions were welcome in Florence after the Italy war of independence and unification in 1866.  Note that this is about the same time as the Florence Synagogue was built.  This sense of inclusion lasted in Florence until the Nazi period.  As an interesting footnote, in the book we purchased at the Synagogue it related that the Nazi’s tried to destroy the building when they left in 1944 and the local Italian resistance saved it.

synogague church star of david

Port 10:  Toulon, France (in stead of Marseille)

The port of Marseille was closed due to strikes so the ship docked in Toulon, a sea port one hour by car west of Marseille.  Toulon is the French navy port, so we saw lots of old battleships docked near us.   But beyond those ships, the view from our cabin of the mountains was quite splendid.  We went into town on the shuttle bus and found it very uninteresting.  We thought we’d try and find some great French pastry and had asked directions at the visitor’s center for a bakery.  After wandering the deserted streets past closed shops on all sides, we met a man who spoke some English and he took us to a neighborhood bakery.  You would have thought we were celebrities the way we were treated – we may well have been the first Americans to ever visit that bakery.  We purchased the local specialty (everyone pointed to it for us), some kind of cake with custard.  Unfortunately it wasn’t all that great, but it was the idea.  Jason led us astray (polite way of saying got us lost) on the way back, and Lois saved the day with some great intuition regarding which way to go.  After wandering a while, we found ourselves in a very large modern shopping mall, where there were at least people to ask to figure out how to get back to the port.  Of course the mall had lots of bakeries, so we purchased pastry at three different ones, and had them all with our afternoon tea when we returned to the ship.  Regrettably, none were worth the calories, but we did get a great walk in!

Port 11:  Barcelona, Spain

Our cruise ended in Barcelona so we stayed an additional five days so that we could enjoy the city at our own pace. We selected a hotel in the old Gothic Quarter (which also turned out to be the Jewish quarter) and everything was within easy walking distance.

After checking in at our hotel we wandered to La Rambla, the walking street mall of Barcelona that extends from the harbor far into town.  We did about a one mile stretch starting from the port.  The portion we covered was lined with restaurant tables, food vendors, flower vendors, bird vendors, and mimes (and more mimes).  It was always crowded and the atmosphere always seemed festive.  It was just a fun place to be.  If there was a downside, it was we could not get away from McDonalds:  they were everywhere!

rambla rambla

La Rambla was about a ten minute direct walk from our hotel.  We spent literally hours meandering all the alley ways and side streets which made up the Gothic Quarter, which was located between our hotel and La Rambla.  Old Roman walls and aqueducts interspersed with the Cathedral and many medieval old buildings (none above about four stories) made up a vast maze of alleyways and streets.  The ground floors everywhere were shops, about half selling food and the other half retail, mostly for tourists but for sure many for the locals, who lived in the upper floors of the buildings.  We came across a couple of different market squares (we understand that there are 42 public markets in Barcelona), where fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, and everything else were sold.  We didn’t see any “supermarkets” but lots of small convenience stores throughout the area.

street scene street scene market

A major attraction in Barcelona is the architecture throughout the city.  Barcelona was the center of the industrial revolution in Spain during the 19th century, and the city expanded from a small walled city to a major industrial center.  The new expansion was developed in the “modern” style (of the time) and many of the best architects completed buildings in this area.  The area is called Barcelona Modern, and was primarily built around 1900. 

architecture architecture architecture architecture architecture

A leading industrialist at the time of expansion of Barcelona was Eusebi Güell.  Güell was impressed with a young architect, Antoni Gaudí (1852 - 1926), and served as his patron for 30 years.  Güell gave Gaudí many commissions and free reign to develop his eccentric style.  We took two different Gaudí tours to see almost all of his major works, and they are really something.  Gaudi argued that in nature there are no straight lines, so he minimized straight lines in everything he did.  His most passionate work to which he exclusively devoted the last 20 years of his life, the Sagrada Família, a catholic cathedral, looks like a drip sand castle.  Guell Park, which is a Gaudí fantasyland of structures, defies our sense of how things should appear:  nothing is vertical and nothing is straight.  Our pictures best tell his story.

These Gaudi apartment building are located  on what was described as the most expensive street in Barcelona, Passeig de Gràcia:

Gaudi Gaudi Gaudi

Gaudí designed an industrial park for Mr. Güell which included a church, known today as Colonia Güell Crypt:

Gaudi Gaudi Gaudi

Mr. Güell purchased a mountainside west of the then developed area of Barcelona to be a planned community for the wealthy elite.  Gaudí was the architect, designing every detail for open spaces and structures.  Only two houses were built (for Guell and his lawyer), and the project was a financial failure, but today it is a public park, Park Güell, perserving Gaudí's incredible work:

Gaudi Gaudi Gaudi

Gaudi Gaudi Gaudi

Gaudi famila

The final stop on our Gaudí tours was Sagrada Família, "The jewel in the crown of Gaudí 's works."  Begun in 1882, it is still an unfinished Catholic church.  The cranes are still at work and completion is expected in 2030.

An interesting note on Gaudí’s fame.  While Gaudí is now treated as a national treasure, and a major tourist attraction in and of himself, it hasn’t always been so.  When we asked one of our tour guides when Gaudí became popular, she said about 10 years ago.  Before that, she said, there were no Gaudí tours or general interest in his work.  We don’t know what brought Gaudí into popular demand, but we’re sure glad of it!

We took a tour to Montserrat, a mountain whose top ridge consists of various stone shapes and rocks, pointing to the sky like a thousand jagged fingers.  It was a cloudy day and the peaks set off against the sky was just beautiful.  There is a monastery about half way up the mountain and the drive to and from it offered grand vistas and inspiring views of the mountains and red river valley below.  The area is now a national park for Spain, and it well deserves the designation.

Montsarret Montsarret Montsarret

The hour bus ride to the mountain took us through the suburbs of Barcelona and past the university.  The Barcelona Modern buildings of majestic development gave way to the modern of today with the same concrete, steel and glass structures that seem to have been built everywhere, including Los Angeles, during the last half of the 20th century.  We passed through some gentle countryside along the Llobregat River, through the foothills and up its canyon until we made the turn-off to zig-zag toward the monastery. 

Montsarret Montsarret Montsarret

MenorahIn our meandering of the Gothic Quarter we found the old Barcelona Synagogue.  This is considered one of the oldest synagogues in Europe, built during the third or fourth century.  Tragically, in 1391, there was a pogrom eliminating the Jews of Barcelona.  The Inquisition of 1492 never came to Barcelona as there were no Jews left.  The synagogue changed hands and roles, and after seven centuries was rediscovered, rebuilt, and opened as a synagogue museum in 2002.  Today it houses artifacts donated from around Europe depicting aspects of Jewish life.  The torah on display is over a thousand years old and was found by its donor in a flea market.  The menorah was built by a French Jew who traces his roots to Barcelona.  We found the history so compelling that we arranged a private walking tour of the old Jewish quarter. 

romanc olumns

Our tour guide, Adi (same as our granddaughter, but this Adi was a man), brought the old stones and store fronts to life, and took us into places that just shocked us when we saw what was inside.  The focus of this tour was on the contribution of the Jews of Barcelona.  Adi explained that throughout the old city were concealed within the existing buildings lots of surprises, some of which are very meaningful in terms of understanding Jewish life.  In each case we entered these buildings through just “normal” doors, from narrow streets, without anything to indicate what was inside.  Our first example was the Roman Columns, what was left of a Roman temple.  The picture on the wall described this as where the family who lived here ate their meals. 

Jason by door of purse shop
old temple Later we entered a purse shop to see the wall of another of the Jewish quarter synagogue.  Then we went down “The Street of the New Baths.”  Adi explained that while there were the traditional Roman Baths near the entrance gates to the city, this street had some “new baths” as well.  We then entered a household furnishing shop to see what used to be a mikvah in the back.   mikva

And at another spot along our walk, Adi pointed to a wall and asked “so what do you see to the left of the street light fixture on the wall?”  Strange, but a name written in Hebrew in the middle of the wall.  He explained that at some point when this building was being enlarged, they used the Jewish cemetery for stones.  Adi explained that stones with Hebrew writing appear in many places arond the old Gothetic quarter.


Overall, Barcelona was a great town for us.  Great walking, great gelato ice cream (each afternoon), interesting history, and just so very relaxing.  It was a great way to end this Mediterranean Odyssey.


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November 3, 2010